Lying down for a nap this afternoon, a memory of a cave came to mind. I followed it until sleep o'ertook conscious mind. It was some time in the late 1980s, a friend who no longer lives here took me spelunking in a cave at Speedwell, Virginia, between Independence and Wytheville. The cave opening is on the left side of highway 21 near the 4-way stop sign intersection. The road to the right goes to Mule Hell, Virginia, and the road to the left goes to Rural Retreat, Virginia, over near the Lee Highway. Cripple Creek runs along the side of the road between Speedwell and Rural Retreat. This is not the only place it runs. It's the only place I've seen Cripple Creek. Old musicians of the area claim it's the creek the fiddle tune, Cripple Creek, was named for. At the end of this post I've put a short video of Tommy Jarrell playing Cripple Creek on old-time banjo and singing it. YouTube has a video of him playing it on fiddle if you'd like to hear some amazing hillbilly fiddling. I chose the banjo version to show you here for it's sound. He played a fretless banjo the old-time claw hammer way. Each note, the forefinger strikes downward on a chosen string and the thumb hits the drone string behind every note. The drone string comes across differently each time it's struck. This is hillbilly music at its finest. I didn't know, before, that I could put YouTube links here. The beginning of new possibilities. When I write about hillbilly music, I can illustrate for you with a piece of music in future. For ye unfamiliar with mountain music, Tommy Jarrell was a legend while he was living. Old-timey. He was recorded extensively in the 1970s.
The cave opening is a rather large hole big enough to walk through easily. I do not advise going past the opening. I never will again. Yet it was one of the great experiences of my life. Inside the opening is a big flat area where I suppose people lived in the very old days. The day I was there, I saw it was a toilet for people passing by. Beer cans, Mountain Dew cans, trash and turds everywhere to tiptoe through. We took a passage to the left we could walk into easily, then bent over, then on hands and knees, then belly, crawling like a snake. Such narrow passages from one tube we were crawling through to the next that I sometimes had to say to self, I am snake, or, I am water, to wiggle through it. I got a good education in the limitations of the human skeleton, as well as it's supple nature. I was able to slide through by putting one arm straight ahead, the other straight behind, relax completely. One in particular, called for telling self that I am water. Snake couldn't make it. I mentally dissolved into liquid and flowed to the other side. It wasn't scary as you'd think. It was not more than a few steps into the cave that all light was gone. Not a photon of light. I saw little house spiders with no pigment, clear as a drop of water. The internal workings were on display like in a school science book diagram. Little bats sleeping here and there on the walls upside down. I had no sense that an entire mountain was on my back. The dark was blackness itself. Even black paint is not darker. The uttermost darkness fascinated me. This would be the only chance in my life to see total darkness, absolute black.
My friend at the time, while he lived here a neighbor, Don Smith, took me through the cave. I trusted his abilities. He'd been through the cave several times. He climbed rock cliffs, adventure. He liked the kind of activity that one slip will take you out. I don't. He has an uncanny ability to get out of tight corners he gets himself into. He's like a cat in that way. This is the reason I trusted him; I knew he could get out of any tight spot. We used old coal mine carbide lanterns. A little reservoir holds tiny rocks of carbide. Pour water on them and they emit a gas. Ignite it with a match, it burns like a candle but brighter. It had a reflector that directed a beam. His dad was a coal miner in West Virginia, hands solid as rock. They were his lanterns. I thought it was cool going through a cave with carbide lanterns. Don went ahead of me through the channels, slithering in shallow mud on our bellies, his light ahead of mine. You only see where the beam of the light shines. I see the tube I'm crawling through immediately in front and nowhere else. It does not feel like being so tightly encased for the inability to see anything but the small circle the light illumines. We were both in work coveralls that zip all the way up the front, have snaps at wrist and ankles to keep them tight when needed, and insulated. It's cold in the deep, dark grave. And I did feel a sense of the grave, the dark, the silence, limited mobility. I thought of people buried in the old days while in a coma and woke up in a box underground. I wouldn't like that. I went into the cave with fascination, though there came a time it started feeling creepy, thoughts the cave suggested in my mind made me a little uneasy. We found a cavern with a pool, had a seat, took a break, talked. We turned out the lights for the experience of the darkness. At one place in our conversation, he said, "Your light is your life. There is no getting out of here if the lights fail." All of a sudden, old carbide lanterns were not cool. I wanted out.
He told me about a guy he'd heard about found dead in a cave after his light source stopped working. Nothing to do but sit down and wait to die. I told him the only direction I want to go is out. We were at the turn around point. I could not imagine how he could know his way through the maze of pipes. I would not want to be in there during a rain. Nor would I want to be in there at sunset when the bats swarm through the tubes at flight speed. I did not enjoy the way out like I did the way in. Everything I saw on the inside of the cave was another world, and beautiful. I sometimes think I'd like to see inside a commercial cave, just to see that world again, minus commitment. The way out was gentler than the way in, until we came upon a chasm with a pool of perfectly still, perfectly clear water. Our walking place was up high over this cavern of stalagmites and stalactites, huge ones in terra cotta everywhere. I had to jump across a gap about three feet. Standing on millions of years of glass-smooth rock shaped by water flow, I needed to jump from the equivalent of ice, and land on ice the other side. In work boots. Don hopped across it like a kid jumping a mud puddle. I could not be so casual about it. I saw the Zen archery trick of one time only. I had one chance. Knew I could jump it easily, but wasn't sure about slipping upon landing. Any kind of slip would be at least a broken leg. I was carrying a fifty foot nylon rope rolled up on my shoulder. An odd knob on the wall beside the hole. I looped the coil of rope over the knob that was just the right size, held the rope with left hand, used it for a safety net during the jump. It was easy. Outside in daylight was a shock. The world of growing things, of houses, of cars, of highways I saw as if for the first time. It was incredibly beautiful in light like I'd never seen it before. I fell in love with above ground on the drive home.
ad reinhardt himself