Who is Don Cuevas?

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My blog name has nothing to do with my history of underground activity. It's a quirk of geographic coincidence.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Adventure Begins

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building.  
Around you is a forest.  A small stream flows out of the building and 
down a gully.”— From the early computer game, Adventure, by Will Crowther and successors.

From 1957 to 1995, I was a caver. (“Caver” is the preferred word for someone who explores caves for sport or recreation. “Spelunker” is a jocular term and is less accepted.) Now I look back with fond memories of some of the great adventures in which we participated, while increasingly convinced that we must have been insane.

I picked up the bug as a freshman in high school, when I read “The Caves Beyond”, by Lawrence and Brucker. I was amazed at the intricacies of the nucleus cavern of what was later to become The Longest Cave. It’s an understatement to say that I was totally naïve as to what was really involved in caving. When you read the following, you may wonder why any sane person would engage in such an activity. As compelled as I was by the sport, I also now wonder at our sanity.

The naïve 17 year old freshman caver had a dreamy sort of concept, something like wandering about in labyrinthine* tunnels and grand chambers, with an occasional crawlway or a bit of a pitch to liven things up. Give us a squeeze, love. Through the Keyhole. It's fun! Oh, maybe there was some dirt involved. It would be like playing in the dirt when you were a kid. That’s it.

When our family moved to Missouri from Connecticut, I was in heaven, so I first thought.

The first Missouri cave I visited was down in a sinkhole in Jefferson County, a climbable descent that led to a mudbank flanked stream passage with a small maze of crawl ways networking above the banks. For some strange reason, we always visited this cave at night, and once emerged, soaking wet on a New Year’s Day at 1:00 a.m. Our sodden, muddy clothes froze as we shed them, and we hurried to change into dry ones. Great group fun! It built warm feelings of camaraderie.

On an overnight trip to Gasconade County, I was introduced to the Central Missouri caves’ characteristic red clay banks, some of the slipperiest, most viscous, clinging and staining muck imaginable. There was also some stream passage with waist-deep water, underlain by boot-sucking red clay. The reward for these exercises in discomfort was a room decorated with petal-like spathite speleothems (cave formations). The truth is that I gave up in tired disgust before reaching the prize.

As experiences grew, I was privileged to visit Missouri’s longest, Carroll Cave. It is a huge tunnel of several miles in aggregate length, but characteristically, lined with the worst red clay banks imaginable as well as seemingly interminably dreary river passage. There is a fiercely disgusting sucking sound ones’ boots make as they attempt to negotiate the exhausting banks of clay. 

The rewards are some very fine areas of speleothems and a brief view of a thundering waterfall, part of a separate drainage system. There’s also potential hypothermia, exhaustion, mud and leg cramps.

Back then, Arkansas was across the frontier. It was "The Land of Opportunity". The roads were not as well developed as those in Missouri, and little was known about the caves, other than “Half Mile Cave”, later to be developed as Blanchard Springs Cavers, and especially, Fitton, or “Beauty” Cave, located in the rugged mesa topped mountains in the drainage of the Buffalo River Country.

My first visit to Fitton Cave, about 1963, ws what we called a "bop" or "tourist" trip, involving no original exploration, yet it pushed risk taking through sketchy maneuvers to a new level of imprudency. A group of friends from Missouri U. at Columbia and I made a slippery, bald-tired, rusting wreck of a drive two days, to the area around Harrison, Arkansas. There I also discovered the joys of cheap, all-you-can-eat buffets and continued my education in all night cafes. Signature dish: Southern Comfort: Country Sausage Gravy.

Our group was heavly laden with basic underground camping gear, some of it in laundry bags and my buddy Ed’s gear in a folding suit carrier. Our rations included glass jars of peanut butter and grape jelly.

The unsavory maneuvers included chimneying up and down in sinuous, increasingly deeper canyons, with tension growing as we negotiated our way across the lacy ledges that rimmed the rooftop of the Round Room, a large central dome-pit about 80 feet high. Beyond that we haltingly advanced by means of incredibly thin chert ledges, supported in some cases by spindly stalks of remnant rock.

Some of my companions must have thought they were immortal, but I didn’t hew to that belief. I was terrified.
Then came an 80 foot descent, interrupted by intermittent paralysis, by chimneying and leaping from one sloping ledge to another, until we at least reached the level, more or less, of the floor of the Round Room.

But the risky business was not over. A series of broad and often awkward “Jumps” over an incised stream canyon were necessary to reach our snug encampment under the overhanging walls of the Round Room. Not bad going upstream, but exceedingly awkward and requiring agile leaps of faith when going in the downstream direction. A total of 21 Jumps; a few, benign and easy, many challenging, a couple totally and absurdly difficult. (Stand on sand and gravelly edge, reach forward in ceiling channel as far as possible across the gap; kick leg high while propelling ones' body forward, and slightly upward. I took the Chicken Route and walked through the stream 12 feet below, rather than make a few of the leaps.

That was just the entrance route to miles of far larger, grander, more complex series of passages and large rooms. There were many rewarding areas to see and to photograph. Although often stretched beyond my limits, and terrified at intervals, I had a great time. From that visit, I knew then that some Arkansas caves were special, and there it was that I wanted to concentrate my explorations.

Later, there was Ennis Cave. That story coming soon.

*I was quickly enamored of the word, "Labyrinthine" and so it is, to this day. "Labyrinthine". Roll that exquisite word about in your mouth.

NOTE: Comments are now open. Owner moderation and Word Verification are ON in order to limit Spam, Vienna Sausages, and especially, Potted Meat Food Product. (Cavers will understand this.)


Michael Dickson said...

What an odd side trip, señor.

Don Cuevas said...

Felipe, congratulations on being the first to comment.

Yes, it may seem a bit odd. Bit I hope to explore the irrational of caving through this memoir.

It was a very important part of my life for over 30 years.

Don Cuevas

GlorV1 said...

Wow! You had me there in that last cave. I sure did feel the fear in those last few paragraphs. You have led a very daring and exiting life and somewhat scary as well. Congratulations on your survival. Good luck on your new blog. I'll visit from time to time and of course I will add my face to let you know that I'll be here from time to time. Thanks for the intro to cavelife 101.
Take care.

Rafael (Ralph) said...

Don, are there any caves in the area of Michoacan to your knowledge? Maybe some hidden Indian treasure...

Don Cuevas said...

Hi, Gloria.
As this blog is a work in progress, there may be adjunct material, such as "Caving clothes and equipment back then." and "What cavers ate underground. Ugh!"

Hint. Note the comments about Spam, etc. in the comment header.

Don Cuevas

Don Cuevas said...

Ralph, according to native legend, all caves are connected*, and run for many kilometers, connecting one pueblo with another. The passages were used by escaping Purhépecha kings and their queens and princesses, and they hid massive amounts of jade encrusted gold ornaments from the Conquistadores.

It is rumored that there's an underground river under the Bodega Aurrerá supermercado in Pátzcuaro, but is inaccessible now, as so much nasty sewage flows through it.

The other problem is that when the Volcán Paricutín erupted, it effectively sealed the entrances with heaps of ash and lava. Even if you could enter, you'd have to wade through deep pools of bull $hit, such as here, to enter them.

Please feel free to ask me any question. I'll do my best to answer them. However, there are some mysteries even Don Cuevas can't answer.

Don Cuevas

*To Meramec Caverns, Stanton, Missouri, for one.

The Last Quarter said...

What a fascinating story. I look forward to more. I remember Jacob's Cave near Versailles (you, of course, know the correct, non-French pronunciation). Our visit there vastly impressed my 10 year-old self. Thanks.