The underground brings to mind fascinating yet chilling images for most, with Darkness, Cold and eerie Silence heralding the signboard. Close behind is Fear, sketching both fearsome eyeless creatures and gruesome visages of being buried alive on the canvass of our minds. And trailing quite languidly in the aft is Description whose words fall forth like a 6-tonic salesman attempting flirtation at a furniture convention through the use of bodily functions: dirty, wet and gross.
But to a few, an endarkened few, the underground grips like voodoo sculptor. The mere glimpse of new territory, even a tiny room beyond the blackness, compels a caver forward, often without hesitation at risk, rappelling down hundreds of feet or squeezing through cracks 6" high by 12" wide. You are powerless to say no. You must go. You want to go. You do go.
Uncharted land. Danger. Risk. Discovery. The Unknown. All elements of traditional adventure and exploration. The underground is the forgotten frontier below the feet. One that we've been treading upon since we emerged from the womb: ironically, conditions not unlike many caves.
Exploration: no time like the present
Most caving is ordinary and somewhat routine. For me it is done in upstate New York. Similar-looking passages, sparse formations, wet and muddy crawls. But I consider it a fascinating tour of the region. While each new cave may look like the others, it is a wholly original and wonderful experience to me. Besides recreation, it is also training. You see, to truly enjoy a passion one must have designs in mind, ambition as fuel and trial as your muse. One must set the wheels in motion for that day you receive your calling to embark on a journey of which legends are made.
Pick up the November 2000 National Geographic. Inside you'll see some serious adventure involving a volcano. The author descends down a rope to within 150 feet of the lava while "red-hot, pumpkin-size globs of ejected lava are flying through the air." Is he fucking nuts? It could boil down to one thing: no one has done it before. He is pushing the limits farther than any other human.
Quite amazing reading. But, must we sit idly by and read of other's exploits? Must we hearken back to the day our second grade Reading teacher taught us to use our imagination, but forever be safeguarded between the book's comforting covers?
I dare say no! Too often we think such amazing exploits can only be found at the hands of the wealthy and connected, over-educated practitioners of science or those in the right place at the right time. This is simply not so.
Caving is one hobby where the amateur can have a very significant factor in new discoveries. The cost is relatively low, training not extremely hard and access virtually unlimited in most cases. It is a close-knit community, somewhat over-protective of it's terrain, but open to those willing to respect its rules. The largest caving organization is the National Speleological Society that preaches, "Take nothing but pictures, kill nothing but time, leave nothing but footprints." Not a bad summary of caving.
A word of caution: without contributions, you'll fall short
I think many people want the prize but fail to work for it. We want to sail to the New World without slaving on the ship for 3 months with rats for bedfellows. We want to discover a lost city by chance without having to brush fossils for twenty years. And we want to climb high peaks without working out at the gym routinely.
Be prepared to work for it. As with anything, I foresee years of dedication, contributions, volunteering and pain before I reach my goals. I may build a few websites for free. I may serve as an officer for no pay. I may lead others to places I've already been. I may have to map some caves. I may have to clean up graffiti and beer cans.
If you have any inkling of being an explorer yourself, get involved. Don't just expect to be invited on the adventure of a lifetime without a little sacrifice in return.