As the great adventurer, Bilbo Baggins, once said, “the key to exploration is to get lost before Elevensies, and find your way by second dinner”. Or something like that; but he’s also the one who said it’s okay to put your good non-stick ware in the dishwasher, so what does he really know? You know what a fancy magic ring of power doesn’t do? Make that baked on tomato sauce come off your pan any easier… So, ha!
A long, long time ago there was a little girl who was very indecisive. Her name was Lilea. Every Summer she was forced to spend a week with her Daddy, who is very mean, and this Summer he was determined to make her go caving. Initially, the little girl was very excited to go caving, but as the Week of Despair got closer (like, the day before), she asked her Mom to inform her Dad that she no longer wanted to go caving; she wanted to go to the beach for a week instead. Her Daddy, who again is very mean, said, “too bad, people already took off work for this trip, and if we don’t go there won’t be enough people for anyone else to go.” What was uttered next made her Daddy reconsider his rule that he’d rather his daughter “use bad language and be a good person, than be a bad person and use good language”.
Irregardless (it’s a work of fiction, made-up words are allowed), that’s how, mere hours later, our intrepid little adventurer, Lilea, found herself in the town of Blacksburg, at a Mediterranean restaurant, with people she’d not yet met but once before at the Spring of VAR (Alexa and Ava). After asserting her dominance over her new companions, by having her stuffed animal stuffed defecate into every water glass, a traditional sea-side meal of cheese burger and chicken tenders was shared by the two girls. The adults meanwhile were reduced to eating scraps of grilled fish over a bed of rice and a Greek salad. After consuming their wretched fare, the adults were then commanded to transport their overlords across the street to Kroger for S’more’s ingredients and additional supplies before driving the remaining way to the Bat Ranch.
After introductions, the adults set up camp while the children ran about the front field running from small bugs intent on falling in love under the pale light of quick moving headlamps. After camp was set the party was given a quick tour of the Bat Ranch; including a healthy collection of both Play-Dough and exotic animals before settling down for the night. Of particular ‘coolness’ was that the fireflies gravitated towards the tops of the trees that line the edge of the field—so even though the sky was somewhat cloudy and not many stars were visible, there was a halo of twinkling lights around the tents. After nostrils and throats were cleared of all offending six legged passengers the children were tucked in, and after making a plan for the morrow the adults soon followed.
After a breakfast of oatmeal, cereal, and sadness (because Lilea had to eat oatmeal, like I said, her Daddy is mean) the crew packed up and got ready to hit Tawney’s Cave. After signing in, leaving something of value (i.e. a small, feral kitten) to ensure good behavior while in the cave; Alexa, Ava, Eric, and Lilea headed across the street and up a small hill to the gated entrance of the cave. It should be noted that by design the locks are particularly difficult to access for people with hands. It should also be noted, that this fact will not register, despite repeated explanations, to children under 10 who will constantly spew ridicule at how long it’s taking an adult to do something as simple as turning a key in a lock. After far too much of a struggle, the gate was opened; the adventurers passed through, and locked themselves into the darkness.
The entrance opens up into a large formation room; with flowstone, draperies, columns, and other various formations present across most of the floor and walls. The floor tiers down towards a stream, which cuts across the room on a diagonal, and the steps back up on the other side. We initially headed down towards the stream, helping the girls down across some of the larger, slippery steps along the way. Once we got down there we couldn’t find a way to ford the stream without getting wet, so we went back up and headed towards the left where we found a side passage that led to a few rooms. In one, there is a bulge coming out from the wall that is covered with mud sculptures created by travellers in the ‘before times’.
The girls made a cat (Lilea) and a snake (Ava) and left them on the altar in order to procure us safe passage from the heavens. After a short crawl to explore a small mud room, we headed back into the formation room and proceeded to walk along the left side in search of a way to cross without getting wet. We found a sloped area of hard packed mud that could have potentially been used, but as it ended in a short cliff, which had a small ledge before becoming another cliff that led directly into the stream we decided against taking the kids that route. I didn’t particularly want to go that route either, because my foots couldn’t find good purchase when I was testing it out and I am not sure I would have made it across safely myself.
We decided to go back to the lower tiers on the right side and ford the stream. This was not a particularly appealing option for me because I have pancake feet. They’re short and wide and that makes finding boots that fit rather difficult; so while everyone else was in Wellies I was in my hiking boots. Nevertheless, he persisted. Alexa went in first, and carried Ava across before pushing her up a steep mud slope on the other side. I hopped in next, caught Lilea as she jumped on me before I was ready, crossed over and pushed her butt up the mud before attempting the climb myself. It is also worth nothing, that mud that already slick, becomes slicker when the weight of your foot squeezes all of the water out of your boots.
After passing through several wide passages, with the stream off to our side, we ended up in the Moon Room. It’s worth noting, that up to this point I had a lot of difficulty with the map because the information wasn’t matching up to what we were encountering. Alexa, who was using the map more as a pocket warmer, did much better in determining where we were. The Moon Room is a dome shaped room, most of which is a mud flat with an occasional pool, and ringed by the stream. We stopped here for a snack. I ate princess fruit snacks, granola bars, and a Clif bar. Lilea convinced Alexa and Ava that she was a poor, abused little creature and managed to score some rice crispy treats and a pepperoni roll in addition to the ‘inadequate gruel’ I attempted to feed her.
Our short break over, we proceeded to scale the large breakdown area behind us. Ava Pope mentioned that to get through the breakdown we would need to go up and over it, before proceeding down the other side. According to our map, which was at least 50 years old, if we went up and over in the middle we would encounter a “T” junction, and we could take it to the left towards fossil pools and the “Emerald Room”, and if we went to the right we would walk the stream passage towards the sink hole at the ‘end’ of the cave. We were unable to find the left hand route (a newer copy of the map shows that we needed to find a secondhand left turn that was misplaced on our map), so we continued on to the right through the ‘canyon’ at the back of the breakdown pile until we came to a tunnel with a mud and pool filled floor.
(Exhibit A. Old Map)
(Exhibit B. Slightly Less Old Map)
Ava and Lilea walked in on the right hand side, through the mud, but because of the low ceiling I walked straight through the water. This is right after I previously fussed at kiddo for stomping through water because the cloudy water makes it harder for animals that might be living in it to breathe. I don’t know if that’s technically true; I mostly said it because I want her to take her footing seriously when she’s caving and not get hurt goofing off. However, while I was destroying Kevin Spacey Land (he’s apparently not the star of “Water World” per IMDB), I saw three small salamander larvae swimming in a shallow pool, and we saw an adult (orange with black spots) off to the side in a different pool under a low overhang.
Thanks to a recent presentation by another Grotto member, Kim, we knew that all salamanders have a Cloaca, which when threatened, they can use like an “Angry Bird’s” type cannon to ward off predators or knock down towers of pigs (I’ve never actually played “Angry Birds”, but it sounds about right?). Unfortunately, despite a lot of name calling, in multiple languages, and numerous attempts at verbal agitation we were not able to get any response from any of the salamanders. It’s 2018, and salamanders apparently no longer care if their father was a hamster, or their mother smelt of elderberry. In a way, I get that. We passed on into a room that sloped down to the right, full of slippery, sticky mud. At the bottom was a deep pool where the stream went under the rocks, and moving forward was tall, wide, stream passage.
The stream passage was pretty easily traversed. Alexa and I walked through the water, and supported the kids as they walked on the muddy side slopes, occasionally carrying them as necessary. The first branch to the right that we took, near a well pipe that extends down through the ceiling to the floor, was a dead end and not the lead to the sinkhole like we expected. We backtracked and took the next right, near the saltpeter mounds, and walked to the end to what appeared to be a dead-end with the exception a tight crawl. The crawl itself was through small shards of breakdown, and was labeled the “Crawl of Despair” about three feet in, and the name continued as I went in about 20 or so feet, struggled to turn around in the small end room, and crawled back out. This delicate flower was bruised, but unbowed.
While I was making the long, arduous trip back from my decent into the Abyss of Hopelessness, Alexa found the actual passage located about 15 feet to our right. We went in towards the sinkhole, which I should mention, had been smelling gradually riper as we moved further in and away from the stream passage. We moved over a patch of breakdown that was covered with something of a very bright white nature, and looking over, we saw a pair of ribs. It turns out, we were traversing over the moldy, rotten, remnants of a cow that had fallen in the sinkhole and had to be put down inside the cave. Turns out, moldy dead cow adheres to your clothes rather well, and also makes small children feel rather nauseous. With that in mind, we moved forward into the sinkhole, and some fresher air, with all due haste.
We walked around the sinkhole a little bit, found another salamander, and then returned to the cave via the other side of the sinkhole. The route back to the stream passage was relatively easy, with a few areas where the kids needed help down a ledge or embankment. After that, the return trip was mostly a matter of retracing our steps back the way we came. We again, made a short snack stop in the Moon Room, but it was a short one as the girls were anxious to get above ground again and into the sunlight. We didn’t really spend any time taking pictures during the actual trip; so Alexa and I took a few pictures near the entrance of the girls. Again, it took a while to unlock the gate and Lilea and Ava were extra judgmental and impatient because they both had to use the restroom. I made my best calming stream noises to try to placate them, but to no avail.
(Photo credit: Alexa Simmons, also, apparently, not Tawney’s Cave. Oops.)
All in all, a good trip underground. When we went back to the Bat Ranch we discovered a map that was about 25 years newer, and much more accurate and detailed. Unfortunately, we only discovered that after I’d given our spare, unused, old map to a different group the following day. And they were never seen again… (we can only assume?) Big thanks to Ava and Mike for letting us crash at the Bat Ranch, and for tolerating two small terrors and two adults that might not have been as prepared for everything as they should have been.
**Certain events ‘may’ be slightly exaggerated, falsified, or patently untrue. The editor quit after the second paragraph, so professional polish may be lacking in the final product.