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July 10, 2004: Part 2 - What some sisters will do for fun

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Since the cabin is located in the mountains, there were, of course, bugs. And they grow bugs a tad bit bigger up there in the mountains than they do down in the flat, dry farmland of home. We squashed quite a few of what my older sister referred to as 'crunchy ants' huge black ants that would skitter across the floor and I was, unfortunately, the first to take a shower on Saturday morning, so was lucky enough to get to deal with two huge black spiders who'd been lurking in the shower curtain until I was silly enough to try to turn on the water. It's a novel experience trying to wash and rinse one's hair while keeping an eagle eye on the shower curtain, the window, and the ceiling all at the same time, and doing one's best not to touch either curtain or wall, in case of further spider incursions.

The original plan for Saturday was to go back to Murphys and wander around the very cute little downtown area. First there was the Fun with Spiders, and then my little sister concocted 'damn fine omelets' for us for breakfast (her term for them) that really were quite delicious. Then there was more lounging around reading or making cards or, in my case, starting and restarting that stupid afghan until I finally settled on a design that seemed to work for the yarn I had. And then finally we got ourselves organized and headed off to Murphys to do some exploring.

It's a cute little town with the main street lined with shops of all sorts. There was the little bath and beauty shop where my little sister succumbed to the lure of bath bombs shaped like cute little animals. There was the toyshop where my sisters marveled about being able to wander around and just *look* without small people insisting on wanting to touch and play and buy. There was the art shop we wandered in to, full of beautifully detailed pictures of frogs cleverly hidden within all manner of flowers. Eventually we decided we were hungry, so we had lunch at the old Murphys Hotel, and since it was such a lovely day we ate outside in the courtyard, under towering trees. There was a wedding scheduled for later in the day and we amused ourselves by watching what was quite possibly the mother of the bride dither endlessly about the placement of the chairs, since she and another person kept arranging and rearranging them to within centimeter specifications, time and time again.

I'm not sure where we actually picked up the fliers just that they were available in a lot of the little shops. There are a number of caves around that area and my older sister mentioned how she'd been interested in checking them out, to see if they might be something she could take her kids to later. We picked up a few of the fliers, and in flipping through them I happened to notice that one of them offers the chance to rappel down into the cavern itself, and even though I am the one with the most advanced fear of heights, apparently that part of my brain was fast asleep when I suggested that we go do that, and right away.

So we got ice cream sundaes at an overcrowded and under-air conditioned little sweet shop and then we set off for the cavern, eventually finding it through no help at all from the lack of well-placed signage. The price made us blanch a little, but then my older sister pointed out that we would probably never have this kind of opportunity again, and suddenly there we were, stepping up to the counter to fork over money and then crowding around a tiny little opening in the rocks while a little video played above us, noting all the things we needed to remember, and all the ways that screwing up could lead to 'an out of control situation'. Or in other words, since this little venture included rappelling 165 feet down, with more than half of it on ropes only, with no rocks to cling to, the little video told us all the ways we could screw up and possibly die. It did not help that as the group for the regular tour was filing past us, a little girl who could not have been much more than 7 or 8 called out some words of encouragement "I'll see you at the bottom if you don't die." We cracked up immediately, of course, but still, thanks a lot, kid!

They fitted us for climbing gear straps that we had to shimmy into and hard hats and j-racks that threaded through thick ropes. My little sister went down first because I think either she had less fear than the rest of us, or she was just feeling particularly brave. Then I went down, stepping past the railing and inching my way down the rocks, muttering what would become my mantra for the next undeterminable period of time: "You can do this. You can do this. You can do this." Not, mind you, that it helped, but somehow I needed to tell myself *something* to make it all better.

There were a few terrifying moments in the descent, which you can sort of see here - it's the only link I could find that shows a cross-section of the cavern (although the animation shows the walking tour, not the version we took). The first part was the easiest (ha ha - I use that term lightly) since it's a fairly narrow hole (the top entrance in the middle, if you clicked that link) and you had to use your feet to kind of 'walk' down the rocks. There was a ledge and then you had to shimmy down into a crevice that didn't look as if any of us could possibly fit, and for a brief moment there I was sure I was going to get myself stuck in there, one leg jammed into a crack in the rocks, and they would have to send someone down to pull me out, but then I was through, and the rocks were huge and slippery in front of me and I could feel the open air behind me and I knew I was coming into the main cavern and oh, I was so incredibly scared. There is this moment when you come over the ridge of rocks and I lost control a little bit, swinging off to the side and banging into the rock face with my knee, but my little sister was just below me, hollering up words of encouragement and so somehow I made it past that.

And then came the very worst, and very best part of all. See, eventually the cavern opened up, and there were no more rocks to cling to, and the rope just descended into completely empty space. I was smart enough to know that if I looked down I would freeze up and never get myself to move any further (because did I mention that I am a teensy bit terrified of heights?), but I did make myself look out as I spun slowly in that huge, dim expanse of cave. It was amazing. Stalactites and stalagmites were all around me in beautiful combinations, and I had the best vantage point in the entire place. It was almost enough to make me not concentrate on the fact that I could still fall and kill myself, until the guides down below told me I had to stop where I was because I'd come down faster than they expected (plus my little sister had gotten caught up on those rocks above and came down slower) and they needed to get her off the ropes before they could bring me in.

It was at this point that I realized that unless I clung to the ropes with all my strength, I just kept on slipping downwards. They'd told us how to adjust the bars of the j-rack to modify the speed of our descent but that only really worked when we were going down at a slight angle, slipping and sliding over the rocks above. In the open space no amount of adjusting the j-rack would slow me down any further unless I hung on tight not exactly the most fun thing to realize when one is dangling there with nothing between one and the bottom of a cave but some metal bits and a rope. I hung there, clutching that rope for all I was worth, and made myself look out every now and then and tried to distract myself with the beauty of the cavern all around me, until finally they said that magical word "go", and I could let go with my death grip and slide slowly downwards until I could see people at the bottom and I knew that it was almost over and I wasn't going to fall to my death after all and wasn't life grand.

The guide pulled me in from the final part of the descent (into a small pit) and unhooked me from the rope and I took off my hat and my gloves and it wasn't until I tried to actually walk that I realized how scared I'd actually been. But my older sister was coming down next and so somehow I extricated my camera from my pocket and I told my arms and legs to stop shaking and I took a few pictures as she came slowly down the rope, just so we could prove how far down that rappel really was.

It was an amazing feeling, once it was finally over and we were on solid ground even if it was solid ground at the bottom of a very big and very deep cavern with only one way out up a spiral staircase to the top. I think it may have been pure adrenaline that got the three of us up that very long staircase. The stairs were steep and narrow and there were parts where we had to inch past rock outcroppings, and at one point the guide down below turned out the lights to impress upon his regular tour group how very dark it can get when you are hundreds of feet below the surface. At one point we looked out and saw another woman coming down the rope, and we all recognized the look of sheer terror and determination on her face. So we called out encouragement and we told her she was doing fine and later one when we saw her in the gift shop she told us that she had been really, really glad to know we were there and we had made it and that meant she would make it too.

My sisters and I are all glad that we did it, but I am not sure any of us feel the need to do it again any time soon. We wandered around the gift shop afterwards and bought t-shirts that proclaimed we'd rappelled into the cave, and took a picture with the very nice man who'd shown us how to get into our gear and had sent us down the ropes in the first place. There had been talk about going to some of the other caves in the area as well but after that experience we were all a little caved out. Plus we were drenched in sweat from being so scared coming down and I wasn't the only one who'd collected a small assortment of rock-induced scratches and bruises. So instead we drove back to the cabin and we called our respective husbands and told them what we'd done. Richard's reaction was "You are so lucky!"

Both brothers-in-law's reactions (and our parents'), however, were a rather surprised "You did what?" So in a way that impromptu excursion into the cave sealed the deal. We all sat around later in the cabin, after showers (sans spiders this time, since I made very sure to *not* be the first one into the water ha!) and decided that obviously this, and the karaoke last year, meant that we would have to add a tradition to our annual Sisters' Only events to do something completely outrageous that we might never ordinarily do. We also decided that there was no need to try to top ourselves each year, or else we'd eventually find ourselves having to jump out of planes with parachutes strapped on our backs and while my fear of heights did not manage to make me back out of lowering myself into a cave on a little rope, I am not sure that even grim determination is enough to make me fling myself out of a plane into open space.

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