Beneath the blue skies and cows of Schoharie County, New York lies a deep vast cavity, a cavern, named Howe. I’ve met other caves, with more expressive names like Mammoth, Wind, or Jewel. They were remarkable, but Howe Cavern holds a place in my childhood mythology. On the impetus of children two generations forward, I went there again.
A journey in the deep underground is like a stroll through your subconscious on catwalks.
We are creatures originally designed for the horizontal paradigm. Moving vertically feels different, it requires machinery, it requires trust. A bit of vertical venturing, like a bit of adrenalin, sharpens the senses, opening the mind to abandon limits of gravity and time. Remember your first view from 10,000 feet? Yes, human beings can fly.
Our group of 30 explorers represented most of the ambulatory human life stages. The elevator squeaked open and multiple three-generation family groups, and a twenty-something couple shuffled into the small space. “She” and a child squished in the back between two bellies, giggled as we landed at the bottom of the shaft with a delicate “thud.”
Our sticky tribe of humans and a cloud of upland humidity exited the shiny silver elevator as if a single entity. We squinted into the dimness, collectively feeling our way forward into the cool rocky vestibule. Once adjusted to the close proximity of strangers, chilly dampness, and low light, we shuffled down a gentle grade to form an awkward body of souls at the mouth of the cave.
Our elevator operator slid around shivering children and elders in tightly laced sneakers. Reaching the edge of light and darkness, the recent High School graduate turned to face us, identifying herself as our tour guide. There was no doubt. Her pale skin and light blonde hair were a reflection of where she spent her summer days; 200 feet underground in 58 degrees. With the flat A’s, and nasal tones of Central New York she greeted us.
“Welcome to Howe’s Cavern”
I intended to listen but something in the deep darkness beckoned. I was attracted to a sound. A single drip of water spoke in the velvet blackness behind me. Nothing is so dark as the inside of a cave. Breath aligned with the water’s cadence, and a well-practiced response of relaxation and expansiveness dropped into place. I sensed a movement and a gentle migration of air. It was as if we had landed inside the great chest cavity of a great snoozing deity. I stifled a giggle.
The group began to move. I stepped out of the reverie in time to follow the group down the path, as the lights clicked off behind me. The guide looked over her shoulder at me. Wielding all the power of her position she shot a stern, silent warning in my direction to “keep up.” She addressed the group before turning on her heel and continuing around a rocky corner.
“Don’t touch anything, stay together, follow me.” She said.
The rules of visiting this alternative reality were simple. The path that followed along the tallest side of the cave wall was lined with iron handrails. Warnings about defiling the cave were dire. It was enough to know that our worldly breath and the lights for safe passage had caused small patches of green moss to grow on the walls. Taller trekkers might have to duck here and there, but it was as easy as a stone path through a formal garden.
Spring water: a term that has lost its magic.
It is alive and well and living under the earth. In her practiced patter, the guide explained that it was water that carved this open space, it was water that rearranged the limestone into round smooth assemblages across years with six or seven zeros. Lest we think this system is always a quiet trickle, she pointed out the high water mark a good 20 feet over our heads.
A small trail of pristine clear water traced the crevice along the irregular stone edge of the walkway. The sound of the water romping with small pebbles erased the chatter and footsteps around me. I imagined my relative position underground with all that dirt and rock between me and the sun. A sense of childlike joy and excitement welled up in my chest with clarity and memory trotting along just behind. I turned to speak to the person behind me and found the space empty, and the darkness full of “life.” I shrugged off a minor Déjà vu moment and padded along behind our group.
Caves are surprising.
About midway through the cave, the cool moist air became an animated interactive participant this 90-minute “Walking Meditation.” Each breath seemed to “high five” on the inhale as it flooded my bloodstream and cells with its own unique Mantra. Standing in this singular place, my busy mind stalled and rolled to a stop. I stood in the present, and the physical part of eternity turned her face to me and smiled.
Not everyone was dazzled. School children rubbed against their boundaries and irked their elders. A few visitors checked cell phones, chafing under the unexpected silence of “no service.” The guide led us along the red brick path to where two wide boats waited on the now substantial river of water. The tiny capillaries had rejoined; this must be the Carotid of the cave. We floated toward the sound of a waterfall, water flowing black ink at the sides of the boat.
“Keep your hands in the boat!”
A sense of familiarity settled around my shoulders as we moved through the dim tunnel. A pale ethereal finger sifted through life experiences filed under “deep in the ground” and the smell of “wet limestone. Because the sense of smell has no use for the fine filter of ego, it remembers “all.” Back on the path, I spotted a hint of the original path. Old slippery bricks leading to a too small rock opening now barricaded by the lack of illumination. When lantern toting adventurers gave way to paunchy tourists with spending money, it needed to be an easier trek. The slick wet rock floor had been redesigned to modern expectations, but the old steps were still visible to those who knew they were there.
It came as a short movie; one elevator with a rusty gate, creaking down through rock with a small cadre of schoolchildren transported in batches. Someplace between handpicks and hydraulics, I had been here before. The 3-foot pillar formation rose out of the floor with a rakish tilt like a small tower of Pisa. The water glistened on the outside, not nearly enough to form a drop, never dreaming of a rivulet. The guide droned the words with the modulations of a hundred times said,
“It takes hundreds, maybe thousands of years to create each inch of stalagmite.”
The cool damp fingers of the moist cave air wrapped gently around the back of my neck. It was all here; in the smell of the wet rocks, and the muted echoes of children’s voices just ahead. The memory was inserted back into my conscious like a coin in slot machine. I felt “her” as clearly as I remembered the square, sticky red tokens we purchased to buy milk at Goodrich school. “I,” or “me” became multiple choice answers with a lifetime of editions. Holograms of earlier versions of myself tapped at my shoulder and winked at me as they touched the forbidden stalactite forms with their invisible fingers.
I had stood exactly here; in front of the stalagmite named “Chinese Pagoda;” when I was 12, and before that at maybe 8. Fifty years had passed, “up there.” Most of my lifetime was already listed as “past experience.” Down here? Same old, same old. In the land of Quantum Physics, how fast does a rock vibrate?
My sixth grade “self” came forward then. Did I bring her or was she here in the cave the whole time? She leaned forward and I saw her curly brown hair and wide plastic headband. I looked down at my feet expecting to see the turquoise Keds and white socks of 1967. She seemed unaware of me as she reached out- almost daring to touch the forbidden rock formation, but pulling her hand back in at the last minute. I saw her look over her shoulder as if she felt something, someone who couldn’t be seen. I couldn’t mistake the movement; I had done the same around the last bend. She was looking for what she felt. Looking for validation of what her more subtle senses knew:
“There is someone here with me.”
The thought of an older wiser version of myself following the “child me” down the cave path made me smile, then giggle, then laugh out loud. Nesting dolls and onions and artichokes! The universe has a sense of humor. There is no “back then” or “will be” there is only Now. We are all here together. What a hoot! Images of all of us, countless iterations of “me” turning our heads simultaneously when asked,
“What’s so funny??”
If you would like to experience a bit of personal eternity and there is no cave nearby, there is a process for seeing through the partitions past and future. It involves laying in the Earth, like a child on the beach. You could cover yourself with a cloth, some sand or earth. Stay there until all the doubts and illusions have migrated out like earthworms to the damp darkness and you can arise again reborn.
Reborn into the knowledge of who you really are.
You will find yourself renewed with the understanding that life is not a permanent condition and one had better get on with it.