Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Story of my Death... and ressurection...

I needed a reminder tonight... As painful as this is to relive even being 7 years ago...
This is my story of death.  I shouldn't be alive.

 “I took the long way home”

       It started out as any other adventure with one exception, my little brother had come down from Michigan to visit and he wanted me to take him caving. He, his wife and daughter had made it here late Thursday night. I had to work Friday but had plans of taking him caving and then take our families to see Burgess Falls and Fall Creek Falls on Saturday before they had to leave on Monday.
     Working Friday was not in my original plan and I wanted to give him as full of a caving tour as possible, so I decided, without giving him warning, that we would leave Friday evening instead of Saturday morning. That way we could have all night and some of Saturday to explore without canceling our families’ plans to go with us to the waterfalls on Saturday. I felt that since we didn’t have all day Friday night and Friday as originally planned, we would still have enough time to take our full fill of the cave experience.
          On long trips, your body’s natural sense of time is thrown off and exhaustion and dehydration are increased exponentially at night. I had only a few short hours of sleep Thursday night, had got up for work at four a.m. and got home around five p.m.  As soon as I walked through the door, I announced that we had to hurry and leave so that we could reach the cave before dark.  I have to admit, I enjoyed the questioning looks of “Are you serious?”  As we scrambled our gear into bags and rushed out the door. 

          My wife questioned me as to my lack of sleep the night before.  I said I was used to it and that this way we would have all night and into Saturday morning before we would get back, thus giving us more time in the cave and without taking up the entire weekend.  As we rushed out the door, my wife said to have fun and be careful.  She also said she didn’t want to have to call my mom and tell her that she had lost two sons. 

          Two sons is a good description.  Better than two brothers.  My brother and I had never been close.  It was the difference in ages that kept us apart.  He was five or six when I left home, and besides Holidays, we never took the time or felt the need to make the time to spend together.  We had always lived in separate states and it was only now that we both had families that we had something that made enough sense to bring our busy schedules together.  Neither of us knew just how close we would become as we would spend the next 40 hours in the ultimate of caving adventures.
          As we drove through the last full rays of the day, he watched in amazement at how rapidly the bustling of the city was replaced by only the scarcity of civilization.    As twilight was rippling through the valleys, we passed by houses on the ridge-tops surrounded by barbed wire and no trespassing signs, unwelcome territory.  We turned the radio off and drove quietly to the pull-off by the cave.  I proudly handed him one of my new headlamps.  LED light!  Not as bright as incandescent light, but up to 100 hours of battery life on low.  I didn’t know this would be one of the choices that saved our lives. 

We disappeared like the sun as we dropped deep down into the valley.  The moon shone its rays full on us as we arrived at the entrance under the veil of darkness.  The water’s white foam reflected the moon’s lights revealing the mouth of the cave against the rock face as my brother looked around for the first time.  As was usual for me, we sat in the darkness letting our eyes adjust, while there was still some moonlight to use.

          One of the biggest feelings of comfort is in knowing you are alone and far from civilization.  Coming across any other person deep in the woods is always a dangerous situation.  As we sat there in the quiet, disturbed only by the chatter of the bats, I realized we weren’t alone.   I quietly explained to my brother that I had heard someone and knew that he was 200 yards up the other side of the valley and to remain quiet. In the cover of darkness, we fine tuned our eyes and ears. My brother started to shine his light and I quickly stopped him as the wrong person would take a blinding light as a sign of aggression.  I explained that a flashlight was as good as shooting first, that we needed to wait a minute. “He knows we are here,” I said “we first need to give him the opportunity to show his intentions”.

 Not long after, we could see the light of two cigarettes. There were two of them but by lighting and puffing the red glow on and off, they were letting us know where they were and that they were not interested in us. At that time I told my brother to place a small flashlight on the ground, pointed into our faces and that would show that we were willing to put ourselves at a disadvantage, showing them that besides getting our gear ready, we meant no harm.
          Once ready, we headed in.  I told him the stories and showed him where the salamanders and the angel had been. We then entered into the large collapse dome. I showed him the huge formations I had found.  It was very satisfying to see the wonder and amazement in his eyes and to answer his questions as we explored areas of the cave which I was familiar with. 

After showing him the easy to find areas, I asked him if he felt comfortable enough to explore as I would.  He said yes, and so we headed back towards the heart of the cave.  I had planned on showing him areas that were unmarked and only explored by myself and as we walked, I explained how a shadow or a crack in the wall could be a pathway to new areas.  I wanted him to find a crack or a shadow and let him decide to explore it.  Even if I had already been in there it would be new to him and a treasure found by his choice.  

 It wasn’t far and we came upon an opening at floor level that he wanted to explore. I quietly was disappointed that he chose a hole in plain sight that could have been explored by anyone, but it was his choice. Besides, this path had been marked with red paint by someone and I had never gone in before thinking that if it was so easily accessible that anyone could enter, then where would the challenge be? None the less, I agreed to enter with him as I thought we would be in and out in plenty of time to find uncharted paths.

          The entrance was triangular in shape, about 2 feet wide and 2 feet tall but quickly opened up to about 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide.  Inside the entrance, someone had written in red paint “DEVIL’S CRAWL”, and also the words “Satan will fuck you” (not my words).  I told my brother that the words were just foolish vandalism or a warning from a frustrated caver who had taken this path before and obviously not liked it.  With the hopes that it could be a difficult path, we both agreed to see where the path led. 

We crawled about 20 feet in and came upon a small gypsum room.  The walls and floor were covered in gypsum powder and crystals.  The soft clay walls could easily be pulled carefully apart revealing the delicate crystal formations.  My brother, Curt, enjoyed the hunt for the crystals, finding them in all stages of development and formation.  When we were done playing “treasure hunters”, we started the crawl further in.  The path soon became the “devils crawl”.  The path was full of random rocks jutting out from the floor, walls and ceiling, making the path more painful and difficult.  About 50 feet back seemed to be the end.  The crawl continued but was only about 10 - 12 inches high.  I doubted that anyone else had continued past this point which is usually all the encouragement I need.  I asked Curt if he wanted to get a sample of the type of caving I do and venture further.  He said if I was willing, he would follow. 

          I took a few minutes explaining that if we headed in, that the only direction would be forward.  The path was smooth, solid rock top and bottom and too narrow to turn around or back up.  We would have to commit to going forward until we found another room or exit.  Our feet and heads would have to be kept sideways.  Our breaths would have to be shallow as the rock would be pressing on both sides.  I tried to explain just how important it would be not to panic. With shallow, restricted breathing it would be easy to hyperventilate.  If you panic and hyperventilate, you cannot get loose and you will suffocate.  I explained that he would have to choose each and every push forward wisely as there would be no second chances.  If you try to back up, your clothes will bunch up and you will get stuck.  He seemed to understand, so I said “Follow me”.

            The path was tight enough that our flannel shirts had to come off so the buttons would not snag and twist, painfully pressing into our chests, or getting us stuck on a crack in the floor.  We also had to leave our packs behind as the path was too narrow and small to wrestle the pack by pushing it, or my usual method of pulling it, with my foot through the strap.  Now, with long sleeved shirts, we began to inch our way forward.  Each move of a foot or an inch could only be made by exhaling as much air out of our chest as possible and pressing forward, to then slowly inhale until the mountain’s rock would stop our breaths.  In most places it was impossible to take a full breath, so two or three small breaths were required before each move. The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle and after many yards of maneuvering to the left or to the right of the path to try and gain an extra 1/2“ or so of  breathing room, I could feel my chest and ribs beginning to bruise from the pressure of the mountain’s hold.  “Now this is real caving” I told my brother, “one hundred percent commitment with no return.”

          Soon after, I heard water.  I yelled back to Curt that the water should have carved out a space big enough for us to breathe and to not give up.   Some relief was just ahead.  Luckily I was right. About 50 feet ahead there was a spot tall enough to sit up and hang our feet down a 2 foot wide canyon where a stream flowed about 20 feet down.  Here we rested and my brother had now learned to appreciate the ability of expanded chest breathing.

          We could have turned back at this point, but we chose to go on for a couple of reasons.  The air smelled fresh, the path opened up to a hand and knees crawl and I believed that if there was water flowing, it had to come from somewhere.  “Lets just go a little further and see if it opens up.  If not we’ll come back.”

          I was basically determined to prove the point that there was always another way out, plus Curt agreed that he would prefer not to have to go back through the squeeze necessary to escape.  From this point on it was obvious that no one had been through here in many years.  Small stalactites on the ceiling would break loose on our backs as we squeezed forward.  We were also encouraged to continue as we came across an occasional painted arrow that someone had left. 

          The stalactites and soda straws that broke off as we squeezed our way forward were not the only sign of how long it had been since this path had been taken.  When we came across the empty spray paint can, we saw that it was probably 15-20 years old.  There was nothing else to indicate any other visitors. At this point the floor was clay and there were no marks from clothing or shoes.  We continued on for about two miles, when we seemed to just pop out of the crawl into a large collapse dome.  The room smelled of fresh earth and was littered with large rocks and boulders never touched and ready to fall on us if we were to bump against them. 

          This collapse dome was probably 200 feet tall and had giant rocks sticking 10 feet out at several points of the clay walls as if a mere whisper could unlock their hold.  There seemed to be 100 paths out of this chamber and we explored many of them.  One of the paths led to a tall round room full of bats.  I remember holding my brothers feet as he peered inside the opening that was about 20 feet up the wall and asking him “What do you see?”  His reply indicated that it was a large room and as far as he could see the walls were not visible due to the total covering of bats.  I quickly said to be very quiet and turn off his light and get down. 

I like bats, but if letting dogs lie is good advice, try a million bats.  This would explain the constant stream of bats that slowed our progress on the way in.  The fly bys were interesting.  It was the spots where the path was narrow on all four sides and the bats couldn’t find a way past and a traffic jam would ensue.  I wonder what the bats thoughts were as they knew the path from experience to be clear and then to find it blocked by a living person.  After awhile, we had gotten used to them crashing into our faces and then crawling over our shoulders and backs as we both scrambled in our separate directions. 

At the base of the collapse dome there was a tunnel large enough to walk through that smelled rich of water and clay.  We are thirsty and I thought it would be a good idea to fill up on water before we trudged the two mile crawl back out.  Plus I still hoped to find another route out.  “There is always another way out.”  I kept telling him.  Surely we would pop out into an area of the cave I was familiar with.

          Upon exiting the tunnel, we came upon a four way intersection.  The floor and walls were clay again, which to me means cave system, not cave passages.  The ceilings were eight to ten feet tall and easy to walk through.  I was sure that we had somehow come full circle and one of these paths would become familiar.  Plus at the junction of these paths, there were two arrows, each pointing against each other.  To me this meant that we could go back or we could go forward.  Either way we were still on track to finding another exit and hopefully the arrows meant there was something worth the trip.  Even if they meant that the caver from long ago had entered and then came back, he left a mark which to me said “make sure you explore further in before going back.  There are sights to see and wonders to behold.”            

          The thought that didn’t cross my mind, was that the caver who left these marks could have been confused as to the direction to travel.  Perhaps circling and coming again across his past marks.  It was not long after that this became all too apparent as the arrows began to run in circles, sometimes mere feet apart, but just out of sight of the other.  Curt and I would separate, communicating the direction of the arrows as we transversed through a maze of water canyons, close enough to hear and communicate, but even with two people getting a somewhat three dimensional map of the arrows could make no other sense than that the previous caver had got lost, panicked, and left too many confusing clues to make heads or tails of his path.  We met back up and traveled back to the main junction to discuss what to do next.

          The junction had four dark tunnels on the outside walls of an approximately 15 to 20 foot room.  At the center against the wall was a pile of pebbles and clay about three feet tall and four or five feet wide and long, a great spot to lie back and rest by wiggling the rocks into a comfortable bed.  The area we had been exploring was a maze of water chasms.  The walls were one to two feet wide and rippled from the effects of the water carving its way through.  The canyon was 20 to 30 feet tall with openings at the bottom where streams flowed in levels even further below.  It was easy to keep our footing as the rippled walls were much like steps and we would walk forward with one hand and foot on each side.  The only problem was that the water canyon was so narrow, that to move forward, would involve climbing up or down until we could find a spot wide enough to squeeze through. 

Some levels involved sliding forward horizontally with only our shoulders and hips grabbing the sides and our chests and heads open to a 30 foot drop.  If we were to loose our grip on the slippery rock and fall, we would surely break many bones as the jagged sides would twist and contort us as we fell.  Just as frustrating, was finding our way 20 to 30 feet forward only to find the space too narrow to continue.  It would be a real memory game to remember the ups, downs, forwards, backwards and other movements it would take to backtrack to find an alternative route.

          After meandering like a marble through a maze, we came to a spot where the path opened up to the top and also to the bottom, where a small stream flowed.  We first went to the stream, found a clear pool and filled our dehydrated bodies with as much cool spring water as we could hold.  A lone red salamander watched as we quenched our thirst, surely wondering what we were.  I wondered if he was lost, being this far back in the cave.  I never thought that if he had thought the same, that both of us may have been correct.

          There were many water channels and cantilever breakdowns that we explored at this lower level but they were all dead ends and each one had arrows pointing in both directions.  There seemed to be no way down so we decided to try climbing up to see if that way showed any promise.  About thirty feet up a chasm crag there was a room that seemed large enough to possibly be a way out.  I told Curt to stay at the bottom and I would check it out to see if it was worth both of us checking out.  We were getting cold and dehydrated, our stomachs had turned to acid from the exertion and we had started taking turns to save energy.  We were either going to find a new exit or have to make the two mile crawl back.

          As I climbed up to check out the room, I was pulling myself up to the top when a large rock I grabbed near, let loose and fell straight down to where Curt had been standing.  There was no warning.  It hit the side walls maybe twice, and within half a second the two foot by four foot chunk of limestone smashed into the floor.  I yelled down “Are you all right?” and only heard silence.  I was definitely ready to panic, but calmly called his name.  “Curt”.  Soon after I heard a soft answer of, “I’m okay”.   “Are you sure”?  I asked. “Did it hit you anywhere, your foot or your arm?  You could be in shock,” I said.  The answer was no and that he had looked up just as the rock came straight for him only to have it veer off the wall landing just to his side.  “I’m coming down, stay there.”

          When I reached the bottom, he was shaking like a leaf and his face was ghastly white.  I tried to lighten the mood by asking if  he got a good adrenaline rush out of it, but the fact that his head could have been crushed and he would have never even known was too distracting.  To be honest, I was probably just as white, as I could tell by the twisting of my stomach, that I came all too close to killing my brother.  There was nothing I could have done differently, I am always careful to make sure my foot and handholds are secure.  The rock that fell was balanced so well above that it was only the slightest touch of my elbow that set it free.  We took some time in discussing how to prevent a falling rock injury and that neither one would stand anywhere close to directly below the other and would proceed one at a time on any climb until the “all clear” was called down from above.

          We didn’t talk long, but soon realized that talking was difficult as we were both shaking uncontrollably.  We were both drenched in sweat and water and the airflow in this part of the cave was cooler.   I have a small thermometer and it read 43 degrees.  Another problem was exhaustion.  By now I thought it to be well into the early morning hours and we both agreed that it was time to find our way out.  The room above was a possibility and the long crawl out was another?  One thing was for sure.  We were dehydrated and exhausted, and if we did not rest, we would not have the energy to make it anywhere.  I asked him if he was having trouble with acid in his throat.  I had been for awhile, but he was too.  The copper tasting bile in our mouths throats was a definite sign of fatigue, overexertion and dehydration.  I knew that our decision making abilities were already getting foggy.  Curt was still in a daze from the rock, so I decided to head back to the main junction.  It would be warmer and dryer and we could rest long enough to make a proper decision.  I asked Curt to lead.  He could maneuver through the slender water crevices easier and he seemed dazed and lethargic.  I need him to stay with me.  To be honest, it wasn’t just him.  I could feel my own body begging to give in.  This was not the place to rest.  “Come on, let’s go back to the crossroads” I said “we’ll decide what to do there.”

          It was not an easy path through the thin water canyons maneuvering up, forward, down, backwards, forwards again.  Sometimes having to backtrack, but it warmed us up.  We began to think clearly and Curt took the lead, remembering the steps made on the way in, and after only a couple more back tracks, was able to lead us both back to the crossroads.  There was comfort in the smell of clay and a familiar space.  Here we rested.  We felt comfort in the fact that we could maneuver through such a difficult maze and end up exactly where we wanted. 
          Before long, we began making the decision of our next move.  We had left our supplies back at the entrance of the devils crawl.  We had no food, no water, no candles for warmth and no batteries.  The LED lights we were using had high and low.  We switched to low to conserve battery life.   Our MAG lights had already grown dim long before, but we had only been using them occasionally to look around so the normal four to six hour battery life was no indication as to how long we had been in the cave.  I was thinking eight to ten hours and knew our main concern was dehydration.  Neither of us wanted to take the long crawl back and from my experience the shortest path had always been forward.  But we were fatigued and I could see the worry growing and the trust fading in my brother’s eyes.  I decided not to gamble with his life and take the guaranteed way out with one exception. 

          We had to find water first.   We both had the copper tasting acid in our mouths and throats that came from dehydration and hunger.   We had burnt so many calories that our stomachs had begun to absorb their own linings and we needed water as soon as possible and food soon after.  I was worried about my brother’s lack of body fat for energy.  Not that I’m fat, but he is a twig and I’ve got a couple extra cells to burn if needed.  With energy in mind, I stated that we must conserve our energy and rest at least 15 minutes of every hour from here on. 

          Well, once rested we headed back up the tunnel and back into the collapse dome from whence we both knew we had come originally.  Unfortunately, we had a problem.  The hole in the floor that we had come out of was not where we thought it was supposed to be.   The only confusion was that the hole was not there.  We both had walked blindly, directly to the spot we both remembered as the way out.  Why wasn’t it there?  Logic, reason, rational thinking?  All for naught.  We both individually retraced our steps and plus our memories only to come up with the same conclusion, “the hole was not where it was supposed to be.”  How could this be?  How could I have been so irresponsible?  I guess for one, I didn’t plan on coming back out the same way.  Two, I could picture in my mind the way out, the hole, the exact position I was in as I climbed up a small incline and emerged between two long flat rocks into the collapse dome.  Confusion...
          Looking around, we recognized enough features of the room and areas that we had explored to know without a doubt that we had definitely come from this room.  The only possibility I could think of, that I could give him, was that there could have been two collapse domes and in our fresh, excited, exploring minds we may have traveled through one of the tunnels we had explored on the way in, and entered this collapse enough times to have accepted it as the first one and not a second one.  With this in mind, we began exploring tunnels one after another looking to verify this theory and find the familiar territory that would lead us back to the long crawl out.

          At first, we would find a tunnel and both of us on hands and knees would crawl over the rocks and clay to see if this was the one.  The first problem we ran into was that almost all the tunnels seemed familiar or unfamiliar.   In the ones we remembered, we would gain momentum thinking that since we remembered it, that it was the way out, only to find a dead end and realize that the familiarity came from our explorations on the previous night.  The tunnels that we went into that seemed unfamiliar, we would both agree, that since we didn’t remember it, that it logically would not be an exit and didn’t waste time exploring it.  After as many as 20 dead ends, we began to tire again.  Exhausted, frustrated and tired we would take turns.  One of us would check the tunnel and the other would rest his eyes and body until one of us would emerge with the bad news of another dead end.   Sometimes the person doing the exploring would come back and say that the tunnel was long enough that we should both check it out.  The original “devils crawl” in had only one fork and if a path had a fork, we would turn back not wanting to take the risk of another maze that might be too confusing to find the return path.  The fork we encountered on the original devil’s crawl on the way in was a good mile in and had a stream running below in a crevice, so we remembered what we had memorized on the way in and only took paths without forks.  Some of the promising passageways were so promising we would both travel for hundreds of yards only to come upon a dead end.  These dead ends didn’t even make sense as there was no water flow, and no breakdown to explain why they stopped. 

          One path went for about 300 yards only to circle back to the same room.  All these crawls were either hands and knees or belly crawls and were slow moving.  We had even begun to prefer the slower belly crawls, not due to the fatigue, which had set in long before, but due to the bruises on our forearms and shins.  I had begun scooting on my sides letting my hips and shoulders take the brunt of the pain, but before long nearly every bone, front, back and sides were screaming with pain at every move. 

After exploring more than 30 tunnels, I had started exploring a new tunnel only to stop maybe ten or fifteen feet in from frustration and exhaustion.  The rocks in this tunnel were three to four inches, sharp and square.  The pain required to move forward was too excruciating.   It was as if I hit a nerve complex on every rock.  Funny bone or not, I found no humor in this.  We both lost all sense of adventure and just wanted out.  I knew by the sharp edged rocks that this was not the path, but did not even have the energy to go back the ten feet to where Curt was waiting. 
          He could hear me talk to him, even with my voice weary and low. We talked about the possibility that at this point of fatigue, our judgment was probably affected and unless we could find water and rest, we were probably wasting our time. We may have even gone into the same tunnels more than once. We had such a haze in our mind from dehydration that it had become difficult for either of us to focus as our vision was beginning to blur along with our memory.

          As I lay there resting, I thought that my shoulder was getting wet. I took my glove off and felt my right shoulder realizing that this rocky floor was moist with water. I hurriedly called for Curt to come down. The tunnel was uphill and this was the only wet spot. We separated the rocks and dug a small hole in the moist clay but could not get the water to pool at all. The moist clay would just wick it away as fast as we could try to gather it.
          We did the only thing we could do as our thirst crazy minds told us both. We picked up each rock and licked the bottoms of them getting nothing more than a clay flavored, moistened tongue. It was impossible to even gather enough for a satisfying drop to quench our thoughts that seemed glued together with stomach acid, but the moisture soon eased the taste of bile in our mouths and renewed us to move on.

          We sat for awhile at the base of the collapse dome and used our MAG lights to light the room and searched our memory for any recollection overlooked before. Both outer sides sloped steeply upward and seemed steeper than we would have remembered if we had emerged from the topside of this room instead of the bottom as we had remembered. Of course “as we remembered” wasn’t doing us much good at this point. By now we had probably spent 8-10 wasted hours in dead end tunnels and crawls. We were exhausted beyond measure, dehydrated to the point that our breath wreaked of bile. Our vision was blurred. We were both having trouble focusing our eyes and now as we talked, we realized that our mental fatigue had hit a level where we were having trouble finishing our thoughts and sentences. Our speech was slurred by our swollen, dehydrated tongues which just made the effect worse.

          Sitting at the base of that room, we both decided that climbing the steep slope to the back wall was our next step. This time we separated, with Curt taking the left slope and I took the right. We would meet back at the base as soon as possible and proceed on together if another avenue was found. Up was good if we wanted to find another exit. At this point we would have been happy to be lost in the woods, even if miles from the original entrance. Up could also put us back up into an area of the cave that I was familiar with as I still hoped.

          When we met back up around ½ hour later, we both had hoped of another path. I had found a large opening which I though could lead to other large rooms and Curt had found a small hole like the one we had first emerged from that opened up into a larger room.

          We both wanted to take the route we had found. We nearly argued over which path to take. Curt nearly won; we went my way first. Curt’s argument was convincing but I thought that I smelled water, which at this point we needed as much at this point or more than a way out.  We crawled up the steep slope to a large crack in the wall that was hidden from our view below by a large rock about 4 feet square that stuck out of the ground straight up to a pointed end nearly 20 feet above.

           Like entering a secret passageway, we were able to walk upright as if along a hallway for about 50 yards when the path turned to the left and a few yards later opened into a large room with the blissful sound and smell of fresh running water.
We took no time to look around at what would be the most beautiful of rooms we would encounter, but both went straight up to the waterfall we saw straight ahead and drank until our bellies bulged from the cool, refreshing water.  We drank until we could drink no more and then sat back to look at and enjoy the falls.

          We realized soon after that we should have been more careful not to get as wet as we sat shivering from the cold. We already had the shakes from dehydration and now we were freezing as well. Happy to shake uncontrollably is what we felt though, sitting there feeling as if we had finally accomplished something positive.  I knew that with something in our stomachs, our digestive process would kick in and would soon compensate and warm us up, even if our core temperature was lower than it should have been.

Now we had a chance to look around and reflect upon the room which may have saved our lives.  The room was only about 100 foot deep by 150 foot wide but an amazing 250-300 foot tall.  It was what I call a rain room.  A rain room always has a constant rain fall from the ceiling. Some are like a light sprinkle and some are like a summers’ rain with many large drops.  This room had a steady summer-like rain falling from the center of the ceiling from a flat spot of granite about 30 feet in diameter.  This “rain” then fell on the top of a giant mushroom-head.  Well, not an actual mushroom, but a mushroom best describes the 40 foot wide platform. 

The rain fell onto the top of the mushroom shaped platform into a pool of water that collected on top and then equally and smoothly flowed over and down the rounded sides of  the fringed edges of the mushroom or maybe better described as a toadstool, shaped platform from where we had drank our water.  This toadstool platform was about ten feet off the ground and was protruding 30 feet out from the back wall with only about ten feet supported in the rear leaving an open canopy of at least 20 by 40 feet under the waterfall, which gently flowed from all sides equally onto the pebbled floor below.

          Although precarious looking, Curt and I felt comfortable going behind the canopy of water and under this giant “Mushroom” since if it was to fall, it would have done so long before from the water strain.  We quickly found comfort nestled into the “soft” small pebbles underneath the canopy.  It is not often that you get a storybook-like chance of us relaxing behind a waterfall, hiding behind the curtain of water.  How amazing it was for us to find a waterfall, after roaming for miles under the earth’s surface and to watch it fall more than 200 feet to gather in a pool, and then cascade over this magic mushroom’s fall and enjoy it from underneath.

          We were feeling pretty good at this point.  Our bodies had finally had the chance to rest and recuperate.  The air was very cool in this room with the waterfall, but underneath the falls we found relief for our dehydrated and weary muscles and bones.  The foggy haze had dissipated from our brains and our vision had begun to clear.  We had everything we wanted in a caving trip, except warmth and of course a way out.

          We discussed our next move.  Curt described the hole he had found.  It opened up into a small room with a hole in the upper wall which could lead to another area, but was definitely not the crawl we were looking for.  He also said that there were no arrows or signs that anyone had ever been in there.  The only positive sign that his find could lead to another possible way out was bat guano on the floor.  If there was a lot of bat traffic, they had to be headed out, because there was no signs of any bats after exiting the same hole back into the collapse dome.  The last place that we saw arrows and did not continue on was where the rock almost fell on Curt’s head.  We were refreshed and of good spirits so we decided to try that new area and see where it led or if we could find any other arrows.  Of course, we would keep our eyes open as we traveled for the original crawl and take it if found.

          And so we began again, out from under the waterfall, another good drink of water, out of the rain room and through the hallway to the collapse dome.  Then down the steep outer side to the base exiting to the familiar four way junction; Through the twisting water chasms to the end of the path that opened up at the top.
          This time, Curt stayed out of the way until I reached the top and called for him to come up.  Once up, we both sat intrigued by what we saw.

          Across a ten foot wide canyon 30 to 40 feet deep was a large room that seemed to light up like daylight as we peered inside.  The room looked like the moon, soft and grey.  The water chasms and even the climb up was smooth and black with no debris other than a pebble here and there.  As if crossing into a new dimension, this room was different.  Different even from any clay dirt or rock found in any cave I had seen before.  It was too far to jump safely as the soft grey mud was rounded and smooth at the edge of the other side, giving us nothing firm to grab hold of to avoid a deadly fall.  There was, however, a log like crossover from our side to the other side.  It was about two feet around and long enough to straddle our legs around and scoot to the other side.  The problem was that we couldn’t tell if it was a long skinny rock covered in this grey mud or just a clump of mud that would break as soon as we were halfway across.  I dug my hands five or six inches into the soft mud and found no rock.  I climbed underneath and looked and felt for rock, but only found mud.  I call it mud, but it would best be described as lunar dust.  You could make a footprint in it three or four inches deep just like the one you see on the moon landing pictures.  If was soft and light as dust, but as soon as you went to pull your foot back out, the moisture was present enough deeper in the mud to cause suction as you pulled your foot back up. 

          We were both interested enough to want to explore this room, so I held on as best as I could and cautiously pressed my weight onto the mud log, which was the only path to this room.  Although it seemed to be only a stick of mud, it seemed willing to hold my weight, so with one leg on each side, I slowly straddled the mud log to the other side and then told Curt to do the same.  Even though the top layer was soft, dry, grey, moonlike dust, we called this the mud room because our feet sunk sometimes to our ankles as if we were walking in a swamp.  Plus the mud collected on our boots causing every step to be a slippery situation.  We would have to kick the mud off the soles of our boots, as it would collect thick enough and heavy enough to make walking difficult.

          The room was a delight to behold.  It was 30 feet tall and round shaped, probably about 300 feet across.  There were large rocks here and there as if placed around the room so that none would touch the other.  It looked like the moon.  The rocks, the walls, the floor and even the ceiling seemed to be totally covered in this grey mud as if it fell like dust upon the floor.  It was so powdery and dry on the surface that it would blow away like lava dust, but would cake into a wet mud once pressure was applied.  I didn’t want to leave a bunch of deep ugly footprints to stay forever and ruin the unique “lunar” look of the room, so we stayed to the outer right wall and rounded our way to the back.

          At the back, right-hand side of this lunar-like mud room, there was a large opening into a large room that was made up of familiar looking rocks and clay.  The only question as to move forward or not was that the opening we were standing at was at least 20 feet up the wall.  This would require what I refer to as a leap of a faith.  I explained to my brother that if we jumped or slid down into this area, there would be little hope in getting back up. 

          I have made many “leaps of faith” in my adventures and I have never regretted them, and even if I could have, I had never had to go back the same way.   On one adventure, my leap of faith was a 30 foot drop from a hole in a ceiling into a stream.  I knew that stream had to lead somewhere, and after two days in the cave, that particular leap of faith landed me within five minutes of the exit. 

          We both knew that we were totally lost.  This new area looked much like the heart of the cave and there seemed to be good airflow.  Once we both agreed to the chance of no return, we took our first leap of faith together.

          We landed without injury in a large clay room of another cave system.  The room was long and wide and we walked for a short while in what we felt was the right direction, but nothing was becoming familiar to me.  At the back of this room there was another opening that had a steep clay slide deep down into another room.  To me this was a good sign.  The rocks, walls and floors were all the “regular” cave type and I felt if we continued on we would be at least making progress in a new direction in which we hadn’t already tried a dozen times.  But, as before, we were up against another leap of faith.  We would have to slide down a steep clay slope into a room where we would not see the bottom.  I told Curt that I felt we could survive the slide without any more pain than the previous leap of faith, and if we needed to get back up we could dig out foot steps in the steep clay wall and possibly make our way back up.  Curt said that one leap of faith was enough and he was unsure about another.  He said that if we could make it back to the collapse dome that he would like to try his hole he had found before we risked a leap of no return.  Since this new cave system seemed to be headed deeper and we were trying to work towards the surface, we both agreed to head back.  We just needed to jump 20 feet back up into the mud room.

          When we reached the back wall, we were faced with a vertical climb of only 20 some feet, but the wall was mostly smooth and there didn’t seem to be any hand or footholds.  There was a rock sticking out about five inches, 15 feet up, but even if I could get Curt up there or my shoulders there would be no way for him to lift me up hanging onto a five inch rock.  There was, however, an indentation to the left and a crack to the right just big enough to get my fingers in.  Since the indentation for my feet and the crack for my hands were about six feet apart, I had to very slowly work my way up with my body in a horizontal position until I could place one of my feet on the rock that stuck out about 15 feet up.  After falling two or three times, I had just about had enough when I tried a different approach.  With my back to the wall and doing the splits to the point I felt my pelvic bone would break, I managed to inch my way up with Curt’s help.  Once I inched my way to the rock 15 feet up, I could then pull myself up to stand on it and pull myself up into the mud room.  That was a long and painful trip back up a leap of faith. 
Curt came next.  He made it in one try.  It must have been my coaching.  Ha, more like learning from my mistakes.

          Now we were back in the mud room and crossed the beam and down and through the maze of water chasms back to the junction where we rested.  We had no trouble falling asleep, but we did have trouble waking up.  I woke up and couldn’t move from the hypothermia that had set in to our muscles.  I had to talk Curt awake.  I would have feared he was dead if I hadn’t heard his shaky voice telling me that he couldn’t move. 

          That’s when I broke prison rule #1.   Never spoon another man.  I told him that we had to be in the spoon position and try to warm each other up.  We held on to each other and tried to absorb each others body heat, rubbing arms and hands to get the blood flowing.  Within a few minutes we were able to stand up in a hunched over position as the deep shaking of our stomach muscles shook to try and warm our body temperature.

          “So, how do you like caving now?” I asked him.  His unintelligible chattering teeth clattered back nonsense.  “We need to walk back and forth, jump up and down and warm our body temperature,”        I said.  We paced back and forth silently until we could stand up straight.  We were both still shaking uncontrollably but started moving as that was the only way to warm up.  We headed out to the collapse dome and up the steep wall to the left, to the hole Curt had found earlier.

          The entrance was a narrow crack maybe ten inches tall by 24 inches wide and eight to ten feet long before it opened up into a larger room.  Since it was such a narrow entrance, I suggested he check it out first and let me know if it was worth coming in.  The narrow part was difficult but descended down into the room making it easy to get in.

          It was not long until I heard Curt call back that the room was not large but had another opening into a larger room and he thought that I should join him.

          As I slid down the narrow entrance, the solid rock on top and bottom kept me from breathing anything but a shallow breath.  To make it worse, there was a bump on the floor that made my ribs on my right side crackle as I did my best to expel all air and slide and pull myself down.  This was definitely not the opening we were looking for as Curt had hoped it would be.  I gasped in gratefully, large gulps of air as I pulled myself free from the crushing hold of the rock.  I looked over to see Curt about 10 feet up the side wall where there was another hole.

          “This is up and could be another way out” he said.  “Climb up here and hold my feet so I can get a better look”.  I climbed up and pushed his feet as he pulled his body up with his arms to get a good look into the next chamber.  “Bring me back down” he said.  It was another chamber of sleeping bats.  A good 10 feet tall pyramid of guano meant lots and lots of bats.  While the bats were obviously flying out somewhere, it could have been through a small crack and was not worth disturbing them. 

          Curt headed out of the room first wriggling up the narrow crawl.  Even though there were not any falling rocks, you don’t wait to be stuck behind someone when you can’t take a full breath.  Like I stated before, when in such a tight squeeze it is usually impossible to back up as your clothes will bunch up wedging you in to slowly suffocate. 

          With my head and feet turned sideways, I headed up at a safe distance behind Curt.  I soon caught up as he was having trouble.  Sliding down hill ten feet through a narrow slice in the rock is easy.  Moving back up, however, takes the use of fingers, arms, legs and feet.  Just the flexing of the muscles was causing the passage to be too tight and the additional effort was causing him to have additional trouble breathing.  He said that he was stuck on that bump I mentioned and wanted to come back down and after a fresh breath try again.  This unfortunately, was not an option and I could tell by the frustration in his voice that his panic instincts were starting to take over.  If I could not talk him calm, he could hyperventilate, suffocate and trap us both.  I asked him how close the exit was and he replied that it was only three or four feet away, that his hands were able to reach the opening, but there was nothing to grab onto.  Also, he said that there was nothing to press his feet against and if he tried to press forward with his elbows, his chest would expand and cause him to be stuck more.  He was unsure how or why he was stuck, when he was so easily able to slide down.  But that was exactly the hard lesson we were now learning, that to slide down an opening as tight that you had to let the air out of your chest would be unwise as it would take some chest expansion and much more effort going back out as you can’t slide up a hill no matter how smooth the slide. 

          There was only one option I could see.  That was for me to move up close to him and let him use me for his footing.  I told him to spread his knees as far as he could like swimming the frog-stroke and I would move up and holding his feet he should be able to push his way forward out of the hole using only his feet.  I became some what worried as to how I would get out, but did not express it at that time.  Curt was relaying to me that the bump in the smooth rock was causing him pain and he was having more and more difficulty breathing.  I explained that because your heart and pancreas are located on the left side of your breastbone, there was less room to flatten your chest and get over that bump that was now on our left side.  Unfortunately, there was no way around this bump. On the count of three, I took as deep of a breath as I could to wedge myself in between the crack and to give Curt the leverage he needed to use his feet against my hands to get out.  After a few seconds which seemed forever, he was past the bump and able to pull himself out of the hole.

          As I lay there listening to him catch his breath, I began to ponder a solution as to how I would escape this crag.  I knew that if the lump was painful for him that it would be near impossible for me.  I thought about trying to go back down and then head uphill backwards, pushing with my hands to keep the bump on my right ribs but the path was too steep and there was no backing up.  I told Curt to stay put until I got out and I began to inch my way up the narrow slope.  There was nothing to use as a handhold or a foot hold so I made my way using my stomach muscles like a snake.  I would pull my stomach up an inch than let the air out of my chest and press my stomach against the floor to push forward.

          This worked ok until I came up to that bump in the rock.  There was no way to avoid it.  It would press directly on my sternum or on my ribs just to the left of center.  I pushed and pulled and tried with no success.  The path seemed impassible but there was only one choice, to move on no matter the cost.

          I had begun to notice the pounding of my heart in my head had decreased and that the pressure from the lump was causing my heart to pulsate rapidly.  I knew the feeling of a heart that was about to explode from pressure as a humane way to finish off a rabbit or a bird while hunting.  I told Curt that it was an emergency to get me out.  I could black out at any second due to lack of blood flow and that my heart could pop like so many of the feeder rabbits that I used to kill.  I told Curt to brace his feet on the rocks at the exit, grab my hands and at the count of three and I would let all my air out forcibly.  Since I would probably be passing out he would have to pull me out no matter what.  Curt probably weighs 30-40 pounds less than me, plus I would be dead weight that was also stuck literally between a rock and a hard place.  I told him that my ribs could break but no matter what noise I made, he had to promise to pull me out or I would exasperate on the spot.  When ready, I took one last small breath using my stomach muscles not my lungs and said “Now” as I forcibly pushed all the air out of my chest.  I felt the ribs on my left side separate from the cartilage on my sternum and felt and heard several loud cracks.

          It took everything and more for Curt to pull me out.  He had to pull so hard that he dislocated his shoulder pulling me out.  

          I felt something new at this point, as I sat leaning against the edge of the hole. As I relaxed against that wall, as I felt the pain of a newly freed heart beating like thunder against the inside walls of my broken ribs, as my body shook violently (this time from shock not dehydration), as I gasped in painful gulps of air ; I felt hopelessness ; I felt defeated.

          Up to this point, no matter how desperate the question, I was always able to answer Curt’s questions with faith and hope and experience that this was a normal situation.  That I had been this way and felt this way, in caving adventures, a hundred times before.

          I don’t know how long we sat there silent, trying to get past the realization that the rest of our journey would be accompanied with the pain of our injuries.  I thought mostly of how foolish I had been to have made a mistake that not only could have cost my life, but one that had also changed me from guiding my brother in an adventure, to just a partner in a duel with a mountain that was now gaining an advantage in this game of live or die.

          When the silence was finally broken, it was Curt who asked “Are you ok? “.  I tried to control the shakiness of my voice as I leaned my head against the wall, closed my eyes to the mountain above and simply said “No”.

          “What about you?” I asked.  Curt said that he had dislocated his shoulder when he was pulling me out. He was trying to push it back in and I told him to stop, that he was doing it wrong and could damage his socket.  I told him how he needed to put his right fist on his chin and using his left hand, push his right elbow up and over his head. After a couple of tries it popped back into place.

          I tried to come up with something positive to say, but nothing said could quite motivate either of us to want to move on.  I asked him if he was feeling better.  He said that he was fine. Fine??  All I could think about was the acronym of Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. Yeah, we were both feeling F.I.N.E..  I stood up and tested the ability of my broken lungs.  Actually ribs were all that were broken, but it was my lungs that took the beating.  One thing that made it somewhat easier is the hyperventilating type of breathing that you have to do in a cave.  Between the exhaustion and especially the 100% humidity our lungs were filling full of fluid from the moist air that we were breathing in.  We breathed in short steady gasps using our diaphragms as if our lungs were being pumped by our stomachs and not our chests.  Besides the pain, a deep breath would cause us to cough, gagging on the fluids built up in our lungs.  This pneumonia like affect would last a few days after any humid cave adventure.

          At this point we didn’t want to move, but we also did not want to stay.  We decided to rest before we ventured further and we felt most comfortable resting at the junction.

          I am not sure why at this point that we always felt safest at the junction.  I think that we knew we had the most options from that point and it was a good starting spot.  We both felt for some reason that if we could choose the right path from the junction, we would find our path out.

          As we lay down on our resting spot, we lay on our sides, I raised my knees and wrapped my arms around my brother knowing that the rest we needed could also be our death from hypothermia.  It was almost involuntary action to hold him tight as my muscles shook from dehydration and hypothermia.  Soon our bodies would warm each other and the shaking would subside in our stomachs allowing us to drift off into death’s slumber.  Before we drifted off I told Curt that I was sorry; that I never intended or even expected us to get lost.  He wasn’t overly concerned about being lost yet but asked if we could just stay there and rest until help arrived.  He knew that both our wives would start worrying by Sunday night and send out a rescue party.  He thought that it would be best to rest here until help arrived. “Wish-full thinking” I said.  For one thing, we were not in the main cave system.  There was little chance they could find the small hole we had entered without a dog and no dog larger than a dash-hound would be able to make its way to us.  We had to face the fact that we were more than two miles from the normal cave system and in an area only one other person had been in and that was long before. “No one will find us” I said.  It was definitely up to us to escape. 

          Knowing that we would be disorientated by the hypothermia when we woke up, we decided to head through the water canyons to the mud room, take that second leap of faith and see if we could make any progress that way.  All other ways had been explored to dead ends.

          Here we lay ourselves to sleep and quietly prayed for the Lord to keep, to wake us with our minds bright, and lead us to our exit light. 
          I am not sure how long we slept, probably only 15-20 minutes.
Long enough for the heat we gave each other to have dried out the moisture in our chests and backs.  Not too long though.

          I literally shook myself awake from hypothermia.  My arms and legs were still wet and my muscles seemed frozen as I tried to move my hands to Curt’s shoulder so I could wake him.  It seemed that several minutes went by before he started to move.  I was worried that he had passed away in his sleep.  My hands were too shaky to check for his pulse and the haze in my mind did not allow me to recognize any movement from breathing.  His breathing and heartbeat were undetectable to me.   I took both my hand and clenched my frozen fingers to a fist and pounded him on the back calling his name. “Curt, Curtis, wake up Curt.”  “I need you to wake up now.” 

          With more of a low groan then a verbal reply he told me to leave him alone, that he wanted to rest just a little longer.  I told him that his mind was playing tricks on him and that if he did not wake up, he would die and he would not see his wife, Mandy or his daughter, Dakotah. 

          I’m not sure if he understood what I was saying or if my relentless pounding was what finally woke him but I was able to get him to sit up.  He sat there in a daze and said that he was having trouble seeing again.  Besides the mental haze that we both suffering from, Curt also had contacts in that were clouded from two days without eye-drops and from the humid condition. 

          By this time I was on my feet trying to stay up-right on my shaky legs.   I reminded him that we both agreed before going to sleep that we would go through the mud room to the other cave system and that to keep our minds clear we could not change our plans.   I told him to stand up.  That we would have to stay standing up, shaking until we could walk without falling and then we would walk in circles back and forth in the junction room until our minds were clear and the exertion had let the blood flow back into our arms and legs so that we could continue on.

          After a few minutes of stumbling around our junction room, it was time to work up a sweat and head toward the only area we had not fully explored.  I said that I would lead as I could tell he was still in a fog.  “Come on.  We have to stay moving.  I know you are tired” I said to him as we headed once more to the water channel maze which we had almost memorized by this time.  Truth be told I don’t know that he was any more tired than I was at that point.  All I know for sure is that we almost didn’t wake up that last time and that our time was running out.

          We made it through the maze of water channels, up to the mud room, across the mud log and back around to our first leap of faith we had taken before.  I was worried that this time our strength had been depleted enough that we would not be able to climb back up this one, let alone the next one.

          Well, we came to the spot that we had both agreed not to take hours or days earlier because it was a long clay slide and it would probably be too steep to climb back up.  We could not see the bottom either.  I told him to control his decent by lying on his back with his arms and legs spread apart, that his pounds per square inch would be less this way.  If you sit up and try to stop with your feet, as your instincts tell you to do, then all your weight is placed on your butt and the heel of your shoes giving gravity the luxury of less friction, to pull you to the bottom, which at this point neither of us could see.

          I still had my bowie knife and I assured him that we could cut steps into the clay to get back up if we needed.  “Ready?” I asked.  With nothing further to say, we both instinctively took in deep breaths and began our blind slide down.  Good news is that the clay slide only lasted around 30 feet; bad news is that we couldn’t see the bottom from the top because of the straight drop off at the bottom that we could only see as a black shadow.

          We both hit bottom at about the same time and were instantly reminded of our earlier injuries.  Holding my ribs with my right hand, I rolled over to see how far we had fallen.  It felt like thirty feet, but was luckily only around ten to twelve feet.  Do-able if we needed to climb back up.  We quickly gathered our wits and looked around.  We were both excited to see that the floor in this area was made up of all small rocks.  I hoped that they were river pebbles and that we could follow this dry river bed out of the cave.  Unfortunately, after a couple of hundred yards, we came upon another dead end.

          Dead would be the appropriate word if we were to take another leap of faith.  The wall was directly in front of us as we came up to an opening to our right.  The opening was a vast, seemingly bottomless pit.  On better days and only by myself, I may have looked for a way down to unseen depths below but we were in no shape to make such a difficult climb.  Plus even if this could turn into a way out, we wanted to go up and out. This was not up and was way, way down. 

          Exhausted beyond measure, we said nothing as we turned around to head back.  I remember looking down that abyss and feeling the mountain as if it was saying “Check” in a game of chess.  It was undeniable, and the heaviness of my heart felt the nagging pull of helplessness.  I was not afraid but we needed more than courage to proceed.  We had to concentrate on our families at home waiting.  I imagined their worry of safe return to be worse than ours and felt compelled to ease their burden not mine.  Courage is not the absence of fear but the strength to overcome that fear and move on.  This time fear was embraced as a will to survive.  The push from the darkness behind to take one more step.  One step at a time, one step towards home. 

          When we finally made it back to the junction, it was only met with total exhaustion and the mind numbing blur that this was probably the end of the line.
          We had managed to make it up both of our “leaps of faith” with each others help. The climbs were near impossible with our injuries and fatigue.  We had drank water from the bottom of one of the water chasms but we were sweating so much from exertion that we were steaming more water than we could take in.  At the junction we collapsed on our resting spot unable to move any further.  We had explored and re-explored all areas enough that we felt the only way out was through the collapse dome.

          Our escape had to be in the collapse dome also, because neither of us had the energy to travel to the other areas again.  Death’s slumber was upon us and we could do nothing but rest if we were to have any chance of survival. By this time we had been in each area six or more times and had come back to rest.  One definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and getting the same result, but expecting another outcome. 

          This time as we curled up, we knew it would probably be our last.  As our pulses began to slow we seemed only able to talk in whispers.  I told Curt again just how sorry I was.  He said that he placed no blame on me and that if this was his time to go, that his heart was ready and eager to meet his Lord and Savior.  Curt asked if I was sure that Heaven was my next step also.  I said, “Yes”.  I explained again how in the cave I am always 100% sure.  I reminded him of my thoughts and asked him if his were the same; that while in the cave I am in constant awe of the Great Creator and it is the one place where I felt totally in tune with the Spirit.  That in the cave I understand the term “praying without ceasing”.  That in the cave I am in constant, silent prayer.  Even my short breaths breathe in and out to the tune of the hymns of old; Mostly “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty”.  Not a step is taken without a silent “Thank you” to God for the last step.

          It was at this point that I believe Curt finally gave in to the fact that we were in a real death situation.  He mentioned that he had been holding on to the hope that I had known where the exit was all along and that I just wanted to give him a “total” caving adventure and would now say that it was all a test and show him the way out.  He didn’t know and could not imagine how bad I would have wanted that to be true also. 

          Our worries at this time were not for us, but for our families.  We talked about how our wives would react.  The denial of our death would be the hardest for them to overcome.  How could they give up on us if our bodies were never found?  We discussed our lack of anger and emotion. We were overcome with an overwhelming sense of peace, that somehow this was God’s will.  We just couldn’t understand what benefit or lesson God could use to benefit our families.  Our families on both sides were of strong Christian backgrounds.  Our father and brother were pastors, our families were Christians, plus how could it be God’s will to take two sons when He had plenty of previous opportunities to take mine.  If I died, it would be my life taken while doing something I loved.  I accepted the risk of caving.  Why would He want my brother also? 

          I learned from the Bible in the book of Job that the most important thing to say and truly believe that it is God’s will to be done, not ours.  I told Curt in a whisper “To Him be all glory and praise.”  Curt said that he wanted us both to pray out loud, and he began to pray.  I listened to his prayer as he said “Lord, we need your help.  We are lost and cannot find our way.  Our energy and hope have depleted.  We have tried every avenue, but cannot find our way.  Without you there is no hope.  Please light our path and show us the way.  It is in You that we place our hope and trust.  Show us the way and give us the strength to take your path.  Thy will be done.”

          Curt then said I should also pray.  I told him that I had no fancy words, but that I had a prayer that I prayed every day.  He wanted to hear it, so I prayed my simple prayer I had memorized.  “Dear Lord, please forgive me for everything I’ve done against your will up to this very second.  I’m sorry for my sins.  Please help me live a life that is honorable to You.  Help me to shine like Joseph in the workplace and please help me stand out like Joshua at home.”  Then I added “No matter what the outcome, toYou be
all glory, honor and praise.”  It was silent for a moment as I fought the lump in my throat as I said “Please take care of my family”.  

          Curt asked if I would pray the “Lord’s prayer” with him so we recited together: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hollowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever.  Amen”.  

          It is amazing how each sentence seemed to apply even to our situation. We felt alone. His will would be done.  What we wouldn’t give for a simple piece of bread. Deliver us from evil.  On Earth, In Earth?  Our only hope was in the physical salvation of Jesus Christ.  Only He could show us the way.

          Curt said that he had a secret that he might as well tell me since this seemed to be our end.  He told me that his wife, Mandy was pregnant.  That they were going to wait three months at least before the announcement as she had previously miscarried and had lost the last child.  We felt some comfort in knowing we would see our families again, even if it was to be in Heaven.

          We talked about what options our two families would have to survive.  All of our parents would be supportive enough to take them in.  I even thought that with Paula’s two degrees, she could work and Mandy could watch the kids.  Either way they would probably end up closer to family, but could become good friends as a result.  Somehow we knew that if this was God’s will; that He would provide a solution.

          “Just be quiet and rest now” I said.  We were both too tired to even talk.  “It won’t hurt, we will just go to sleep” I said to him.  He grabbed my hands and held them close to his chest.  My chest shook from a couple of silent sobs, but was covered up by the shakes.  My body was too dehydrated to shed a tear.  Tears were not necessary though for we had been given the gift of peace, and peacefully we went to sleep.

          Or so I thought. Curt stayed awake mentally enough to keep praying.
These are his words from a letter he wrote our parents:

          “That is when I began to pray.  Pray for peace; pray for help; just pray for a way out.

          Not too many people can say that they have ever had a time in their life when they knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they were going to die.  I have. We both had given in to the fact that we were going to die down there, but we may as well keep moving and going as long as we possibly could.

          If you remember, we didn’t have our packs of food, water or emergency blankets with us.  We were licking water off of rocks just to wet our throats. Yet through it all there was a peaceful feeling in my soul.

          Even when I thought we would surely die, I knew God was in control. You know the Bible says, ‘Ask, and it shall be given unto you’.  Do you know how unrealistic that is?  If you were to ask for a cheeseburger, would you get it?  Not unless you were driving to that fast food joint yourself with money in your pocket.  If we are not in the right line with God our prayers will seem to be unanswered.  So how do we get in the ‘right line’ with God?

          I found two things in the dark that made me calm. One was a story of a man at the bottom of a ladder that leads to Heaven with Jesus sitting at the top.  Jesus looks down and says, “Come to me, but you can’t use the ladder.”  The man sits down and for years does nothing, but thinks through all of the world’s knowledge of flight, religions, etc.., anything that we know on earth to try and figure out how to do this.  Finally, in utter frustration, he throws up his hands and says, “I can’t do it!”  At that very moment, Jesus reached down and said, “That’s it!” and brings him up.  The point was WE are nothing.  We are pointless.  We can’t do it.  There is no power in ourselves.  Yet, there is a power in God that can move mountains.  When we realize that it is not US showing people God that we reflect Jesus like the moon reflects the sun, only then will people be changed.  “Not by works that any man should boast…”

          The second thing that I found was this:  We don’t ask right.  Once we have given all to Jesus we then are prepared to ask.  What does the Bible say?  “Ask in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ…”  We can’t go near God.  We have no right to ask anything of God.  But through the High Priest and Mediator Jesus Christ, who we can hide behind, we can go into the Father’s presence and ask all things.

          I thought of these while in the cave that we thought was our tomb.

          Isn’t that ironic on God?  As if to say “Give it to ME and let ME show you how to get out.  That way you can glorify ME and not yourself. 

          The next time when we went to rest, for five minutes or more I kept repeating, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, show us the way out” – over and over, again and again.

          At one point, when I was praying down there, my brother said, “You realize, greater men than us have asked for a miracle and not gotten one.”  So why would God choose to hear our prayers?

          This one thing, I know:  when life has you down, think – “I am alive!”  I know I will because I have seen death and felt its talons gripping my life.  I have watched as the life drained from my body.  I once was dead, but now I am resurrected!  To what reason and for what purpose is for God to know and to reveal to me in His time.  Until then, I will tell the world of Him, and the mighty, marvelous and miraculous power of prayer.”

          Soon after, he was calling my name.  I woke and sat up in a daze.  I wasn’t sure if we were dead or alive.  We agreed to try one more, small trip into the collapse dome.  We got up, stumbled around, but couldn’t move enough to walk more than 15 to 20 feet before giving up.  We couldn’t stay alert enough to know which direction to go and were worried about looking our way even 20 feet back to our resting spot.  We were at near total mental breakdown.  We couldn’t keep a thought long enough to even complete a single sentence.  All we could do is look at each other in the dim haze of our run down LED lamps and say “what?” and “I don’t know.”  I would try to say something, but could only mumble unintelligible sounds not remembering what I intended to say.  With no mental or physical stamina we stumbled back to lie down.  This time we both slept.

          Sometime after, I heard a voice as of wind whispering my name and felt someone behind me grasping my ribs.  I could not move as I was at first frozen by fear.  I asked “What is your name and who sent you?”  What seemed to be a female voice answered “I am Wendigo and I am here to help”.  “Great,” I said and I turned to look at this gift of God. 

          When I saw her, I recognized her not by sight, but by remembrance of a prior meeting when she held me back from saving a cousin from her clutches, as a young 9 year old drowned, in a lake years earlier.

          This creature, angel or spirit, had features strange to behold.  I could see right through her and yet she was solid, made of crystal ice or glass.  The robe she wore waved as if blowing in a strong breeze, as did her hair, but the ends of her robe crinkled and crumbled, falling to the floor, although never getting any shorter.  She was cold as ice, but seemed more like clear water glass that flowed down to the floor in constant motion.  She had black eyes, but a calm face.

          Without voicing my question, she answered “Like with Jessica, I am here to ease the suffering and give Curt a peaceful death.”  “What?” I shrieked.  “Not Curt, take me instead, take both of us.  Better yet show us the way out.”  “I’m only here for Curt.  His strength is depleted,” she said.

          She had hands, but her fingers were like long shards of glass.  She put her hands through me and was reaching into Curt when I yelled “NO!”  “You will not take him without taking me.  I will not go home to give Mandy this news.”  She said, “But it is not your time.”  I grabbed her hands argued with her, wrestling her glass, knife like fingers away from Curt.  She was immovable as rock and she never lost the calmness of her voice. 

She said:     “Death is inevitable, we all die.  All that you are and all that you have done is culminated in your death.  You have been fortunate enough to have some prior warning to become more truly who you are.  If you can see death as a friendly companion on your life’s journey, you will not want to wait until tomorrow.”

I said:          “I recognize you and feel your comforting folds of friendship.  We have had many adventures together and I am better for it.  I have learned to tune out life as most know it.  I have taken further notice in the budding of spring leaves, I wonder at the beauty of the sun rising each morning and night.  Only in embracing you as my friend and companion have I learned to appreciate life.”

She said:     “Curt is coping well with his own approaching death.  You must resolve the crisis of his dying in a dignified way.”

I said:          “Curt and I have shared our “secret” fears and joys.  It is in our faith that we found something in common.  Our faith in God is the wondrous ingredient that, in sharing, gave us the realization of our own humanness.  We want to live and have something to show God, that we have not wasted our lives.  You cannot take him without explaining why.”

She said:     “Everyone must die.  The only reason it is hard to die, even when you have accepted death as reality, is because you can’t see beyond, and find it hard to give up life on earth.

I said:          I am finding difficulty coping with the fact that we are both dying and yet you are here for him and not us both.

She said:     It was your choice to take this adventure to commune with natures’ Creator.  I know you will feel insecure and alone without Curt.  Just admit that you care. You may ask why, but we don’t give answers.

I said:          Wait!  Don’t go away, all I want to know is that you will be here for me when I need you.  I am afraid. Death may be routine to you but it is new to me.  I have come close enough before to know of you but this time is unique.  I don’t want to die alone.  I don’t want either of us to die.  Give us another chance.

She said:     Everyone must die.  Human mortality cannot be denied.  Death is not the end, but a transition from your human state to another.

I said:          In faith, I know that Curt and I are ready to transcend.  It is our families with which we are concerned.

She said:     Death is the natural end of human existence.  It comes inevitably and is accepted at the decree of the Eternal and Righteous Judge.  It is the end of one stage and the beginning of another.  These last moments before death help you affirm your faith in God precisely when it is most challenged. Death’s journey is the most mysterious and unknown experience a human will experience in life.  I am only here to comfort you as you share in Curt’s vigil.

I said:          I can see Curt dying.  I can feel myself dying.  I can deal with that.  How can my family come to terms with our deaths if our bodies are never found?  It will be hard for them to accept the reality of our deaths.
                   Dying is easy, living is hard.  I am willing to take the hard road.  Let me have the opportunity to live.  Where is MY choice?  I accept God’s judgment.  I hear you speak, but why is my voice not being heard?

                   (I was fighting back the tears.  Not because I was afraid to cry, but because if I did cry, it would make death real.  I was not ready to say good-by. Death and grief can be our curse or our glory depending on how we choose to handle it.  I understood that what was happening was supposed to happen. This death angel kept reminding me of that.  Such helplessness I have never felt at any other time. When this Wendigo said again that it was Curt’s time, we both wept, Wendigo and I.
                   We kept talking, this death angel and I, we stared, we talked, and we shared. Most of all she took the time to help me though my shock and disbelief as I began the emotional acceptance of what was happening.  I had to come to grips with the reality of his death.)

I said:          When will you let Curt die?

She said:     I don’t want him to die but He has already decided.

I said:          I cannot deny God, and intellectually I understand, but emotionally I deny it.  It is tragic, horrible and unwanted.

She said:     You have been given peacefulness and comfort.  What more can be given?

I said:          I will not accept his death as justified.  I see no purpose served.  I can’t handle the guilt of his death. The shame of bringing him on my adventure, and then to have his death on my hands.  So quickly I learned to love him and want him to live, only to be faced with his death.

She said:     Only God knows why.  He is the Righteous Judge.  Experiencing this grief is wearing but it is also enriching and fulfilling.  Some of the most beautiful people are those who have suffered and known defeat. To have known loss and to have found their way out of the depths and the nooks and crannies of life’s experiences gives those people a new appreciation and understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

I said:          You speak as if I am to understand my family’s loss.  Am I now to die also?

She said:     Growth comes in many ways.  If there is love, there is love in life as well as in death.  If we choose to love, we must also have the courage to grieve.

I said:          Why him?  Why not me?

She said:     Death follows no predictable timetable, but chooses its own time and place.

I said:          I don’t understand why this is happening to me, but it is out of your comfort and your tears that I have found beauty in death.  I am just not ready to let go.  This can’t be true.  There has to be hope.  I won’t give up now.

She said:     There IS hope in Christ.  Don’t give up now.  Think of this experience and what you have gained.

I said:          Let go of me.  I can’t take this pain.  I’m tired of fighting.

She said:     If you are tired of fighting then there is no more hope, and I will have to let you go.

I said:          Not yet. I don’t want to be alone.  If it has to be his time, then don’t let him suffer. He is too young to die.

She said:     Who is to know when it is the right time to die?

I said:          I feel so angry.  For some unknown reason it is his time and not mine.  I do not know why.  I don’t want to disappoint him.  I want to be strong for him but his death is too much for me to comprehend.

She said:     Will you forge ahead?

I said:          I will do whatever I can to the best of my ability.  I will not give up.  I can accept the fact that I will die, but I cannot accept the fact that he could die at such an early age.  Even if he has accomplished his goals, I cannot let him go, even if there is not much hope.  Give me the courage and strength to make this final journey with dignity and let me try to find a way out. Dear God, please help me find the way.  (I never thought that she would show the way)

She said:     Stand up on your feet.  If you stand up on your feet, you will not fall on your face.

I said:          I can’t, I am trying to.  But my legs will not move.

She said:     Tell them to move!  Never mind the rocks and stones; I have a hold of you.  Come on Chris, you can do it.  Wake up!

She finally pulled her hands out of me and backed up. She ever so softly said over and over again as she drifted away; “Ok Chris, if you want to live, wake up. Chris, you need to wake up now. Come on, wake up,,,, wake up”,,,,,,

The helping spirit was gone, but something was tugging at my arm.  It was Curt! He was standing at my feet, pulling on my arm saying “Chris, wake up, come on, you have to wake up now.”

“I thought you were dead,” he said, as I tried to decipher dream from reality.

I stumbled to my feet as he helped steady me as my legs seemed to be made of rubber.  He said that he didn’t think we were going to wake up and we needed to move around to get our blood circulating.  Even with his concern, he had no idea just how close to death he came.

I rose to my feet and stumbled around enough to become somewhat alert, but by then we were so tired that we both just sat down.

As I sat down, there was a light bluish glow reflecting off a grey rock about twenty feet down a narrow hallway that led to the collapse dome.  Although my headlamp was on, the refection seemed to stay, even if I turned the light away.  Curt was having trouble seeing again and I told him to stay put, that I was going to check something out and would be right back.

As I headed down the hallway to the collapse dome, I knew for sure that we had tried this path at least a dozen times before, but I had never seen this rock shine blue.  The rock stood three feet tall and four foot wide, and at eight inches thick reminded me of a tombstone the way the front was shining.  All of the other rocks in the collapse dome were different shades of brown.  Even in my weak mental state, I knew this rock had not previously been there as this was the same pathway Curt and I had taken so many times to the collapse dome room and was also the path taken through the collapse dome room to the waterfall room.  We had taken this path dozens of times.  This rock that was not in my memory was now blocking the normal path as if it had fallen from the ceiling, which would not have happened as this hallway was only ten foot tall and five-six feet wide.  It could have fallen from the roof of the collapse dome and then rolled down here, but it was standing upright and was imbedded into the floor.  Out of curiosity, I tried moving it but it would not budge.  There were small rocks littered around the base as if it had always been there.  In my current mental state, I could dismiss my memory to be in error, but my mind seemed clear, and I remembered nearly every other rock and feature from our many times of passing through that hallway from the junction to explore both the collapse dome and the waterfall room.

          No matter whether the rock had been there or not, it did not explain the blue luminescent glow emitting from the rocks’ face that had first got my attention.   I got back to basics and sat down in front of this curious illuminating oddity to discover the source of the bluish haze.

          There was a coating of blue luminescent powder on the rock face.  I turned my headlamp, but it still glowed.   I rubbed the front of the rock in disbelief as the powder brushed off the rock landing on the ground.  There was not enough to pick up and save.  It just seemed to disappear.  I left some of the blue, luminescent powder on the front of the rock to show Curt to make sure I wasn’t the only one to see it and moved around to the back side to see if this bluish haze was also on the back.

          My feet rested down a small crevice, allowing me to sit in a comfortable position, as I checked the back of the rock. I found no other blue luminescent powder.  I wanted Curt to see this conundrum to hopefully raise his curiosity as it had mine.  Curiosity is also the mother of adrenaline as well as invention.  Perhaps the angel had been right and this mystery could be the awakening of our spirits that would allow us to see clearly.

          There were previously four times that I had thought we would not wake up from our rest.  I knew that if I could get Curt to move that it would be our very last chance.  I said a simple prayer for guidance.  I always say that I will try never to pray for silver or gold, but only for guidance, so that in times of need I may be found worthy of my request.  I prayed for guidance and guidance I had been given, as I would soon find out. 

          I thought of Curt’s prayers earlier and how I listened to him asking of God to open our eyes.  That we knew we were in the right place, but felt that for some reason our path had been hidden from us.  That there was nothing we ourselves could do, but with prayer for guidance, God could light the path, and show us our way home.  It is amazing just how true this proved to be.  The glowing rock that appeared out of nowhere and the angelic spirit that told me to wake up and move, that a path would be laid out for me, but most of all that we had to humble ourselves to deaths embrace in order to be given our guidance.

          As I struggled to stand up and go rouse Curt, my feet knocked loose rocks that rattled down the crevice my feet had been resting in.  Although this just looked to be a space between two large boulders, the small rocks fell out of sight.  The rock furthest from me was covering a hole that could not be seen from above, but only by sticking my head down between the two rocks that I was sitting on.  I remember coming out of the small long crawl in an upward way between two rocks, but did not realize the effect of the camouflaging, the rocks surrounding the crevice had used, to hide this exit.  The crevice between the rocks was maybe twelve inches at most, but shining my flashlight, while lying on the ground, with my head stuck down in that crack, I could see that although narrow, it did continue on.

          The small crawlway also matched my memory of the sharp angle at which we originally had entered the collapse dome. Although my mind and body were too weary to show my enthusiasm, my eyes had been opened and my heart beat out in faith and gratitude to the One true Light that granted our prayers for guidance.

           As I approached the pile of pebbles which had been our resting spot so many times before, I saw Curt, lying on his side, curled up motionless on the mound. He was shivering violently from everything; hypothermia, exhaustion, dehydration, muscle fatigue but he was alive. Curt looked at me, but was unable to speak. I leaned over and made eye contact with him and told him that I thought I had found our path. He may have felt hope for me, but he told me later as he warmed up that he thought his time had come.

          I was warmed up from my activity and curled around him to try to warm him back to full consciousness. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be able to rouse him. The angel had given us another chance, but I had gone on alone. I couldn’t help but to think of “sweater man” in another upper part of the main cave. There was a ledge that was very difficult to reach, but on this ledge there were what appeared to be the remains of a man.  Nothing but a pile of calcium dust and an empty sweater. I wondered what our bodies would look like, frozen in time, holding one another as we tried to stay warm, most likely never to be found.  I made sure to stay awake as I let his body absorb my extra heat. I whispered enthusiasm and faith and hope into his ear as he slowly became more alert. There were no great words of courage emitting from my mouth. No military-like pitches of “On your feet soldier” or “LET’S MOVE”.  Just the quiet calming effect given by the Holy Spirit and the sentence that I could not keep my mind, soul and tongue from proclaiming. “Trust in the Lord, always, and lean not unto your own understanding. Acknowledge Him in all your ways, and He shall direct your path.”

          There was no doubt in my mind that this path was given to us in a supernatural way. My only doubt was as to whether this path that God had given to us was to lead us to freedom from the cave as an exit, or as a path to our final resting place. Either way we were at peace knowing that since we had no energy to walk twenty feet, let alone a two mile crawl, that we were held in the comfort of our Creator’s hands and we would follow the guidance He had given.

          There are no words that could begin to describe the peace that we felt, wrapped up, totally encompassed by the Holy Spirit. I asked Curt again if he could also feel the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit. He said “Yes, totally”.  Silently I tried to deal with the guilt that I may still be walking my brother to his final resting place. God’s will or not, I still felt responsible for this adventure.

          Our last conversation before leaving our resting spot in this junction room for the final time was of our new understanding of the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says the fruits are “Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faith, Gentleness and Self control. Each one of these “fruits” is so similar that it can be difficult to tell the difference, but we could understand now that each one, while similar, represented emotions and feelings distinctly different from the other.  It made sense now why the Bible broke it down individually.

LOVE:        We learned that beyond the love for our wives and our children, there was love for our Heavenly Father and a brotherly love that I know I had never experienced before.

JOY:           There is joy in salvation, there was joy in our memories of our children’s innocent faces and even joy in knowing and accepting death as the end of our adventure. Joy unspeakable.

PEACE:      Peace was the most predominate fruit we experienced as all worries were placed in the Father’s hands, knowing that no matter the outcome, He would stay with us and our families as we were locked into His will.
PATIENCE:         We learned patience as we waited to die each time we had exhausted all hope and energy. We learned to be patient in faith that God would give us guidance, even while running into so many dead ends.

KINDNESS: I will never forget the kindness my brother showed me as he continually placed no blame on me when I expressed my guilt for taking him on an adventure that would end in his death as we both believed to be the case, time after time.

GOODNESS: No matter what they were, our past sins were forgiven, and we felt whole. Goodness was of a giving perspective also as we gave each other comfort each time death approached us. The goodness of our souls, cleansed by salvation, and the goodness that we knew would give our families peace if we did not survive gave us relief if we did not survive.

FAITH:       We never lost faith in God, even as we gave up on life so many times. It was in faith alone that we entrusted God to be the only answer in our quest for a path out. I faith alone we knew that God’s will would be done and our families would be protected, no matter the outcome.

GENTLENESS:   Although every inch of our bodies were in pain, there was gentleness like a cushion given each time we laid down. It was as if in resting the rocks would form to our bodies shape, giving us temporary ease of pain. I was amazed at the gentleness of my brother’s spirit as he held on to my arm and held it close as we rested. That gentle touch, I needed to know that he did not blame me. He trusted me as much as a lamb unto the slaughter.

SELF CONTROL:         We never lost ourselves mentally to fear or panic. We were never even emotional. We were never overcome by a selfish desire to live. We were given self control over our physical capabilities to continue each time, to get up once more, and take another path and try again.

          With these “fruits” we rose from our resting place at the junction with our eyes opened and tried once more. This time with the knowledge that even not knowing the outcome, this path was our final answer to our prayers for guidance. Once again I led my brother on another path. The difference this time?  The path was not my own, but was guidance from my normal caving partner.  I showed Curt what was shown to me. He to saw the blue luminescence on the rock and rubbed it in amazement.  I showed him the small crevice that was so easily overlooked as the small pebbles between looked just like floor ruble and the path could only be shown to him by putting my arm underneath the second rock. Curt was still weak as sat leaning against the glowing rock. I offered to check the path on my own first to let him rest for a few minutes

Entering this crevice was a difficult task. The crevice was no more than twelve inches wide and no more than 18 inches deep before turning 90 degrees back to a horizontal tube. To enter, I first sat on the first rock with my feet in the hole as I had before, Then I had to cross my feet so that I could hold myself up with my hands, cross my legs Indian style and lower myself until my knees touched bottom. Then I moved my knees forward as I lowered my butt to the floor. I sat there for a moment with only my shoulders and head exposed. I rested my arms, crossed over the rock in front of me and told Curt to pray that this would be the path. Knowing that Curt was silently praying, I stretched my legs out straight and turned my toes upright to check the height. Unfortunately my toes touched the top. I put my feet back sideways and wriggled myself down, turning my head sideways to allow space to make the sharp turn.

I just laid there for a while looking up through the crack into the collapse dome. I said a silent prayer of “Please Lord, let this be the right path.” As I thought this prayer, I felt a long smooth breeze drift from my head to my toes as if the mountain itself had breathed a deep sigh of relief. This was all the encouragement I needed as even the mountain now seemed to breathe again as if back to life. A mountain does breathe in and out, regulating temperature, and it’s breathe flows from its mouth.

I started down at a slight incline almost 50 feet before I reached an area that I could finally sit up in a stooped over position to rest. This path seemed so right in faith and in memory but I still wanted to make sure before calling Curt. I looked up to see if further travel would require another belly crawl and my headlamp lit up a bright white arrow on the opposite wall just a few feet away!

          Looking at this arrow in disbelief, I quickly thanked the Lord for His guidance. There it was, a bright whit arrow, painted on the wall pointing towards the collapse dome. I nearly burst as I shouted “Halleluiah”. I don’t think I have ever shouted that before but it busted out in joyful praise. I thanked the Lord again over and over as I crawled back to Curt saying again and again “To You be all glory honor and praise” for I had not found this path; it had been given to us. I felt physically born again my body and mind flowed with adrenaline as I headed back to the collapse dome. I still felt rushed with Curt and hoped I would not see death’s angel around Curt again.  It was too far to yell so I made my way back up to Curt to tell him of the good news and that our prayers had been answered.

          When I reached the small crack entrance to the collapse dome I told Curt that I had found the way out. He was still too weak and he asked me if I was sure. I told him to praise the Lord; I had seen an arrow and felt the mountain’s breath so “Come on”.  After Curt began to move forward towards me I took one last look at the bluish rock, looked towards the dark hallway as said a silent “Thank you to the Wendigo, the helping spirit, and headed back down to the arrow to wait for Curt.  He yelled down asking how far I was and to wait on him. I said that it was not far and to hurry up so I could show him the arrow.

          When he reached the arrow his tired daze turned to bright eyed hope. Looking back, I was easy to see how we entered the collapse dome and went straight through the hallway to the junction room and how near impossible it would have been to have found the crevice we had come out of. To me the hallway, at first, seemed to be a continuation of the long tunnel. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t just turn back around and go back the way I had come.  With renewed bodies and minds, we began the narrow crawl back.

          It had not been more than twenty feet of crawling on our hands and knees that the mountain reminded us of our injuries, sore muscles and sore bones.  With two miles to go we were already needing to stop and rest.  Curt asked if we were going to make it. I told him that we had miles to go and promises to keep, that I knew we could make it, even if it was one inch at a time.  I told him not to think of the pain or the distance, to only think of proceeding one inch at a time.  We had too much to loose by giving up.  We could rest after each inch or foot if necessary, but if we would persist, we would succeed.  We could not let failure and doubt enter our minds.  All we could do was pray for the strength to make the next movement and take the guidance that had been given to us. 

          For about 100 yards, the roof was three to four feet tall and we found that we could scoot forward in a sitting position using our hands and feet to move and receiving the benefit of sitting as we moved.  It was not long though that we began to remember more vividly “the devil’s crawl” as the path’s ceiling lowered and did not raise more than twelve to eighteen inches at the most.

          We moved ahead switching from our bellies to our backs as the pain would become unbearable.  I       looked back at Curt as we began squeezing through passage sections too tight to breathe freely and said “What were we thinking?”

          Our lungs were so full of fluid from the humid air we had been breathing for so long, that the narrow squeezes seemed impassible.  If we had not been 100% sure that this was our path we would not have even tried to risk such narrow crawls, especially now that we were injured.  It was the same as on the way in.  The path would have several hundred yards of spots so narrow that our heads and our feet had to remain in a sideways position.  In these spots we developed a system of helping each other.  The path was smooth, top and bottom, but varied in an inch here or there.  I was leading and would scoot from left to right, sometimes zigzagging from side to side to move forward.  The path varied from two-four feet wide. There was nothing to grab a hold of with my fingers so I had to pull forward an inch at a time with my forearms.

          I could barely breathe and my feet would flail out in vain, gaining no advantage.  This is where Curt grabbed my feet with his hands, giving me the leverage I needed to move forward to breathe.  We were too weak to keep moving further on our own, so our system was in helping each other, inch by inch, by inch.  Curt would hold my feet and I would pull forward with my forearms using his hands as leverage until my legs were straight. Then Curt would grab a hold onto the top of my boots and I would use my legs to pull him forward.  Then we would repeat the process, over and over giving each other help with each inch of the way.

Whenever the opportunity came, we would turn our heads to face the opposite direction to ease the stiffness and claustrophobic feeling of not being able to turn our heads.  If we could reach a spot where we could breathe freely, we would rest. We never stopped to sleep and never rested long before one of us would say that we needed to keep moving. We both knew we had a long way to go.

Near the halfway point, the roof opened up to two or three feet and after a few unrestrained breaths we would travel through these areas on our backs.  Our clothes were soaked with sweat and clay and were stretched out and ripped from the narrow places.  Such a grand adventure on the way in.  Such a torturous crawl on the way out.  Even knowing we were on the right path it was of great comfort reaching a point where we could sit up to rest and see the old bottle of spray paint we had found on the way in.  Not much was said as we proceeded on, I just kept saying occasionally, “This is it Curt.  We are going to make it!”

          “We are going to make it” became a statement of hope more than a statement of fact a the pathways seemed to stay so narrow that breathing was constricted more often than not and moving forward was done only in the faith that we had passed this way before, for the path that we were in and the path that lay ahead seemed impassable.  Hours passed as we proceeded inches at a time.  Our minds began to cloud over in the mists of exhaustion.  If the path would have been more than a few feet wide or had any forks I don’t think we would have made it.  I could not concentrate on the paths as a whole, but could only see the path in inches and feet.  Inches and feet needed to move forward so that we could reach a spot open enough to breathe at least a half breath and occasionally a beautiful full breath of air.

          It became morning on night, I couldn’t tell which one, but I could tell the change in time by the bats which began to stream around us.  Most of the bats would recognize us as an obstacle but there was the occasional bat following the lead of another, not paying attention that would smack into my face before realizing something new was blocking the path. I was in the lead and I could see a swarm of bats coming blindly at us, but all Curt could rely on was my voice saying “duck”.  The bats were fast enough to move around me, but not effecting a second obstacle would crash into Curt.  This became comical after a while and I stopped saying “duck!” to Curt unless it was after the bats had already crashed into him.  Like before, the passages were at points so tight that there was no where for the bats to fly an after landing on my face, or shoulders, they would crawl over us as we traveled in our separate directions.

          Soon, we began to hear water and knew it to be the small water chasm about a quarter of the way from the entrance to this “Devil’s Crawl.”  I suggested that we rest and fill up on water before moving on.  We were so tired, but were filled with such hope as we knew that we were getting closer to the exit.  Although we felt rejuvenated, this section had a fork and we double and triple checked our memory as to the correct path.  Our minds were alert enough to know for sure the right path, but we did not feel comfortable in proceeding without double checking our memories.  Our bodies could not withstand any more misadventure.

          With our thirst quenched for the moment, we were anxious to move on.  The last quarter of the path was the toughest part as rocks jutted out in every direction in paths that were already twelve to eighteen inches tall and we made our way by slithering as snakes through this maze. 

          With great relief we reached the gypsum chamber, soft and pleasant to sit and rest in, not just physically, but mentally as we knew now for sure we had escaped the Devil’s Crawl.  We rested against the soft clay walls for quite a while thinking about how fortunate we were to be alive.  We wondered as to how long we had been lost.  Curt thought one to two days; I thought three to four days.  With more experience, I knew most that time is irrelevant in the cave.  Either way we knew that our families were most definitely worried by now.  We did feel rushed to get home, but still rested for a good thirty minutes before emerging from our long crawl.  Being men, we imagined a tearful and heartfelt reunion from our worried wives.  Realistically, we hoped they would not be mad at us for our late return.  We figured they would be either mad or glad since they would not have undergone the emotional trauma that we had gone through.  We decided that if they met as with great worry and relief as they were worried of our loss, we would tell them of our worry also, without too much detail and enjoy the hugs and love felt of a heartfelt return home.

          If they were mad, then as men we did not want to go into detail of our emotional death trial just to feel humiliated.  I didn’t think so but as Curt had said, it could possibly only have been two days; the physical exertion could have made it seem longer.  If this was the case then to Paula it would have seemed normal and if they showed no worry then we wouldn’t tell of our secret trials.
          We gathered our gear with candles blazing light and heat warming us in this soft chamber.  It was such a pleasure to be able to sit up and rest, especially knowing that we were well on our way to the cave entrance.
          While preparing to leave Curt reached for my Bowie knife that was suppose to be on his belt.  It is one of my favorite knives and accompanies me on all my caving trips.  While pressing through the narrow crawls the latch had broke on the sheath.  Curt and I took turns carrying it on our belts while we took turns exploring tunnels, so that it would not get lost.  Of course, when Curt reached for my $100 knife, it was not there.  He asked if I wanted to go back and try to find it and I replied, “Are you crazy?”  The chances of finding it are slim to none and we were too weak to make any more side trips.  I said I would come back for it in a couple weeks when our wounds were healed.  It would be like finding a needle in a haystack but I love my knife.  (P.S. I found it 2 weeks later about half way back in the crawl.)

          I checked the watch in my bag.  It said it was 8:30.  I did not know if it was a.m. or p.m., or what day.
          This and more being said, we headed on out of the gypsum room to the entrance of the “Devil’s Crawl”, we looked again at the warning written in blood red paint of what Satan would do to us and gave praise for our Salvation now felt physically as well as spiritually.  “We still have a long way to go” I said to Curt.
          I thought back to the beginning of our great adventures, and of promising Mandy that I would bring Curt home safe.  I felt a sense of relief as I now know this was possible.  I was twice as glad thinking how close I came to giving her bad news that now would not happen.  We would make it out of this cave, up the steep mountain and back home.  Curt and I gathered our packs and began our path out through the familiar parts of “my” cave.  We had not gone far when I realized that our minds were not fully clear.  We had traveled in a circle and come back across the entrance to the “Devil’s Craw”.  At that time I was convinced with my familiarity of the Cave and at first dismissed it as if we had exited early and had taken a shortcut.  We sat down again to reflect on the entrance and the red blood warning just inside when we realized we had come full circle wasting energy. 

This may have been a good thing though because it made us realize that we were not as mentally alert as we thought we were.  This also worried us as to our physical condition and the difficult path that lay ahead of us.  We thought it could be dehydration, but we only knew that we had better move on before the mountain took a hold of us again.  I took the lead and we proceeded slowly.  There were many forks in the paths and although I normally knew this cave like the back of my hand, each fork was met with a mental challenge as all were familiar.  I had almost every rock in this main part of the cave memorized by sight or feel but I had to concentrate on every step, every rock, and every feature to try and remember the correct path.  I apologized to Curt for going so slow but it was necessary to proceed one step at a time, with extra thought in order to stay on track.  We made good progress to the large cantilever breakdown that meant we had made it halfway out with only a couple of backtracks.
          We took one more short break to watch the continual rainfall as we had on the way in.  There was fresh water at the bottom.  I would normally not hesitate in attempting the steep slope down and back, but I didn’t trust our physical condition any more than our mental condition.  Plus, as thirsty as we were, the fresh natural springs near the entrance would entice us to keep moving; and keep moving we did.

          The springs flowed from rocks close enough to the entrance of the cave that the air had warmed up to 60 degrees and we sank our faces into the cold water and filled our empty, dehydrated bodies with fresh, pure spring water.  Soon after we were at the entrance of the cave, the bright morning sun blinded us with its gentle warming rays.  With our deluded minds, we were glad that it was 10:30 a.m. and not 10:30 p.m. as losing our way in the words was something I knew we didn’t want to face physically, let alone mentally.  Now the mountain climb stood as an opposing giant in the path to my truck in the sky, 800 feet up, up, up.
Up we began.  I grabbed the heavy pack and gave Curt the lighter one and we exited the mountains mouth born once again.  About 50 feet up we were already convincing our legs that they were to carry all our burden when we stopped, and turned around to look at the beautiful “exit” of the cave and although nothing was said aloud, I know that we both thanked God for his guidance and I felt a huge sense of gratitude for the direction we had been given and felt humbled as to how it had been received.  “To you be all glory, honor, and praise” I silently said.  “Let them not see me lest I should boast for it was not my credit to be taken.”  I missed the comforting folds of the death angel and yet felt as if I would bust from gratitude that of all people who did not emerge from their death beds that morning, I was given the gift of another day.  And this day would be the greatest day of my life.  I would not take the mornings light for granted any more and would greet each new morning with thankfulness and gratitude as I was given the gift of a new day when so many greater that I, did not wake up this day.  Each day I am given, I will try to make the greatest day of my life.

          I turned back and looked up the steep climb to see Curt 20 foot up clinging to a tree as he rested waiting for me.  This was to be how we both proceeded, a few climbing steps to reach a tree that was also clinging to the side of the mountain to hold us up as we rested more frequently then we wanted.  There’s really no need to mention how many times we lost our footing and would tumble back down until a tree would lend a hand in stopping our fall.  The sun warmed us and our blood flowed and injuries pulsated with pain.  It was mentally that we conquered the climb for physically our bodies did not want to follow directions.  I was amazed at Curt as he took the lead.  I had trouble keeping up even after we switched packs so I would have the lighter one.  Curt even took on the extra weight of both mag lights and batteries and I still was always 20 feet down from him.  About an hour later we had reached the top and the truck.

          When we finally reached the truck we quickly threw our packs and equipment in the back grateful beyond any measure that the truck would carry us and our burdens home.  We got in the truck and before I turned the key I looked at Curt and smiled and said, “Watch it not start now”.   I turned the key as he said that wasn’t even funny.  We sank into the soft seats as the truck pulled out of the woods onto the small gravel road that would lead us along the ridge of the mountains top to a long narrow road that I would have to ride the brake all the way down two to three          miles to reach the road that would take us home.

          About 5 miles up the road was a small country gas station.  We wanted to hurry home but wanted to know what day it was and needed some caffeine.  We parked right in the middle of the lot.  I don’t think it was a parking spot.  Everyone pumping gas looked at us like we were going to rob the place as we screeched to a halt and burst out of the truck as we rushed for the door.

          No one answered as we rushed for the door asking, “What day is it?”  “What day is it?”  We didn’t stop to think or realize how bad we looked, covered in water and clay, bruised and scratched all over as we only received blank stares.  There was a newspaper stand and as I headed for the door I told Curt to go look at the paper and see what day it was.  Curt nearly pressed his nose on the glass as he said that he couldn’t tell that everything was still too blurry to read anything.  I looked from Curt to a young, blond haired boy trying to sneak past me to the door.  His eyes were wide with fear as I said “Hey!”  He tried to run for the door, but I grabbed the door handle first and asked him what day it was.  He said it was the 19th.  I said, “No, What Day?  Saturday, Sunday, Monday?”  The boy said it was Sunday as he squeezed past me and hurried into the store.  I told Curt to come on as we rushed into the store and back to the sodas.

Everyone looked at us like we were madmen.  We didn’t even realize or care why.  Curt grabbed a Mountain Dew and I grabbed a Pepsi, and we were gulping them down immediately.  We walked through the store bent over close to the racks, as if half blind.  Such sweet pleasures.  We filled our arms with the packages of small chocolate and powder coated doughnuts, candy bars, anything that looked good.  We headed towards the counter to pay and everyone in the store was watching us as if bewildered.  I remembered thinking “What’s their problem” as they all separated and backed out of line. We put all of our pleasures on the counter in a pile.  The lady said nothing as she quickly rang everything up.  “Curt”, I said.  “Look, homemade jam.”  There was a rack of jams and pastries on a wooden rack by the counter.  I needed that jam.  “We gotta get some of these,” I said.  Man, Country homemade raspberry and blackberry jam with seeds.  I put one of each on the counter.  The jam was very reasonable at two something a quart and two minutes and $35.00 later we were in the truck absorbing the sweet pleasures as if we had eaten dirt all our lives.  Several calories later, I looked at Curt and was like “Man, no wonder they were looking at you crazy, you look like crap.  You look like a crazy cave man.”  He muttered something undetectable as his dirt and clay covered hands shoved powdered doughnuts into his clay covered face.  I think it was something like “Look in the mirror fool.”  We had a good laugh, spitting food crumbs and then stopping from the pain of our injuries.  How much more joyful could life be.  So much that we take for granted.

          Time wise, we would get home about 12:15.  We wondered if they would be at church.  We imagined showing up at church right at alter call, both our wives up front praying for our safe return and we could walk up and put our hands on their shoulders.  Talk about an answer to prayer!!  But we knew that if we went home their prayers would be answered at the door when we got home or when they got home from church either way.

          When we pulled into the driveway, both vehicles were there and we almost burst into tears of joy as we imagined the front door flying open and our families piling out to smother us with a warm welcome home.  We sat in the driveway waiting for about five minutes and nothing happened.

          Curt and I sat in the truck relieved to be home and expected the front door to fly open at any moment.  After about five minutes we decided to keep our struggle a secret and just go in since no one was worried enough to come to the door or window.  Surely someone had heard us pull up.  Maybe we would be in trouble for ruining everyone else’s weekend.  With this in mind, we went up to the front door and started to go in.  Our wife’s came down and asked if we were ok. Then she told us to come in through the garage so we didn’t get the entryway dirty, to come in through the garage.  We were met at the garage door with a pair of clean shorts for each of us so we could strip our clay caked clothes off in the garage.  Then, the garage door closed and Curt and I looked at each other somewhat puzzled.  “I guess it will be our secret,” I said.  “There’s no reason to worry them.”  “If we do, then they might not let us go next time.  Let’s just play it by ear.”

          As we took our clothes off Curt laughed and pointed at my jeans.  The rear end had totally ripped out and I didn’t even know.  That probably was one reason people at the gas station were staring.  It’s a good thing we didn’t meet them at church with my butt hanging out.

          Our wives now greeted us with questioning faces.  Questions were asked like “Did you have a good time?”  “Did you get lost?”  “Do you realize how long you were gone?”  I answered the questions with “Let’s just say we had good adventure caving.”  All said and done, Curt and I just wanted a nice warm bath or shower.  Except for the fact that we had ruined all other plans for the weekend, it was only Sunday after noon and was not any longer than some of my caving adventures.  Maybe our wives weren’t worried.

          Curt went with Mandy and Paula came into our room and asked me if we got lost in the woods or what.  She told me that Mandy had begun to worry late Saturday night and that she, herself, also was worried, but played it off as normal.  When we still weren’t there Sunday morning, Paula had explained to Mandy how sometimes if it is night time I would wait until sunup before heading back as it is easy to get lost in the woods.  If this was the case, we should get home by 9:00 a.m.  When 9:30 and 10:00 came around, Paula said she called my friend John and asked if he could find the cave using his G.P.S. and the coordinates I had left her.  She told Mandy that if we were not back by 12:00, she would call the emergency numbers I had left for her.  At 12:00 they gave us 30 more minutes and we made it home before 12:30!  Paula said she would have come after me herself no matter how long it took.  I was a little surprised as I could imagine her outside the cave, but not inside the cave.  I felt blessed that she would be willing to risk something so unknown to find me.  She said that she wanted to at least see if my truck was there.  That way she would at least know we were still there.  I realized how hard it would be to accept our deaths if there were no bodies to be found.  Both our wives lovingly ran a warm bath for us.  Curt was in the guest bath and me in our bedroom, master bath.  Paula sat on the edge of the bath and I kept no secrets.  I summed it up with “We got lost and I didn’t think we were going to make it.”

          I am convinced that my experiences with the reality of death have enriched my life more than any other experiences I have had.  Facing death means facing the ultimate question of the meaning of life.  If we really want to live, we must have the courage to recognize that life is ultimately very short and that everything we do counts.  When it is the evening of our life, we will hopefully have a chance to look back and say that our lives were worthwhile because we have really lived.

P.S. When I went back to the cave to get my knife the red blood words of warning were not on the wall and there was no trace of the words at all.

          Death is no longer just a word, it is an experience which I felt as I lay by and hurt and agonized as Curt was engaged in the act of dying.  I felt the pain, the frustration, the fear and the anxiety.  I felt my soul bared as it had never been before.  Surely those were by far the most emotion filled moments of my life.  I shall be richer all my life for this sorrow.  In what way will I live my life.

          Death is my companion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Very thoughtful and well-written. Thank you.