The Dark Cave Adventure

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 a real cave and 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; all these delays were 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.

Oregon caves map“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.

lighted cave
Photo by Peter de Vink on

“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?

dilated-eye-.jpgFinally, 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.

jeans back pocketMom 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.

burning matchThen 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. . .

#caving #speleology #garyawilsonwtories

GW bio card 4

22 thoughts on “The Dark Cave Adventure

  1. Ah, odd, but the reply box is here now. Not sure why it didn’t show up before… Anyway, as I said, I did see this and it is funny, if embarrassing. I’m sure she laughed about it for years 🙂


    1. Hi Trent. Yes your earlier comment caught me with only the few moments needed to check the forgotten little box enabling comments. I’m only getting back to answer comment now. Thanks for calling it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very sweet story. I wonder if the man was offended to be .is taken for a mom’s back pocket.


    1. Hi Antoinette. Thanks for reading my story and for your kind feedback. I mostly recall being shocked that she wasn’t my mom, but mostly recall only her look of understanding. I, on the other hand, was horribly embarrassed.

      BTW: I’m greatly enjoying “Call the Nurse” and see why you suggested it. There are a lot of similarities to what I’m trying to write. Each of her chapters are also very close to my 2000 word limit.


    1. Ah yes,
      But they were most meaningful when they were just about at eye level or not visible at all due to extreme darkness.

      It is so much fun filling your mind with vivid, if not sometimes twisted, images of innocence going sideways.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am a little claustrophobic but I have challenged myself into a few different cave adventures over the years and as I was reading 2 popped into my mind. Recently we travelled to Mexico and were floating in a cenote. Once we were deep into the cave the guide turned out the flashlight and cast us into a deep watery darkness yelling that the flashlight died! I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face and my brain knew on some level he was joking but there was that deep craving for light, shadows and images! The second was a cave we went into in Cuba. We walked from a brightly lit part of the cave down a narrow ever darkening tunnel and suddenly there were strange noises and things swooping around our heads (bats)!

    Anyway, great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Okay Shari. I wasn’t going to suggest this, but I just finished your post, “In The Shadows” and brrrr, so now I’d like to know your reaction to my: . Not nearly as dark, but there is one scene that may creep you out as deeply as yours did me. Why not, I thought. She’s clearly made of some very stout stuff. I do very much enjoy your writing. The way I know is that you make me want to write more myself.


    1. Haha Haha
      Hi Joy,
      I am not going to be baited into commenting about the value of back pockets in women’s jeans except to say I was sure glad they were there that day. Thanks for reading my story and your kind feedback.


  4. Great story Gary! I may have visited a dark cave as a kid but nothing exciting. Total darkness is a game-changer for most humans as we rely so much on our visual acuities. We used to take ranger-led “star walks” in Tuolumne Meadows at 10pm. Once we got to the meadows area we sat/laid on the granite and looked at the heavens. Not really total darkness as long as artificial light wasn’t introduced, but seeing the summer sky constellations and hearing the ranger share the Greek myths was amazing! An enjoyable story and loved the childhood memory of the stranger’s hip pocket!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Beautiful photo of a cave. I can imagine that experience, total darkness, would be scary for a 6 year old. It would be scary for the adult me as well. Cute part about the hand in the wrong pocket.


    1. Hi Deb. You would be forgiven for being scared. If you’ve never experienced total darkness with no visual clues of what or who is around you, It is remarkably disorienting. Then about that woman; I was so embarrassed when I looked up and saw the wrong face smiling back at me. She was a true saint to stand there and let some kid she didn’t know grab her like that. She must have seen me before the lights went out and knew it wasn’t some jerk in the dark crowd. I was a mess for hours after that mistake. Thanks for giving it a read. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Love it! Such an evocative memory, and you captured that childhood wonder so well too – everything is so exciting when you’re little! I’ll come over and read some more DOTs when I have more time – such a great wat of documenting your memories 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s