The mouth of the cave looks like little more than a muddy depression in the ground. Many caves don’t have big, gaping portals like they do in cartoons. The openings of many are little more than cracks in the side of a hill or indistinct holes near soggy depressions. Once beyond the opening, darkness extends into labyrinthine unknowns.
You’re wearing old clothes as you’ve been instructed—beat-up sneakers past their prime, worn-out jeans, ratty sweatshirt and T-shirt beneath. You’re wearing a headlamp, too. Then you make your approach.
Some people prance tentatively at the beginning, carefully placing their feet on dry patches of ground right before entering the cave. Intellectually they know their feet are going to get wet, but for many there’s often a short-lived consideration. Perhaps they don’t have to soak their soles. Perhaps they ought to try and keep them dry. When they begin, many people also crouch to try and squeeze in through the cave’s opening without setting their knees down in the mud. Many try to keep the sides of their arms from sliding against the mucky, muddy walls. Even as they grin at the knowledge that they’re about to go on an adventure, they emotionally cling to the dry, golden sunlight outside.
Once inside the gloom, darkness solidifies. Expectations of light to flood in from the opening fail immediately. This is the realm of darkness. Darkness is a solid mass in a cave, and sunlight cajoling its way past the mouth can hardly make that darkness budge. Headlamps come on immediately, but they make only feeble splashes of light on walls and floors. Uninitiated spelunkers cling to those dim circles of light life preservers.
Those are the first few moments in a cave, always. Even for experienced cave explorers, there’s always a transition period, a time of before the journey really gets underway underground. When it’s time to leave the cave’s entrance behind and descend into the Earth, expectations fail again. Everything you’ve heard in advance was right, no matter how you secretly doubted it: there is no path on which to walk, and there is no physical accommodation for human proportions. There are only hard surfaces and darkness and chilly air.
And mud. Lots of mud.
Until you actually move away from the cave’s vestibule, the journey has been an abstraction. One step past the first corner, beyond the sun’s glow, traveling fully on your own gumption and pluck, you must change. You must give yourself over to the space. Brush something off your face and you’ll realize you’ve left a huge smear of mud on your cheek. When you stretch a tattered cuff of sweatshirt to wipe it off, your realize that your splattered shirt has become useless for the task. Faced with no other choice, you either give yourself over to the world of the cave, or you begin to retreat. But you don’t retreat. You descend, and as you descend and gradually acclimatize to the cold and wet and colorless mud covering everything— including yourself—you make discoveries that were not possible if you hadn’t agreed to go in the first place.
Every time I begin a new project I recall my dozen or so journeys in caves. Every time I’m about to embark on an expedition where I’m going to have to invent my way out of inevitably tight spaces, I think of those experiences sliding on my belly through the mud. Every time I start to feel tired or cold or ready for sunlight and food and freedom from my effort, I recall times spent in a cave. The only way to experience the place is to prepare, and the only way to descend after those preparations is to give yourself over to the experience. There is no middle ground if the journey is going to be successful; there is no way to enter the Earth without getting covered in mud.
I don’t like being covered in mud, and I wouldn’t say that spelunking is particularly “fun”, per se. But I will say that I do like having been places where I haven’t been before, and I know that getting there is often about a gradual acceptance of changing reality. Want to shoot a complex scene on location with good actors and a competent crew? Preparations are substantial, and execution all consuming. Like caving, you must make the transition to the job. You must either give yourself over to the production, or you need to retreat before you go further.
Once a person makes the transition—a variable process that depends on the particular cave’s challenge, the crew with you, the day, the goals, and more—there are pleasures to be found. Deep into a creative project, the work itself often presents great pleasures. Same for journeys below ground. Deep into a cave there are glories to behold, just like work on a creative projects can deliver profound satisfactions simply in doing something you might not do on ordinary days.
But the transition is vital. Fight it and you are forever wet and cold and covered in mud. But give yourself over to the experience and you might see a part of the world that’s always right beneath your feet, but otherwise invisible to those who haven’t made the effort.