Sunday, October 3, 2010

Caving with the Dames

Hanging out.  photo by R. Cantrell
This weekend I went on a caving trip with the Trail Dames.  We were fortunate to have several experienced guides and the Dames, as usual, were incredibly helpful and supportive.  Even though we went to a so-called "horizontal, easy" cave in northwest Georgia called Howard's Waterfall, it offered plenty of challenges for us nervous first-timers. 

Caving was a fantastic experience, both for the physical challenge and because being within the earth proved utterly peaceful.  After getting the hang of it (thank goodness for the kneepads and helmet!), I enjoyed squeezing though the tight spots on my belly while pushing my pack in front of me, and rolling down the passageway, which turned out to be easier than crawling.  My arms, shoulders, core, and legs all received a satisfying workout.   I went through holes that I couldn't believe I'd fit through and went down inclines that scared me, and felt such a sense of accomplishment after I realized I could do it!  Also, the cave was such a different, simplified environment-- constant weather, fewer sounds, darkness.  Instead of being scary and claustrophobic, I found this environment enhanced and focused all my senses:  I could really smell the cave, listen to the sound of the drops from the ceiling, and see the glint of rocks.  I felt utterly alive and fully present.

A few times on the return trip, there was no one ahead of me and I tested my route-finding skills.  It took my brain a while to adjust to reading the cave.  Where was the easiest route?  Should I crouch, crawl, or roll?  Which way had I gone before?  Trying to remember the route, I visualized not just a two dimensional trail, but the series of interconnecting tubes that branched in three dimensions.  Using rocks and mud as landmarks was challenging for me because I am normally use plants and trees for navigation because for me they are so easy to remember.  I began to develop a better eye for subtle differences in rocks and formations, like how in winter, tree shapes and shades of brown become totally fascinating.   Mud in some places was dryer like clay for pottery and resisted pressure, while in other places it melted beneath your feet and stuck and slurped.  Caving was thus totally mentally engaging in addition to providing a full-body workout.

During rest breaks, our trip leader instructed us to lay down on the rocks and let our body heat radiate into the ground.  This had such a calming effect.  Much more so than just sitting down or standing during breaks.  The physical connection to the ground is so peaceful, and it reminds me to practice my yoga relaxation and breathing techniques.  I would love to take this practice back with me to the trail.  I normally stand during resting moments, but I think I will experiment with reclining against a tree or even laying down and being aware of my connection to the earth.

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