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For months I had eagerly anticipated the end of the spring semester and the chance to finally get some real work done. However, I soon found that in the absense of school work, I wasn't really inclined to do anything at all, and was thus bored out of my mind 5 days into summer vacation. Fortunately, whilst checking my email for the hundredth time on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I came across an announcement from UF's outdoors club announcing that there was one spot left for a crazy caving/backpacking trip leaving within 36 hours.
We packed 4 people and about 1.5 trunkloads worth of gear into a compact hybrid and set out down I-75 early Tuesday morning. Before too long, we had arrived in the karstic highlands of Lafayette and donned our spelunking attire. Never having done any serious caving before, I wondered why we needed pants, knee pads, technical boots (which I neglected to pack) and ample supplies of food and water, but this would all be cleared up shortly - as would the mystery of why we stored the cave maps in ziplock baggies in our helmets.
At the registration post for Pettijohn's Cave, our experienced leader, Tom, logged our entry and predicted exit times as 6:30PM and 12:00AM; at the time, I thought this was a rather ludicrous margin of error. We descended into the earth via a non-descript hole measuring about 2 feet square.
From the start I began to suspect this was not of the same breed of cavern I had carelessly skipped through in the past; no light shone down from the outside world, nor was there any indication of which way to go. The entry room was a massive pile of randomly shaped boulders, divided by crevices that could, at the first misstep, drop you a story or two into the pits of jagged formations below.
As with any immensely impressive natural phenomenon, the cave doubled as a trash pit/youth hangout for the local population. Many of the rooms reeked of booze and at the time of our descent, we were sadly sharing the limited air with a group of chain-smoking rednecks who were apparently being led (rather unsuccessfully) by a deaf guide. We tried our best not to help them find their way into any of the more pristine depths.
The exit to the first room, as with many rooms to follow, was not a person-sized passageway, but was rather a non-obvious crack in the floor that, given the proper level of coaxing, a human body could eventually be made to squeeze through. Widely reputed as the "muddiest cave in Georgia," there was never a shortage of lubrication to allow someone with the right dimensions to shimmy down even the tightest gaps between rocks. In the more treacherous descents, a few slimy rope handles were provided to allow for some reasonable chance of not impaling yourself on the stalagmites below.
The provided map was not entirely intuitive and whenever we arrived at a new chamber, we would squirm down several dead ends and cycles before we hit upon a channel that went through. We eventually arrived at a sizable underground stream and followed that for a hundred yards to a 15ft waterfall; naturally, the next step was to scale the falls using a precarious rope ladder. After squiggling down half a dozen more narrow channels, we noticed we had been down for nearly 3 hours and, by majority vote, decided to attempt a return trip before the route got any more convoluted.
The path back to the surface was not entirely obvious and in nearly every room we would spend some time deliberating on which crack to dive through; luckily none among our group were particularly prone to panic attacks, as being stuck in a dark, cold, underground labryinth, without the vaguest notion of how to escape, could certainly be a source of some anxiety. We followed a patchwork of guesses from our collective memory, mostly centering around familiar-looking trash, and slowly retraced our steps. Many of the puzzles that had seemed straight-forward coming in, now appeared practically impossible and there were times (like when Lauren did a desperate leap and belly flop on to a distant slab) when I imagined it might be just as well to remain in the cave.
We emerged with less than half an hour til midnight. Walking a mile down the road, we used the ranger's hose to try to clean off the inches of mud and clay caked on our clothing (though a bonfire would probably have been the smarter option). We settled in for the night, cold and exhausted, but grateful to be alive and to be privee to this small sampling of the immense wonders of the subterranean world.
In the morning, we stopped at the ambiguously pronounced Ingles supermarket and picked up such essentials as oatmeal creme pies, fig newtons, and a pot big enough to feed a whole platoon. We headed towards Chattanooga, hesitantly opened the gear bag from the night before, peeled apart our soaked, stinking, mud-coated clothing and descended into Howard's Waterfall Cave.
Racing through the largely horizontal cave, we came across an impressive array of columns, stalac(t/m)ites and other geological features along with some random bats and salamanders. After ferreting a good ways through a pancake squeeze, Tom announced he was going to take a nap (darn those fast-burning creme pies!). The rest of us, not inclined to napping in dank, underground caverns set about sculpting random things out of the thick clay that covered the floor and walls. Kristin made a centerpiece and ET figurine, while I fashioned a dradle (what else has a song written about it that begins "I made you out of clay"?) and a Lorax (because he speaks for the trees). When we got bored with this, we pelted Tom with our clay creations until he got up and showed us the way out.
There were other caves in the original plan, but those would involve driving clear into Alabama, and so we opted instead to head via Pigeon Forge to a hostel in Davenport Gap from where we would soon set out on a small 36-mile segment of the famed Appalachian Trail. Standing Bear Farm is an excellent option for any budget traveller - what it may lack in mattresses and flushable toilets, it more than makes up for with free laundry, internet and good ol' Appalachian charm.
In the morning, we got a ride to Hot Springs where we would begin our hike; naturally, it was pouring down rain, but we came prepared with a number of garbage bags which we could use in leiu of the rain gear we had neglected to bring along. We trudged up a steep slope for a few thousand feet and covered about 14 miles before arriving at the shelter. The 7-bed hut was already full and so we only managed to stuff Tom in there and were left with a 2-man tent to fit the rest of us. Since our campsite was conveniently located on the most blustery peak in the area, we cooked a speedy cous-cous dinner and buried ourselves in our sleeping bags around 6:30.
I can't say that the backpacking phenomenon really makes a whole lot of sense to me. What would inspire someone to haul a ridiculously heavy and onerous sack through the mountains and subsist on peanut butter and stream water, while sleeping in basic huts for 3 days, when he/she could just as easily jog a few dozen miles in 1 day, eat a hot restaurant meal, and sleep in a hostel? Some have argued that if you speedily jog the course, you miss out on all the scenery, but I've found it much easier to appreciate the views when I'm not playing the role of pack horse and I'm actually willing to expend the extra energy to lift my arm to take a picture or take the few extra steps necessary to take in that extraordinary vista. Backpacking will be a decent idea the second they invent a sleeping bag and kitchen set that will fold neatly into a convenient pocket size.
The second day we hiked another 14 miles, stopping to admire the views from a tranquil grassy height called Max Patch, where another set of hikers were busy preparing a dandelion stew. Sadly, the cooler full of beer that some munificent person had left for hikers, had been emptied prior to our arrival, so we were forced to fall back on our ibuprofin supply to ward off the pains of hiking. By the end of the second day, both girls had substantial blisters from their boots and, since all efforts to ducktape the wounds had failed, they were forced to hike the remaining miles in sandals. Meanwhile, my digestive tract had taken on some curious behaviours to which we were never able to ascribe a source.
At camp we ran into a faithful hiking hound (complete with doggie backpack) named Jackson and his owner Porkchop. Luckily, a group of four who arrived before us had sworn off all human contact and moved off into the woods, leaving plenty of space for the four of us. For dinner we feasted on ramen, yams, and moldy cous-cous; this didn't do much to assuage my stomach issues and over the next six hours, I, and the camp around me, was treated to a boisterous, caustic upheaval of reconstituted GORP on no fewer than a dozen distinct occasions. This did not make sleep easy, nor did Jackson's insistence on claiming my bunk for his own.
The final morning of the trip, we brushed aside our respective affirmities and pushed through the ramaining 8 miles. Arriving back at the hostel, we regained our strength by tapping into our remaining stores of fig newtons and oatmeal cream pies and headed south. We stopped at a small mountain town called Sylva, coincidentally at the same Mexican buffet where I had eaten three years prior on a rafting expedition to the area.
Tom reportedly knew a guy in Atlanta who had told him he could use his house whenever he wanted, bring whoever he wanted, and most importantly, take advantage of his hottub. This friend never answered his phone, but this was theoretically not an issue because the key was hidden under a flower pot. After checking no fewer than 50 flower pots scattered around the yard, Tom resolved to break in through a back window. The rest of us were not entirely supportive of this new bold thrust, particularly after it became apparent that at least one of the neighbors had seen the whole thing and would surely be phoning the authorities in short order.
So we high-tailed it back to Gainesville, making only one stop at DQ to replenish calories lost on the trail with x-large milkshakes. We arrived shortly after midnight, claimed our respective globs of stinky caving gear, and went our separate ways.
On the trail