Into the Dark
“Who wants to do a squeeze?” Asks Chip Dixon, a guide at Wanderlust Tours in Bend, Oregon.
The term squeeze triggers visions of getting stuck below a tiny entrance while giant rocks drop from the ceiling, squishing my fingers and toes. I envision basalt walls crushing closer, pushing into my pupils to mask the world in complete darkness. Instead, we stop at a space about two feet wide and a foot tall: the entrance to the squeeze. Dixon leads the way, skillfully navigating through the wormhole. Dropping to the ground, I inch after him through the ash, elbow-by-elbow, legs squirming snake-like into the depths of the soil.. Despite my attempt to think like a snake, my mind insists trying to convince my body the space is entirely too small to pass through until I start to wonder what might be on the other side. A sense of optimism begins to flow through my veins as if I were absorbing adrenaline from the cave walls themselves. In that moment, my body springs to alertness and I twist to my side to inch over the small, jagged rocks stuck between me and the mystery that lies just a few feet from the end of my squeeze.
Dixon leads tours to Skeleton Cave, the second largest lava tube in Oregon. Ancient skeletons—ranging from hyena-like dogs to grizzlies-on-steroids—were discovered by Oregon journalist Phil Brogan in 1928. As a result of his findings, Brogan’s career took off and eventually he wrote a book titled East of the Cascades. The book has since been the go-to guide for many avid cavers throughout Central Oregon.
Beyond preserving old bones, caves were likely the first air conditioners and refrigerators for humans; regardless of the temperature outside, caves tend to hover between 41 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, making them a natural place to cool down. And their large open spaces provide endless storage possibilities. Bend, Oregon is home to hundreds lava tubes, caves that can be miles-long and were formed by lava that had once flowed through the region, that were formed after the Newberry volcano erupted thousands of years ago.
“How’re you guys doing?” Dixon calls back.
The soles of Dixon’s hiking boots are all that’s visible of him. Looking to the left or right is out of the question, and the thought of craning my neck to call back is about as plausible as defying gravity. All I can do is force my focus on what may lie ahead. Rocks pierce like daggers into both of my knees, bringing unwanted flashbacks of James Franco as Aron Ralston having his arm crushed in 127 Hours. Words of encouragement echo back that the end of the squeeze is near.
My eyes dart to the floor, which is covered in volcanic ash. In the dark, the cave floor could easily be mistaken for a sandy beach. Dixon refers to the icicle-like formations that protrude so prominently from the walls and ceiling as “lavacicles.” Although the cave is composed of rock, parts of the walls are scarlet due to natural rusting and mineral deposits. Droplets of water hug the cave’s ceiling from the previous week of heavy rainfall.
“It’s almost like the rocks sweat,” Dixon explains.
An earthy aroma whirls into each nostril, clearing my mind. Caves are places where darkness swallows any sense of existence. When the headlamps turn off, eyes widen and mouths shut. Being immersed in complete darkness is like being in a dream, unable to control what happens next within the confines of my own mind. It’s like being asleep with both eyes open but instead of feeling trapped under the warm weight of the down comforter, my mind feels free as I inhale the untainted subterranean breeze.
“I think that detachment from your senses can be very healthy for the mind—it’s kind of like meditating,” Dixon says. “To be able to separate yourself from most forms of stimuli is a very special thing.”
Not everyone understands this rarity. In the past few years, it’s become common for people to use caves as a place to party. Dixon often finds anything from broken bottles to sunflower seeds littering the cave floor. As a company, Wanderlust Tours participates in locally organized cave cleanups. Despite these active efforts towards reformation, current cavers still suffer the consequences of other’s irresponsibility by having limited access to the caves. Dixon says it’s likely that the US Forest Service will keep the caves closed until vandalism dies down completely.
“Unfortunately, for the Forest Service to gain trust in the public, the public needs to start respecting the open-access caves,” Dixon says.
Oregon High Desert Grotto (OHDG), a local caving club in Central Oregon, encourages preserving caves by educating members on cave conservation. And what better way to do so than visiting multiple caves and hunting for new ones? One of OHDG’s goals is to discover new caves to enjoy for cavers all over the planet. Matt Skeels, chairman of OHDG, has discovered over 100 new caves by utilizing aerial photography and topographic maps. Skeels explains that the maps and photography usually reveal features that resemble a collapse. On topographical lines, he looks for a bulge or vent where lava may have been coming out.
“[How we find new caves] is a secret weapon, so to speak,” Skeels says. “We don’t talk about it much because it conflicts with our beliefs of caving. We enjoy caves and want to protect and conserve them. We’re secretive about nice caves because of vandalism.”
About two years ago, Skeels recalls OHDG members producing a video to raise awareness of mistreatment of caves. With rocks splattered with neon spray paint, needles, broken bottles, and scattered garbage littering the cave floor, Hidden Forest Cave was so badly damaged that members of OHDG took matters into their own hands. These visual imaged of defaced caves moved the issue out from underground and into the public eye. OHDG also created a website where people could donate funds to restore the cave, which made the public feel more obligated to help. Finally, OHDG encouraged anyone who had information about cave vandalism to contact the US Forest Service. Eventually, vandals were caught and brought to justice. But it wouldn’t have been possible without OHDG and their dedication to protecting caves.
Pushing past ponderosa pines and making small talk on the trek to Bear Scat Cave, Skeels’ most recent discovery, a slight excitement stirs the late morning’s dry air. The possibility of making it past another tight squeeze gives me incentive to keep up with the rest of the OHDG members, who also seem excited judging by their swift stride. Skeels is leading the way, holding a handheld GPS device in the air with such confidence, it looked as if he’d come out of the womb with it (his buddies often refer to him as a bloodhound). Within a few minutes, boulders bordering a hole in the ground come into clear view and members drop their backpacks to the ground and begin to gear up.
It’s impossible for anyone to look good in a helmet or feel comfortable in kneepads aboveground, so once everyone is on their hands and knees on the floor of rugged basalt, everyone is an equal, at the mercy of the dark. The cave’s entrance requires regressing to an awkward, primordial crawl, but with the amount of fellow cavers on this particular day’s excursion, we must pay special attention to maintaining a safe distance between us. No one wants to know the smell of the bottom of a boot.
With each inch forward, kneepads scrape fragments of rock off the ground, making it sound as though the plastic is cracking in all directions, awakening fears of my kneepads tearing apart to expose a bloody bare knee. Luckily, after about 300 feet of rocky, paranoia-filled crawling, a predominantly sandy area appears and Skeels asks if anyone wants to try the squeeze. It’s a little over a foot. Two other cavers inch forward to volunteer.
“You guys are going to want to go head-first through the first part,” Skeels says. “And then to the left you’re going to want to go feet-first, since you’ll be going down.”
Like a gopher traveling through underground tunnels or a newly-hatched turtle trying to find its way past the shore to the sea, my elbows wriggle through the sand while my knees fight to propel me farther, since the ashy ground discourages grip. Although my limbs are limited in their extension, an earthy smell soaks into my clothes and I feel as though I’m back to my roots. Being submerged underground, unable to fully extend my limbs, gives me a whole new perspective on how miniscule I really am.
The smallest squeeze Skeels has ever accomplished was a mere seven inches. Almost as soon as he got in, he was stuck up to his chest. He took off his jacket to give himself that extra half inch of clearance and, as he got a little further in, he noticed the squeeze gradually opened up. Skeels was spurred to continue through the tight squeeze by the thought that he’d be one of the few people to make it back that far. Exhaling the air out of his lungs to give him extra room, he pushed past the constriction point. As he inhaled, however, his body expanded sideways because of how tight the squeeze was. He moved forward but got stuck again on his hips. The only way Skeels would make it through was to pull his pants down to his knees. Without the fabric on his lower body, Skeels was able to wriggle through to the other side, a walking passage of about 400 feet.
“It isn’t so much fitting through a tight passage that’s rewarding,” Neil Marchington, a fellow OHDG member, says. “It’s the sense of finding what’s beyond.”