I left off around the time we were leaving our hike and driving to Crystal Cave. It's about a 45 minute drive off the beaten path to get to the cave. You drive down a crazy twisty beautiful road to get there. (Really, all of the roads in the park are like this...so awesome with all the big trees around you.) When we got there we put our cooler and snacks (I baked lots of goodies for Billy) in the bear containers and got changed.
Sidenote: There are bear containers are in every parking lot in the park so you can keep your food safe, your car safe, and Yogi Bear safe from trying to get a little "pic-a-nic basket" lunch. :)
So we change into some old warm clothes that we can "get muddy" like Billy said and hike down about 15 minutes to the entrance of the cave. There we meet Billy and exchange some "hey you're really here and we found each other!" We are also there with 48 other people for his cave tour. The tour lasted an hour or so and it was fun to see Billy in action on the job. To say he knows his stuff is a complete understatement. If you don't believe me....read this article the LA Times wrote about him.
|Pretty hike down to the cave entrance. Notice "stay on trail" sign (because there are likely rattlesnakes everywhere around here)....no problem, I will not be stepping a little toe off this trail.|
|Pretty waterfall outside the cave entrance. Because where there's a cave there's always ____. (Answer: flowing water) See, I did listen to my tour guide. :)|
|Where Crystal Cave gets its name...|
|oh so pretty.|
|I just love this one.|
|If you aren't learning on Billy's tour....you aren't listening.|
|Billy-boy (yes, his beard is as majestic in person as it looks in this picture)|
We were the last tour of the day so after he finished up with the last of the visitors who wanted a picture with their cave guide (cute), we got to hang out down there just the 3 of us. He asked if we wanted our "special tour." Of course we want our special tour! Let's do this! Wild caving...psssh...we got this. Chad and I have been in caves before (walking tours) and don't feel any weird-ness or claustrophobia in them so it seems easy enough, right? :) Billy pulls out a box with all of our needed equipment: caving gloves, knee pads, elbow pads, and helmets with a light. Alright...so this is what "wild caving" means...so we really are gonna get a little dirty tonight. The rest of the 48 visitors and other 2 employees were gone, the sun was setting, the electricity power was off, and we were heading in....
We walked on the path in the cave for a while and arrived at a section where Billy says "okay, we're just going to drop into this hole now." "I'm sorry, I thought you just said 'hole.' What was that now?" So we follow him in...Billy leading the way, me following, and Chad pulling up the rear. I'm not kidding you the VERY FIRST step we take in our "wild caving tour" I wipe out. Not just a little slip....like legs went flying out from underneath me and I fell real hard on my ass/side. Awesome. No big deal, brush myself off, we all have a laugh about it, Billy makes me feel better by saying he's slipped on that rock before too, and we move on. We're squeezing in between some rocks and every now and then crawling through holes made by rocks on top of each other. I have pretty much zero sense of direction in the real world. In the caving world...I have even LESS of a sense of where I am, where we came from, where we should go. During the first hour or so of caving, I am repressing those thoughts of "I have NO idea how we got to where we are right now" "I have even LESS of a clue how I would get myself out if I had to" and "My life and my husband's life are seriously in the hands of Billy right now." Billy is a person I absolutely trust my (and Chad's) life with although I didn't realize before going in that we would be placing that trust in him. Then we get to a spot where Billy tells us "okay now we're going into our first really tight spot." Wait a minute, what we've been crawling and squeezing through hasn't been considered tight spots? Oh boy.
Billy goes first into a hole with what I can only describe to you as the size of a small trash can. But it doesn't get any bigger once you get in that trash can. To give you a physical sense of how we were in there....I was laying flat on my stomach and because my shoulders and arms are small enough, I was able to have them stretched in front of me and I was pushing myself along with my toes while pulling with my fingers. Chad was behind me laying flat on his stomach with his arms down by his side because his shoulders were too big to have them in front. There was not enough room to bend your legs or arms. And there was not enough room with the helmet on to have your head lifted looking up...you had to keep your head down and sideways in order to fit. Yeah, you're probably breathing a little harder now. THAT'S how tight it was.
Billy is a ridiculously flexible dude (the guy makes yoga poses look like a joke) and super comfortable moving his body in a cave. Around the time Chad and I are both fully in this "first really tight spot" I turn my head sideways to look in front of me (remember, because it's too tight to just lift my head up) and realize not only can I not see Billy's feet in front of me but I also see 2 paths to choose from. One hole drops down to the right or I can keep going straight. Well I'm not going anywhere until I know which way Billy went because if I go the wrong way there might not be a spot I can fit to turn around and if it comes to backing up in this hole....I have no idea how I'd do that either. And I would be lost forever if Billy couldn't find me, I'd never get us out of there. So I stop moving and say, "Hey Billy, which way did you go?" No answer. "Billy, where are you?" Nothing. By this time Chad's head is right by my feet and he's not moving because there is no where for him to go. So he says, "What's going on? You gotta move." "Well I can't move because I don't know which way he went and I can't see him." So Chad gives it a shot. "Billy which way did you go, straight or in the hole on the right?" Nothing but the sound of stalactites being formed. Remember how I've been repressing those thoughts of our lives being in Billy's hands? Well there was no stopping those thoughts now. Combine that with fact of not seeing/hearing him (did he think I could keep up? Is he playing a joke?/hurt?/dead?), being a hike away from our car once OUTSIDE of the cave, zero cell service once we reach our phones in our car, an hour's drive from any other people, AND being 45 minutes of crawling and contorting our bodies inside this cave that we're seeming to pick random holes inside of random holes to climb in all under the earth's surface....and that leads us to the closest thing I've ever came to a panic attack.
But I don't say this out loud to Chad. In fact I don't say or do anything at all...I just lay still in that tight little space, put my head down, and take deep breaths. And also think to myself about how there won't even be bodies at our funeral because they'll never find them. I was sure Chad had everything under control in his head so it was going to be okay that I was freaking out in mine. Then he asks me (with a tiny hint of freak out in his voice) "Can you see a spot in front of you where we'll have enough room to at least get on our hands and knees?" I turn my head and look...nope, as far as my light will reach ahead of me I just see more tight space. So I say to him "Please just don't ask me that." Then Chad yells for Billy again, and I mean really.yells.for.Billy. Billy hearing the panic in Chad's voice realizes that the joke he was playing by going ahead so he could wrap back around and scare us won't be too funny anymore. But he also knows what it will sound like if answered us....he'll sound really far away. So as he is making his way closer to us so he can answer and let us know that everything is okay and we're not going to die in there...Chad is keeping to himself but also having a minor panic attack. What seems like years later...(but probably 4.5 seconds)...Billy voice comes from somewhere behind Chad and says everything is okay and to calm down and breathe. I tell him I'm not moving (and therefore Chad can't move) until I can see him and I know for sure which way I should go. I get lost in the Target parking lot sometimes...I will most definitely be lost in here for all eternity. After figuring out where we are, he tells us to keep going straight. I tell him to get the hell back in front of me like he's supposed to be. :) We continue on and make it out of that section alive.
You should also know that when I say "make it out" what I actually mean is that the space that was the size of a trash can now opens up to a space the size of a large car trunk. You're still scrunched down like Johnny Bench moving like a crab but you no longer have to be laying flat with your head in the ground scooting yourself along with your toes. The crab walk feels pretty amazing in comparison.
Sometimes we come into spots where there is room for all 3 of us to stop and be there together and other times we even make it to a place where we can stand and contort our bodies to spunk through the cave. Other times you are basically rock climbing and strategizing on how and where your next step will be while you're looking at a 40 foot drop below you. Billy taught us you should always have three points of contact on the rocks. This is because if one of the three doesn't end up working out...you won't fall to your death between the rocks and the endless darkness you see between them. I found my butt to be the most useful.....butt on one rock and a hand and a foot on another. Sometimes you don't have a rock to step on to get to where you're going, so you have to keep your butt stuck to one rock and shimmy while holding your weight in your arms. Caving is an excellent workout. Especially the parts when you feel like the walls are coming down on you and have a small panic attack. Really keeps your heart rate up.
After spelunking around for a while we started to get a little more comfortable with the space (or lack there of) and moving our bodies down there. Dare I say we were actually having fun! It was a huge rush to be down there....with no one else around us for miles, in a place where most people can't even imagine going, and to see things few people will get the chance to see. It was a really beautiful thing to think about what we were climbing and crawling among was all below the earth's surface and completely naturally made by the earth itself. And a really crazy feeling to know that it was formed by water and shifting of rocks. (Although not as beautiful of a thought...it also makes you think, what is stopping it from changing right now while I'm in this tight little spot? Could water rush through or the rocks shift a little lower to crush my ribcage? But it's better if you keep those thoughts out.)
At some point we realize we left Billy's camera outside the cave. Well you know the phrase "pics or didn't happen," right? Chad and I needed pictures of this. We already came to terms with the fact that it was the craziest thing we've ever done and we definitely wanted pictures of us doing it. After a couple of hours of spelunking, we head back out of the cave only to grab the camera and head back in. I'm not kidding you....about 10 moves (I say moves because they weren't steps...we slid, crawled, scaled, and climbed) into the 2nd cave tour I started thinking "wait a minute I got out alive the first time, why didn't I stay out?" At some point I started having fun with it again. This time we were spelunking to a particular place and I was excited about seeing it. Billy took pictures of our route there and when we were in tough spots I kept telling myself it was going to be worth it once we got there. And it definitely was. We made it to Solstice Lake which is a natural cave lake at eye level. You can see in the water and down through the cave as far as your head light will go. It was very cool seeing it and thinking about how maybe 100s (or 1,000s?) of years from now it could be empty of water and a tour-able part of the cave. Maybe someone in the year 3011 will be sitting at that exact spot saying "1000 years ago this was the furthest you could go in this cave" and then they'll continue on where there once was water. Cool to think about.
We also had a "lights out" moment. We got in a comfortable position so we wouldn't be rustling and turned out our head lights and sat in the quiet of the cave for about 5 minutes. The cave really starts to come alive when you're just listening to it and not seeing ANYTHING. There is noise that you didn't hear when your lights were on. Calcium dripping from the cave roof falling into the water where you know it's forming stalagmites. Even the nothingness seems to make noise. And obviously there is NO light...think of the darkest room you've ever been in and multiply it by infinity. While sitting there I liked to squeeze my eyes shut as hard as I could and then open them to no change whatsoever.
Okay, wow. I have rambled on WAY too long. Thank you for still reading...if in fact anyone actually made it through all that. :) I just really want to remember that experience forever.
Pictures don't do our adventure justice but here they are! Keep in mind you can only take pictures when there is enough room for the photographer (Billy) to get his camera out of the case and turn his body enough to snap a photo. So it's just not possible to capture a really tight squeeze while you're completely in it and the flash obviously lights a lot more than what we were seeing down there. But I think you can get the idea....
|Remember...all of these pictures are taken on our 2nd trip back in (post panic attack) so we're looking a LOT more relaxed and confident in the pics and smiling a lot. Mostly because we're feeling very alive. :)|
|You'll see a lot of "orbs" in all the pictures. Apparently it's really hard to take good pictures in caves...obviously because of the lack of lighting but also because it's really damp and dusty down there.|
|Billy teaching us about rock formations.|
|Trying to figure out just how I'm going to get down there...|
|Hmm...I don't think my butt is going to make it through this narrow path.|
|Nope, butt didn't fit so had to figure it out going sideways.|
|Chad's turn. Clearly he is excited.|
|You can see a lot better in this picture to where exactly we're ending up once under the shelf.|
|Haha, this looks super awkward but he did it right and made it down there like a spelunking pro!|
|He managed to untangle his limbs.|
|Underneath the shelf before going into another random hole under there. Craziness.|
|Rock climbing underground.|
|Very cool formation.|
|Billy said it's called 'cave popcorn' but I already forgot the technical term.|
|Trying to wiggle my hips through a small opening.|
|I had no idea practicing yoga would be so useful to me while caving! (especially the deep breathing/meditation part...)|
|Chad waiting patiently for me to get my butt through...|
|You can see better from this picture where we were coming from. Just a small path we were laying in pushing with our toes to move through. Then you gotta get your hips through the opening.|
|Chad working on pushing himself through.|
|Made it. I think he's pretty excited to be in a space big enough to crawl right now. :)|
|Looking a little nervous in this picture....|
|This is my "what the hell am I doing down here" face|
|Going to my happy place....|
|I think I said something like "please let me lay here and rest a minute"|
|And Chad is probably saying "no resting, move out of my way I'm stuck in a small space back here."|
|I swear that "hole" we're coming out of is a lot smaller than it looks in this picture.|
|You know when Chad has to wiggle to get his butt through something that it is INDEED a small hole.|
|Concentrating and going to his happy place.|
|All smiles once we're through!|
|Looks like he's coming straight out from under a rock here. Which is in fact exactly what he's doing.|
|Chad's "what the hell are we doing down here" face.|
|This spot was interesting. We're heading in the direction of the camera and there's a small ledge we have to cross to get there. There's a 40 foot drop in front of us and a rock pushing on us from behind.|
|So you can't sit up straight...you have to lean over the drop to hold the rock on the other side for balance.|
|All while scooting your knees across the other side and trying not to fall to your death. :)|
|(at the front of the visitor entrance) "We're alive!! We made it!"|
|Thank you Billy for a night we will never forget!|