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Blanchard's Wild Cave
Tour, A Surreal Adventure

By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

What do a sack of potatoes, biscuits covered with chocolate gravy, caramel-covered popcorn and a coral reef have in common?

All of these I "saw" in natural formations in the recesses of the earth during my recent participation in the Wild Cave Tour at Blanchard Springs Caverns near Mountain View, Arkansas. For the first time, Blanchard Springs is offering guided hikes into undeveloped reaches of the federally protected underground system.

While not designed to meet the expectations of an experienced wild caver, it's a whopping adventure for amateur explorers.

On a Saturday morning, wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and sturdy hiking boots, I meet six others and our guide, Phillip Dobbins. He hands out the gear and I am transformed into a real caver -- or at least I look like one. His first tip: When talking to each other in the cave do not look each other in the eye, lest you blind others with your headlamp.

The Wild Cave Tour begins at the point where the Discovery Trail ends. (The Dripstone and Discovery Trails are guided, electrically lighted, walking tours over concrete paths.) Excitement builds as we walk down steps along the effortless path; then, the guide exits the easy trail.

Stepping off the concrete onto the rocks and mud, I release my grip on the handrail. My heart beats faster. I check my headlamp, tug at my kneepads, and pull at my gloves.

We walk about 40 yards and my legs begin to shake as I look down into the Grand Canyon, the aptly named first section. Although I've been caving, and I know what I've signed on for, still I must tell myself to get a grip and remember to have fun.

The Grand Canyon is U-shaped with a vertical challenge much like a half-pipe that skateboarders ride from side to side as they flip themselves and their boards in the air to show their skills. But this terrain is clay and rock and loose in places and I definitely don't want wheels.

Standing on the brink of the approximately 50-foot drop, our experienced caving guide gives us a second set of instructions: Holler "rock, rock, rock" if you generate any landslides during your descent. And, if you're below the person yelling "rock" -- don't look up. I drop to my derriere and begin half-sliding, half crab-crawling down the dirt slope. Voices call out "rock, rock, rock" as we each take some of the earth with us. Some of the rocks tumble toward the water running along the far side of the cave.

Safe at the bottom, I realize I must now scramble up the other side. Slipping and sliding, I claw my way to the top using muscles that have been on sabbatical for years.

Once up the side, the reward is an easy walk through the section called the "subway," a natural tunnel through the rock with a high arching ceiling. My mind cannot grasp the eons of time it took for water to carve this passage. A few pieces of beautiful, orange-brown "cave bacon" adorn the walls. Shining a light through one side of the calcite formation, the marbled "cave bacon" actually reminds me more of the "pig ears" I sometimes feed my dogs.

Halfway through the "subway" we encounter a huge hole about 20 feet in diameter. Leaning away from the opening, I slip my right foot toward the edge of the hole and then slowly shift my weight forward for an as-close-as-I-dare view. Strangely, in the depths of the earth I find myself thinking about giant funnel cakes.

The hole is a perfect funnel with a depth of about three feet and the lower opening about 10 feet in diameter. If batter were pouring through it, it would have a drop of 50 feet before splattering on another cave floor below. We shine our lights into the vast, dark space below us.

Phillip explains that we are in fact standing on a false floor. We laugh nervously at the thought and quickly move on. Along the stone tunnel we find a bat to study. Then I see a formation that reminds me of biscuits covered in chocolate gravy. Maybe I'm just getting hungry from my workout, but a lot of the formations I see make me think of food.

At the end of the subway we encounter a tighter space with a low ceiling offering only about two to four feet of clearance at various points. My kneepads come in handy as I drop to all fours. The opening is several feet wider however, so I don't feel too cramped.

After crawling for at least the length of two bowling alley lanes, I'm able to stand in an open area. It's the last leg of the journey to our ultimate goal -- to view The Titans. This section is roomy, like a movie theater, but shaped more like a light bulb. The path to The Titans is over a rocky crag with a drop-off to water on the left. Phillip throws a rock in the water and it takes several seconds for it to hit. In the dim light and uneven terrain, I can't calculate the slope. I'm not sure I want to. I concentrate on hand and foot holds.

As I begin climbing over jutting rock, I find myself wishing I were a mountain goat or at least one of the longer-legged members of our group.

"Just lean to the right, away from the drop-off on the left," says Phillip. No problem there, I think. I lean so hard I could fuse myself to the rock. At a precarious point Phillip stands as a barrier between us cavers and the rock and water below. The "miss-independent-I-can-do-this-by-myself" woman is suddenly replaced by a girl searching for Phillip's helping hand. Cautiously, I continue to clamber and wonder what I'm doing here.

Then, there stand The Titans. Relief and awe replaces any lingering trepidation.

The Titans are two towering stalagmites, reaching 80 to 100 feet from the bottom of the cave toward the top, like totem poles symbolizing a mysterious place. One almost touches the ceiling while the other falls short. In hues of white, amber and blue-gray their beauty is indescribable. I feel privileged to be one of the few people in the world to make the trip to see this secret of the earth.

I can see my breath, not from cold but the high humidity. I hadn't noticed the humidity elsewhere in the cave as I do now at The Titans.

We each find a comfortable rock and eagerly sit down. Then my favorite part—eating lunch in the recesses of the earth. It is only my second time to do so. Perhaps I find it so fun because it seems so unnatural and surreal. I suddenly feel strangely connected to my caveman ancestors.

We eat, rest and talk while gazing at the miracles of the underground world. My perspiring body begins to cool down and I become aware that it is about 58 degrees in the cave. The entire group turns off its headlamps and we sit in total darkness. I realize that at age 31, I'm still afraid of the dark. We turn our lights on and Phillip says, "Imagine trying to climb out of the cave without lights and encountering the funnel in the subway." I try not to think about it for long.

Eventually, we head back the way we came.

This time I fuse the left side of my body to the rock to avoid tumbling down the precipice. Back to crawling. Again, I can't see any way to do it gracefully so I lumber through like a bear coming out of hibernation. Then, because I'm short, I try standing at a four-foot opening. I end up hunched over like a caveman, swinging one arm. I resist the urge to grunt like one, laughing instead.

As the low ceiling opens up to a large room, I stand erect too soon and bang my helmet on the hard rock. I look up to make sure I didn't hit any of the spear-like stalactites or small soda straws hanging from the ceiling. The soda straws are about the size their name implies. But, my close-up view shows they are hollow inside, unlike icicles that form in winter. Very slowly water drips from their blunt tips. Their overall pattern on the ceiling makes them look like threads holding together obtuse quilt pieces.

Moving on, I breathe easier as we walk back through the "subway." This time we stop to check out delicate bat bones, which are thinner than toothpicks.

At this point, two other people and I are ahead of Phillip. We stop at the end of the subway, looking down a very steep slope. A couple of us joke with Phillip that we are going the wrong way, that we couldn't possibly have come this way the first time. I pretend I'm joking anyway. Frankly, I'm slightly confused at the look of things. There's no way I actually climbed up that rise of ground.

He laughs and remarks that many people feel that way coming back out of the cave. The same spots passed the first time look completely different from the opposite direction.

I take a deep breath, drop and become a lizard slithering my way down the Grand Canyon. I look behind me and realize the last half of the group is standing -- walking down. Immediately I'm incensed and empowered.

I rise to my feet and realize I can walk. I take several steps and feel proud that I'm now one of the mountain goats -- except, wait! Oh, I'm a lizard again sliding on the floor. "Rock!" I yell a little too timidly, just as a golf-ball sized one hits the teenager in front of me square in the back.

"Sorry," I say meekly. We laugh and work and work and work at scrambling up the other side of the Grand Canyon. In the distance, my headlamp gleams off the handrail I last held about three and one-half hours ago. Exhilaration and pride in accomplishment override my tiredness. Dirt clings to my clothes.

I clutch the handrail and step onto the concrete path. My weary legs carry me to the surface. My transformation into a caver feels complete.

The Wild Cave adventure at Blanchard Springs is open Saturday and Sunday, and is limited to eight people accompanied by a guide. Reservations are required and may be made by calling 1-888-757-2246. Cost is $65 per person and a $25 non-refundable deposit is required. In addition to being in good physical condition, participants must be at least 10 years of age and an adult must accompany those 10 to 12 years old. Sturdy hiking shoes are a must, not tennis shoes or shoes with slick soles.

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