The bats living in the caves under Humpback Mountain scare some people, but not Sarah Davis. She owns the darkness and has come to terms with what’s in it.
The outside world ends a few steps beyond the entrance to Linville Caverns. A creek gurgles on the left, where a handful of trout swim in place. Water drip-drip-drips from the ceiling. The still air chills your skin, the temperature an ever-steady 52 degrees.
Sarah Davis, who owns the mountain that contains these caverns, sits on a bench outside, her back to the entrance and the steep face of Humpback Mountain. Before her, the north fork of the Catawba River rushes over rocks and under a bridge to somewhere out of sight. The trees stand so thick that if you walked into the forest, you’d soon be as invisible as if you were in the caverns. Anxious storm clouds threaten to unload at any minute.
Davis motions to the other mountains around her and wonders whether all of them hide caverns like hers. She likes to think not, that her caverns are unique, unrepeatable, here and only here.
Her husband, Ronnie, arrives. She teases him about their courtship. They met on a blind date set up by mutual friends who wanted to help her after the death of her husband, Nick Medford, the father of her twin sons, Zack and Jake. Medford died of liver disease at 40 in 1991; Jake was killed in a car crash in 2002.
The day after the blind date with Ronnie, a car drove by her house, over and over again. She couldn’t see who was in the car. After it circled her cul-de-sac for the umpteenth time, she went out to investigate. Ronnie was behind the wheel. He told her he kept driving by because he wanted to see her again to make sure she was real. She was, and still is.
A fisherman who saw trout that appeared to swim right into Humpback Mountain discovered Linville Caverns in 1822. The fish still do that, in the creek that gurgles inside. During the Civil War, deserters from both sides hid in the caverns. Tools left behind suggest at least one of the men worked as a cobbler, fixing or making shoes in exchange for food.
A group of local businessmen opened Linville Caverns as a tourist attraction in 1937. A few years later, a flood devastated the county, particularly the caverns. Mud and rocks filled them. The business closed.
After that, Davis’s grandfather Spencer Collins, an investor in the initial company, bought the whole mountain. He cleaned out the caverns and reopened the business in 1941. It has remained in his family ever since.
Davis took over from her mother, Tena Nanney, in 1993, and she plans to pass the business to her son, Zack, but no time soon. “I’ll stick around here for as long as possible,” Davis says, “just to irritate the people who work here.”
She’s kidding, of course. She refers to her employees as adopted children, and mothers them. Davis mothers the whole place, really. She beams while talking about the Nesticus carolinensis — aka the Linville Caverns spider — that resides inside this mountain, and nowhere else.
And she laments the loss of the caverns’ bats. Five years ago, the bats numbered more than 150. This spring, she counted eight. The remaining bats come and go through two openings above the caverns’ entrance. They aren’t easy to spot because they are so small, about the size of a chicken nugget. Davis wants to save the bats but feels helpless.
Jake was afraid of bats. When he was 16, he swore the bats swooped after him in the caverns. His mother laughed and called him crazy. To prove that he was right, they went into the cave together at a time when bats normally hibernated. One fluttered right in Jake’s face while none came near his mother. She told him to stay still, that the bat was just curious about him.
That didn’t assuage his fear.
To avoid the bats, he hid behind formations while leading tours. Eventually Davis moved him to the “porch” — the area in front of the entrance to the caverns. There, Jake’s job was to take tickets and keep the customers happy and occupied while they waited for their turn to go inside. A natural peacemaker with an outgoing personality, he charmed customers. “He had the gift of gab, just like me,” Davis says.
Three months after Jake died, a man stopped by the caverns looking for him. He had spoken with Jake on the porch as his family went through the caverns. The man had been so impressed with Jake that he wanted to ask for his advice about dealing with his troubled son. The man thought Jake would understand both the father’s and the son’s points of view. That made Davis proud, that a man who barely knew Jake wanted to tap his ability to relate to people. Jake left behind an impression even greater than she thought.
A picture of Nanney, who died in 1998, hangs behind the cash register in the gift shop. Davis talks about her constantly. Sometimes in difficult situations,
Davis imagines what Nanney would have done, and then she does that.
Years ago, when Nanney still owned Linville Caverns, Davis tried to talk her into buying a credit card machine. Nanney resisted, preferring to stick with cash and traveler’s checks. Finally Davis snuck a machine in. Still, Nanney sometimes put a cover over it to hide it. “We’re not about modern,” Davis says. “We’re about staying the same.”
Today, the caverns look almost exactly like they did when Davis was a wide-eyed 3-year-old girl exploring them with her grandfather. The only difference inside the caverns from then to now is the lights. Natural now, they used to be colored. The only change in the caverns reveals the fact that the caverns haven’t changed.
Davis grew up in Marion, and the 30-minute drive to see her grandparents at Linville Caverns might as well have been 30 days for how long it seemed. But the interminable drive was worth it.
“It used to be advertised as an underground fairyland, which in a little girl’s mind is just the grandest place in the world,” Davis says. She has awe in her voice, still, after 57 years of trips deep into Humpback Mountain. “When I was little, it was the most magical place in the world.”
Tour guide Jess Conley brings visitors deep inside the caverns to see the magic for themselves. Look around long enough, and shapes start to emerge from formations, like an underground Rorschach test.
Water and time have conspired to create stalagmites and stalactites that resemble everything from George Washington to a Franciscan monk marrying a kneeling bride and groom.
In most areas, the cavern is at least as open as a hallway in a house, and often more so. The narrowest stretch feels as tight as a garage with two cars in it. That passageway leads to a steel grate over water. Years ago, the owners dropped a weighted line into the water below the grate. The line sank 250 feet and never hit bottom, so guides christened it The Bottomless Pool. Nobody knows how deep it is. “You’re standing over a mystery,” Conley says.
Stalactites hang from the ceiling. Stalagmites sprout from the floor. The walls look slimy, as if someone sneezed on brown Play-Doh.
Late in the tour, Conley shuts off the lights, plunging the caverns into absolute blackness. Darkness this complete exists only deep in caves and at the bottom of the ocean. The quiet adds to the caverns’ eeriness. A few seconds pass. With the click of Conley’s flashlight, the world inside the caverns returns.
Back outside, Davis is wearing a Linville Caverns T-shirt, and a locket holding a picture of Jake and a snippet of his hair. Some days, Davis can’t talk about him. She tries, but the words catch in her throat. Today they pour out of her.
In July 2002, Davis and Ronnie were driving to a vacation in South Carolina. Jake and a friend followed in a second car. Zack and his girlfriend were in a third car behind Jake.
Another car, speeding by in the same direction, cut Jake off and made contact with him. Ronnie saw the accident in his rearview mirror. “Oh, God, babe, Jake is wrecking,” he said to Davis.
Jake’s car flipped multiple times.
Davis looked back. All she could see was dust. When it cleared, she was shocked nobody else was involved in the crash.
Ronnie and Zack rushed to the car and pulled Jake out of the wreckage. A woman on the scene held Davis and prayed with her. She put her hand on Davis’s cheek, and every time Davis tried to look over to where Ronnie was performing CPR on Jake, the woman pushed Davis’s face to look away. “No, no,” the woman told her. “We’re going to pray.”
“I looked,” Davis says, “because I’m a mother.”
As Davis talks, thunder shakes Humpback Mountain. Lightning flashes across the early afternoon sky. Even with the protection of an awning that covers the sidewalk from the gift shop to the caverns’ entrance, rain sprays onto Davis. Just then, a man named Oren Benfield, a former tour guide who stopped by to say hello, shows a text message he received announcing that nearby Lake James has been evacuated due to the storm.
Davis says she believes that it was Jake’s day to die, that he would have died whether it was in that crash or somewhere else. But she also says she regrets that she did not run to her son’s side.
Benfield says softly, “No, you don’t.” A licensed paramedic, he shares a story about witnessing death up close. He is glad Davis didn’t have to experience that.
She looks up at him. She doesn’t argue, but she doesn’t agree, either. She continues. “In my crazy little head, I believed that if I just got over there and held him, he wouldn’t have left me,” she says.
She knows that’s not true. She wishes she had done it anyway.
The people Davis has known her whole life, in and around Marion, helped sustain her as she mourned. Her close friends sought her out to grieve with her. They always knew where to find her: She returned to Linville Caverns a week after Jake died. “I just figured instead of me sitting and thinking and going on and on, it was better to deal with business.”
And not just any business, but this business, Linville Caverns, filled with people who love her. “If you don’t have friends and family and people around you, you can’t make it,” she says.
She used to tell Jake to put his long hair in a ponytail, and she told other tour guides to cover their tattoos or take out their unusual piercings. Davis worried what customers thought. But after Jake died, she stopped worrying, not because she doesn’t care what customers think but because if customers judge a person based on their hair or tattoos or piercings, that’s their problem, not the guides’.
As if on cue, a tour guide with a nose ring walks by.
Jake lives on in more personal ways, too.
The last thing Davis sees before bed, and the first thing she sees when she gets up, is a picture of her hugging Jake. “You never get over it. Grief’s with you forevermore. Which do you choose?” she says. “The hurt? Or go ahead and face life and face things and do something positive?”
Customers emerge from the caverns behind her. Others wait their turn on the porch. The rain has stopped. Soon the sun will be out again. She turns to face the mountains again.
Where are the bats?
Bats throughout the Eastern United States have been dying at an alarming rate from white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by the fungus Geomyces destructans. Though harmless to humans, the fungus irritates the bats, which causes them to wake up during hibernation. Being awake makes them burn off too much energy, and they starve to death.
When Sarah Davis finds dead bats in or around Linville Caverns, she freezes them and sends them to Emory University to be studied. So far, scientists haven’t come up with a solution. Davis fears that one species, the eastern pipistrelle, might soon be extinct in this area.
19929 U.S. Highway 221 North
Marion, N.C. 28752
Matt Crossman wrote for 12 years for Sporting News, long known as the “Bible of Baseball,” and he thinks it’s destiny that his first Our State story involves bats.