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Dark passage

Enter a world of nothingness and discover everything that matters. This is what kept author Barbara Hurd going back into caves. Thomas Curwen crawls along with her.

September 16, 2003|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

Duckwalk with author Barbara Hurd through a sliver of space, a vein of air that narrows and narrows into an enormous body of rock deep beneath a mountain. The duckwalk becomes the crabwalk. The crabwalk becomes a crawl. Hard hat clanks on rock ceiling. Hands and knees grind into wet gravel. Standing is impossible. Don't even think about sitting. If you want to rest, you'll just have to lie down, and among the many things you must try not to think about is how much you don't want to lie down.

Stop talking, and an emptiness seeps into you. If you were to turn off your headlamp, the world would disappear. And for some reason, that would be very scary.

It's best to breathe deeply, relax and let your disoriented senses explore. It's really all you can do, and precisely what Hurd suggests to someone who finds himself starting to lose control in the face of blinding darkness and the overwhelming power of stone.

The first time Hurd entered a cave, she bolted after seven feet when a vision of the Mack truck that had killed her cousin years ago came barreling down on her out of the void. But in the last three years -- time spent researching and writing "Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling Through the Dark" (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) -- she's learned how to cope with these straitjackets of twisted geology. By crawling into caves to wrestle with the fears they evoke, she not only captures the beauty of subterranean wildernesses but also offers lessons in getting by in the above-ground world.

"Study the place," she writes. "Watch how your mind leaps to absurdities. Watch the way panic looms and recedes. You're not going anywhere at the moment, so you might as well be curious about where you are."

In-depth exploration

At the moment, Hurd is deep beneath the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, following a local guide through a cave called Red Run. A blue helmet holds back her short blond hair, curled by the humidity. She is in her mid-50s, an English professor at Frostburg State University in western Maryland.

It was a two-hour drive from her home, with a tropical storm threatening rain much of the way. By the time she parked the car, it was starting to drizzle. She hastily threw flashlights, helmet and water bottles into a fanny pack caked with mud residue of past explorations.

To reach the cave entrance, she followed a trail that skirts a farmhouse with a cabbage garden, ceramic trolls and Little Bo-Peeps in the yard. On the banks of the Red Run River, Hurd changed into grubby trousers and a sweatshirt and pulled on work gloves and kneepads.

Surrounded by a tumble of boulders and lined with mud, loose rocks, leaf mold and duff, the toothy maw of the cave presents a free fall into a world of snakes, bears and Minotaurs.

The space just inside a cave is known as the twilight. There's enough light here to turn surfaces silver and black and illuminate acorn shells peppering narrow ledges. Pack rat scat, white with mold, glows beneath a crevice. Two minutes into the cave, the air becomes moist and still. The sheer rock mass muffles voices and footfall. Crickets line the walls and beads of water dot the ceiling, hanging in the light of a headlamp like drops of mercury.

Hurd's previous book, "Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination," staked out her claim on a peculiar niche in nature: places often unnoticed, even avoided, because they seem so far removed from typical notions of beauty. Descriptions of the wild often sound like movie reviews: spectacular, awesome, not to be missed. "We canonize beauty that can be framed on the walls, in a camera or on the postcard."

By immersing herself in mud or by pushing herself through the darkness of a cave, she embraces a nature most shun and faces down primal fears, returning to tell us something about ourselves we may have suspected but never really knew.

"What I like most about caves is this stony nothingness that surrounds you," says Hurd. "A cave is so much about absence, yet has such a presence."

Deeper still

An hour in, the vein that has been tightening like a fist dead-ends as the ceiling wedges into the floor. Hurd pauses as if courting the discomfort, relishing the interplay of fear and control. Then she wriggles against the rock, turning around. Oddly, nothing looks the same from this direction. Good cavers take pride in their visual memory, because in a cave a landmark may be nothing more than a rock scalloped slightly more than any other.

Backtracking to the point where she can stand, Hurd takes a new passage. She climbs a 10-foot wall of rock, feet and hands groping for holds as water spills over the edge. At the top, the passage is mercifully wide, but the ceiling is barely 2 feet high. Now not even crawling will do. She drops onto her belly and pushes through thick mud with elbows and knees. It's exhausting. Tedious. Difficult. So when the ceiling finally lifts, revealing a room as spacious as a cathedral, Hurd stands. A mountain has been lifted from her shoulders.

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