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Eastern Tennessee is cave country. The hills are dotted with small family owned caves that compete with each other for passing business. They bear names like Horse Cave, Haunted Caverns, Hidden Cave. Sometimes touting their mystery, sometimes their beauty. One of my favorites was Horseshoe Caverns in Kentucky that billed itself as America’s underground play land. It had a room lit with colored lamps and formations named for amusement park rides. Hazel liked it, I thought it was imaginative but juvenile.
Another favorite of ours was Elephant Cave in Virginia. That one promised a mammoth frozen in stone. It turned out to be, surprise surprise, a natural formation enhanced by lighting that, when you stood in a certain place, looked vaguely like an elephant. Well what else would you expect from a roadside attraction? Often these small family operations tend to be cheesy. I think, for most people, that’s a big part of their charm.
As for me, I’m attracted to caves. They excite something deep inside me. Where else on the planet can you find a world so alien, so utterly dark and silent? It’s a world that neither needs nor wants human beings, and even though we tame them with lights, walkways and railings, we cannot kill the mystery and menace caves evoke. The ancients believed that caves were entrances to the underworld, where the dead reside and maybe they were on to something. I know for me, the feeling of being buried alive is never very far away.
To a cave critic like me, a good cave is hard to resist. I especially enjoy the more obscure, out of the way family run caves and try to visit them when I can or rather when Hazel’s schedule permits. Visiting caves just might be the only thing we share; although, for the life of me, I can’t understand what she likes about them. She doesn’t appear to like anything else in the natural world. Sometimes I think she’d just as soon pave over the planet and make it into one big outlet mall. For us the honeymoon was over years ago.
My first wife, Debora, got me interested in caves. She was nuts about them. Unfortunately she was nuts about a lot of things. Perky to the point of distraction, she loved everything with a little too much enthusiasm for my taste. It was a relief when she went missing. The police suspected me but of course they couldn’t prove a thing.
Hazel’s my second wife. We met on a cave tour a few months after Debora’s disappearance. That was four years ago. Hazel has been making me miserable ever since. We fight about everything. I question her commitment to caves, she questions mine. I think she just uses her so called love of caves as a way to keep me from pestering her about her manic spending. I already made up my mind about Hazel. Arrangements had already been made. This was to be our last trip together. She just didn’t know it yet.
Hazel was the first to see the sign. Indian River Cave 5 miles—World’s largest underground waterfall. “Ooo. Now that’s something I’d like to see,” she said. I was immediately on board. If nothing else, it was a break from bickering about Hazel’s profligate ways. She’d just spent $180 on a sweater I was sure she didn’t need. She insisted she did.
“I don’t think someone with your taste in clothes ought to be giving fashion advice,” she said, “and besides, it was half off.” That clinched the argument in Hazel’s mind. She never passed up a sale regardless of whether she needed another pink cardigan or whether we could afford it. Frankly, I was sick of fighting with her about money. A nice, peaceful cave promised some welcome relief.
We pulled into the weedy parking lot a few minutes later. Ours was the only car. Hazel put on her new sweater. A veteran caver, she knew how chilly caves can be. I grumbled as she bit through the plastic strings that fastened the tags.
“Will you come on already?” I grabbed my jacket and hat from the back seat. We walked to the entrance together our animosity temporarily overcome by our mutual interest in all things cavern.
The entrance consisted of a log cabin style residence with a tiny gift shop tacked on to one end. Inside the small room it smelled musty like it hadn’t been used in years. I went directly to the ticket window while Hazel made a bee-line to the merchandise. I clenched my teeth when Hazel held a shirt up to her ample chest to get an idea of how it looked. We have an unspoken agreement that when we’re caving, we don’t pick on each other. I slipped some bills across to the cashier, a sour faced old codger who looked like he needed a bath. He pointed to a sign that said “Please enjoy our slide show the tour will begin shortly”. He had a curious home made tattoo on the back of his hand, a crudely drawn scorpion. It reminded me of a gang sign or something you’d get in jail. It looked out of place against his Park Ranger jacket.
We took our seats in the tiny theater. I couldn’t help notice that we were the only visitors. I guessed that this cave was struggling to survive and predicted its demise at the end of the season. I leafed through the brochure the ticket seller handed me while Hazel filed her nails. I was tempted to ask her how much of my money she spent on manicures but I held my tongue.
In less than a minute a slide show came on. A voice explained basic stuff about caverns, how they took millions of years to form blah blah blah. It was basic High School geology, made for uneducated idiots. I was sure I knew more about caves than anyone around there. The slide show was mercifully brief, perhaps a dozen pictures of spectacular cave interiors. All slides of caves other than the one I just paid twenty dollars to enter. Curiously, there were no slides of the “world’s largest waterfall” or of the “breathtaking natural cave formations” the brochure boasted of. I would have complained to the management but there was only me and Hazel in the room.
After the slide show, the ex-con ticket taker welcomed us and asked us to follow him. “Please stay on the lighted pathway at all times. Indian River Cave is part of an enormous cave system with over a thousand miles of passages and rooms, much of it unexplored. It’s real easy to get lost, so stay close and don’t go wandering off, is that clear? I’ll be your guide, my name is Bill Truax; are there any questions?”
Hazel and I nodded and agreed. We’d heard that same warning many times before. It was true, most of the caves in the area were connected and much of it was unexplored. That was the danger that attracted me to these places in the first place. I can’t say what attracted Hazel except maybe the gift shops.
Our guide asked if we had any questions. To my surprise Hazel piped up and asked “How was the cave discovered?” A completely irrelevant question in my mind but I honored our treaty and remained silent.
“This cave has been in my family for three generations. It’s been open to the public since 1966. My grandfather bought this land in 1940. He stumbled on the cave entrance while gathering firewood.”
It was a typical cave discovery story and most likely a load of malarkey. The truth was less romantic. These hills were riddled with caves. When the local farmers found they could supplement their incomes by charging admission to see them, an industry was born. Selling tickets proved easier than farming and safer than making moonshine. The automobile brought city folk into the hills seeking adventure and the locals were happy to take their money. Most of these family owned caves were nothing special and I was ready to be disappointed. Still, a cave is a cave and one with a waterfall was probably worth seeing.
The cave business withered when the Interstates took most of the traffic off the small roads. The only reason these ma and pa enterprises still survive was because of people like me who prefer travelling on back roads. I like back roads. They’re one way of avoiding the malls. But there’s no avoiding them altogether, and Hazel made sure she got in her share.
Bill opened a rusted steel door with a big key and we followed him down a long passage. The passage looked more like an abandoned mine shaft than a natural cave. I mentioned this to Bill. “The natural entrance had to be enlarged,” he replied. This is exactly what I assumed. Most natural cave mouths are small affairs.
The overhead lighting got lower and further apart the deeper we went. Bill switched on his flashlight and unlocked a second steel door. “Beyond this point you must hold on to this rope.” He shined his light on a rope fixed to the wall. The rope wound its way into the blackness beyond. He picked it up and put it in our hands. Now hold on to the rope and follow me. You won’t get lost, I assure you; it’s quite safe. Stay behind me and follow my lead.”
“How come there are no lights?” I asked.
“We’re re-doing the wiring,” he said. “This lighting problem is only temporary.”
That was fine for him to say. He wasn’t the one who shelled out good money to see his stupid cave. “How about the waterfall?” I asked, “Are we going to be able to see that?”
“Sure,” he said and led us on.
We shuffled forward for a long way. The walls, I noticed, were cut into the mountain not disolved out of the living rock by aeons of flowing water. There were no stalactites hanging from the roof. I had to stoop, the ceiling was so close.
“Is it much further?” I was beginning to complain to Bill by now that I didn’t think we were in a natural cave at all but rather an old mine shaft. I was about to accuse him of fraud and demand my money back when I heard the sound of rushing water ahead. Bill remained silent and led us deeper and deeper down the passage. His tiny light the only thing keeping the blackness from closing in and eating us alive.
I wasn’t paying careful attention to our route or how the passage twisted and turned. We must have passed a dozen side passages and branched right or left at a dozen forks. It was both frightening and thrilling at the same time. The rope was our lifeline back to the world. It was like real caving, primitive, dangerous and dirty. I realized for the first time in years I was enjoying myself.
After a while the passage opened and we were in a natural cavern. I thought I could hear rushing water up ahead. “Hey Bill, how about shining your light around a bit?
Bill obliged and I saw a handsome underground room complete with the requisite fluted columns and hanging sheets called draperies. I was excited and amazed, this was how real cave explorers must feel. The cave was pristine. It didn’t look like any tourists had been this way in years. I asked Bill how he managed to keep the cave to clean and pure. He mumbled something about how few visitors they got and hurried on.
I don’t know when I realized that Hazel was no longer behind me. I had been so busy complaining or admiring that I had forgotten completely about her. “Hey wait up a second,” I called to Bill. “I think we lost my wife.”
“Impossible,” Bill said, “she had the rope.”
“She had the rope? I mocked his Tennessee drawl. “You don’t see her do you?”
“She must have gone back,” Bill said.
Come to think about it, I hadn’t seen Hazel since the second steel door. “What do you think we should do?” I called down the tunnel and I heard echo after echo repeat “Hazel where are you?” down the long shaft. There was no reply. Hazel was gone. At first I was frightened for her but then I thought of her wandering the labyrinth until she collapsed from exhaustion and fear. I almost laughed out loud. I got a grip on my self and realized what a blessing it would be if she really were lost.
“I’m sure she’s all right,” Bill said. “People turn back all the time. We’re very close to the waterfall now.”
Indeed, I could hear the waterfall much louder now. I really did want to see it and add another cave to my collection. Bill was probably right about Hazel. She probably turned back out of boredom It confirmed my suspicion that she never really liked caves in the first place. “All right, maybe a quick peek and then I really have to get back.”
Bill led me a short way further along. What happened next is mostly a blur. I remember his light landing briefly on a box. What was it? A tape recorder? What was that doing down here. Then his light shining directly in my eyes, blinding me. There was a shove and I stumbled backwards down a steep slope, tripped and banged my head. When I opened my eyes, the darkness was absolute, a living thing darker than any night. The way blindness must look. I called for Bill, but, of course, Bill was gone. I groped my way up the incline and felt about for the rope. The rope too was gone. I realize now that he must have taken it with him.
It’s been three days now. I have groped my way around in the blackness calling until I can call no more. I’ve come to understand what happened. It’s really pretty funny. I see now that I drove her to it. She did to me what I did to Debora and planned to do to her. She buried me. I suppose she planned it for weeks. Paid old Bill a few hundred bucks to set the whole thing up. Put up a sign, open up the old cave one more time. Suckered me right in. You have to hand it to her, she was clever damn clever.
It’s dark down here, darker than anything and quiet, quiet as the grave.
micheledutcher - I'm actually from this part of North America and the quietness and total darkness of the cave can be disorienting. The absense of all light and sound. This was a scary fun read, for certain.
So how surprising she is! The hunter being the hunted.
I could see the end coming but was hooked enough on the tale to want to see how muggins would be done.
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