Spelunking in Virginia - A Mighty Fine Adventure

April 08, 2007
Sujatha Bagal

This cave was nothing like the caves of my imagination. My idea of a cave was pretty straightforward and straight out of children's books - it had an enormous mouth for an entrance into which once would walk upright, bright at the entrance, becoming darker and darker as one walked farther and farther back into its recesses.

After driving about an hour and a half west of Washington, D.C. to the Virginia/West Virginia border to do some spelunking, we parked the car in a wide expanse of pavement just above an embankment that fell away from the Interstate. We got out, slung our backpacks on our shoulders and gingerly walked down the embankment a few meters. We made a sharp right and S, our guide - who was my college mate and also ran an adventure company - said, "Here we are."

This "cave" we came to was a rather slim, elongated, hole in the wall.

D, another college mate and my adventurer-in-arms for the day, and I looked at each other, "Where?" There was no big mouth, no rounded arch, nothing that looked like it might be the entrance to the cave. "I'll show you how to get it and you follow me, ok?" S plonked his backpack on the ground, removed three miner's lamps, gave one to each of us and strapped his own around his forehead. He slung his backpack back on, walked two steps to the hold, turned to face us and got down on his haunches. He stuck is lower legs into the hole, felt his way around with his feet and slowly lowered himself down with the help of the tiny ledges on the rock wall. Soon his entire body disappeared and all we saw was his face. "Come on in," he called out.

It has seemed like a great idea when I first heard about it. Now I was not so sure. I had all sorts of doubts about being able to get out of there, about snakes crawling in the bowels of the earth, about being able to breathe in there, about even fitting inside the cave. What if it was too small and there was no place to turn. Would I get claustrophobic?

Of course, I kept all of this to myself. Having driven this far, I didn't want to chicken out. I mentally ran through the contents of my backpack just trying to reassure myself that I wouldn't be stuck rotting in a cave where no one would find me (this was the age of no cell phones, to boot) - there were snacks, water, a packet of mint rolls (S had asked us to pack some, we had no idea for what) and a flashlight. Not too reassuring.

But I turned around anyway, getting ready to wiggle myself down the hole. I handed my backpack to S down the hole and inched my way down. It was a tight fit - with my sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes bulking up my frame - but finally I was standing on my feet. I took a quick look around. It was spacious to say the least. There was enough headroom, enough space to dance around in even and the cave stretched very far back into the distance and trailed off into darkness.

D made her way down as well and we headed off into the inside of the cave. The floor was damp in places; in others puddles had formed on the floor. As we walked in S pointed to the ceiling silently - bats were hanging upside down, fast asleep. The walls were pockmarked with tiny fossils of fish and other sea life. Two hours west of Washington, D.C. was apparently where the Atlantic Ocean lapped at the shores of America many, many years ago.

It was amazing just how huge the cave was, right underneath an Interstate. I must have driven on that road at least five or six times, on the way to the Shenandoah Mountains, but I would have never guessed that there were these huge caves right underneath. The main cave, where we entered, branched off into separate chambers. S had a specific route in mind and eventually we came to a very narrow slit above our heads. By this time, our clothes were muddied as were our hands and shoes.

There was no way to climb up through the slit other than to wriggle up on our tummies. S went up first as did our backpacks. With the uneven serrations on the wall for toe holds and the ledge about the slit for leverage, I struggled up the narrow opening. As my head came out the other side, I saw that there was nothing but a narrow tunnel. No more standing spaces. We would be on our tummies on damp floor from then on, crawling forward on hands and knees.

Inching forward like a three bogie train, we suddenly came to a small room of sorts with enough space for three of us to comfortably sit but not stand. And here we understood what "pitch black" was. If I thought I had any idea was pitch black was, I was sadly mistaken. Here, in this tiny space deep inside one of the caves of Virginia, I could not see my own hand even if I held it up one centimeter in front of my face. There was absolutely no source of light for this part of the cave.

S asked us to take out our mint rolls and told us to pop one in our mouth and chew. We did, and surprise of surprises, sparks flew out of our mouths and very briefly, we could make out each other's shapes. D and I were mighty tickled.

Our little rest came to an end and we made our way back down the same tunnel and down the narrow opening to the wider part of the cave. There were no museums to see, no fancy buildings, metro systems or monuments, no fountains or sculptures down in that cave. But it was nothing short of amazing and satisfying, just to see a part of nature I had never seen before.

P.S. In India, I hear there's very good spelunking to be had in the caves at Edakkal in Kerala. If you go, do share your experiences.

Sujatha Bagal is a writer currently based in the US. She recently returned following three years as an expat in Bangalore, her hometown. For a glimpse into the life of an expat, visit Blogpourri.
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April 8, 2007
12:52 PM

heeeeeeeeeey. I think I went there once! :)

April 8, 2007
01:00 PM

Sometimes they don't come back;)

April 8, 2007
08:52 PM

smallsq, You did!? Gosh! What are the chances??

April 10, 2007
12:32 AM

Hmmm... it might not have been the *exact* same place... I guess there are a lot of caves in that area... but cooooool, eh? And we both made it out! LOL

Camelbak Dude
March 10, 2009
12:02 PM

Hey! Thanks for the great post - I am sure to be back in the future. This weekend Im going on a big trip and I was looking for some solid info when I ran into your site on google...thanks! I appreciate it!

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