We slash through lush undergrowth, branches thwacking our legs, briars pricking our pants, and huff it up a hill. For a brief stretch, we follow a level trail before going
We slash through lush undergrowth, branches thwacking our legs, briars pricking our pants, and huff it up a hill. For a brief stretch, we follow a level trail before going trackless again into the deep woods, down the hillside. Our cars are parked along U.S. Highway 176, next to the boulder-strewn North Pacolet River just southeast of Saluda. In the gilded sunlight of early evening, we reach an outcrop of lichen-coated rocks that provide our portal to a dark and silent realm. This is where we begin our trek into the earth, into the darkness.
“I have always liked caves,” says Kimberly Lughart, a member of the Flittermouse Grotto, a cave-exploring club in Asheville. When she’s not dropping into deep, dark fissures across western North Carolina and surrounding states, she’s a member of the Henderson County Rescue Squad and is trained to perform rescues for the National Cave Rescue Commission. For Lughart — whose license plate reads “CAVERGRL” — caving is both an adrenaline rush and a Zen experience. “I think a lot of it is finding and seeing stuff that no one else sees,” she says. “A lot of people won’t go there.”
Our caving party also includes Zach Lemcke, who’s the chair of the roughly 100-member Flittermouse Grotto, named for an old-fashioned term for “bat.” The club is part of the National Speleological Society, which has local chapters, or grottos, across the country. In addition to Flittermouse, North Carolina claims two other grottos: the Charlotte Caving Club and the Triangle Troglodytes. “Our mission is to help train and introduce the public to caving and make sure they’re safe and responsible when they do it,” Lemcke says. And you don’t have to become a dues-paying member to tag along for a tour; the club offers beginner trips for anyone interested in getting a feel for caving.
Lemcke, a contract forester for Duke Energy, figures western North Carolina has a few hundred caves, a relatively small number compared to states like Tennessee, which, due to the prevalence of much younger and softer limestone, has thousands. “Much of North Carolina’s geology is just too old to have limestone,” Lemcke says. “The geological formations in the state are about a billion years old, and limestone is generally about a third or half of that age.”
The cave we’re probing in Polk County is typical of those in the North Carolina mountains. It’s made of metamorphic granite called gneiss, with flourishes of feldspar. As for how caves form here in the first place, credit a combination of tectonic activity and gravitational forces. Fractures in rocks can expand from ice or tree roots, “and they split and slide down slopes and create that void,” Lemcke says.
He ventures into these voids because he styles himself a modern-day explorer. “For me, it’s pure discovery,” he says. “There’s a lot of beauty in the rock and the things that live in the rock.” The inspiration for exploring caves is as varied as the caves themselves. “Some people do it for the physical discovery of new places; some people do it for self-discovery. People who are interested in science and biology really enjoy caving because it’s such a unique environment.”
• • •
In the woods, it’s warm and muggy. I’m sweat-soaked. Lemcke leads the way into the cave and I feel the air cool considerably to about 56 degrees.
Lughart has named our destination Pickpocket Cave. “There was a little skinny spot I was trying to get through, and I had two batteries in my pocket, and I dropped them,” she explains. “Since the cave stole my batteries, I named it Pickpocket.”
While the cave is starved of light, it’s not totally devoid of life. Bats hibernate in its confines during the winter, bacteria thrive on the rocks, and curious humans infiltrate in search of new horizons in subterranean spaces. “It’s very primitive,” Lughart says. “I mean, these things have been here thousands — if not millions — of years, and it’s very humbling.”
Admittedly, I’m nervous. Wearing a helmet mounted with a headlamp, I follow Lemcke into the rocky depths. The walls close in tight, and I feel a pang of claustrophobia. Breathe, just breathe.
We scoot, clamber, slide, crawl, and shimmy our way through this fissure in the earth. Rocks point and jab at us. Some are loose underfoot. Lemcke points out little ledges where I can get a toehold.
He instructs me to push against the walls with my arms and legs to gain leverage while making my way down a near-vertical drop. “It’s just a matter of expanding and contracting,” he says. “Expanding helps you stay put; contracting helps you move.”
Lemcke ties a rope to a rock and climbs down to a small opening where he’s able to stand up. I’ve gone far enough; unwilling to attempt climbing out of that hole, I stay put.
Lughart found this spot in the winter, when caves are known to blow out air. Because of the constant temperature inside, and the differences in temperature and air pressure from the outside, caves tend to “breathe”: They exhale in the winter and inhale during warm weather. While walking in these woods one day in February, Lughart noticed an unmistakable scent. “I’m like, There are caves around here somewhere,” she says. “I could smell it, and I felt the breeze.”
She poked her head into the entrance and could see that it was a bona fide cave. “I was so excited,” she says. So what makes it qualify as a bona fide cave? “Pretty much if you can get total darkness and fit your body in all the way, it’s more or less a cave.”
Inside, Lughart’s limber figure can fit into impossible nooks and crannies. At one point, she disappears into a hole and slithers back out, emerging with a smile. “It’s the education factor, it’s the conservation factor, it’s the coolness, it’s the athleticism, it’s the wonder of it all,” she says.
After more than an hour underground, returning to the outside world is at once stifling and liberating. I’m enveloped by the warmth and humidity, which hit like a sauna after the coolness of the cave. Early in the journey, my bout of claustrophobia had eased off, and I began to embrace the eeriness of cave exploration. But it feels good to stand up, to stretch out, to smell the forest again.
The sun has dropped below the ridges, and we make our way through the half-light back toward the road. Even the dense forest feels more open. Even the night feels less dark. Everything has an airiness about it. I had gone into the earth, into darkness and mystery, and discovered a whole new world — one that’s sure to summon me back … so long as I breathe, just breathe.