Skip to main content
Original Issue


An out-of-practice caveman goes underground again and introduces some old highs to a brash new generation

Twenty years ago I had several friends who worked as geologists for the Department of the Interior and whose passion—not inappropriately—was caving. Because of them I once spent a lot of time getting to caves, into caves, talking with cavers and thinking about caves. There were at the time 30 or 40 of us around Washington, plus about a dozen others in small western Virginia towns—Front Royal, Waynesboro, Charlottesville and Lynchburg—who shared the feeling that the truest moments of truth were to be had by crawling, climbing or wriggling through the rocky innards of the Appalachians. There were few weekends on which at least some of the group were not so engaged.

By today's standards we were not very good spelunkers. Our equipment and techniques were comparatively primitive. Our approach was emotional rather than technical. Caves that challenged, exhilarated and frightened us are regarded with some contempt by today's speleologists. But there's no reason to be defensive about it. In the '40s and '50s we were the best, the most gung-ho cavers in the central Appalachians.

Friday evening, often having taken our gear to work with us, we would leave Washington and drive 200 miles southwest to the Bull Pasture River, a highland tributary of the James, where we leased a primitive cabin. The first group to arrive would start fires, chase out the week's accumulation of pack rats and skunks, grab the best racks for their own sleeping bags and heat up a bucket of water for hot buttered bourbon, then the traditional drink of spelunkers. While the clan gathered through the night and early morning, we drank, played poker, told war stories and catnapped—things we could have done other places, but without that we-who-are-about-to-die-salute-you air that we only half facetiously affected.

In the morning it was a point of honor to get up early, no matter how hung over you were, put on your uniform—coveralls, boots, hard hat, carbide light, musette bag—and go underground. In the limestone ridges were dozens of caves we knew, a few we had discovered ourselves and by all geological probability hundreds still to be found. We would split up into parties of four or five, cave for the next 36 hours and meet back at the cabin on Sunday afternoon. Then, with muscles aching, adrenaline ebbing and fatigue flooding, we would start home. Driving through the dark Shenandoah Valley, we gritted our teeth, hung our heads out the window, yelled, blew horns, flashed lights at each other, stopped to dunk our heads in roadside springs and drank coffee in every open diner—anything to keep our eyes open and the cars on the road. Every once in a while somebody would fail, and the resulting accident would be incorporated with the rest of our caving myths.

Occasionally someone asked us why we carried on in such damn fool, semi-suicidal ways. We had excuses: that we went into caves to find and map new passages; to observe, record and photograph geological formations; to band bats; to practice ropework. But these were only cover stories used to pacify wives, bosses and landowners whose pastures and spring holes held cave entrances. The reasons we caved were not scientific, practical or even reasonable. We were after one of the old, dependable highs in life, the risk high. It is produced by willfully choosing to do something that there is abolutely no need to do—rope up a cliff, jump out of a plane, drive 180 mph or, in our case, crawl under the roots of mountains. Once you commence such an adventure you keep at it until reason and instinct scream stop. The next step, the one beyond reason and instinct, is where the high begins—where all highs, no matter how induced, begin. That next step provides indisputable proof that there is more to you than reason and instinct.

If you have taken the trip you know the sensation exists, because you were there. If you have taken the trip once, then find you cannot or will not go again, you remember it was real because you miss it. You feel deprived, diminished because you are not reaching for the sensation again. But it happened in time to all of us. We dropped out. We quit the trip with a variety of excuses: we had to take kids to the zoo, paint the house, play golf, get a heat treatment for our bad back, be in Cleveland on Monday morning to make some more money. The real reason we quit, of course, was that one by one we could no longer take the necessary next step. It wasn't often a big scene—no screaming, blubbering, hysteria or white feathers floating all over the cave. It was just that after a time we knew when the really hard places were coming up and we said thanks but no thanks, not this time. Maybe next week. We found ourselves doing the same caves over again, making climbs, rappels and slides we had made before, taking tourists, girls, children, Peace Corps training classes into caves. We played at being gung-ho when we no longer were, and soon the game and all that went with it—whooping around the cabin, the tortured drives up the Shenandoah Valley—became pointless.

When we were caving we did not sit around and talk about why we caved. There was no chatter about mystic experience and moments of truth. We didn't need to discuss it because we were doing it and we knew. Nor did we brood about why we stopped. I am very likely the most introspective of that entire group and even I have thought very little about caving since I stopped. I would not have thought of it now, except that by accident—the accident being principally that I am my son's father—I got into a cave recently, not as a tourist but in the old emotional way. It was an instructive experience, but at the same time sort of a creepy, déj√† vu one.

My son Ky is 16. He and two of his particular friends, Terry and Sid, had been having a good summer trying to get wheels, girls, cigarettes, beer. They had fights in parking lots. They cursed continuously, if not variously. They had been working at making hay, stringing fence and digging ditches. Besides money they had gotten muscles, tans and long, flowing hair that they cashed in on one way or another. They loved getting cut so that blood flowed, dried and caked on their bodies. Everything, me included, was a challenge. They had spent the summer rubbing the velvet off their antlers. I do not claim that it was the best time of their lives, but it was a special one, a pretty good one, the first season of being studs.

Early in the summer someone told Sid there was a big wild cave in a mountain 20 miles to the west of us in central Pennsylvania. Because there is a bin of old cave gear in our junk room and because they had heard a lot of my old what-a-hell-of-a-thing-it-was cave stories and also because, as I say, they wanted to test everything, they asked me if we could explore this one. I did what was expected of me. I put them down. I said I had never heard of a cave in those parts, that it was probably an overhang, a 20-foot fault crack.

Sid said that was not how he heard it. Terry said, "My grandmother grew up around there. She heard about it when she was a little girl. She said it was dangerous." It came across as a challenge.

"I'll take a look sometime, maybe." The boys shrugged, having scored a partial point, and there the matter rested. A month or so later I was in that part of the country and asked around until I found the site of what I'll call Well Cave. It opened on a mountainside above an old stone farmhouse. The entrance was closed off with a rusty gate that looked as if it had not been opened in a long time. "I was worried about kids getting in there," the owner told me. "I've only been in that hole once, a hundred yards or so. Real muddy. Some old timers say it goes all the way through the mountain, but that's probably a lot of baloney. Help yourself if you want to look. Key's in the shed."

The cave turned out to be what is known technically as a sewer cave, formed by an underground stream eating through limestone. The first hundred yards was easy going, a wide stand-up passage over the mucky bed of the old stream. But then the tunnel dead-ended in a silolike opening, pinched off by a limestone pothole filled with six feet of water or so. The passage appeared to continue beyond the water, but I had neither the equipment nor inclination to explore further. When I came out I asked the owner if I could return sometime with gear and assistance. "Anytime," he agreed.

I told the boys what I'd found and said that sometime we would try it.


"When I get some time," I told them. Being in the mood and condition they were, they got quite a bit of social mileage out of bragging how they were going to put on hard hats and defy death in the bowels of the earth. And every time they said something, they added a little more pressure to do it, which in turn made them lean a little harder on me and me on myself.

"All right," I finally said, "well go in the morning. But we'll have to get that gear sorted out tonight and check those lights."

"How far will we go?"

"To the end of it. If it's an hour, it's an hour. If it's two days, it's two days. Put some candy bars in one of the packs." It had a nice, bold, the-die-is-cast ring to it. I had given them a nice, big, rough post to rub their horns on.

Some things you ease into, the familiar giving way to the extraordinary so gradually that it is difficult to know exactly where and when the adventure begins. In caving there is no such problem. One minute you are outside in the weeds, gnats and sun. The next you are entombed in rock and darkness. The air is cool (55° the year around in this part of the world) and still. Nothing grows or lives except you. There is always a moment's pause at the beginning, while you fill your lamps with carbide and water, clip them onto your hard hat, light them and adjust the length of the flame. All the while you are keeping an eye on the dim rays of natural light that seep through the entrance hole from the other world, considering the abrupt change and its implications. All the faces I remember in cave mouths were similar: contemplative, alert, some excited, some frightened, all sensitive to the moment. This is how it was in Well Cave just before we started down.

There is another common phenomenon of caving: camaraderie. The constricted environment and darkness bind you to your companions more surely than a rope does to fellow mountain climbers. You are not directly or physically vulnerable to the mistakes of others, or so dependent on their skill. But together you are absolutely alone in a tiny pool of light from the carbide flames. It is as if you were riding an asteroid together through blackest outer space. I have caved with people who were near strangers to me above ground or with friends or lovers—but whatever you had before is intensified underground. After an hour or two you feel you are sharing this pool of light with exactly the right person. You cannot imagine what it would be like without him. No one else will do quite as well.

The pothole presented us our first climbing problem. The silolike chamber that held it was maybe 20 feet tall and six feet across, with six feet of water standing in the bottom. The entrance passage came in roughly halfway up the silo, so that where we stopped we were four or five feet above the surface of the water and 10 feet from the ceiling. There was no apparent flow to the water, which probably seeped very slowly out of the well bottom and down the mountain.

Directly across the silo from us the main passage appeared to continue, but it narrowed considerably, becoming only a three-or four-foot-wide crack leading back into the rock. The bottom of this crack disappeared into the water below us. But there was a ledge on the left wall of the crack that seemed wide enough to climb along, if we could get to it. I thought of swimming, but it seemed early in the climb to get wet and cold. Also, since the ledge was six or eight feet above the water, there was a serious question whether or not we could reach it.

The walls of the silo were exasperatingly smooth, and if we were going to cross it dry there seemed only one place to do it. A sloping promontory of limestone extended over the water a foot or so from our side of the well. Directly across was a small niche in the opposite face of the silo that might give a handhold. Above this niche was a hole that looked big enough to crawl through. The hole seemed to be at least level with the ledge we were trying to reach. I thought that by edging forward on our sloping rock, then leaning (actually falling) across the well, you could probably catch the niche with both hands, brace for a moment arched across the water, then reach up with your right hand, grab the rim of the hole and pull yourself through it headfirst.

The maneuver was medium difficult, but not dangerous. Your feet might not hold on the sloping, slippery rock or maybe you would be unable to free your right hand to reach up for the hold on the other side. In either event you would simply fall into the well, and the only penalty for such a fall would be a cold bath, some thrashing around till you climbed out and maybe the end of the trip before it got nicely started.

Studying the formation, I realized this was the first new cave problem I had had in 15 years. I was pleased to have it and pleased to be pleased. The boys seemed impressed with the situation and glad that we had something hard so early. "You want to go first?" I asked Sid, not needling, just saying in another way, "This is a tricky bit."

"Be my guest," Sid said, grinning. Everything worked out more easily than I had expected. The slippery rock held my feet, and there was a good handhold in the notch above. There was really only one doubtful minute. It seemed that maybe the 20 pounds I had put on in the last 15 years might not fit through the hole. But with some grunting I made it. The boys, a couple of inches shorter, had to stretch farther to arch over the water, but a few minutes later we had all made it across.

The ledge turned out to be wide enough to sit on comfortably, and we dangled our feet over the water, knocking the mud off our boot treads. Then I did a thing that had been done for me 20 years ago, the first time I went into a cave. I turned off my light and told the boys to do the same.

"That," I said, when the last flame was snuffed, "is real dark."

Before the obligatory curses, the boys let out a long breath, a sort of ahhh hisss, the sound people are supposed to make but seldom do on first seeing things like the Grand Canyon or a redwood tree. You come across strange things in caves—stone lily pads, cathedral arches, massive pillars, organ pipes—but the single most impressive scenic experience in any cave is its total darkness. You see nothing, absolutely nothing. The only thing left is what's inside you. Having once sat without light in a cave, the blackest night will never seem dark again.

After a time, so sitting and marveling, it seemed appropriate to make another initiatory gesture. All three boys had been smoking that summer, but none were quite sure enough yet to smoke in front of me or their parents. I fumbled around the webbing of my helmet and took out a pack of cigarettes and matches. The flame seemed a veritable floodlight. "You want one?" I asked, extending the pack and feeling around until I found Sid's hand. The intention was to say there's no need for ordinary amenities here. Responding in the same vein, they each took a cigarette and lit up.

After we had smoked down to muddy butts, we pitched them out into the dark, the embers arching down like shooting stars through the void, until they hissed out in the water. Then we turned on the carbide lamps and started down the ledge.

Well Cave is a simple one, but as difficult as you'd want to tackle without sophisticated, technical mountaineering equipment and experience. Essentially it consists of a single cut running west-southwest, with no true branching or intersecting tunnels. The difficulty arises from the fact that the cut narrows and deepens as you go, becoming in time a miniature canyon almost 75 feet deep that tends to pinch in from the bottom. The bottom of the passage is filled with water but is too narrow to swim through, and the water too deep to wade. The only way to move ahead was to stay high up in the crack. Occasional ledges along the wall provided walk or crawl passages but more often we had to chimney along the passage. Chimneying consists of bracing your shoulders and back against one wall of the cave, your feet or knees against the other, maintaining yourself with tension and moving ahead by shifting your weight from one tension point to the next. It takes only a little chimneying to rub the tension points raw, and after the first 50 yards or so all of us were bleeding in places.

We moved ahead and gradually upward this way, sometimes hanging 20 or 30 feet above the water. It was easier going for me than for the boys, who are more agile than I but not as strong. Strength is more important than agility in chimneying. Also, I had done all this before, in harder spots, while for them it was all new and therefore the hardest bit of chimney work anyone had ever attempted. Finding it a new and scary experience, they fought the walls, using their strength in unnecessary bursts of exertion, not making good use of small indentations and protrusions that will hold your weight for a moment or two and permit a break from the pressure. The longer you are at it the more difficult it becomes. Fatigue weakens the muscles, slows the reflexes, produces panic. The walls of the minichasm were relatively smooth, so I wasn't too worried about one of the boys losing his hold. The fall itself probably wouldn't give them anything worse than rock burns. But the force of the fall might wedge a body into the V-shaped bottom of the crack and create a rescue problem, so I took a coil of rope out of my pack and slung it over my shoulder, where I could get at it quickly.

There is a particular scene that symbolizes caving as well, say, as a red barn symbolizes farming. This is the interior vision that most cavers carry as a memento: looking back or forward and seeing hard-hatted figures silhouetted in a narrow passage by flickering carbide light. The faces are yellowish, the figures black, but not as black as the void behind them. I stopped, braced in a niche and told the boys to stop and look. We were strung out in a diagonal line; I could see Sid outlined by Terry's light, Terry by Ky's and behind Ky nothing but blank space. Wisps of vapor produced by hot bodies in the frigid cave hung around each figure. Obediently they stopped to look.

"Cool," Sid said and then went back to the practical work of trying to stay on the wall. I saw more here than they did, not just the four of us in Well Cave at that moment, but a lot of old cavers—Hackman, Hugh, Ackie, Nancy, Ellie, Ann, Ivor, Martha, Billy, Shawn—in the passages of other caves: Marshalls, Breathing, Schoolhouse, Grapevine, Tory, strung out in a crack nearly 20 years long.

We followed the narrow slit for a quarter of a mile or so, and then it ended abruptly in another chamber. I eased around an abutment and was suddenly looking into another silo formation, one that dwarfed the earlier one. The circular room was 75 feet high and 30 feet across, with 10 or 12 feet of glassy, clear, motionless water in the bottom. Above, 1 could see some medium-large stalactites, exotic pieces of water-sculpted limestone. But generally the sides of the silo were smooth, worn by ages of water from an underground cataract that had poured through this vertical tunnel.

"There's a great place up here," I called back, not to encourage or goad the boys, but just because it was a great place. The niche where I stood, 10 feet above the water, had hand and footholds for just two, so 1 told Sid to come up first. He looked briefly around the silo, but survival, not scenery, was his concern at the moment—a fact I unfortunately did not note or, if I did, ignored in my excitement.

"Are we going to try to cross here?" he asked soberly.

On the far side of the big pool I could see what looked like an extension of the crack we had been following, topped by a hole in the silo wall. "I told you we were going to the end," I said. "We're not there yet." I did not mean it as I had above ground in the sun, sitting in a lawn chair, as a challenge and needle. Finding this spectacular formation had suddenly given me cave fever, something I had thought I would never catch again. I was not thinking about the boys at all, only about how I felt.

"O.K.," Sid said, not defensive, just agreeing. "But how?"

"Swim. There's no way to go around or over the top."

"I guess, but it's going to be cold."

"It will be."

I passed the word back to Ky and Terry, instructing them to ease into the water—no dives or going under, which would douse their lights—and then to dog-paddle across. When I got across I would throw a rope back to Sid, then Terry would come up to where Sid was, take the other end and Sid would push off. We'd hold the rope between us just above his head, so if he got a cramp or slipped he could just grab on. When Sid was across, Terry would come on, Ky moving up to hold the end of the rope.

"What about Ky? Who holds for him?"

"I'll tie a sling for him. If he needs help we'll haul him in like a fish."

I chimneyed down into the crack, getting as close to the water as I could, then pushed off like a frog. The water was breathtakingly cold. When I crawled out on the far side, it was a few minutes before I could talk or throw the rope. When Sid hit the water he screamed with surprise and pain. Terry came with less commotion than any of us. Ky, impatient, jumped too soon, from too high, and went under. His light went out instantly. He yelled when he came up, treading water.

"You're O.K. You want a pull?"

"I don't need the rope."

Standing together on the first ledge, we tried to fix his light. It was hard to see, because now we were giving off steam in clouds, and the shakes made it hard to unscrew and refuel the lamp.

"Man, this is bad," Sid chattered.

"Don't think about it. It'll make you colder. Let's move."

I started up toward the hole, shaking but not really cold because of the cave fever. The hole was the entrance to what looked to be a 10- or 12-foot tunnel, twisting upward at a 45° angle. But it was very narrow, maybe too narrow.

"Can we make it?"

"You probably can," I said. "But this may be the end of the road for the fat man." I removed my pack and shirt. "Hold these," I said. "I'll reach back and get them if I make it."

If the hole had been a "downer," where my weight might have driven me through, this would have been the place to consider the next step, the one beyond reason and instinct. Since the opening was an "upper," above us, the decision did not need to be made. The test was a purely physical one. If I couldn't fit I would just have to back out and admit that, while the spirit was willing, the flesh was too plentiful. I took a deep breath, sucked it all in and began to wriggle up—face, arms, stomach, legs, everything pressed against the rock. Just when it looked hopeless, the tunnel widened an inch or two, and I sucked in again, kicked, squirmed and came out above in a low-ceilinged room, perhaps 40 feet square. The boys quickly slithered up behind me.

The room was the end of Well Cave. We hunted around the edges, but everywhere the ceiling came down to meet the floor. There was a good bit of scree, piles of fallen rock, and a couple of times we thought we felt currents of air. We seemed fairly close to the surface, and the place had a bad, faulty feel to it. There being no other exit, we left the way we came.

Sliding down the groundhog hole. I was still feeling great. I had done something that I had thought for years I would not do again. I had done a hard cave in the old way. I was certain that if that last tunnel had been a downer, I would have gone into it anyway. I was feeling a fine freakish fellow. The mood disappeared at the edge of the pool.

"It's going to be harder going back." Sid said in a flat, informative way.

Suddenly I really noticed the boys, thought about where they were, what they were doing. Their faces were white, tired, dull. Standing still, they shook from the cold. When they moved, they moved stiffly. They had, at 16, done a cave more difficult than any I had attempted until I was much older and then only after I had done half a dozen easier ones. Looking at them, I realized they were listening to reason and instinct saying you have gone too far.

"Hell." I said, trying for an it-ain't-no-big-thing note, "the water won't seem so cold this time. We can't get any colder."

That was the truth. The water didn't seem as cold the second time, but now fatigue was along. I thrashed around, trying to find, but not finding, a handhold on the smooth wall of the silo. I spread my arms out on the rock, resting and thinking that if we had to stay more than five minutes the boys might be in trouble. We'd all be in trouble. I swam into the crack itself, and almost immediately found an underwater ledge wide enough to support me. The relief of finding a toehold when and where you need one is one of climbing's sweeter moments.

"No problem," I called, and I told them about the toehold and not to be in too much of a hurry. "Another minute in the water isn't going to hurt. Get planted on it and start up. I'll have the rope." That's a hard thing to do, take your time, be methodical in a place like an ice-cold cave pool, where all your reflexes are urging you to be quick, to get out of there any way you can. Ky came first. He got only a piece of the ledge on the first try, started up, slipped off the side and fell back in and under. Angry, he tried a second time and fell a second time.

"You want to take the rope? Keep cool."

"I'm freezing."

"Then you ought to get out. Stop playing around down there."

On the third try he got up on the rock, his face, neck and shoulders taut from the effort of self-control. Terry and Sid followed without quite as much trouble. It was an encouraging sign. They had enough mind to get back. It was just a question of strength. There was a sort of equation at work: from the total of their strength, the rate their adrenaline flowed and the quality of their self-control, deduct the distance to go and the strength required. If the remainder was more than zero, we would be out in less than an hour. Back through the crack I stayed close, talked cool, climbed as reassuringly as I could. "There is a good little tit, just below your left knee. Drop down, kneel on it, wait a second while you get your breath." They dropped down, knelt, breathed as suggested. When you are really between a rock and a hard place, not just pretending that you are, the only thing that counts is making it. However you make it is the right way, being usually the only way.

The further we went, the slower they climbed, the more frequently they slipped. When we were 50 yards or so from the end of the crack, I went ahead and tossed my pack on the wide ledge where we had stopped for a smoke on the way in. Then I went back with only the rope. Ky and Terry were close to being spent. They looked down frequently, preparing, as you tend to in such circumstances, to endure a fall. As he tried to move ahead, Ky's right leg slipped off the wall and hung down uselessly in the crack, shaking with an uncontrollable spasm. I dropped down a little below him, crossed and braced one leg under his, thinking I might hold him for a second or two across my thigh.

"I don't—I...," he gasped, looking down. I knew what he wanted to say: "I'm failing. Help me," but I hoped he wouldn't have to.

"Lean forward and push your head against the wall, push with your butt. If you drop your right leg just a little, there's a place you can put it till you stop shaking." He did it by himself, not having to ask for help, and hung there panting. After a time he tested the leg against the wall and found he could control it. He looked up and tried a grin. His long hair, which he had tucked up under his helmet when we began, hung down in wet strings. There was mud, sweat and blood on his face. He looked terrible, but sounded better, having made it past a place he had thought he could not go.

"I couldn't stop shaking," he said between gasps. "It was just the cold. The third time in that water got me. I thought sure I was going to fall."

"You were close," I told him. "But it's a pretty easy shot from here. Just try to keep moving. If you stop too long, you're liable to start shaking again."

Terry is the proudest, studdiest of the three, but also the youngest and smallest. Soon he was in as much trouble as Ky had been. He is the kind that, without much fuss or warning, would drop stoically, coming apart like the one hoss shay. He would never ask for help, so I climbed directly below him. "You're in the place now where Ky was. Stop there and you can hand me down your pack. I haven't got one now. I'll wait here for Sid." Anything you offer to somebody like Terry has to be done in a ritual way. Wordlessly, he handed down the pack. It was the first time I had seen him do such a thing. And it may well be the last.

Sid is an asthmatic and had suffered the most in the water. When we started back, I had thought he would be the weakest, but he was the strongest, climbing relatively easily. Perhaps, having made himself swim across the pool the second time, anything then seemed possible. By the time he and I caught up, Ky and Terry were at the first well, the one that had given us fits on the way in. Now we hardly paused there, belly flopping across as if it were a gymnasium exercise. From there the boys literally jogged down the last open passage. I lagged behind, moving slowly and feeling sentimental about the final moments of darkness.

"There it is!" I heard Terry yell. There is only one thing at this time that anybody yells about—the first glimpse of light. We had been underground only four hours, but, as always happens, everything outside looked wildly unreal, as home does when you have been far away for a long time. After only a few hours under a mountain, you get the notion that there is nothing else. It takes a while, blinking in the light, to understand that this is fantasy. It is like awakening from a dream, knowing you have been dreaming but still feeling the dream was reality, that the room and your bed are imaginary.

There is another common but peculiar thing about such an experience—a period of numbness, while body and mind become adjusted to the fact that they are free and can do other things besides hang desperately in the crack of a cave. Then you begin to think about what you have done from different intellectual, emotional and imaginative vantage points. You are overwhelmed by a kind of exhilaration. There is a time lag between doing the thing and feeling the high, as between a drink and a drunk. For a time the boys were silent, gradually growing more talkative until by the time we were home they were babbling, very high. That night the three of them went to a party, where I am sure they took full advantage of what they had done, of being sore, cut and higher than anybody else. As for me, I went to bed and briefly enjoyed my aches and fatigue, as you enjoy meeting an old friend you have not seen in years and never expected to meet again.

All of which is one justification for a day in Well Cave, or many caves. But it does not entirely explain why there seemed more to it than a foolish, nostalgic display of retarded machismo on my part, why it was worth the unnecessary risk to the boys.

We are all, in some respects, caves. Our interiors are dark, confused, ancient mazes, difficult and sometimes dangerous to penetrate, but often containing unexpected, spectacular scenery. In either labyrinth those who obediently stop where reason and instinct command them to never make it to the best and highest places. Inevitably they will be tormented by the existence of unexplored regions, doomed to a fate worse than risk, to the shame of knowing they are less than they might have been, lower than they could be. I think the three boys learned something of these things in Well Cave, at least that the passages are there, that they themselves are greater caverns than they previously supposed they were. That and some elementary but fundamental techniques for forcing the passages. In my case Well Cave was a reminder of things learned before, a useful warning that even facts as important as these can be forgotten if they are not reviewed, ignored if they are not retested.