Deep in the belly of the cave, my headlamp barely lighting the rock walls, I crawled on my hands and knees toward the stranger I'd gone underground with, the only one there with a map and a clue.
I don't normally court danger with men I find on the Internet. But this was different. I'd decided to try caving, and the only way I knew how was by hiring a guide who'd take me and my friend Jay into the bowels of the earth for a morning.
Luckily, the guide I'd found was Lester Zook, an outdoor-ed teacher at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. This spring,, he drove to the tiny town of Millboro Springs to take us into Crossroads Cave. It would be my first taste of spelunking.
I'd been in caves before, but always in attractions such as Luray Caverns, with their smooth walkways and guides pointing out well-lit stalactites to a chorus of oohs from tourists. But caving – real caving – is more like full-body, muddy hiking, with tight crawl spaces and hibernating bats.
Snuggled in the Allegheny Mountains, Bath County has some of Virginia's longest cave networks, carved out of limestone by groundwater over millions of years. The temperature underground remains between 50 and 60 degrees, so the caves are perfect venues for rugged adventures whether it's freezing or sweltering outside. But many are on private land, and amateurs should never enter one without a seasoned guide.
That's where Zook, a 47-year-old father of four, came in. A wilderness guide for 15 years, he planned to take us on a half-day trip underground, teaching us basic safety techniques as we explored a beginner-friendly cave.
We followed his dusty Jetta to a parking lot filled with SUVs; then the lessons began. While Jay and I fitted our headlamps to our helmets, Zook offered an assessment of why accidents happen in the outdoors and what the dangers in caving are (entrapment, falls, getting lost). I hadn't quite grasped how dangerous caving could be, or how complicated a cave rescue is.
We agreed to take our time in the cave and to check our pride by the car. Speaking of cars: “Never, ever, ever take your car keys into a cave,” he said. “If you drop them down a hole, you're never getting them back.” Gotcha. We hid our keys with his near the Jetta and headed down a wooded slope.
After a brief lesson on whistle-talk (One toot: Stop! Two toots: Come here! Three toots: Danger!), Zook directed me to enter the cave first. I wriggled myself into a rocky hole no more than three feet in diameter.
Even after Zook joined Jay and me in the cave, I couldn't see farther than my nose. And that was with our headlamps on.
We felt our way to an opening where we eased onto rocky seats and turned off the headlamps to experience total darkness. For fun, we did the obligatory Life Savers trick (chewing them produces sparks); when we turned our headlamps back on, my eyes had adjusted a little. We were in a high-ceilinged room, sitting on boulders next to walls covered in thick ribbons of rock.
Our next destination was the Duck Waddle room. Squat-walking through a low-ceiling tunnel, I soon learned why the name was so apt. As I crawled on the wet rocks, with the ceiling just feet above my head, I tried to keep as much of my body in contact with the rock as possible, a key to safe caving. Waves of claustrophobia came and went, and it was a relief every time we got to a part of the cave where I could stand up and look around.
Throughout the trip, we saw a dozen or so hibernating bats clinging to the ceiling with their tiny feet, their wings folded up against their body for warmth, their fur matted with dew.
Our last challenge was squeezing through a narrow hole at the mouth of the cave to get out, a different entrance from the one we'd used in the beginning. We had to rotate our bodies till we popped out like champagne corks. Blinking in the sunlight, we congratulated one another, and I couldn't stop smiling despite the frigid wind piercing my sweaty, muddy clothes.
Afterward, Jay and I unwound at the Jefferson Pools, run by the posh Homestead resort that's five miles down the road in the town of Hot Springs. In 1818, a rheumatic Thomas Jefferson took in the Warm Springs waters, which bubble up from the ground at a soothing 98 degrees. If it was good enough for him …
Today the white octagonal pool house where he soaked remains, but it's ordinarily for men only; the women's facility, built in 1836, sits next to it. After slipping into the pink flowered romper the pool attendant gave me, I scampered into the pool, where the warm water was incredibly relaxing. At about 4 1/2 feet deep, the pool was shallow enough for me to stand, though most women clung to brightly colored foam noodles, a disarmingly modern touch.
The next morning, after sleeping like, well, rocks in a nearby B&B, we couldn't resist one last soak in the Jefferson Pools. This time, it was co-ed “family hour,” so I got to try out the men's pool, where Jefferson sought his cure. The rafters in the men's bathhouse were a little more worn, the water in the pool a bit deeper, but the soak soothed my sore muscles just the same.