Our family’s recent cave swimming excursion reminded of another time I visited that same area… Oh, I’ve been there lots of times over the years whenever I’d visit the Talbot’s cabin during the summer months. Twenty years ago, I don’t think there wasn’t even a real trail that led down there — we’d just hoof it cross-country, straight down the hillside — and I seem to recall having to squeeze through a barbed wire fence, as well. Fifteen years ago, Janet and I even made a stop there during our honeymoon. And while that was memorable for its own reasons, the particular experience I wanted to write about here involves the time when some friends and I decided to go swim through the cave in the middle of the night. In December. With snow right on the banks of the river. Naked.
I’ll admit right up front that this may well be the stupidest, most insanely reckless, practically begging-for-death bit of lunacy I’ve ever committed in my life. It’s definitely in the top three, at any rate. Don’t try this at home, kids! And while I’m at it, here’s one further disclaimer… I’m going to tell this story the way I remember it, but that won’t necessarily be what really happened. It was a long time ago, and the events of that evening were so outrageous that they have become somewhat legendary (at least for those of us who were there). In some senses they are burned into my memory forever. Yet strangely, many details are simply gone, and although I have asked everyone I can remember for further details, most have only vague recollections. I can’t even remember everyone who was there, though you would think that such a traumatic experience would forge a lifetime bond of brotherhood, or something. At any rate, this is my version of what happened.
It was probably 1988, sometime during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and it was probably around 9:30 or 10:00 PM. It was freezing cold outside, naturally, and although it wasn’t currently snowing there was plenty of snow all over the ground. Then completely out of the blue, my friend Adam Beason said “Hey, you know what we should do tonight? We should all drive down to that cave and go skinny dipping through it!” It wasn’t exactly a dare, but it might just as well have been. There was a moment of silence as everyone looked around at everyone else, trying to determine if Adam was just saying something crazy or if he was actually making a serious proposal. With Adam, it was often hard to tell. Perhaps there was a chuckle or two. How could he possibly be serious? The idea was clearly insane! Surely, I thought, nobody would be crazy enough to…
Ahhh, but I was forgetting that Tony Sorensen was there. “Sure!” he said. “I’ll go!” Then Todd Beason, who was Adam’s cousin and was crazy enough to go along with whatever crazy ideas Adam and/or Tony came up with, chimed in too. “Yeah, that’d be awesome!” At this point, I still felt reasonably safe, so I may actually have said something like “Yeah sure, why not?” But you see, I seriously doubted that anyone was really going to drive an hour down the mountain in snowy weather at night just to swim through a freezing cold pitch black cave in the nude. But then Ed Talbot, the supposedly responsible “adult” cabin owner and our former High School Youth Group leader, said “Sure, if you guys want to do that, I’ll be happy to drive you down there.”
So there we were — five or six guys between the ages of 16 and 19, with an absolutely crazy proposition on the table, and a respected adult giving at least tacit approval. I don’t think anyone really wanted to do it, but neither did anyone want to be the first to chicken out. I wish I could write the rest of this entry as a nice little narrative, but at this point my memory of events gets a bit sketchy. I remember driving down to the cave huddled in the back of Ed’s truck camper shell. I remember stumbling down the steep hillside in the dark, with no idea where the “path” was, my feet crunching through snow with every step, already getting wet and cold… I remember standing at the edge of the river, the black mouth of the cave barely visible in the moonlight, thinking “Am I really going to do this?” And right about then, crazy-fool Adam proved himself to be the wisest one of the bunch (which, perhaps, is not saying much), because he bailed out, deciding there was no way he was going to get in that water. But by that time, I guess the rest of us felt we were committed. (Indeed, we should have been committed.)
I remember hurriedly stripping off my clothes and then putting my feet into the bitingly cold water, causing them to ache painfully for a few moments before rapidly going numb. At that point, standing around and mentally preparing for the challenge ahead just wasn’t an option anymore. The only options were to chicken out (which didn’t really seem like an option, despite Adam’s belatedly wise example), or get through that cave as fast as humanly possible… So I just decided to go for it, and jumped in. I can remember almost nothing of the swim itself, except that I had a tiny little mini-maglite clenched tightly between my teeth as I furiously dog-paddled through the icy blackness like a deranged lunatic. I couldn’t really see anything except an occasional glimmer from someone else’s crazily bobbing flashlight, but that did nothing whatsoever to light my way. I think the only way we could tell which way to go was some vague sense of echolocation produced by the sounds of our own splashing and gasping for breath. We might have been screaming, as well. The water was so unbearably cold that, literally, the only thoughts left in my mind were paddle-paddle-paddle and get out of the water! I instinctively dog paddled instead of using a proper swim stroke because I must have felt that I’d lose consciousness if my head got wet.
And now let me really emphasize how PROFOUNDLY STUPID this whole undertaking was… I truly believe that it is only by the grace of God that we didn’t all drown in that cave. It’s one thing to go swimming in icy water when you can see where you’re going, and where other people can see you and attempt to help if you get into trouble. But in that cave, it was pitch black. If one of my friends had succumbed to hypothermia and started drowning just 10 feet away from me, I almost certainly would not have known — and even if I had noticed, I probably could not have helped at all. The walls rise straight up out of the water for most of the 120 yard length of the cave, and there are few handholds (not that we could have seen them, in any case). Adding to the danger, there are several submerged rocks lurking beneath the surface. There was really no possible way for anyone to have helped anyone else if there had been any mishap whatsoever — and in those conditions, I think that any mishap whatsoever could have resulted in death. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Yet, God was merciful, and we all managed to survive.
As I was preparing to write this, I had some email correspondence with a few of the other people who were there, to help jog my memory. Todd wrote:
I do remember and consider it at the top of the list of the craziest/stupid things I have ever done. I remember all climbing in the back of Ed’s truck having no idea what I was getting into. The idea seemed very bad at the time but I figured I would do it if everyone else did. We parked on the side of the road and stumbled down the path in the dark. We sent Ed and the girls to the other side of the cave with our clothes. Adam did not do it, he did chicken out (just confirmed this with him). I jumped in and lost my breath instantly. I had one of those big mag lights that took 4 D cell batteries, which made swimming even more difficult. I did not think I was going to make it, it took all I had not to panic. I remember being so relieved when I could finally see the end. I was the last one out of the water. It was a true miracle that no one drowned.
And Ed had this to say:
It was quite an adventure! And one we will remember for the rest of our lives. It was risky, but then so was riding bikes down the coast…and down from lake Tahoe…and tubing on the Stanislas and backpacking and everything else. God blessed us richly on all those adventures and the fellowship we shared (and continue to share!) is sweet.
While I certainly agree with the part about God’s blessing, I must differ about the level of risk. Ed didn’t get in the water! To my mind, this was many orders of magnitude more dangerous than speeding down the mountain passes of Tahoe and Yosemite on our bicycles. Floating down the Stanislaus river in an inner tube isn’t even in the same category. But Ed also wrote:
This from Elizabeth Barrett Browning comes to mind…
Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes – The rest sit ’round it and pluck blackberries.
I’ve no regrets that we decided to take off our shoes (er, clothes…) and experience heaven crammed into earth firsthand. The laughter, the memories, the friends and the feelings will be with us for eternity. Let others sit ’round and pluck blackberries!
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!
I suppose I can’t disagree with that. But I certainly wouldn’t do it again, and if someone told me they wanted to try it, I’d smack them upside the head until they thought better of it. What a stupid idea!