Saturday, November 3, 2012

Caves of Doom

"DOOMED!" wailed our ghostly guide, as he led us toward the entrance of the cave. "YOU'RE ALL DOOMED!" An hour or so later, I began to suspect that he was right.

I should have known better than to enter another cave, after what happened twenty years ago. As a child, I was obsessed with them. I suppose my obsession came from reading books like The Arabian Nights and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where caves were used by thieves as a hiding place for treasure. I must have thought all caves held hidden treasure. Twenty years ago, when Loretta and I were vacationing in Virginia, I discovered that the only thing you're likely to find hidden in a cave is danger.

We were driving through the Shenandoah Valley when I saw the sign for Luray Caverns. After reading the brochure, my obsession took over. I had to see this cave. Here's the description from the web site:
Enormous chambers are filled with towering columns, shimmering draperies and crystal-clear pools. Also in this subterranean wonderland, "Hear Rocks Sing" as you experience the haunting sounds of the world’s largest musical instrument, The Great Stalacpipe Organ.
There were about a dozen other people on our tour, including an Asian family consisting of a mother and father, two children, and a grandmother in a wheelchair. Before I continue, it might be helpful to again quote from the Luray Caverns web site:
There is a chairlift for manual wheelchair users. However, the paved walkways on the tour are 1.25 miles in length with some areas having steep grades that may require wheelchair assistance by one or more persons. Since the need for assistance is necessary, Luray Caverns is not listed as handicapped accessible.
Granted, Luray Caverns probably didn't have a web site twenty years ago—I'm not sure anyone did—but there should have been a warning to this effect posted in the ticket office. If there wasn't, I bet anything they posted one after our tour.

Everything went smoothly for the first half of the tour—aside from the fact that our tour guide had to continually remind the Asian family that we needed to keep moving, as they wanted to stop and take pictures every few feet. We reached the deepest part of the cave, where we heard a concert by "The Great Stalacpipe Organ"—hammers striking stalactites of varying sizes to produce a tune. Then it was time to begin our ascent to the surface.

"You should probably go first," our guide suggested to the father pushing the wheelchair. "It's pretty steep, so it's best if you keep moving at a steady pace and not stop." He may have been genuinely concerned about their ability to make it to the top, but I'm pretty sure he just wanted to make sure they didn't stop to take more pictures.

Unfortunately, the father interpreted the words "keep moving at a steady pace" to mean "go as fast as you possibly can." He took off at a brisk pace, determined to prove Newton's first law: "Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it." The external force was the bottom of the incline, which effectively stopped the motion of the wheelchair. The old lady, however, remained in a state of motion—until she hit the floor several seconds later.

Fortunately, she was not seriously hurt. There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.

Last Saturday, while visiting Sequoia National Park, we took the Crystal Cave Halloween tour. The regular tour is well-lit, but this is a flashlight tour. Actors in costume and ghostly makeup appear along the way, portraying characters from the cave's history. For example, "George," the ghostly guide who met us outside the cave, was an unfortunate hiker who had perished sixty years ago from a rattlesnake bite. "DOOMED!" he said, leading us toward the entrance of the cave. "YOU'RE ALL DOOMED!"

He was nearly right. Inside the cave, one member of our group stumbled and fell to his knee, and I bruised my shoulder going through a narrow passage. But the worst part was the hike back to the parking lot. According to the web site, "The hike from the parking lot to the cave entrance is a strenuous 1/2 mile hike." That's a lie. The hike from the parking lot to the cave is downhill. It's a piece of cake. It's the hike back up that will kill you. Less than halfway up the trail, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to make it. George was right—I was doomed. Next year, an actor would be portraying my ghost on the Halloween tour.

Obviously, I did make it, and the experience taught me a lesson. I am rapidly approaching the age of that unfortunate lady in the wheelchair, twenty years ago.

If I want to live to be any older, I would do well to stay out of caves.

Ghosts of Crystal Cave

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