Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Sun and the Cave

I wake up and get ready for a hike and spelunking in the wind caves. I find M outside watering and weeding her garden. I walk out and eat some tomatoes and berries off the plants in her garden and help pull some weeds. Across the cornfield behind her house some Amish farmers are raising a barn on a hilltop. I can see all the way through because the doors haven’t been attached on either side and I can see their distinctive hats in silhouette as they work.

Breakfast is made of eggs from the chickens and an onion from the garden. On the way to the wind caves we pull off the road where two large wagons full of corn and peppers fresh from the field behind have been parked and we pick up a green pepper to eat on the hike and some corn for dinner. The road to the trailhead follows Pequea Creek to the Susquehanna River and the village of Pequea then winds up a narrow road into the hills. 

The Wind Caves are a labyrinth of tectonic caves buried under the forested hills above the Susquehanna River in Pequea. The chambers, tunnels and pits are the cracks between broken sheets of bedrock. M and I sit at the entrance of the cave and take our last sips of water and bites of food before stashing the pack in a hollowed log up the hill; the passages will be too tight to allow us to bring anything in with us. We switch on our headlamps and pass through the sheared stone into the dark. The air is dense and cold; the light of my headlamp is reflected by swirling droplets of water permanently suspended in the saturated air of the narrow corridors.

The first branching of the cave seems to be blocked by a collapse but after searching the gaps in the stone we find a thin slot to slide through into a blind pocket leading to the next chamber. Moisture seeps through the walls and shimmers as I look around with my headlamp. As we climb over boulders I look up and in the darkness I see a single candle flame bending lazily in the slow air current of the cave. As we get closer the walls around us begin to glow with a warm light and we rise into a chamber illuminated by red candles flickering in the crevices of the wall. The chamber is filled with the smoke of these candles lit by an earlier visitor now gone. We extinguish a number of them and as the room clears our headlamps fall on painted messages covering the walls. The largest of which states in large, bold letters “HELL” with an arrow pointing down into a deep pit opened up between the ground and the wall. The pit drops down 12 feet through narrow gaps between rocks. Finding my footing on a shelf of stone I lower myself slowly into the pit called Hell, careful to study my footing on the wet stones before letting myself drop to the bottom.

The connected passage goes deeper into the ground, dropping into a narrow high ceilinged chamber. The light of the remaining candles no longer warms the walls and in the cool darkness there is a momentary relief from the claustrophobia. To descend once again we slide down through a gap that is so tight that my hips barely fit and I have to contort my back and shoulders to avoid getting stuck and I doubt that I would be able to return through the passage easily. Moving through this lowest area we have to lie against the inclined floor and slide on our backs. With the wall of stone pressing against my chest as I slide under, I feel that the weight of all the earth above is pressing on me.

The passage reveals a precarious climb with few handholds. M climbs up and discovers that this leads back to the high ceilinged chamber. I try to make the climb and as I find my handholds, my leg becomes stuck as I try to lift it onto a ledge. The length from my knee to my foot is too long to fit between the walls. As I struggle to raise my body onto this ledge my hands begin to tire in their grip of the jagged shards of rock jutting out from the ledge above and my foot slips from its hold and I fall a couple of feet before catching myself. M tries to help me up but I feel my grip tiring and decide to try to return through the narrow gap and tell her I’ll meet her on the other side.

As I pass through the gap with the rocks over my chest I begin to feel crushed and constricted. I inch myself slowly through the hole leading back to the large chamber but have to turn back because my jacket is getting caught on the rocks. I remove my jacket and toss it up through the hole and start again. There isn’t enough room for me to get my arms over my head so I push up with my legs and slide on my back over the rocks. Contorting my body around the stepped shape of the hole, I inch myself upward until my belt snags on the edge of a stone. Stuck in an uncomfortable position but not able to go back and start over I begin to panic and feel that my body is expanding to fill the cracks in the rock and lodge me here forever. I close my eyes and lay my face down on the cool wet stone and press my back hard into the ledge until my belt clears the stone and I am able to move a foot upward. With this movement my head emerges into the large chamber and I can see M’s headlamp as she climbs down the wall in front of me. I push the rest of the way out and sit on the floor of the chamber; water drips from the ceiling onto my arm and my heart stops racing.

We climb out under the sign announcing Hell and eventually come back to the entrance of the cave. A jogger cooling off just inside the cave is silhouetted against the blinding green light of trees and open air. Muddy and bruised M and I collect our pack and continue up the trail to a rocky outcrop overlooking the river. This open space is exhilarating after hours underground between the cracks in the bedrock. We sit and talk and eat our pepper from the corn wagon and some raspberries that we picked along the way. The wind and sun dry the mud on our clothes as we watch the boats launch from the pier across the river. As the sun disappears behind greying clouds we return along the trail to the car. 

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