Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Strait-crossing Errands

Humans tend to be journey-oriented. Most of our stories center around journeys, real and figurative. When we consider what has been done by people in the past, on scales we can't imagine, judging journeys of length makes less and less sense. But there's no way to get around the fact that the trend your grandparents started by walking uphill both ways to school in the snow is still continuous with the huge patterns of prehistoric human migration, and our wussy drives to the piggly wiggly now. What's more hardcore - riding a motorcycle from Oregon, or hauling a conastoga wagon to it? There's nowhere to go but down from here.

My point, such as it is, comes with a small Mongolian retrospective triggered by a cave we went into last weekend. Behind the crew destroying and replacing the impenetrable cave gate at Devilstep in the Sequatchie Valley, there is Native American art of a kind I've never seen. Eastern woodlands indians, more than a thousand years ago, made these images. They created shapes in the glow of flaming cane bundles. We got in with light-emitting diodes powered by metal ion canisters. Someday someone will say 'dang, they went underground with just a headlamp.' It wasn't the smoke of accidental blowtorch bat barbecue that made the cave gnarly.

In Mongolia, I went on an extended horse trip alone with a small compliment of gear. I didn't cover a whole lot of ground, but it was a solid journey in my book. Even though Mongolia was incredibly vast and foreign, there was something comfortable about it. Maybe it was because I was hardly ever more than a day's ride from anyone's yurt, and that yurt would be guaranteed to have food and hospitality. The land of the Mongols is lived on, and has been for longer than anyone can remember. You can't find grass that hasn't been grazed by someone's domestic animal. It is wild, but it is near.

Those same people who had known Asia for thousands of years are the same people who wandered into North America. The same line of people wandered into Devilstep cave and made art. North America was new. North America is wild. People have only been on this continent for 15,000 years, maximum. Those people aren't talking, and our line has only been here the scarce part of 500.

Why is that significant? It means that even if it is home, and if it is covered by roads, we are farther from this continent, more susceptible to this wilderness than to any other, with the exception of South America. But I haven't really been there, so I can't comment. Sure, we've mapped this place. But if you want to measure journeys, you'll have to go farther back in time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sponge of Stone

John Benson says that we shouldn't be drinking water because it does such destructive things to rocks. That water is caustic and violent, scary stuff to pour down the gullet. It digs deep holes, melts away vast spidery caverns of rock, and drips to dripping drip drip for echoes. TAG stands for Tennessee/alabama/georgia, but usually means the fun-to-play-on rocks of the Cumberland Plateau. You could draw a line around it, but it would be ragged, coved, creeked, bluffed, and a thousand miles long in each and every secret nook. It's a scrumptious eroded crusty sediment cake iced with solid sand. Beneath the sandstone, Karst means strange, strange land on both sides of the surface.

You can boulder, sport or otherwise climb the massive hanging brittle sandstone that caps the flat-top mountain that three states share. Or you can be a caver and let the rock swallow you whole, alive, with nothing to guarantee a return to light from the belly of the mountain. The mountain is everywhere, when you're inside it, it is the land.

As part of a photo project, Benson, Alvarez and I went to Green's Well in Alabama. Legend has it that this was the first place a rappelling rack was ever used in a cave. There is ample reason for bringing a rope and a rack to a sheer stone tube that falls 220ish feet to a dark and puddly nether. This is how the cave starts. With no warning. Just a few hundred feet of air where good solid ground used to be. And no light.

We brought the light though - Stephen, anyway did. There are an undisclosed number of 50s-era magnesium flashbulbs tucked away at the Alvarez estate. We blew through about 100 of them yesterday. This is because the light guns for these photos make the bulb emit all its pent photons in a kamikaze flame of glory for a tiny instant followed by complete self-destruction. Cocked. Fire! blast, gloves, glowing cooldown glass, reload. You don't want to trip one of these without meaning to. That is, before your eyes are tightly shut and your hand is over your face. Consequences include temporary blindness. Eyes are one of those things you want to be using when you're 130 feet off the deck, where managing your rope and hardware is a matter of survival.

We hauled out of the pit after some great, but potentially flawed (thanks to me) frames. At the top, there were a few pounds of fried chicken. And a crispy, delicious day it was.