When I was about 6 years old, my parents took our family to Oregon for a camping trip. One of the attractions we visited was the Oregon Caves National Monument. It was my first encounter with real caves and set me up for later caving adventures (see my The Speleological Spiderman Incidents story for those details) but this trip was a simple guided walking tour of a wonderful natural cave.
I recall the overwhelming sense of imminent adventure, the likes of which, most of us loose well before puberty. Waiting in line for our tickets, then for the tour to start; it was all making me nuts. Can we just get going please. . . ? My mom, did her best to encourage me to be patient. Finally, our guide, in his official ‘Oregon Cave’ tour guy shirt, arrived and made me more nuts with safety instructions. Come on already. . .
But then he opened the gate to an amazing world beneath the mountain that I could never have imagined, and the tour began. Now, if I can just stay out from behind any old people. . .
Then, the bizarre rooms and alien formations and those tall skinny things growing down from the ceiling, “Mom – how does rock grow?” I recognized that someone had added hidden lights to make everything look even more spectacular that it already did, but it didn’t matter. This was all amazing, “Mom, can I climb up and check out that hole in the wall? Where does it go?”
My richest memory was when the guide, after leading us up through a confusing series of tubes and passages with irregular floors and walls all filled with amazing formations (that took me years to work out how they were possible) the guide had the whole group in a large room deep within the main cave. “Many people rarely experience total darkness. There is almost always some kind of light to orient us to our surroundings. There might be stars or nightlights. If you suspect you will be in the dark, you normally would grab a flashlight or a candle.
“So I want to show you two things you can learn about light from a cave. The first is just how black total darkness is and the second is how powerful even a small light can be even in such a large room like this one. In a moment, I’m going to turn off the lights in the room, leaving us in – total – darkness. There will be absolutely no light. Your eyes will try to adjust and seek out any small source of light, but there will be none. If you have any kind of lighter or flashlight, please do not use it. I want to make sure you all get to enjoy what total darkness looks and feels like.”
I was anxious for the tour to get going again and had little appetite for a lecture, but he caught my interest. Perhaps listening to him and experiencing this will be more surprising than I would have guessed. Had I ever experienced total darkness? Mom was next to me and lots of others were nearby. So, bring it on – I thought. I can handle darkness.
“Okay folks. Is everyone comfortable where you’re at? I don’t want anyone walking or moving about because that will be dangerous. Last call – is everyone ready?”
This should be pretty cool – let’s do it, I thought.
“Here we go, in three; one – two – three.” With a click, the room went completely dark and even the silhouette images that the back of our eye balls retained for a few seconds faded – into – dark – nothing. The room went silent, then a few people uttered different, quiet reactions: “wow”, “ooo”, “oh my,” utterances all whispered but well carried through the wide cavern.
After a few more seconds, our guide continued his talk explaining what many people experience in total darkness. His words were comforting because they well matched what most of us had to be experiencing. My own senses, deprived of light, automatically tried to compensate, reaching out further for any input: his voice confirmed that he was still right over there someplace, someone behind me did something with a coat zipper, the air remained the cool ambient temperature of the cave and was lightly moist, but the darkness somehow made it feel cooler – chilling me slightly. There was no breeze, almost no motion around me that I could detect. What was that smell – some guy’s after shave?
Finally, he told us how in a few moments, he would light a single match. He reminded us how little light a single match puts out and I agreed, how could a match fill this room? He went on to describe how our eyes had been adjusting to the darkness by opening up as wide as possible to collect any pin-point of light – but of course there was none to be found.
He was trying to stretch out the experience and I realized that I was getting kind of freaked out by the whole thing. I refused to be scared, but this 6 year old brain was trying to break loose with fear. I fought it back and swallowed the urge to “be afraid”. There was nothing to be afraid of here.
I turned around, moving my feet so I could look behind me, around and around, hoping to see any kind of light to comfort myself – but no joy. What if he loses his matches and the lights don’t come back on? What will we do?
Nothing to see, scarce little to hear, nothing helpful to smell and knelling down to lick the cave floor just seemed silly, so I was left with touch to give me the certainty that all was well.
Mom was right next to me when the lights went out so I silently reached out and found her hip. I moved my hand to find her back pocket and dug in my fingers. It was ridiculous, but this simple proof that she was right there with me flooded me with peace and killed the sprout of panic.
The guide seemed to be wrapping up his speech and told us that enough time had passed that we all should be ready for the match light. The room went silent – waiting to see how right he was.
Then we heard it – ptshhhhh as the match flared and ignited. He held up the match and, wow – the room exploded back into existence. It was a bright, stunning demonstration and distinction that I’ve never forgotten. My mind was hungry for images of the people, the guide, the cave walls and formations, even the hand rails that some were standing near and the ceiling. It was all so rich and oh so valuable.
It was startling how dark total darkness really is and how one match could bring so much information and comfort and how much we depend on our eyes. The point was made and not wasted on me. Score one for the guide.
It was all almost as startling as when I looked up into the face of my mom, thankful for the comfort of her being there for me – only to realize that this was the face of a ‘gulp’, total stranger.
So yes, even in this imperfect world, the God of small boys is good enough to see a boy in distress and put a woman (a temporary surrogate mom) within reach, who, in the dark, would take no offense to some kid freaking out and just needed a mom’s back pocket for a few minutes.
Surely – there must be an abyss nearby that I can crawl into and hide for the rest of my life. . .