Being completely sound of mind – or maybe not – I offered little resistance when some recent acquaintances led me into a cave with a plan of leaving me alone inside it briefly to prove just how dark a cave can be.
It was the first week of the first of four summers working for the Highland County Engineer’s Office. I was part of a bridge crew and since it was raining that day there was little work we could do. So, since infamous “Eighth Cave” on Cave Road, close to the former Seven Caves, was nearby, we headed that way.
I had little experience with caves at the time – other than once getting stranded with my parents and siblings in Mammoth Cave when the lights went out during a storm. But these new acquaintances had presented me with a challenge, and being the new kid on the crew, I was not about to let them know I was more than a little apprehensive. So I took the challenge.
Since we were employed at the same place, I was relatively certain that they would not leave me alone in a cave for too long, but I was also not certain how long too long was. And – I wondered in the back of mind – what kind of bats or other creatues might be lurking in the cave.
Anyway, the guys lit a torch, led me back into the cave far enough that there was no natural light, then turned their backs to me and said they would be back shortly. It was a surreal experience for a kid just out of high school. And, for the record, if someone ever says you can’t see a hand directly in front of your face in the darkness of a cave, believe them.
So, as the light from the torch faded away, there I stood, all alone in strange surroundings, waving a hand in front of my face, not able to see a single thing, hearing unfamiliar noises, and wondering how long I was going to be standing there.
As things turned out, the guys returned sooner than I expected, and that eclectic group of characters became the most memorable bunch I have ever had the privilege to work with.
What I had no way of knowing at the time was how large a part the caves on Cave Road would play in my life over the next several years.
Having several other adventurous friends at the time, we made a few trips to the “Eighth Cave” that same summer. The first couple times we ventured back into the cave as far as we thought we could safely go. It had a few “rooms,” each connected by a more narrow passage in between them. Then as far as I ever ventured into the cave, it headed up an narrow incline, cut sharply to the left on a decline, and became too narrow to proceed further.
Once, some friends I was with decided to explore some offshoots in the cave. We did not have much in terms of lights, and I was not in agreement with exploring extremely narrow tunnels. But they took off on their bellies into one with the only lights we had, and I had little option but to follow, unless I wanted to be left in the dark again. There were three or four of us in the line and I cannot explain how relieved I was when the guy in the lead finally said he could go no further and we had to back out of the tunnel and out of the cave, since there were no other openings large enough to explore.
Less than two years later I found myself visiting Cave Road again. I met this guy at college and in the blink of an eye we became fast friends. As it happened, at the same time I met him, his family was in the process of buying and moving to The Seven Caves.
Over the next few months and years we explored every nook and cranny The Seven Caves had to offer, and visited the “Eighth Cave” now and then, too.
Before long, The Seven Caves became like a second home. We took walks through the caves in the middle of the night, walks in all seasons, walks in the daytime with family, walks with friends, and walks with people I barely knew. I even worked at the caves for a few months.
As the years passed, the trips into the caves became less frequent, but that only made them more special.
Just like the twists and turns in a cave, you never know where the paths of life will lead.
The Seven Caves are part of a nature sanctuary now, and the laughter and happiness that used to echo through them are a thing of the past. That’s a shame.
But the adventures and the time shared in and around them linger in a place in my mind reserved only for the most treasured memories.
And to think it all started with a dare and some guys with a makeshift torch.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.