As any spelunker will tell you, caves are a confusing place. Light doesn’t behave as you expect it to. Water pulls and twists rock into shapes unfamiliar to our surface-adapted eyes, and (depending on the cave) there’s very little life to interact with–at least, not the kind of life we can see or touch (think, bacteria).
In fact, while you’re in a cave, don’t touch anything. If you find yourself surrounded by limestone that predates the dinosaurs, it’s best to leave it just as geology shaped it so as to preserve it for another couple million years. Point is, it’s easy to feel unwelcome in a cave, particularly when you’re used to enjoying the world with a sky above your head. And yet the dark, the mystery, and the thrill of being somewhere a human shouldn’t be is what drives any adventurer outside…or inside, as the case may be.
I visited Marengo Cave in southern Indiana for two reasons: one, I had recently grown weary of Midwestern hikes, and two, I do not come from a land of many caves. Granted, my home state of Michigan has plenty notable geology of its own, but we tend to enjoy our rocks above the surface. This is the case for most of us, and so like most Midwestern hikers, it’s not often I have the chance to appreciate the planet from the inside out.
For any outdoor enthusiast, there is indeed much to appreciate in caving–the stillness of things, the clarity of every echo, the grandeur of geologic processes when left to no other agent of change than time–but there is so much missing. There is no green. There is nothing to smell, or if there is a smell, it is a grim one that serves to remind you that you are more fit to exist where oxygen is more easy to come by. Aside from dripping water, the only sounds you hear are the ones you and your fellow humans make yourselves. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of caving for a hiker to endure: not the presence of self-made sound, but of human presence in general.
I have yet to explore a cave that is not part of a guided tour or adjacent to a gift shop, so my experiences caving are admittedly limited. I imagine that for more experienced and adventurous spelunkers, cave exploration offers a freedom and solitude not unlike the kind I seek when hiking, but every time I have entered a cave, I have resented every metal staircase and light switch I spy. I have been dismayed by the formal procedures and fees. One sign outside Marengo Cave informed me that upon finding the entrance, its founder “immediately put up a gate to protect the cave and began charging a small fee to visit [it].”
I realize of course, the importance of protecting natural landscapes so that they may be preserved for generations to come, and in many ways, popular mountains and hiking trails come with similar regulations, but they have always seemed less restrictive to me. Popular caving sites are accompanied by a commercialization that I find far more constricting than the crawl spaces you have to pass through to get into them. When enjoying the outdoors, I don’t want to feel like a customer; I want to feel like a traveler–a visitor passing through to see what he can see.
There are several small lakes in Marengo Cave, and in the dim light each of them plays an equally believable trick on the eyes. Peering across their glassy surfaces, they appear bottomless, as if what you’re seeing is not merely a reflection of the rocky ceiling, but another enormous room to be explored and understood. This is what caving offers: a trip to the strange and illusory that is real and explainable nonetheless. It is a glimpse into the unseen worlds that lie beneath our feet as we explore the surface worlds of hiking trails, mountains, and campsites. It is a chance to understand how our visible world was formed, and a reminder of how precious our lives below the sky but above the surface truly are. It is a reminder of the many secrets our planet still holds.
Images by Jeff Waraniak