Take the Louisiana Superdome and bury it deep in the heart of a
mountain. Send an underground river raging past the home team's
bench, carving away that side of the field until a deep canyon
yawns where once the New Orleans Saints watched their postseason
dreams slip away. Leave a rocky overlook on the visitors'
sideline. From the rafters two hundred feet above this spot, hang
a nylon climber's line about the diameter of your middle finger.
Let it dangle and sway. Now imagine a narrow ledge from which you
can grab the top of this rope, and you'll have a pretty good
picture of where I am. Or soon will be.
I'm lying on my side, inching through a narrow gap between walls
of solid limestone. Over the past hour I've rappelled down a
68-foot pit, climbed two waterfalls, crawled several hundred feet
along a subterranean streambed lined with shin-bruising cobbles,
shinnied up and down and across stone fissures and squeezed
through a hole the size of an office wastebasket to reach the
rope beyond the gap.
The other end of the rope rests on the floor of one of the
largest underground chambers in America. Beyond it, a river of
pure spring water, brimming with exotic life, flows through mile
upon mile of enormous cave passages. All of this was discovered
within the past five years. And all of it was kept secret by the
small team of explorers who had found it--until the entire cave
was threatened by the construction of a $6.5 million sewage plant
just upstream, and the secret was revealed in an effort to head
off an environmental catastrophe.
Fatigued after only an hour underground, I might turn tail and
clamber toward the sunny Tennessee day taking place overhead--if
not for the voice coming from a wide spot in the passage between
me and the big drop. The sound is a melodious mixture of
backwoods inflections spoken deliberately, in the manner of a
Confederate field commander from central casting. To U.S.
cavers--especially those familiar with the cave-rich region
called TAG, an acronym for the intersection of Tennessee, Alabama
and Georgia--it's the voice of a legend. "Get a move on, fatso,"
says the voice. "Don't just lie there a-lollygagging."
I look up at the gaunt, angular frame of Marion O. Smith, one of
the discoverers of the Rumble Room--the Superdome-sized chamber
just ahead--and the principal explorer of Rumbling Falls, the
sprawling 15.7-mile cave system connected to it. Smith reclines
against a boulder. His scraggly off-white beard remains mud-free,
as do the wisps of reddish-white hair curling from beneath his
battered helmet. Most of the eight other cavers on this trip wear
brightly colored, pricey nylon coveralls, but Smith is dressed in
brown thrift-shop trousers and a mud-colored long-sleeved shirt.
If caving were a professional sport, Smith would possess the
lifetime stats of a Wilt Chamberlain or Ted Williams. As of Sept.
24, his 60th birthday, he had explored 5,182 wild caves and
rappelled into 2,762 pits more than 30 feet deep. Unlike a pro
athlete, though, Smith has achieved some of his greatest feats in
middle age. He wears out twentysomething supercavers as he
penetrates virgin passages in the hills and hollows of TAG and as
far away as central Mexico.
A native of Fairburn, Ga., Smith first ventured beneath TAG in
1965. A student of the antebellum South, he also developed a
passion for caves that were decidedly unvirgin. The soil of
Southern caves was mined for saltpeter, a key ingredient of
gunpowder, from the American Revolution through the Civil War.
Because saltpeter caves tend to be dry, the wooden vats and tools
left behind by early miners were often remarkably well preserved.
Smith's expertise in the history of this era helped secure him a
job at the University of Tennessee as assistant editor of 16
volumes of the papers of Andrew Johnson--a job from which he
retired in July 2000.
Smith has won the Lew Bicking Award, the highest honor for cave
exploration, bestowed by the 12,000-member National Speleological
Society (NSS). But he has the kind of personality that also
prompted one TAG caving group to bestow on him--twice--an
entirely different honor: the Horse's Ass Award, a cookie shaped
like a hand with an upraised middle finger. "Marion can be
difficult to be around for extended periods," one friend
confides. "He has no tolerance for fools."
The Cumberland Plateau resembles a vast layer cake set down in
middle Tennessee. Thick cave-rich beds of limestone are stacked
atop one another and capped by a thin icing of sandstone. Along
the edges of the plateau, great wedges have been carved out by
water, creating steep-walled valleys called gulfs, each named
after the creek that drains it. Fall Creek Falls, the highest
aboveground waterfall east of the Mississippi and the central
attraction of its eponymous state park, flows into such a gulf.
In times of heavy rain the creeks become dangerous whitewater
torrents, but most of the year they are bone dry. The water
vanishes underground, through gravel beds or, occasionally, large
swallets that pull streams in like bathwater down a drain. Cavers
have long known that underground river systems must carry this
water to the distant springs where it resurfaces, but most of
these rivers have eluded human exploration. It's relatively easy
to find virgin caves along the edges of the plateau, but they are
usually small and unremarkable.
That doesn't stop TAG cavers from trying to find more. In early
1997 Fred Hutchison of White House, Tenn., went ridgewalking (as
a hunt for new caves is called) in Fall Creek Falls State Park.
In the winter, with the vegetation gone, black holes in the
limestone are easily visible from a distance. One little hole
that Hutchison found went just a few feet before dropping into a
Less than a month later Hutchison returned and descended the
68-foot shaft, then proceeded 500 feet up a small stream to the
bottom of a short, noisy waterfall. About 50 feet beyond the top
of this cascade he found the base of a second, 14-foot falls that
appeared too difficult to climb. Hutchison noted the thunderous
rumble of the falling water. On March 1, 1997, he filed the name
Rumbling Falls and its location with the Tennessee Cave Survey, a
cavers' organization that attempts to catalog all the state's
It is an ethic among cavers that those who discover new passages
should map them for posterity, or at least have the first crack
at doing so. Marion Smith had been looking for an "old man's
mapping project," as he calls it--a small cave that he and his
girlfriend at the time, Debby Johnson, and a few cronies could
explore and map on Sunday afternoons. Hutchison's little cave
seemed to fit the bill. Thus Smith approached Hutchison at a
cavers' meeting in 1998 and asked if he intended to climb the
second waterfall in Rumbling Falls. Hutchison said no and didn't
object to Smith's giving it a shot.
Smith, Johnson and several fellow cavers began mapping the cavern
that September. John Swartz, the survey's chief draftsman,
decreed that this would be a map-as-you-go project: No one would
be allowed to run ahead of any passage until it had been
thoroughly measured and recorded. This would turn out to be a key
Their second mapping trip, in October, pushed the cave's known
length to 2,000 feet. On the fourth visit, two weeks later, Smith
passed the tight spot where I now lie lollygagging, stepped
around a corner and saw the last thing anyone on his team had
expected: a ledge and then a vast expanse of blackness. He yelled
to those behind him and told them what he saw. "No f------ way!"
Smith tossed a rock off the lip. It fell silently for what seemed
a very long time before exploding at the bottom. The sound
rumbled across the floor of an enormous chamber. "How are you
making that noise?" Swartz asked, thinking it was some sort of
trick--until he caught up with Smith and saw for himself.
All right, I'm coming already," I say, thinking, Man, I gotta get
in shape. I grunt and slither out of a tight spot to where I can
sit up. Just beyond Smith, Chris Anderson, an amateur cave
photographer from Kentucky, has clipped himself to a rope rigged
to bolts set in the ceiling. The blackness at his back seems to
swallow all light. "On rappel!" he shouts to those already at the
bottom. He steps backward and vanishes.
"Off rope!" a distant voice echoes.
I go next. For the moment, I can see only colored bands of rock
on the nearest wall and the tiny twinkling lights of cavers 20
stories below. They appear to spin slowly as the rope twists
under my weight. Smith named this drop Stupendous Pit. From where
I sit, the name fits. I appear to be surrounded by millions of
tiny, discrete water droplets floating in the air. They undulate
in waves reflected by the light of my helmet lamp, like
phosphorescent beads within the body of a monstrous jellyfish.
At last I touch down on a rocky hillside. Boulders the size of
cars and trucks lie scattered below me, vanishing in the darkness
toward the Rumble River. The floor of this room encompasses 4 1/2
acres. The team gathers atop a flattish boulder in the center of
the room to wait for the other members to drop in. We drink
water, snack and stow our heavy vertical gear, which we won't
need beyond this point.
My most interesting cave trips over the past few years have been
in the company of microbiologists who study repositories of
bizarre life that feeds off minerals and gas as opposed to
sunlight and oxygen. Although blind fish, cave crayfish and other
endangered species have been found in subterranean rivers, no
microbiological work has been done in Rumbling Falls. Not for the
first time I marvel that the state of Tennessee came within a
hairbreadth of dumping millions of gallons of treated sewage into
The town of Spencer (pop. 1,713), founded in 1840, sits atop the
Cumberland Plateau on the edge of Fall Creek Falls State Park.
Just out from the center of town is a lot of undeveloped real
estate, much of it offering stunning mountain views suitable for
vacation retreats. Only one thing has held developers back: the
Like many small towns, Spencer has no municipal sewage system.
Residents are required to install septic tanks. The sandstone cap
that protects the limestone beds of the plateau has very slow
surface drainage, especially during heavy rains. Translation: The
contents of septic tanks sometimes bubble up out of the ground
like the crude oil on Jed Clampett's property. A 1996 study
showed that 46% of Spencer's 538 septic systems were releasing
sewage into the yards of houses, schools and businesses.
The tank behind the police station and jail routinely overflowed,
covering the floor of one cell with noxious seepage. "It backs up
here, and you can't stand the smell," Sheriff Donnie Evans said.
When the jail sludge finally dissipated, it flowed downhill into
a residential backyard--the one behind the frame house where the
mayor's parents live. Mayor Terry Crain, like other local
politicians, was used to phone calls demanding that something be
Some of the undeveloped property belonged to a resident in a
position to do something: Shelby Rhinehart, the senior member of
the Tennessee House of Representatives. Rhinehart, who died in
September, was chair of the House Commerce Committee and one of
the state's most powerful lawmakers. As a former mayor of
Spencer, he was well aware of the problems faced by its
residents. Over several years in the mid-1990s he procured
federal grants and long-term federal loans to pay for a sewage
The city would pay interest on the loans of about $28,000 per
month, or $41 per sewage customer (not counting the costs that
residents would pay for actual operation of the plant). The
original plans called for discharge of the treated effluent into
the Caney Fork River, eight miles away. But when bids came in,
easements and pipeline costs would have pushed the residential
sewage bill to more than $100 per month. So the town settled on a
smaller outlet close at hand: Dry Fork Creek, a wooded stream
that the state would later designate Tier II, or of very high
quality. Although no one knew it at the time, Dry Fork Creek is
the principal source of the river flowing through Rumbling Falls
Town managers insisted that the treated outflow from the plant,
which would serve fewer than 700 households, would not degrade
the stream. State officials offered minimal public notice of the
plan and held no public hearing on it, but before it could become
official, the town had to ask the state's Water Quality Control
Board for a permit to discharge effluent into Dry Fork. Rhinehart
assumed the permit would be granted.
Secrecy and caving have always gone together, usually for good
reasons. When the existence of a large, wild cave is made public,
it can be overrun by ill-equipped novices who harm cave life or
destroy delicate formations. If a novice is injured underground,
a rescue attempt becomes national news. The negative publicity
prompts landowners to deny access to the cave to everyone.
But there has always been a more personal reason for secrecy,
akin to the reason that anglers guard favorite fishing holes. It
is human nature to feel proprietary about one's discoveries.
There's an expression you hear around TAG, scooping booty, for
pushing into virgin passages in a cave discovered and still under
survey by someone else.
One of the most famous TAG cavers--and a longtime friend of
Marion Smith's--is Jim Smith (no relation), who was briefly
notorious in the 1970s for scooping booty in Mexico's Sotano de
San Agustin, one of the world's deepest known caves. Marion did
not tell Jim about the Rumbling Falls survey, and as a result Jim
hasn't spoken to him since. "I decided I didn't want anyone else
with an ego as big as mine involved in this project," Marion
We follow Marion and his ego downriver, plodding along the muddy
bank before cutting to an upper-level passage on the right.
"We'll have to crawl some this way," Smith says, "but if we went
the other way, you'd have to wade through chest-deep water in
places. Besides, I left a rope up here that I need to fetch."
Rumbling Falls is not a terribly difficult cave: It just keeps
going and going. "The first mile isn't that remarkable," Steve
Alvarez, another photographer, had said at the top of the pit,
"but by the time you hit the third and fourth miles, it's pretty
Gary Chambers, a member of Smith's mapping group, sees it
differently: "It's the death of a thousand cuts."
Although the passage size remains large, and Smith has been
leading us down the best path, every step requires vigilance.
Movement in a cave is a matter of constant problem-solving. It's
much like steering a four-wheel-drive truck down a bad mountain
road. The difference is that in a cave your feet, knees, and
hands take the place of knobby tires.
My choices are easy: I crawl where Smith crawls, climb where he
climbs. His endurance and determination are unmatched. Despite a
bad back, fading eyesight and other infirmities of age, he is
impervious to pain, unable to sit still with passage ahead of
Eventually we exit the crawlway and work our way back to the
river in a spacious junction hall, Smith sprinting ahead. For the
next half mile the trip becomes a muddy slog. As we move along
the rocky path above the river, we hit an obstacle I dub the
Butter Horse. It's the only way forward: a piece of limestone
about the size, shape and height of a horse, with deep holes to
either side. It's covered in at least four inches of slick mud.
If you're fast and brave, you can cross its spine in three or
four strides. I choose instead to straddle the rock, moving
forward in little hops on my hands. At the far end I slip down a
muddy chute, taking care to keep a boot forward to brake the
slide because using my shin or hand would be enormously painful.
Just beyond the Butter Horse I catch up to Smith, who is waiting
for me on a high ledge with a commanding view of the river. "Look
at this," he says. He gestures toward the winding stream and the
darkness beyond in a way that reminds me of a painting I once saw
of Lewis and Clark. Smith recalls a previous visit during which
he reached this point at the end of a long trek and called it a
day. "I've never in my life turned around with that much virgin
cave ahead of me," he says.
While smith and his crew were surveying, they weren't exactly
sharing. As the Nashville Grotto (chapter) of the NSS prepared to
fight the state to keep effluent out of the small, known caves
down Dry Fork Creek, its members remained in the dark about
Rumbling Falls. At one point Hutchison, who had found the cave,
asked a member of Smith's survey team how the mapping was going.
"Marion's mapping miles and miles of crawlway" was the
answer--true, but nothing was said about the many more miles of
gigantic walking passage being mapped. The team feared that if it
revealed the extent of Rumbling Falls, hordes of other explorers
On their survey trips, some of which lasted days, Smith and his
crew steadily pushed their way into new chambers and passages
that less dedicated cavers might have explored without mapping.
There was, for example, Gary's Chamber (named after Gary
Chambers), approximately 370 by 150 feet, with a 120-foot-high
ceiling; and Birthday's Bonanza (found during the week of
Swartz's and Smith's birthdays in September 1999), an
800-foot-long chamber with walls 200 feet apart. "A lot of people
will tell you Marion Smith is greedy," Smith told a reporter who
later questioned him about the secrecy. "Well, we were greedy. It
was a gift from the caving gods late in my career."
But as news of the sewage plant and the Nashville Grotto's fight
against it spread, many members of the survey team felt they
would have to go public. Smith argued for keeping the cave a
secret. Finally, in March 2000, Jack Thomison, a member of the
survey crew, convinced Smith that it was time to act. Smith met
privately with officials of the Tennessee Department of
Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to describe the cave and his
concerns about its future.
His efforts were unavailing. Despite strong dissent within TDEC,
construction of the sewage plant was soon under way. In September
2000 a coalition of environmental groups sued in federal court to
stop the town from using federal funds for the plant until an
alternative discharge method could be found. Rhinehart attacked
the coalition as "a bunch of city people from Nashville" who knew
nothing about the Spencer area or the needs of its citizens.
Since no environmental study of the cave had yet been ordered or
conducted by the state, area cavers and environmentalists decided
to counter the town's efforts by funding a study on their own.
Biologist Julian (Jerry) Lewis discovered in Rumbling Falls
nearly a dozen species of aquatic cave life found in fewer than
10 other locations in the world--and two small organisms found
nowhere else. The discharge of effluent into this cave "would
poison it just as surely as if you put arsenic in it," Lewis
said. "It would have a devastating impact."
Chris Anderson used $800 worth of flashbulbs to take a panoramic
photo of the Rumble Room, which was shown at a press conference
in November 2001, weeks before the sewage plant was to be
completed. The story of the environmental battle was covered by
CNN, The Boston Globe and other papers beyond the South. None of
the publicity, however, seemed to influence the Water Quality
Control Board, which granted a "final" discharge permit for Dry
Fork Creek in December. After failing in federal court,
environmental groups could only file an appeal in the local
chancery court and try to persuade the state legislature's
Conservation and Environment Committee to look into
irregularities in the permit process.
Rhinehart told the committee that the sewage plant was none of
its business. He said, "I just cannot fathom why people that's
probably never been in that area very much would all of a sudden
make this [their] project. You're jumping on the wrong horse."
Sidney Jones, a TDEC engineer who had advised against the permit
nearly two years earlier, resigned over the issue, writing to his
supervisor, "The opinions of field staff ... who deal directly
with the consequences of any problems created by the discharge
apparently counted for very little."
A hearing was set for February 2002 in Davidson County Chancery
Court. Less than 10 days before the sewage plant was to come on
line, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that the state's permit
process was "substantially flawed by incorrect procedure, and
incorrect application and construction of the law." Lyle declared
Spencer's permit invalid; the cave was safe.
The war was won, but as far as certain cavers in the Nashville
Grotto were concerned, Marion Smith's name was mud.
Mud is the very substance I'm slipping and sliding through when at
last I round a corner and spot Smith and the rest of the team
gathered on a broad gravel bank. Beyond them, an arch suggesting
a Broadway proscenium frames the blackness of Gary's Chamber. The
tired photography sherpas have dumped their loads and settled in
for a meal before a two-hour shoot. Smith is antsy to survey, and
he vanishes into the gloom, his lamp rising like a distant torch
as he scrambles up a 100-foot slope.
After lunch I watch the explosive flashes of Anderson's lighting
system paint the gigantic room with light. For two or three
seconds the vision is seared into my retinas: a huge, gracefully
curving space lined with rust-colored bands of limestone,
dwarfing the few human explorers strung along its flank. Then the
flashes fade, and I am once more in darkness except for the small
cone of light projected from my helmet.
Many hours later, I sit alone in the Rumble Room. The last member
of the photo team is on rope, nearing the top of the 200foot
wall. I turn off my lamp to savor the silence and darkness that
are the cave's natural state. I can barely make out the climbing
caver: a single star floating in an empty sky. It will be
midnight by the time I exit the cave, after 15 hours inside.
Smith won't be out until after 3 a.m.
Already I feel bruises and scratches forming a map of the cave on
my body. I know it will be many weeks before I feel the call to
go underground again, to see places that only a few skilled and
determined--and sometimes lucky and greedy--cavers can reveal in
a world so thoroughly explored. And I know that Marion Smith will
be back within days, will have made a dozen trips underground
long before my bruises have faded. It's what he does.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN ALVAREZ BLACK ROCK The vast Rumble Room is pitch dark except when illuminated by cavers' lights and photographers' flashes.
COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS ANDERSON ALL CLEAR The Rumble River, whose flow helped create the cave, has been protected from contamination by treated sewage.
TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: MAP ILLUSTRATIONS BY SLIMFILMS Middle EARTH From the entrance to Tennessee's Rumbling Falls Cave, 2,000 feet of passages lead to the Stupendous Pit, which drops 200 feet into the Rumble Room (right), where the Louisiana Superdome would fit with room to spare. From there (middle map, far right) the cave extends three miles to Birthday's Bonanza, then another 1 1/2 miles beyond that.
COLOR MAP: MAP ILLUSTRATIONS BY SLIMFILMS
COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS ANDERSON VERTICAL DROP A caver rappels the 68 feet from one passage to another near the mouth of Rumbling Falls Cave.
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN ALVAREZ
If caving were a professional sport, Marion Smith would possess
the lifetime statistics of a Wilt Chamberlain or Ted Williams.
Boulders the size of cars and trucks lie scattered below me in
the Rumble Room, vanishing in the darkness toward the river.
"We were greedy," Smith said of having hidden the discovery.
"It was a gift from the caving gods late in my career."