As I stood at the mouth of the cave, it seemed like an excellent time to contemplate my life choices. There’s something about a gaping abyss that makes you question where you’ve been in life, where you’re going, and most importantly, why? I had always had a childhood fear of caves, thanks to a few vacationing trips through Indiana caverns…so why did I volunteer for this?
I only wanted to go for a hike in the mountains. It’s a shame to ignore the beautiful peaks that surround our home town, and as it had been a couple weeks since our last visit, the guilt was beginning to creep in. As much as it seemed contrary to my nature, I love being outdoors. (No people = Happy introvert). I have many times walked the forests of the Midwest, but the Sonoran desert is so far from that in every sense. I didn’t realize how many things I knew about my home town biome until I found myself in a place where deadly creatures live in every nook and cranny. I have spent a good amount of time just looking up facts on everything that lives here, and I still haven’t scratched the surface of this place. It’s a wonder to look at it and not know what that tree is, or what kind of lizard is that, or how many snakes can kill me…
When it came time to pick a trail, we had a few options. One was to go see the waterfall, which at this time was probably dry since the monsoons have ended. The other two both involved caves, and since I had been busy planning a rather adventurous fantasy novel, I felt in the mood. If I could send my imaginary heroes into the depths of the earth, shouldn’t I be able to go too? And it would be great research for my setting. That kind of thinking is apparently all my scaredy-cat brain needed to decide to go spelunking.
Although the Coronado Cave is on the map, it’s not like the tourist caves I have been to in the past. There are no lighted pathways, no floodlights in the crevices. Instead of walking down a carved flight of stairs, we literally climbed over boulders to get inside. And boy, was it impressive. The towering 20 foot ceilings captured every sound in a chamber of echoes, accentuating the oppressive silence. Each footstep seemed amplified to the effect that you could hear the grains of sand and talc moving under the squeak of your shoe. The place had a mildewy smell, strong but not unpleasant, and the flies hung onto the ceiling’s moisture, a rare parcel of water in the desert.
As we descended, the entrance looked smaller and smaller. The light from the mouth began to look more distant, a disappearing treasure. We trekked past the first room, and then the light was gone, and we had only our flashlights, tied to us like lifelines in the dark. The cave’s formation was clearly visible as we passed our beams of light over giants crevices, formed from fallen limestone boulders that must have sounded like thunder when they fell in the past.
There were a number of tiny passages that could only be accessed by crawling, but having the 2-year-old made for a fine excuse not to traverse those perfectly safe holes (or deathtraps, in my mind). As we entered the last great room, I was taken aback by it’s size. Here was a room, underneath a mountainside, that was big enough to hold a whole conference of people. The back wall sloped upward to two great columns that were slick with water, showing the newest creation of the cave. We climbed up to take a look, and after watching Husband duck under a low hanging outcropping, I of course ran right into it. However, I felt a little honored to have bumped my head on such an old and regal peice of geographical history, so I couldn’t stay mad at it. It would do no good to send curses at a thing that had existed long before me, and would continue to be there after I was gone. And the bump on my head makes for a cheap souvenir.
We exited that cave awkwardly, blinking in the strong sunlight, and groping around the smooth rocks like unknown creatures coming out of the dark. The story of Plato’s cave hit me, and I realized what I had been missing in my fear of the unknown.
We took a moment outside of the cave entrance to eat a snack and get reaquainted with the outside world. Just hearing the sound of birds, and feeling the mountain breeze rush around us was spectacular. I was sad that I had not seen any bats in the cave like I expected, but as if on command, one flew out from behind us and disappeared into the sky. As the sun begun it’s balancing act on the mountain peaks, we made our way down the rough trail and back to our car. The trip home took us back past beautiful mountain side homes and wild grassland fields filled with free ranging cows, horses, and mules. On our right, the border wall stretched unopposed across the flatlands, and the distant Mexican mountains looked like a beautiful landscape painting.
The next time I feel afraid, I hope to remember that cave and the wonders that fear can keep us from.