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Going Underground

Tennessee's caves inspire awe and reverence among the state's subterranean enthusiasts -- and concern about the destruction human mischief can wreak

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

SOMEWHERE BENEATH THE CUMBERLAND PLATEAU -- James Lewis takes a step down the brown slope, slips, and goes careening on his back across slick mud toward the edge of a 60-foot pit.

He stops short of the sump hole, avoiding a steep slide into dark and undoubtedly cold water at the bottom, and stands up carefully. He's laughing.

It's impossible to see into the darkness at the other side of the pit, or far in any direction at all beyond the 30 feet or so illuminated by the caving party's 10 helmet lamps. The passage here is about 50 feet wide and 15 feet high, with a rolling mud floor and an arching stone ceiling. The long black causeway smells of clay and cool wet air. This is the bore hole, the tunnel at the bottom of the cave, reached only after several hours of scrabbling through gigantic underground chambers.

Carved out of layered limestone by eons of racing water, which still sluices through the muddy cavern after every rainstorm, it looks like it was built by fastidious, gnomish hands. Only occasional stalactites, jutting down through the roof like deranged turnips, interrupt the smooth flow of silt and stone that shapes the subterranean architecture.

There is a world underneath Tennessee--at last count, more than 7,400 caves (150 in Knox County alone), the most of any state in the nation. Some are spectacular, like this Middle Tennessee cavern, which boasts the largest underground rooms in the Southeastern U.S. Others are just narrow, snaky crevices that lead nowhere, or pits that drop a hundred feet and end. All are testament to the tumultuous geology and mineral history that shaped the state's mountains, valleys, and plateaus. And all are explored, venerated, and jealously guarded by a small, loose-knit community of underworld adventurers.

"Most people view us as totally insane," admits Lewis, a brushy-haired Oak Ridge landscaper with slate eyes that dance above his brown mustache when he talks about caves. "Like, 'Why would you want to go spend a perfectly beautiful day like today crawling around in a dark hole in the ground?'"

Cavers, as they call themselves, can be hard to fathom in their fevered determination to spend every available minute in places where the sun never shines, it's always damp, and the only companions are bats, rats, and blind fish. But the allure of caves is hardly limited to hard-core enthusiasts. There's a seductive mystery to the dark grottos that is simultaneously enticing and scary, a promise of secrets revealed and not a little danger.

Guardians of the Underworld

Danger is exactly what's on the minds of Lewis and his caving partners as they contemplate the pit in the middle of the bore hole's floor. The only way around it is a narrow ledge along one wall, about the width of a boot heel and every bit as slippery as the floor at the pit's edges.

"I've never seen it this wet," volunteers Chris Tunkel, a 25-year-old analyst at Oak Ridge's K-25 plant.

Anyone who slipped on the ledge would end up in the water far below, and the steep, tractionless walls would make crawling out all but impossible. While the expedition's veterans confer, the rest of the party waits apprehensively.

The cave has a name that's well-known to serious underground explorers, but they would prefer it stayed unpublicized, for reasons that become clear in conversation.

The first thing to know about dedicated mud scramblers is what to call them: always "cavers," never "spelunkers."

"A caver is a person who does it for a specific reason," explains Lewis, chairman of the Knoxville-based caving club Smoky Mountain Grotto. "Exploring, scientific study, mapping, that kind of thing. A spelunker, AKA a 'flashlighter,' is a person who goes in there with a six-pack, a flashlight, and a boom-box."

Cavers talk about flashlighters, obsessively sometimes, with a mixture of disgust and amusement. Most of them have their favorite flashlighter stories--teenage kids toting a lamp in one hand and a BB gun in the other to ward off bears (cavers say there aren't any); drunks dropping their cheap plastic flashlights and getting lost in the dark just a few hundred feet from the cave entrance; first-time cavers naively dropping into tough vertical pits only to lose their light or their rope.

(East Tennessee Grotto member Steve DeSimone says drily, "A caver is a person who rescues a spelunker." He's not kidding--several local cavers are members of the East Tennessee Cave Rescue crew, which responds to cave emergencies, and still others belong to the Knox County Rescue Squad.)

The rank amateurs pose dangers to more than themselves. They can upset the delicate ecosystem of a cave, polluting its water, scaring its animals, breaking formations that took eons to form. The hazard is most pronounced in the winter, when an unwary caver can awaken hibernating bats, causing them to panic and use up the energy reserves they need to survive until spring. The worst of the flashlighters are the vandals, marauders who break off chunks of stalactites and leave their names scrawled in spray paint across the rock walls.

The other great risk is upsetting the sensitive balance of landowner relations, a diplomacy vital to keeping caving alive. Since most caves are on rural private property, owners need to feel confident they're being used by people who won't hurt themselves, the caves, or anything else.

"It's the general rules of dealing with country people," Lewis says. "If you leave their livestock alone and stay away from their homes and leave open gates open and closed gates closed, generally they don't care."

Cavers groan at stories of caves shut off from public access forever because cars were parked in the wrong places or gates were tampered with or--as happened at one site last year--a dunderheaded visitor got drunk and chased the landowner's cows with a four-wheeler. Even worse are the novices who wander into a cave unprepared and then sue the landowner when they get injured.

"Cavers do not sue people," Lewis says with distaste.

But if flashlighters are the enemy in the battle to preserve the underground world, they're also the ranks from which most serious cavers arise. As Lewis admits, "Everybody's a flashlighter when they start."

Into the Abyss

The trip to the anonymous cave starts at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, when a group of 10 adventurers gathers at a Cracker Barrel restaurant off I-40 for the monthly outing of the East Tennessee Grotto. It will be spearheaded by the 38-year-old Lewis, who leads the Oak Ridge-based club's trips, in addition to his Smoky Mountain Grotto duties. (The clubs are both chapters of the National Speleoogical Society and share several members, but somehow manage to be competitive anyway. Lewis is careful to make sure both get equal billing.)

On an hour-and-a-half ride along the interstate and through the backroads of at least three counties, Lewis and driver Tunkel swap caving stories and trivia. As Tunkel pilots his 1977 blue-and-white Cheyenne, pushing the odometer past 152,000 miles, he enthusiastically recounts the four-wheel-drive behemoth's rugged off-road adventures. The truck is packed with boxes of tools, helmets, ropes, an axe, and machetes--if he decided on a whim to build a house in the woods, you get the feeling he'd have the equipment. Tunkel's a case study in controlled recklessness, a personality trait that seems endemic to cavers. They're willing--even eager--to take risks, but only if they've double-checked their equipment and thought through everything that could go wrong.

The caravan of three cars soon arrives at its destination, a dirt track off a small road off a bigger road in the heart of Tennessee. Tunkel roars nearly a mile down the rough wooded path, hooting with glee as he spatters brown water from some pond-sized puddles across his windows.

Disembarking, the group begins the ritual of outfitting for a prolonged expedition (Lewis estimates it will take five to eight hours). Most of the grotto members slip into industrial coveralls of varying colors--orange, brown, blue. On go extra layers of socks, heavy hiking boots with stiff ankle support, and hard plastic helmets with round metal lamps attached at the forehead, wired to belt-clip battery packs. Each caver carries a backpack stocked with extra batteries and water.

Suiting up, Tunkel warns the party to be on the lookout for hodags, subterranean gremlins that are part of an in-joke cave mythology. They're the mischievous but invisible sprites who reach out of the dark to flick off lamps, disconnect batteries, and trip up unwary cavers.

"The big ones," Tunkel says with a grin, "move cave entrances."

Fortunately, the imps appear to have left this particular cave alone. Within 50 yards of the truck, before the grotto is even in sight, the 80-plus noontime temperature drops dramatically, as if the chattering birds in the surrounding trees had somehow devised a woodland air conditioner.

A few steps up a small ridge reveals the cool air's obvious source--a giant maw gaping open at the foot of a stony cliff, exhaling a constant stream of damp chill (in the wintertime the area must feel like a natural sauna, since caves maintain a constant temperature of about 58 degrees).

This is no commercialized cavern, with a sign outside and lights beckoning from within. It looks as raw and untamed as it must have to the first explorers--Indians? Hunters? Farm boys?--who stumbled on it. The trail drops steeply, straight into the yawning mouth.

Lewis has promised this will be an "easy" trek, what's known as a "walking cave." Inside, with the helmet lamp switched on and a pool of yellow light floating five to 10 feet ahead, it doesn't take long to realize that cavers' idea of "easy" is a relative thing. So, for that matter, is their idea of "walking." Even in the entrance hall, a mud field that goes back more than 100 feet, the footing is slick, the cakey mud clumping to boot bottoms without offering any actual traction. The real test comes at the end of the chamber, where a wall of fallen rock--or "breakdown"--appears to block the way completely. Without pausing for a second, Lewis begins the climb up, grabbing stones and finding footholds as if he were walking upstairs. The rocks rise some 40 feet, the last 20 of which appear almost unscalable to the unpracticed eye. But Lewis points out ledges and leverage points, and soon more level ground is underfoot--except that it's not ground, or particularly level.

A field of rubble, huge slabs of rock fallen from the ceiling, stretches out as far as the headlamp can illuminate. This is the first of the cave's three rooms, and it looks like the ruins of an underground city. Surveys have put the size of the chamber at around four acres, and it's not hard to believe. There's no way to see all the way across, but a shout bounces back in stone-skipping echoes from a long way off. There's no evident water source, at least not yet (in the second room, which is just as large, a river can be heard rushing far below). But everything's wet anyway, thanks to the near-100 percent humidity that soaks the air and condenses on every available surface, slicking rocks and fogging eyeglasses. It's hard work thinking about every single footstep, trying to measure all the terrain's angles in the moving light of the lamp and keep sight of the next light ahead at the same time. The room smells like the ledge behind a waterfall, wet and earthy. The only sounds are breathing, the occasional drip of water, and the scrabble of boots and gloves on rock.

Mud in the Blood

It's only when the party stops for periodic rests, clothes smeared with mud, that it's possible to appreciate the magnitude of the surroundings. At the entrance to the third room, after a punishing climb up a massive hill of breakdown, the oval dome of the ceiling can be made out several stories overhead, forming a domed cathedral that could have served as the blueprint for St. Peter's Basilica.

"It's like being on top of a mountain under a mountain," someone says. It's the "under" part that's hard to grasp, the idea that so much space and grandeur can exist beneath a tree-shaded hill. Here is some gleaming of what drives a caver underground, this sense of uncovering hidden worlds, of seeing the clockworks of creation. Cavers call the urge to explore "mud in the blood," and are hard-pressed to articulate it much further, falling back on explanations like "adventure," and "fun." But the inadequacy of those words becomes clear once you're actually there.

The epic sprawl of the cave takes away any sense of claustrophobia--it's no more oppressive or cramped than an empty football stadium. But there is a rumbling feeling of isolation, of being completely divorced from the rhythms of the daylight world (even cell phones don't work inside caves). This is heightened when Lewis suggests shutting off all the helmet lights to get a taste of true cave darkness. The effect is amazing, like being dropped into a pool of ink. People talk about "Black as night," but when you're in a cave, you realize night is never really black. Even in bed with your eyes closed, light seeps in from street lamps, clock radios, the moon, stars. In a cave, light doesn't seep in. Your eyes try to adjust, dilating their pupils wider and wider, but there's nothing to adjust to--the rods and cones can't make light where there is none. Moving a hand in front of your face, there's no sense of shape, form, or shadow. Suddenly, the stories of men being lost within feet of a cave entrance are entirely understandable. And the cavers' fastidious preparation and care of their light sources takes on a dead seriousness.

"People think you can see in caves," Lewis says. "People think, 'It's OK if my light goes out. I've seen Scooby Doo, you can still see in a cave.' They have no idea how dark it is."

With the lights back on, preparing to enter the room that leads to the bore hole, grotto member Bill DeVane--at 43, the senior member of the party--opines, "I think the reason most people do it is, where else can you get this sense of adventure? I mean, you can go hiking in the Smokies, but you know millions of people have been there before, and half of them are still there. We know people have been here before, but..."

He doesn't have to finish. Except for occasional dabs of red tape put up by previous visitors to mark the way out, this cave could be a new planet, seen for the first time by human eyes.

Open or Closed?

Not all caves are so lucky. A few days later, Lewis leads another expedition to a cave on the border between Knox and Anderson counties. He wants to show what can happen when the wrong people go underground.

Again there's the cool air a few hundred feet from the cave, and from a distance this entrance looks as formidable as the other one, a craggy tear in the wall of a forest gully. But walking down into the shallow, sunlit foyer that forms a sort of natural lobby, differences are painfully clear. Where the other cave looked untouched by human hands, this one has been positively mauled. Oceans of spray paint splash across its rocks, with timeless declarations like "Gary + Jean" and "Ben loves weed." Yin-yang signs, peace signs, and pentagrams are rampant, in orange, black, and blue.

A thick smell of charcoal permeates the entrance, the permanent aftertaste of countless fires lit in a small, ash-filled depression. The ceiling is coated in soot. Beer cans, soda cans, snack wrappers, and an empty bottle of nail polish litter the floor. The mud is also speckled with glittering shards of glass from dozens of broken bottles. The cave, which is not far from a high school, has been a favorite hangout of local teens for decades. But it's also a favorite of cavers, who love its tall, narrow passageway and the natural skylight (a second entrance 30 or 40 feet above the ground) that brings the afternoon sun almost to the back of the cave.

The Smoky Mountain Grotto recently put a register book in a plastic container near the entrance for visitors to sign, an effort to take an informal census of cave traffic. But the book and container are missing, and Lewis has to go about 30 feet back in the cave to retrieve the chain that held them fastened to the rock. It must have taken some doing to loosen it.

"It's amazing what people will spend their time doing," Grotto member Chris Kerr says, shaking his head. Putting a new notebook in a new plastic container, he continues, "I tried to build kind of a bomb-proof thing. But in May, James told me he'd been out here and they'd burned a hole in [the container]. And this is PVC pipe. It doesn't burn easily."

The chronic abuse is exactly why cavers are chary of revealing the whereabouts of as-yet-unspoiled caverns. Although a nonprofit group called Tennessee Cave Survey has compiled data on every known pit and grotto in the state, the list is available only to members of serious caving organizations.

"Alabama had a problem. Their database got out and somehow got published in some national map software," says Mike Doughty, longtime chairman of the East Tennessee Grotto. "And once it's out there, you can't get it back. So we're protective of that."

Organized caving in East Tennessee goes back to the mid-'50s, when a group of Oak Ridge workers started a club for recreational cave explorers. The club became the East Tennessee Grotto; still active with about 80 members, it's now one of the National Speleological Society's older branches. The Smoky Mountain Grotto came about 10 years later, formed by students at the University of Tennessee. It now has about 30 members. Both groups meet monthly to compare notes on caves, equipment, and upcoming events. They welcome new members but are also cautious of them.

"Caving is not what you'd call a missionary type thing," Doughty says. "We don't go out looking for recruits. We try to let people who are interested find us. ... Some people could say that organized cavers are secretive, and maybe we are. But it's not because we want to be elitist."

In fact, cavers are big proponents of commercial caves--like The Lost Sea near Sweetwater--that allow gawkers to see some of the more impressive caverns in controlled circumstances. Knox County itself has a stunning, semipublic cave in the Cherokee Caverns off the Pellissippi Parkway.

The cave is owned by the Monday family, of real estate renown, but run by an avid cave researcher and historian named Jim Whidby. His body rounded and his hair thinned by the years, Whidby--who owns a Blount County print shop--nevertheless maintains his enthusiasm for subterranean undertakings. ("I've never even tried to think of how many [caves] I've been in," he says. "Hundreds.")

Cherokee Caverns had been open to the public since the '20s, but after an adjacent restaurant burned around 1980, it fell into disrepair and became a target for vandals and a hideout for motorcycle gangs. For the last nine years, with the permission of the owners, Whidby--a former chairman of the East Tennessee Grotto--has enlisted help from the local grotto clubs and other volunteers to clean up the cave. It now boasts about 1,000 feet of smooth trail, much of it wheelchair-accessible and open (by appointment) to school and community groups. And while vandalism is much in evidence--whole shelves of stalactites hacked down to stumps; three-foot-high stalagmites knocked in half--there are still thousands of formations of all sizes and shapes, from the enormous, self-descriptive "Capital Dome" to tiny, hollow reeds called soda straws.

Another local cave will soon be publicly accessible, albeit at a distance. Ijams Nature Center just installed steel gates across the mouths of two small caves that open on the Tennessee River along Ijams land. Director Bo Townsend says the nature park plans to build a boardwalk and bring tours to the cave entrances for lectures about cave ecology and safety.

"You wouldn't call this a significant cave from the standpoint of bats and geology, but for us it's an opportunity to teach," he says, peering into the deeper of the two caves through the metal grate.

Some cavers would like to see similar gates on virtually all caves, with keys only available to legitimate groups. They argue it would keep out flashlighters but still allow serious exploration. Caves may be prolific in Tennessee, but they're not renewable.

"We view caves as a very finite resource," Doughty says. "They're not going to make any more, certainly, in our lifetime."

* * *

Back in the bore hole, Lewis and his colleagues have reached a decision: the expedition can't go on. The risk of slipping on the narrow ledge is too great. So the hungry, sweaty party prepares for lunch, plopping down in the mud and pulling apples, bags of chips, hunks of beef jerky, and bottles of water from backpacks. In a tunnel under a cave under a mountain, where there's never any light and it's never too hot or too cold, it's hard for a moment to remember that somewhere not far away it's the middle of a sunny July afternoon.

"It's a totally different world, man," DeSimone says. "It really is."