Speleologists at Work
By George Vecsey
New York Times, 8/4/76
All caves have their own personalities, the authors tell us-some open and inviting, others stark and demanding. The same, of course, could be said for books. There are books that solicit the reader like signs tacked on barns in Tennessee ("See Ruby Falls-86 miles"), offering gushy guided tours on the subject matter, making the reader do nothing more strenuous than follow the literary guardrail.
"The Longest Cave" makes the reader get down on hands and knees, to crawl through the tight spots and the false leads and the boulder slides. But somewhere in the rocks and mud under central Kentucky, the reader becomes self-reliant, begins crawling around the next twist of the cave, begins to care.
There is only one familiar character here-Floyd Collins, who was trapped in a landslide in 1925 and perished in slow motion, with much of the world following by radio, newsreel and newspapers. The authors of "The Longest Cave" used Floyd Collins's home as their bunkhouse, they sleep next to his coffin inside the cave, and they tell about other cavers who have heard Floyd whisper, "Wait for me." But Floyd graciously does not materialize, leaving it to new cavers to make a historic breakthrough.
Working in the Dark
In the early 1950s a shifting cast of cavers began exploring the Flint Ridge system, next to the already commercialized Mammoth Cave National Park. After a few breakthroughs, they believed they could connect Flint Ridge with Mammoth Cave to form the longest cave system in the world. But fearing resistance from Federal officials, they worked as a private operation for a generation, telling few outsiders about their discoveries.
In a country that quickly lost its fascination for astronauts, a link-up of two cave systems is not likely to strike the popular fancy, either. "Caving is the antithesis of spectator sports," the authors write. "The only way to discover that cavers are in trouble is to notice that they have not come back."
One way to create interest in a caving expedition would be to write a psychological portrait of a couple of driven cavers (call them George Mailer and Normal Plimpton) who leave wives and children behind for weeks at a time, who make professional sacrifices, who manipulate and cajole others into a competent team, as they crawl toward their moment of truth.
Even though these authors also deal with rods in their professional lives-Mr. Brucker is in advertising, Mr. Watson teaches philosophy-they were more interested in their cave than in their heads. They barely deal with motivation, offering the standard reason for mountain climbers and surfers and hang-gliders-"Because it is there."
In an expedition made up mostly of pragmatic Midwesterners, the authors prefer to talk about obstacles like The Tight Spot and The Chest Compressor, of crawling through chilly water, the scraping of sharp rock on bare skin, the peanu-butter consistency of wet clay. Later, they let themselves unfold slowly like a cave. "The route is never in view except as you can imagine it in your mind. Nothing unroils. There is no progress; there is only a progression of places that change as you go along."
But once the reader starts thinking for herself or himself, the Flint Ridge cavers take form: willful Red Watson scorning the metal railing as he crosses a dangerous ledge; Roger Brucker preferring intuition to reason; engineer John Wilcox smugly promoting scientific charts as the one true way.
The miles are purchased in weeks and months; cavers grow old and drop out; some are "eased out" because their amateur photography or other idiosyncrasies slow the party down; new cavers materialize, including one of the bravest, Pat Crowther, mother of two, who is so tiny she is constantly asked to go first into places no human has ever been before.
"Once again came the involuntary spasm of claustrophobia. Pat's eyes darted over the wet mud walls a few inches from her face. She felt faint, and her heartbeat and breathing raced. But (she told herself) her fear of being stuck here was irrational."
The Generation Squeeze
In the most poignant moment, one of the older cavers discovers his body has become slightly thicker, slightly less pliant, until he gets caught in The Chest Compressor. Once freed, he watches his long-haired slim-hipped son wiggle through-knowing that the historic link-up will be made by another generation. But even here, there is little lamenting as time passes him by. The main thing is conquering the cave.
"The Longest Cave" contains generous amounts of photographs, maps, drawings of caving techniques and an appendix of caving terms and history. The authors mention scribbling notes while lying in narrow crawlways-but how did they accumulate all this dialogue from 20 years of varying crews?
No matter. Without preaching, the authors have shown how people can trust one another for a cause they consider worth while. This spare and underwritten book is a primer in self-reliance and self-worth.