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A Slice of the Past
The heavyset 50ish woman and her spry 30-something daughter sat at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, having what seemed to be a very pleasant brunch – until the topic of conversation switched to the caverns of Washington County.
“I’m thinking about taking Matt and the kids down into the caves to see the petroglyphs,” the girl said casually, pouring cream into her coffee. By the time Vicky looked up, her mother seemed almost panic stricken. “Are you okay, mom?”
Michele tried to collect herself, obviously not wanting to alarm her daughter. “I just wish you wouldn’t do that – not until the girls are older.”
“They’re eleven and fourteen, mom. They’re old enough to walk through a cave.”
“Just remember what I told you about checking the weather first, Vicky.”
“Yeah, I remember: don’t go into the cave during a storm,” chuckled the girl, teasing her mom. “I got it! The water level can rise quickly, blah, blah.”
“There is no cell-phone service out there, Vicky. If you walk into those canyons, you’ve got to be able to walk out under your own power. No one will be coming to rescue you.” The mother took a sip of her coffee, obviously upset. “And there are other reasons not to go into THAT cave during a storm. There are things I haven’t told you – things I haven’t told anyone – for fear people would think I was crazy.”
“What do you mean?” the daughter asked, accenting every syllable.
The older woman looked around at the other diners. It was the middle of the afternoon and the place wasn’t busy. “Well, before you think about taking my grandkids into that cave, I need to tell you the truth about what really happened that first time me and Kelly and John saw the Indian carvings. After that, you can make your own choice about the girls.”
Three cavers and I stood around Kelly's beat-up Honda Civic, looking over a map of the wooded area we were parked in.
“I say we skirt the main valley by taking a southern route,” I told the cavers who had been nice enough to go exploring with me – just so I could satiate my curiosity. “We can walk until we get to the other side of Dry Cliffty, and then backtrack about 100 yards, lowering ourselves down onto the ridge between the two caves. It’ll be easier than going north on the road, and running into tourists in the valley. I’m not looking for conversation, I just want to get into the cave, take one look, and then get back to our cars as quickly as possible.”
“Sounds like a plan,” agreed John, looking at the sky. “We’re getting a late start as it is. Rachel and I are hoping to get out of here before the storm hits.”
“We should be okay,” said Kelly, unconcerned. “Even if we’re in Dry Clifty when it begins to storm, the water won’t rise for a couple of hours – and really, they’re just calling for showers, not a big deal.”
Rachel, John’s wife, was fine with whatever decision the others came to. “Okay, let’s put on our coveralls and meet-up at the trailhead.”
“Let’s do it!” agreed Kelly happily. “It’s a beautiful day to take a walk in the woods and then go caving. I’ll grab the rope.”
Ten minutes later we were heading west towards the caverns. However, the terrain was proving to be difficult to navigate, as we started down an abandoned wagon-rut trail that ended abruptly in a canyon of overgrown shrubbery. We could hear the delighted squeals of laughter coming up from what I assumed was the main valley. We heard the rush of water racing over the rocks, thinking it was water running through the first cavern. We were looking for the second cavern so we kept walking - definitely a mistake.
Eventually we ran across a deer trail heading north, taking us deeper into the leafy terrain that had changed – like day and night – from November when I was out here last. At that time I had easily made out the trail and the cave entrance through the sparse vegetation.
When I asked Kelly for his advice he kept telling me, “We’re on your time, Michele” and “It’s your nickel, Michele.” He was enjoying the hike through the woods – and it was a beautiful, cloudless day – so different from what was to come. We finally headed east, coming to an almost dry cavern riverbed. We realized that we were far downstream from the mouth of Dry Cliffty Cave. The canyon floor turned misty the further south we walked, as the trickle of water coming from the cave upstream became heavier and heavier. Suddenly there was a wall of vapor perhaps ten feet high that hung over the streambed giving our team one more obstacle to overcome. I was hoping the mist might make it cooler, but it just made the air more humid. We could hear the pat, pat, pat of water dripping off the leaves of the trees that were right next to the creek.
The two men had no trouble scurrying up the streambed, through the rapids, over huge fallen tree trunks blocking the cavern. But Rachel and I were forced to admit that we were less able to navigate the fiord, as we lagged behind, insisting the men throw us down the rope that Kelly carried. It was only in this way that we were able to climb one slippery, moss-covered cliff after another.
Eventually we came to the entrance of Dry Cliffty, and we rested inside its yawning mouth.
“Are you ladies ready to head on back further?” asked Kelly, teasing the rest of us. “It’s your dime, Michele, it’s your time. We can sit here as long as you want to.”
“I think I’m ready,” I told him defiantly, pulling on my knee-high, waterproof boots.
“Great! Let’s turn on our helmet lights and Michele - you can lead the way, as you know what you’re looking for.” I could tell from Kelly's tone that he thought we weren't going to find anything, and by that time I was wondering if the journey had been worth it myself.
As I took the lead, the mist inside the narrow stretch of cave filled the air from base to ceiling. I turned my light down a notch, so it wasn’t just bouncing back off the fog.
“Now what are looking for again?” asked Rachel, eager to help search.
“I discovered native symbols carved into the boulders on the ridge above this cave, so I started wondering if there might be some petroglyphs inside. I’ve heard about a mound with graffiti on the walls called ‘Indian Rock’. I just want to check it out.”
The space between the walls in the tunnel had narrowed to at most 9 feet across and I turned on my flashlight, aiming it at the water, trying to see how deep it was. We all started sweeping the sides with our lights, looking for graffiti. The men looked for bats in the cracks in the ceiling.
After what must have been five minutes in the tunnel, we came to a wall of steel slats, 12 feet high. This gate would be closed throughout the next eight months, Sept 1st to May 1st so the bats could hibernate. A bat disease, White Nose Syndrome was ravaging the bat population and Dry Cliffty was one of the few caves left that hadn’t been affected. Kelly unlocked a tiny door at the base of it massive wall of steel, pulling it open. We all ducked as we went through it single file.
“I know this cave widens out into a larger room back here, it can’t be far. There’s a rise off to the right side.” I trudged on into the darkness, more determined than ever, but the mist was confusing, disorienting. Finally the walls widened out, but there was no mound, no carved graffiti – just gravel bars on both sides of the stream. At least the mist had thinned out.
“Is this it?” asked Kelly.
“No, it was definitely a mound. We had to climb to get on top of it,” I insisted.
“Maybe the water has eroded it down,” said Rachel from behind me, honestly concerned.
“I’m going further back,” I told them, continuing to walk forward, knowing this would be my only chance to check out the cave until next spring.
“Okay,” said Kelly shrugging. “It’s your dime, it’s your time. I’ve got all night.”
“There’s graffiti over there,” I finally said, pointing the flashlight at a distant wall.
“Is that your Indian rock?” asked Kelly.
“Its sides are more jagged than I remember – but let’s look it over anyway,” I answered. By this time I wasn't sure at all that anything of any worth would be found.
So we all went over, climbing up one rock shelf after another until we were finally at the wall. The four of us were now using our flash lights and helmets like search lights, seeing what had been left behind by tourists.
“Oh my god, what is that?” gasped John suddenly. “Michele! Shine your beam over here.” He was kneeling on the left edge of the rocky shelf.
There, just beyond his fingertips was a carving of a warrior-god in a circle. “I can’t believe it!” Rachel whispered. “How is it possible something like THAT survived in here after all this time?”
By now everyone had their flashlights on and their helmets on full beam, illuminating the wall. “I’ve got something else down here,” shouted John, almost gleeful. We all rushed over to see what he was pointing at. “It’s a crow’s foot…a very ancient symbol. It could even be from the Deleware culture! I’ve got to get pictures!”
Rachel and I both ripped out cameras and started clicking away in a frenzy. After ten minutes we had taken pictures of: a crow’s foot symbol; a warrior-god; an entire hunting mural up so high that no one could reach it; and a simple, round, shocked face with a circle on its forehead with streaks coming out of it. The round face was attached to a bony torso with a huge heart, all of which seemed to have been stabbed repeatedly.
"These carvings are definitely related to the Southern Death Cult," I told my companions. "There were Native Americans who were outcasts and would come back into the darkest part caves and have ceremonies, dark ceremonies - casting spells on their enemies. Look here at the images of spears and knifes. I've seen pictures from ritual sites like this in Tennessee and West Virginia."
“Why is the wall bleeding?" said Kelly getting closer, now drawn into the excitement felt by the rest of us. “It looks as if they carved grooves into the image to make stab wounds and then they reached down, got some of the red clay, and pressed it into the streaks.”
Rachel took a deep breath and chuckled. “They were certainly mad at someone – I hope they got whoever it was that made them so angry.”
John pointed to the warrior-god on the left hand side. “That was this god’s job! – to be sure that this guy on the right side got what was coming to him.” The married couple laughed before they got back to taking pictures.
“What is that thing on the wounded figure's head?” asked Kelly.
“Probably some kind of glittering gem, but I don’t remember ancient Native Americans being fond of jewels,” replied a very puzzled John.
We were like children playing, giggling, taking each other’s pictures in front of the wall, and completely forgetting the time and the world outside our tiny cave world. Later, as we headed back towards the mouth of the cave someone asked the obvious question. “What time is it?”
Rachel looked down at her watch. “Damn. It’s almost seven o’clock.” We slithered through the door in the metal wall but didn’t see any light up ahead.
“It should be brighter than that outside – even if it is almost seven,” said Kelly, growing concerned. Suddenly a clap of thunder echoed down through the cave followed by one burst of light after another. It was as though there were bombs exploding just past the cave’s mouth.
“I thought the storm front wasn’t supposed to pass through until midnight,” said John.
“Guess it came through early,” answered Rachel shrugging her shoulders, obviously worried.
As we stepped into the mouth of the cave we could see the outside walls of the cliffs. They were shrouded with sheets of heavy rain, being blown sideways. Flashes of lightning lit up the trees on the slopes of the cavern for a second or two, quickly followed by darkness again.
“We’ll never make it back to the cars in this downpour,” I told the group, merely stating the obvious.
“So, should we wait it out in here?” asked John, turning to Kelly for a decision.
Kelly was the experienced caver, so he thought for a moment about what to do next. “These walls are so narrow that the water’s going to start building up pretty quick. I say we head back into the cave and wait it out on one of those gravel bars.”
So the four of us went back into the cave, reaching the steel wall before the water got above our knees. We were glad when the room widened and the four of us settled into sitting on the gravel beach, waiting for the storm to pass.
“How long do you think it’ll be?” Rachel asked.
“Probably no more than an hour or two,” replied Kelly as if he were thinking about something else. “We obviously have fresh water…”
“And I brought some granola bars!” said Rachel happily. She began pulling them out of a baggy she kept inside her coveralls, passing them out to all of us.
“That’s why I married her!” beamed John, kissing his wife’s helmet.
We began to eat and talk again about our discovery, but eventually Kelly brought us back to reality. “We’d better turn off the lights for a minute,” he told us. “So our eyes will get adjusted to the dark. After that we’ll only turn on one of the helmets as a light source. We need to save the batteries so we can walk out later.”
“Agreed,” said John turning his helmet light off.
“Agreed,” said Rachel and I, turning ours off as well. We stayed silent for a moment, letting our eyes and ears grow accustomed to the complete blackness in this, the dark zone of the cave. We listened to the sound of the water pouring through the tunnels as it had for thousands of years. There was a feeling of danger from the complete darkness, but also a serenity with the mere uniqueness of the experience.
Suddenly John broke the silence: “What’s that light?” he whispered in the dark.
“It’s the cave entrance,” said Kelly by reflex.
“No it’s not,” I whispered. “That glow is coming from further back in the cave!”
“Maybe someone else got in here before we came in,” whispered Rachel frantically. “No one is supposed to be in here but us!”
I could hear John put his arms around his wife in the dark. “Shush now, honey. Let’s listen for footsteps coming towards us.”
Kelly was whispering now, spurting out information in a controlled mode. “If we leave our lights out, we’ll see them before they see us.”
So we sat in the dark, listening for footsteps coming towards us.
I could hear John take a deep breath before whispering. “It sounds like they’re walking around in circles back there.”
We all held our breath, trying to listen even harder to see if John was right. Yes, after he said it, the sound became obvious, people walking in circles.
“It’s back there in the room where the petroglyphs are – maybe it’s a secret meeting or something, a cult of some kind,” said Kelly softly.
“We could check it out,” whispered John. “They might hurt the carvings or something. At least we would know who we’re dealing with instead of just sitting here in the dark, shivering with fear.”
I snorted at his bravery. “I’m not heading up there. I’m fine right where I am.”
“I’m too curious,” gushed John. “Come on Kelly, you go with me, we’ll just peek around the wall.”
“Okay, John. I’m with you. It’s probably just some kids, back there drinking on the rocks. They probably found the gate open and came on through before we did. They’ll probably be just as scared of us as we are of them.”
The men turned their helmet lights on so they could see to move to the wall. “You girls stay here,” said Kelly.
“Yeah, we’ll be right back,” agreed John.
“Hell no!” whispered Rachel racing to her husband's side.
“We’re so coming with you guys! I’m not sitting here by myself in the dark!” I told them sharply.
“Okay, okay, okay!” said Kelly, trying to settle everyone down. “We’ll all go over to the entrance to that other room as quietly as we can.”
We all had our helmet lights on by now, edging our way quietly along the wall, heading back further into the cave, as quietly as we possibly could. John was first, then Kelly, then me, then Rachel, creeping our way over the gravel bars. Even with just the lights of our helmets, the arched ceiling had drips of moisture hanging making the scene look like there were stars overhead.
As we neared the opening to the room with the Indian Rock, we could hear people talking but the language wasn’t clear – but it definitely wasn’t English. There were voices slowly chanting, footsteps shuffling first on the dirt then through the water then over the dirt again. The light coming from the room was bright now compared to our tiny helmet lights, with a tint of blue. We were just standing there, backs against the wall, the entrance just a step or two away from John’s right foot.
Suddenly someone screamed inside the room and before he could think about it, John rushed in front of the opening, the light falling on him. He was frozen with fear now, just standing there – helpless, motionless.
“For god’s sake, John! What is it?” Kelly begged. “What do you see?”
John didn’t turn his head or move in any way, he simply let the answer fall out of his mouth: “Nothing. I don't see anything there.”
The walking and chanting and the screaming had all stopped now. Everyone was silent – as silent as a tomb, and then we heard one set of footsteps trudging through the stream straight towards John who was still frozen with fear. The footsteps stopped in front of the caver, but there wasn’t anyone there, no shadow, no body, nothing.
The sound of the water running over the stones continued before there was a soft squishy sound, like jello being sucked up into someone’s mouth. There was the soft sound of slicing, but we didn’t realize what was happening until blood started dripping down John’s palms, dripping down his fingers, into the cavern’s stream.
We all grabbed John at once, pulling him out of the light, dragging him out of the entrance. John still couldn’t respond more than to scream in pain. We couldn’t tell how deep the wounds were because his coveralls were still intact. However, there was a deep brown spot on his left side that continued to spread the farther we drug him.
No one looked back. John had turned towards the entrance of the cave and was stumbling out with Kelly’s help. Rachel was lighting the way with her flashlight, showing the two men where to step.
We quickly came upon the steel wall. The door was shut. “Michele, hold John up while I push open the door,” Kelly told me. I moved into position taking on John’s weight for a moment. “It won’t open,” Kelly screamed in frustration.
“Maybe it’s the water holding it shut,” said John faintly.
“No, the door opens out, towards the entrance,” I answered. “Maybe the park ranger locked us in by accident...”
Just then the door burst open and the water in the stream rushed through, slamming all of us off our feet. The four of us were body surfing now, more than crawling, as the water pushed us through the small steel door.
“Did everyone make it out?” Kelly said, looking around desperately on the other side. “Where’s Rachel?”
“I’m here,” came the voice from nearby. “We’re here, me and John.”
We all struggled to our feet, helping John up, and started walking towards the mouth of the cave, towards the light.
“That’s quite a story, mom,” Vicky said, looking at me over her coffee.
“Believe it or not…” I told her as if coming out of a trance.
“So, John – did he make it out of the cave?”
“Barely,” I whispered. “We’ve kept in contact because of the academics of the site, but he’s told me that even now, there are times when his wounds still bleed.”
“I’m not sure about all that,” chuckled Vicky, looking at me in disbelief.
I rolled up my sleeve slowly. “I’ve got a couple of them too, from where I grabbed John, holding out my arm to protect him from whatever was slicing at him. It’s been a decade, but every once in a while these scars will break open and start bleeding again.”
I reached into my purse and pulled out a faded piece of paper. There were two photos printed on it.
“What’s that?” asked Vicky.
I opened it for her and put it on the table in front of her. “On the right is John’s picture that we took when we found the petroglyphs. On the left is the picture of the face on the wall, the one so hated by the Native Americans, the one they stabbed over and over. Notice anything similar?”
Vicky nodded her head up and down. “Yeah - the round light on John’s helmet looks like the circle and the beams on the Indian's carving of the head and torso. But how is that possible, mom?”
“I can’t tell you. Maybe the energy of the storm allowed different times to intersect and interface. I don’t know how it happened; I just know that it did. Sometimes I wonder how many people died in that cave over the last thousand years, all of that death builds up an energy of its own.”
“Okay mom, I won’t take the girls down there, unless it’s a clear day,” said Vicky, giving in.
“That’s all I ask,” I told her, beginning to relax. “Just keep my babies safe.” We smiled at each other and I grabbed the check as Vicky left some cash on the table for the waiter.
micheledutcher - The interesting thing about this story is that a huge chunk of it is true. Me and 3 other cavers discovered a Native American altar with petroglyphs two months ago. It's killing me because I promised people I wouldn't post pictures online until they wrote their papers. Ugh!
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