As much as I have explored monster ridden caves in worlds of fantasy I had yet to step into the real thing until just yesterday as Trail and I went to visit the Moaning Caverns here in north-central California.
We had wanted to see some caves further north but they were closed due to the storm washing out the paths to the caves. Fortunately they gave us a pamphlet of “show caves” across the country and there were three at our next stop south of Sacramento. Of those only Moaning Caverns was offering tours in the off season.
Moaning Cavern is the remnant of an old geiser and thus a very vertical oriented cave. Its original opening was a hole in the earth dropping some 165 feet into an area known as the bone pit. It gets its name from echoing sounds of water dripping that can be heard above, though this is no longer the case due to the building atop it and the man made stairwells and such inside. Some of the oldest human remains in north America were discovered in the bone pit.
The tour uses an entrance created by gold miners in the 1800’s but if you are feeling adventurous they offer a zip line down the central shaft. Descending into the cave you are hit by a number of stark sensations. You know right away you are descending into the earth. The path is steep and the walls of the miners entrance are only just big enough for a standing person to descend along. I was often forced to stoop or twist to one side. The stairs are sturdy but small, about half as deep as one of my feet and perhaps only two feet wide and the grade is steep. I’m not prone to claustrophobia but I was getting some signals from my reptile brain that this was a very bad idea.
The temperature in the cave is very comfortable but somehow only reinforces a feeling you are descending into a warm bath or womb like environment. Not to mention as you wind down you have no idea what lies ahead. All in all I’d describe it as “creepy.” I began to wonder if I could actually get much enjoyment from the experience.
Eventually the cavern opens up as your come out of the miners entrance into a landing in the cavern proper. Now mild claustrophobia gives way to vertigo as you stare look down and across into the great cavern. I don’t get overwhelming vertigo but it definitely makes experiences like these less enjoyable. My brain keep sending out the danger signal and my adrenaline shoots up in a situation where neither fight nor flight is very appropriate. Still, despite these feelings the cavern was impressive. Here the guide gives the run down on the basic cave vocabulary and demonstrates how sense of scale underground is very difficult to judge.
From there we descend to the bottom of the central chamber down a huge iron spiral staircase made from decommissioned World War I battleships and the like. Despite the stalwart appearance of this staircase I still could not calm my nerves and made a slow descent with a firm grip on the railings and the cage surrounding the staircase.
Once at the bottom you can find many of the most attractive formations in the cave. I also found standing at the bottom very comfortable with both a sense of vertigo and claustrophobia banished. Instead it felt as if I were in a kind of natural cathedral, a holy place of stone and silence. I could really appreciate the beauty and savagery of the place while our guide went over the various formations in some detail emphasizing just how long they take to form and how vulnerable they are to being broken by careless climbers. What nature makes in 200,000 years you can break in a second of carelessness.
And what cave tour would be complete without them turning out the lights and giving you a taste of total and utter darkness? As our guide pointed out at this point the human mind just starts to manufacture imaginary things to see when in this kind of darkness. Waiving my hands in front of my face I could tell I could not see, but my mind none the less created its own ghosts where it knew my hands to be. This is when Trail’s primeval warning sensors started going off and remained on high alert until we had made the full trip to the surface. For whatever reason I found it almost comforting though I don’t think I’d want to try and make my way about the place under such conditions!
After a time we made our way back up. Taking it slow and with less trepidation I was able to stop and really look at the formations on the way up the spiral stairs. They come very close, within a couple feet of some amazing ribbons of rock built up by accretion over the millennial. By the time we got to the top we were a bit winded from the climb and Trail was relieved to see the open sky again.
All in all it was quite an experience and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more caves to visit and a bit better prepared for the emotional response to them.
Side note for Gamers: I’ve always found it tricky in running D&D games to try and capture that caverns are more than just passageways with rough walls, that just moving around in them is both perilous and awesome. It’s one of those things that should be amazing but is so hard to convey. I think the only way to really do it justice would be to play in a cave like this. I’ll have to put that on my personal bucket list!