Lauren and Emily were getting up a group to go caving during spring break. Could I go? Yes, they said. Then later it was no, because they had too many people going. A year later it was yes again.
Ten of us drove to Waterloo, Illinois, southeast of St. Louis, stayed overnight in a motel, then hit the cave the next morning. We had hardhats, headlamps on the hardhats, warm clothing, food for lunch, and extra batteries and flashlights. Some of us had put on knee pads.
To get into the cave you simply go down about a hundred steps, the last two or three dozen of which are very steep. When you get to the bottom, you find yourself on wet dirt, and you hear a stream trickling along. Everyone is able to stand upright. That is also the case when you walk through the cave, most of the time. Sometimes you have to duck walk and sometimes you have to squeeze around stalactites. A lot of the time you have to wade through the stream. Your feet get cold when you do, but they warm up quickly after you get out of the stream. At no point do you have to crawl, unless you go into one of the side passages.
On this first trip, we crawled into one of the side passages that had a little room at the end. At points the passage was so low that we had to scoot. When we got to the room, we sat down, turned off our lights, and closed our mouths. Absolute darkness. But there was dripping. We listened to that for a bit, then turned our lights back on. Lauren and Emily said we had to crawl back with our lights off. So one by one we crawled back in the blackness. It wasn’t a long crawl, but it was rather unnerving to do it blind.
I found the cave so captivating that I had to return. I bought hardhats and headlamps, then invited carloads of students to go. A couple of times I went with other faculty members. One time three of us had gone into a side passage and as we returned to the main passage we had to wiggle feet first. That meant that we had to shrink then expand a few inches at a time. I was the last one to do this, and I thought for a minute that I wouldn’t be able to make it. Another time we stopped about noon to eat at a fairly open spot that had nearly a foot of stream flowing past. There were eight of us, and someone suggested we square dance. So we formed a square, I called, and we all sloshed around in the water. Fortunately, no one tripped.
In the dozen times I have been through the cave, I have never been able to find those narrow side passages. The headlamps do not illuminate the whole cave, so each time one explores the cave it feels as if everything is new.