The Cave

It’s been three weeks since shoulder surgery, and I’ve been binge-watching my favorite bike touring channel on YouTube, Roland & Julianna: Bicycle Tourists. Even if you have no plans to ever go on a bike tour, I’d recommend watching their trip across the United States and France. The videos are professionally edited, narrated beautifully, and better than most of the things you’ll find on TV today.

Anyway, they’re a very likable couple from Denver, Colorado, with a laid-back approach to tackling whatever comes their way. It’s not all roses, but there’s always a positive spin to it, and I can ride with them vicariously, while I heal.

Another channel that I enjoy is Adventures on Ebikes. They’re another retired couple visiting mostly trails on the East Coast. I particularly enjoy their adventures on trails with long, scary tunnels, because her reactions would be mine: pure panic! That reminds me…

I remember very well my trip to Branson, Missouri in 2018. It was right before I began working at my current job. There are many caves in that part of the state, and we decided to visit one of the less popular options, one that, to me upon seeing it, resembled a grave.

It wasn’t a pretty cave. The rocks were a muddy brown and rather unimpressive. There were no gnarly stalagmites or pools of clear, glowing water. No colorful light shows or theatrical music. Even the bats had skipped this cave. The air wasn’t even cool. It was hot, stuffy, and dry. Instead of snaking its way under the hilly terrain of Missouri, this cave went straight down, a hundred and fifty feet.

The entrance of the cave was inside a gift shop. While we waited for our tour to begin, the group before us appeared. They looked traumatized. One heavy-set man put a hand to his chest, was sweating profusely, and had trouble breathing. For a few moments, we for sure thought he was having a heart attack. This should have been a clue to skip the tour, but none of us wanted to look like a chicken. I was with my husband and teenage son.

It was a journey down a zigzagging wooden staircase to the bottom, with agonizingly long pauses while the guide told stories. The farther we descended, the more I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. My mind was inside my body, but my heart, and better senses, were floating somewhere else, ready to leave the rest of me behind. As someone who endured many years of unrelenting panic attacks, I had learned how to overcome them amazingly well, but this was really putting me to the test.

By the time we reached just near the bottom, I had had enough of the stories. I didn’t care about cave explorers, gold miners, one-armed bandits on the run from the law, old ghost stories or the mineral composition of the rocks. And, it wasn’t just me. A woman, accompanied by her young daughter, had a total mental meltdown. I hadn’t noticed her before, as she had followed behind us.

She looked like a soccer mom, otherwise completely normal and of sound mind, but at that moment was wild-eyed and frantic. The daughter just held onto her mom’s hand, and wasn’t sure what to think.

The woman told the guide that she was going back, and he told her that he couldn’t allow it. She had to stay with the group, because it was company policy. Maybe, not in exact words, she pretty much told him where to shove the company policy. She and her daughter retreated back up the long flights of stairs alone, guided by the light of her phone and some faint lights that lit up the steps.

As for me, I had somehow held it together. Maybe witnessing someone else losing it made me feel better. I wasn’t the only one who had been freaking out the entire time. Who knew? I figured since we were already halfway, it didn’t make much sense to go back, so I stuck it out.

While the descent had been slow, returning to the top was at a scurried pace. I think the guide was lamenting over the fact that he had been verbally outslugged by a woman and her 7-year-old daughter. Up and up we went in the dark. Trying to keep up with the beam of his lantern was proving to be a challenge. I did okay, but my husband was struggling.

I thought, “Well, I have insurance on him.” Just kidding. Really, I was thinking this is a terrible place to have a heart attack. I kept mentally checking the width and height of the staircase to determine if a stretcher could even reach someone in need of help. Nope. He, or any of us, would’ve been a goner and just another ghost story for the guide to tell.

We finally reached the gift shop and stumbled back into the daylight. Surrounded by the usual gift shop merchandise of fool’s gold and polished rocks, we looked at each other and wondered why we both did something so dumb. But, isn’t that the way vacations are? Doing dumb things for the adventure, or just to have a story to tell? I guess so.

Well, that is my little story today. I’m sitting in the public library, where I’ve been hanging out for a few hours every day. I usually don’t know what I’m going to write about before arriving here, like today, and that’s the fun of it.

Take care. I’ll be back tomorrow.