Pushing and grunting did no good. Kicking did no good. Three twenty something year old men could not push a snag down a mountain in northern Tennessee. Though dead, the tree was still standing and we struggled to move it. “Come on, we can do this,” Ash said. The resolve to our purpose of knocking this deadwood off the cliff would certainly be rewarded with a manly feeling of achievement. Commitment to the task culminated in the tree rocking back and forth. Woody debris fell from its sides. With each push and moan the base of the tree became weaker. Anticipation grew. We knew it was going down.
A desperate chittering and clicking at the top of the tree forced us to stop and look up. A frightened squirrel flittered back and forth at the top investigating the demolition. She leaped into the air and displayed a graceful glide down the mountain. What a site! This flying squirrel was one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. The parade was not over. One by one, her pups climbed into view, hurled themselves into the air, and coasted down the mountain to their mom. Not one, not two, but four of these babies put on a show of magnificent beauty.
We stood in awe and humility, astonished that while we loved nature, we had no respect for her. We had nearly destroyed their home. Together we agreed to move on and let the tree stand.
Our first day ended and we hiked our way down the mountain to Mike Ashburn’s Grannie’s house. Grannie’s home was typical in rural Tennessee. Built in the 1940’s it was an old clapboard siding home with a tin roof and neighborly front porch. Her life was set in the old ways, unfamiliar to me. Echoes of hardship grooved a patterned face acquainted with rural life. Her home was small but open and welcoming. I shall never forget the pencil portrait hanging on her living room wall—two old mules, husband and wife. Someone had given it to her to remind her of her husband who had passed many years before. I could tell by the way she talked, she loved that drawing, but not as much as she missed him
Though it was late spring there was coolness in the mountains that would bite you in the butt if you didn’t cover up. We slept on old feather beds covered in handmade quilts. At the end of the bed was a thunder mug to keep us from trekking the darkness to the outhouse. Most enchanting was the fireplace sitting on the floor against the wall. It was not a wood fireplace. I was so tired from hiking the mountain that first day, sleep overcame this unacquainted odor of sulfur from coal. Morning brought a refreshing air about it. While snuggling under the quilts I could hear Grannie wrestling pots and pans in the kitchen.
Yes, there is a God. Hearing Ash hug his Grannie, I walked into a favorable aroma of fresh bacon in the kitchen. I was ready for an amazing breakfast. With the aforementioned came farm fresh eggs, and cathead biscuits. I don’t remember what kind of jelly she pulled from her pantry but it was homemade and delicious. In case you don’t know why they are called cathead biscuits, it is because they are about the size of small cathead and very fluffy (recipe: http://www.mtnlaurel.com/recipes/766-old-fashioned-cat-head-biscuits.html)
Our purpose for being in Tennessee was to go caving. I had never experienced this sport but was eager to try. Grannie warned us to be careful. “There have been people lost in those caves and never found,” she said. Her caution made us a bit nervous. Still, we were young and stupid and moved on in our manly pursuit.
The first cave greeted us with a huge, amphitheater entrance. We entered walking tall and daylight showed our way. The path began to narrow to a point where we had to crawl on our knees. Not too far in, the ceiling started moving. Huge cave spiders crawled upside down. I knew they would not hurt me but it was still creepy wondering if one would fall on my back and into my clothes.
We arrived at a point where the stark reminder Grannie had given earlier made us aware of possible danger. We were able to stand again and walk through eight to ten foot tall cavern trails. Awareness that water had, over time, carved these rugged walking channels brought caution. Yes, we had marked our journey so we would know how to get back to the mouth of the cave, but what should we do if water arrives? This thought initiated our climb to the top of these walls scooting forward with only spread out arms and legs holding us above the floor.
A small opening, illuminated by our flashlight, suggested we climb in to see where it would go. On our bellies we crawled a few feet before I said, “Stop!”
“What’s wrong?” my little brother, Dick, asked.
“Back up, I am face to face with a bat.” My light shined on a bat, just inches away. I am glad I saw it before I climbed through and knocked it awake. I shudder to think my reaction to that proposition. The response would not have been a calm one, I assure you.
Ash told Dick and me this cave was very long. No one knew where it came out. Dye was placed in the channels many years before and it turned one of the rivers red. There was still no sign where the cave ended. The suggestion was that the cave traveled under the river and seeped up into the riverbed through an underground spring. We enjoyed the cave for several hours, memories of this one time event were gradually embedded in my mind. We had one more cave to explore but desired a much-needed rest for our throbbing muscles. We went back to Grannie’s for lunch and enjoyed her company while she listened to our adventure.
When Ash told her we were going to the cave by another grandmothers home, this upset her. She raised a second red flag. “That cave is too dangerous. Some have even drowned and washed into the mountain and never been found. There are underground springs that gush through the rock this time of year without warning.” She didn’t beg us not to go, but her voice pleaded.
Okay, so now we have fought off cave spiders and a bat—worried about getting lost in a huge cave that has no end, and now we have to be fretful about an underground torrential river burying us in the mountain for eternity? These are the thoughts I kept to myself on the drive to this cave. I was unsure I wanted to continue this exploration. But, being the man I was, I sucked it up and persevered with the other two manly men.
The entrance to this cave was smaller and extremely wet. We were still able to walk in. Once inside, the area was small. There was an opening in the wall just large enough to crawl inside. Filled with thoughts of this being my last day on earth, I went last. There was a choice. Go right, or, go left. The right tunnel would take us uphill, the left tunnel would take us downhill. Uphill was chosen. We slow crawled on our bellies through a narrow passage with shoulders rubbing both walls. The floor held about an inch of, “colder than a frog’s butt,” standing water soaking our clothes. The chill prompted me to remember Grannie’s warning. There had already been water rush through here, and not too long ago, I thought out loud. “I’m backing out and getting out of here,” I said. Crawling backwards was slow. I didn’t think I would ever reach the entrance. When I did, I climbed through to live another day. My words must have been what the other two wanted to hear; they were right behind me.
We met Ash’s other grandmother, a beautiful Appalachian woman. We stood outside her home to visit. Our clothes were too nasty to go inside even though she asked. Wet and cold we left for Grannies. We spent one more cold night snuggled down in feathers and covered in quilts. We left for Anderson (IN) early Sunday morning.
This was an adventure I will never forget. Considering the unpleasant thoughts of death at any moment, I never want to go caving again. Once was enough.