Dear newcomers to my blog,
Driving the Camel is a memoir that I am publishing as a serial in this blog. It follows my adventures as a child life specialist during a transformative year of my life when I battled breast cancer and travelled the world. It includes reflections on my past work as a child life specialist, my personal life and stories of the wonderful people I met on my travels.
One morning mid week, I was struggling to figure out the electronics of the kitchen stove. The electric teakettle was easy, but I couldn’t figure out the touch buttons on the range to save my life. I reached for a book of manuals that Marianne kept amongst the recipe books. As I opened it, a small slip of paper floated to the floor.
It said simply, “For cave tours, call Garth” with his number scribbled in pencil.
“This is no accident,” I told myself. I had always loved caves, at least from the standpoint of a visit to a tourist trap in Bermuda when I was 11 years old.
I dialed the number and was greeted by a robust voice,.
I told him that I was interested in touring a cave.
“Well, I haven’t done THAT in a long while!” he said. “What is your level of expertise?”
“None,” I replied.
“What equipment do you have?”
“What do you want to see?”
“I want to see pretty things in nature.”
“Well, honey, there is nothing pretty to see in any cave.”
I told him that I still wanted to do it and asked if he would be willing to take me. He agreed and we set a time for the following day, arranging to meet at a coffee shop in the nearby town. When I hung up the phone, doubts surfaced. This was not the professional touring outfit I had expected. What if he was an axe-murdering rapist? I was going into a cave with this unknown man. Where were my street smarts?
“Do you think I’m crazy?” I asked Mark during our daily video chat the next morning.
“Not at all,” he said. “Just follow your instincts. Have coffee with him. If he seems like a bad guy, don’t go through with it.
Garth was not a bad guy. Far from it. A burly man of indeterminate age, Garth had a broad smile and twinkling blue eyes. I learned that he was a retired outdoorsman and had spent 50 years teaching kids how to climb and explore caves using ropes. He had worked with disadvantaged youth and children with special needs. He was my kind of people. When I told him that I had just finished cancer treatment, he reached across the table, took my hands in his and squeezed them hard.
“Now it’s time to live!” he exclaimed.
I put away my paranoid thoughts as we drove the rough back roads to the cave. Garth regaled me with stories of his outdoor adventures, and I listened happily. He pointed out a hawk perched on a fencepost. We arrived at a turnoff, a gate barring access to a sprawling pasture. Garth jumped nimbly out of the car and opened the gate so that we could drive through, and then closed it behind us.
“This property actually belongs to a farmer,” he said. We wouldn’t want his cows to escape.”
I could see the cave up ahead. Its entrance yawned at the foot of a forested hillside that dropped in a sheer cliff 80 feet to the cave entrance. Rolling pastures spread out from the wooded hills and cattle ambled not far from us. I couldn’t see a house for miles, but as I stepped out of the car, I could hear the cows bellowing.
The sun warmed our faces as we exited the car and Garth opened up the trunk, or “boot” as he called it. He rummaged through a tangle of gear and produced two helmets, two headlamps and a container of batteries. As he put in the fresh batteries, I tried to figure out what I should take with me and what I should leave in the car.
“Should I leave my fanny pack in the car?” I asked him.
“Aw, honey, now you don’t want to go and call it that!”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because here that word means something else – an unmentionable female part!”
“Point well taken,” I laughed.
We donned helmets and strapped on the headlamps. He had even brought a pair of disposable coveralls to protect my clothing. They were huge on me, so Garth pawed through the trunk and came up with a roll of duct tape. By the time he got through with my legs, I looked like a mummy from the knees down.
As we approached the mouth of the cave, Garth jingled his car keys at me before stowing them under a rock at the base of a tree.
“That is just in case something happens to me in there and you need to get help.”
I don’t know what I had in mind up to that point, but it sure didn’t involve an ambulance or solo emergency drive to a local hospital. As I entered the cave and my eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness, I noted that this was no tourist trap. There were no manmade steps or lights strung along the cave wall. A stream of running water fed into a pool about several feet deep at the immediate entrance. A huge stalagmite, at least 6 feet in diameter, rose from the water, near enough to touch.
“Don’t touch it,” Garth admonished as I reached out my hand. “See how shiny and discolored it is,” he added. “That’s from many people leaving the oil from their hands on it. I don’t want us to have any more impact on this environment than we can help.”
I drew back my hand.
“What I do want you to do is turn off your headlamp, and put your hands over your eyes for a few moments.”
I obeyed, allowing the darkness to embrace me. The silence in the darkness was profound. I could no longer hear mooing cows or singing birds. I stood still quietly next to Garth, glad for his presence. When he gave me the go ahead, I uncovered my eyes. More accustomed to the darkness, I could make out the shapes of large boulders lining the rest of the vaulted entryway, fading into the inky blackness. Numerous stalactites hung from the ceiling, and a stream led from the pool to the back of the cave and a warren of chambers beyond our sight.
Garth handed me a walking stick that he affectionately referred to as “Sticky”, and led the way over stepping stones that crossed the stream. He clambered like a billy goat over slippery mud slathered boulders. I slipped and slid where he found sure footing. Garth led me into passages where I had to crawl on my hands and knees, slosh through water up to my ankles, squeeze around boulders, duck under overhangs, scale slippery rocks with steep pitches, and drop down daunting outcrops.
All this in the dark with only my headlamp, but with the amazing emotional and physical scaffolding of Garth. A hand here. A knee propped there. A leg to stand on, a foot shoring up my step where I found no purchase. Garth knew exactly how to use his body to make up for my lack of expertise and agility. At one point, he hauled me up backwards over a large rock like a sack of potatoes. Somehow, Garth made it easy to accept his help yet still maintain some sense of dignity.
When I misjudged my position and whacked my head on a stalactite hanging from the cave ceiling, he laughed and said, “Now, that’s what your helmet is for!” It was easy to picture him working with disabled or troubled youth. His blend of encouragement, reassurance, self deprecation and gentle teasing seemed the perfect foil for kids coping with hardships of any kind.
Garth kept me safe and showed himself to be trustworthy. But he had lied about one thing. Deep within the cave was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. We had just crawled on our hands and knees through a tunnel that had me fighting claustrophobia as I struggled to keep up with Garth. I slid on my backside down the side of a 5-foot boulder and landed on my feet in soft mud. Garth instructed me to turn off my headlamp once more. I clicked it off and gasped aloud as the ceiling and walls turned into a celestial paradise before my eyes. Not unlike what I’d seen at night lying out on the beach, but secret and magical, an underground swath of starry universe.
“Glow worms,” said Garth. “Thousands of ‘em.”
I lost track of time staring up until my neck grew sore.
I wished I could capture the image of these phosphorescent invertebrates on my iPhone to share later with Mark. But the phone camera wasn’t equipped with night vision. I’d have to carry the image in my memory. I reluctantly switched my headlamp back on and we made our way back the way we had come.
(Photo thanks to Google!)
Garth named the rock formations as we went. There were places where the rocks looked like dragon skin, another like a snowy Mt. Everest, another a throne. Tens of thousands of years of mineral deposits forming the stalagmites and stalactites. He warned me to take a wide berth around the razor short outcrop that could shred your skull with one slip. Then I saw the sunlight at the cave entrance ahead. A warm sense of accomplishment enveloped me. I felt so happy, so filthy with mud. I wanted more!
When we emerged into the shockingly bright midday sun, Garth pointed at me and burst into laughter. I looked down and saw that my coveralls were plastered with mud and torn to shreds. When I stepped out of them, he laughed even harder, and I discovered that my entire bum was covered with muck. I was a complete mess, but grinning ear to ear.