The First Descent

Mason on melodica, David on mbira, and Devin tapping cave walls down in the Jam Hole.

Excursion 1 / June 15, 2013

For our first excursion into the field we set virtually no agenda. We brought with us some portable audio recording devices, digital cameras, cell phones, and musical instruments, specifically a melodica and an mbira (thumb piano), that were small and durable enough to be lugged around inside the cave. In fact when trying to decide what to bring with us we nearly left the instruments behind, including them only reluctantly at the last minute at John Paul’s insistence. If we’d neglected to do this we would have missed a prime opportunity to capture our first batch of cave tunes, recordings that Mason and David continue to manipulate and process in their home studio even now.

Our destination was Petty John’s Cave, which I have seen variously spelled “Pettyjohns” and “Pettijohns.” The cave is located on the eastern side of Pigeon Mountain just outside the town of Lafayette in Walker County, Georgia. From my Cabbagetown neighborhood in Atlanta it is roughly a two and a half hour drive to the cave site. Although when traveling to Pigeon Mountain I have learned it’s always necessary to factor in time for the obligatory Walmart stop in Cartersville.

We planned to meet at Speleogen’s unofficial headquarters on Short Street at 9 a.m. John Paul and I were up early accordingly, packing food and filling water bottles. I was busy preparing my patented double PBJ while John Paul gathered ingredients for the signature dish he would debut in a few hours time. I had no proper caving clothes and was wearing an old pair of ill-fitting blue jeans and white T-shirt plus some brown wing-tipped Doc Marten’s that were especially badly suited for our mission. These latter were my only set of shoes at the time and I’d be replacing them on the way up with some sturdier hiking boots.

Jordan was the next to arrive. John Paul had let the team know via email that Jordan would be joining us in an honorary capacity. Jordan had been John Paul’s first guide through Petty John’s. They had explored the cave after a previous rock-climbing trip. For the record Jordan and John Paul are both fanatical about climbing, and the team owes their knowledge about Petty John’s to this duo’s interest in the sport. Climbing lore and climbing culture intersect with those of caving in myriad ways. The concepts underlying them and the gear are often very similar, and you will find even the same people engaging in both activities on the very same day at the same sites. Unlike climbing and bouldering, which are subject to external weather conditions, you can go caving year-round. The conditions within the cave, the temperature and whatnot, remain unchanging. Caving is therefore the perfect form of recreation for climbers in the offseason.

On another occasion Jordan had gone even deeper inside Petty John’s than we would do that afternoon. He had been camping on Pigeon Mountain when after dinner one evening some locals offered to guide him through Petty John’s. Jordan accepted the offer and spent hours exploring underground. A new face to everyone on the team except John Paul Jordan was definitely the most experienced caver among us.

From left: David Matyisiak, Devin Brown, Mason Brown, and Jordan Mitchell.

David and Mason arrived next, and after exchanging pleasantries the team posed for a group shot before piling into Mason’s forest green Ford Explorer. Then we were off.

The drive consisted of us listening to music and cracking jokes mostly. Although during the ride David played us the audio of a cartoon he had provided voiceover for and for which Mason had composed a musical score, which consisted of a lot of guitar riffing reminiscent of Mason’s work with his former group Rump Posse. Without the accompanying visuals the sound was especially strange and surrealistic, and we kept providing increasingly ridiculous interpretations for whatever might have been occurring onscreen. I can’t remember why but the character David was playing kept entreating whomever he addressed to follow the “Good Road.” And this concept of following a mythical Good Road, one that we could hear about but that we could not exactly see, became for us a guiding principle that afternoon, a phrase we would repeat occasionally to remind each other that we were indeed on the right path.

Matysiak getting pumped about some batteries.

Matysiak getting pumped about some batteries.

During the routine pit stop at the Walmart in Cartersville David, Mason, and I bought new headlamps and batteries and I picked up a pair of hiking boots with solid tread, having been dissuaded from buying a junky pair of athletic shoes. Mason and I bought plastic water jugs and Jordan picked up a sandwich from the deli counter for lunch.

Nowadays I don’t visit the big-box stores as much as I’ve done in the past and there was something strange about entering this huge, cavernous space, losing track of my companions as we went about our errands and clutching my pristine new gear. That the residue of consumerism seems always immediately to precede the release into nature’s enveloping embrace fascinates me.

We stopped again at a convenience store called Uncle Jed’s where Mason got a turkey sandwich and the rest of us started eating lunch in the parking lot. Jed’s is legendary for serving greasy food to hungry hunters, mountain climbers, and cavers, and so naturally the team popped in for a quick look around.

A photo David salvaged from the message board at Uncle Jed’s.

On a message board inside had been tacked photos of men and boys in hunting garb displaying their fresh kills. All kinds of animals were depicted, many of which we could not even properly identify. It goes without saying that some of these pictures were pretty gruesome. David became interested in the photos and started capturing images of them using his phone.

Some of the attendants noticed him doing this and offered to let him take the pictures he wanted right off the wall. Apparently, they get such a high volume of these pictures that they have to weed through them periodically. To me it was fitting that our own image- and sound-gathering expedition would begin with us being given other people’s images, albeit images of them proudly posing with the heads of their dead-eyed and blood-smeared trophies.

Past Jed’s it’s only a short jaunt to the Petty John’s site. As we pulled into the parking area we saw about half a dozen mud-caked cavers. Some were in full-on regalia—suits, pads, helmets, etc.—and others in various modes of undress. We hopped out of the car and immediately struck up a conversation with these guys. Around such seasoned adventurers I couldn’t help but feel like a total fraud in my blue jeans and bright white T-shirt, my spanking new unsullied boots. But they were talkative and generous, eventually handing John Paul a red folder full of laminated maps of the whole Petty John’s system, which was even more torturous and rife with danger than I had previously imagined.

Two cavers show Devin maps of the Petty John's system.

Two cavers show Devin maps of the Petty John’s system.

They told us they had been underground for about six hours (it was roughly noon when we arrived) and they certainly looked it. There was a giddiness to the way they described their recent explorations and their eyes were glassy with fatigue. We captured some video of them explaining to us where they had been and what they had seen. And it dawned on me pretty quickly that Team Speleogen might well be in way over its collective head.

A quick hike up a trail strewn with tree trunks and exploding with a profusion of insects, particularly the variety that buzzes annoyingly in your ears, and you reach the cave’s mouth, which is essentially a rectangular opening in a wall of rock. Until we arrived at this point I had not really thought much about the fact that I never done this before; that I had no idea what to expect once I slithered down this craggy shaft into absolute dark. It was a hot June day. But you could feel chilly air escaping from the cave’s opening. I have heard that this is how people sometimes stumble upon new cave sources, feeling the telltale current of cold air. I think Jordan descended first. Then David and Mason after him. Then me. And John Paul took up the rear since he was on primary digital photo duty.

I can’t remember every little thing about the experience. In fact it was so overwhelming, there was such a profusion of new sensations, that it wouldn’t be possible for me to enumerate them all. But I will discuss my general impressions about what it feels like to be down there for you, dear Reader, to provide at least a pencil sketch of what I saw.

It was a weekend, so we did see other groups of explorers. They were mostly teenagers, it seemed to me, outfitted in improvised cave gear and led by guides whose credentials I could not verify. Petty John’s is a publically accessible cave and it has therefore been used rather liberally. There’s a lot of graffiti inside and garbage from various periods of recent (and maybe not so recent) history is ubiquitous. Many formations are not in pristine condition and have obviously been vandalized. Though cracked, disfigured, or otherwise marred they are still noble in appearance. Like ruins in ancient cities or fragmented works of art you can detect still a grandeur in them that is either lost or that never came to be.

Mason, David, and Devin relaxing underneath "the chandelier."

Mason, David, and Devin relaxing underneath “the chandelier.”

Navigating through the cave puts immense strain on the body. The surfaces you tread upon are uneven and slick. Simply standing upright sometimes is not possible. Instinctively, you lower yourself down to gain better control over your balance. You cease trusting your legs and your feet. You start to crawl and to scoot on your backside. You are behaving like a child, moving like an infant. The sensation was one of dislocation for me. Being in the cave is a total body experience. It reorients your body’s relationship with space and your mind’s relationship with time. The latter owes something to the fact that the environment does not change. The methods your body uses to assess the passing of time are of no use here.

The environment is extremely difficult to maneuver in and you are constantly sitting and standing and crouching at weird angles. Your balance is always being compromised and you are exercising judgment with every step and scoot. It is as mentally exhausting as it is physically taxing. And you can only plan as far ahead as your headlamp shines. Every few minutes you are presented by a challenge, something that in the aboveground world you’d probably never see. And to watch your body time and again complete these challenges is rather exhilarating.

John Paul’s legendary cave taco.

We stopped for another meal break by a formation we call the chandelier, which once must have been an impressive collection of stalactites but has now been whittled to little stumps and shards that are discolored and remind me of cracked tusks. Here John Paul debuted the cave taco whose ingredients he had been squirreling away earlier in the morning.

This has become the official snack of Team Speleogen due in part to its novelty, its relative difficulty to construct, and John Paul’s fondness for consuming it on cave trips. The taco’s composition varies depending upon what’s in the fridge on the morning of departure, but constants include avocado and sweet peppers. Up to this point we’d mostly just been exploring the area and soaking in the environment. John Paul had been taking documentary photos of the team crawling and climbing around, but there hadn’t been a concerted effort to do anything specifically artistic as yet. But this was about to change.

As we headed back in the direction of the entryway Jordan told us that on a previous visit he had found a chamber underneath the passageways we’d already traveled. He was confident we would find it interesting. It took some poking around to find the exact spot that led down to this area. But sure enough, after a bit of scrambling and nosing around steep drops and dead-ends Jordan and John Paul found it. And it turned out to be precisely what we’d been hoping for.

The Jam Hole.

The Jam Hole.

I don’t know if it was just the quality of the room or the time we’d spent underground already but as soon as we descended into the chamber that we would later dub the Jam Hole we all immediately got to work. The walls and ceiling glistened with water droplets that sparkled when your headlamp passed by them. The area possessed a dramatic and symmetrical shape. Inside there were a number of striking formations, including a chest-high chunk of rock we called the altar and a solid rock blob with deep divots on top of it that collected the falling water. This became the cave basin.

Devin and Mason test out the acoustical qualities of the cave wall.

Devin and Mason test out the acoustical qualities of the cave wall.

A certain kind of formation inside that to me looked like a fin was actually hollow and resonant like a drum. We discovered this by tapping them with our fingers, especially the first knuckle of the pointer finger. In fact different sizes and shapes of this formation produced different percussion-like tones.

We recorded these separately for sampling purposes. From the backpack we produced the melodica and the mbira. We decided to test our improvisational setup. I would play the cave walls to provide basic rhythms while Mason and David played acoustic instruments. Mason chose the melodica and David took up the thumb piano. We would record the performance with David’s Zoom digital recorder and John Paul would take photos and video. Speleogen’s inaugural performance had arrived.

David, Devin, and Mason improvise music while John Paul documents.

We recorded two such improvisations. We also experimented with capturing the sounds of water droplets falling while the team sat silently in complete darkness. These latter didn’t turn out so well, but the experience of sitting and listening down there was for me priceless.

We decided then it was time to go. We doubled back toward the entrance the way we had come. The going was easier. We had grown more used to the environment and now knew what to expect. As we neared the entryway a bolt of excitement passed through me when I detected in the distance a few weak beams of sunlight. We had done it. We had almost made it. I was so excited during the final scramble that I banged my head hard on the low rock ceiling. It smarted badly and with my hand I probed my head for blood, but I hadn’t cut myself. It was a good reminder that I need to invest in a solid helmet for upcoming trips.

Exiting Petty John's.

Exiting Petty John’s.

And the relief upon returning to the land of the living! Being disgorged from this weird inverted womb out into the sticky mitt of Georgia summer! It demands a sort of celebration. The air, the heat, the feeling of expansiveness and openness. It is such a stark contrast to the clammy, dank, constricted cave-space.

After resurfacing we took two hikes. One of them went through Rocktown where we visited the sites where John Paul and Jordan do some of their climbing and we scaled to the summit of a few big boulders ourselves. I think we crossed paths again with one of the hardcore cavers from earlier in the day as well, a shirtless, bearded, hulk of a man who greeted us as he walked past barefoot.

The Blue Hole.

The Blue Hole.

From there we moved on to the Blue Hole, a swimming hole with eerily, unnaturally blue-colored waters that are as frigid as anything I’ve ever submerged myself in. The spot is absolutely gorgeous, textbook idyllic even.

Rays of pristine white-gold sunshine streamed through treetops, striking the surface of the water. Each member of the team stripped down and was compelled, sometimes by force, to jump into the pool. We took away some lovely images from here, especially some funky panoramic shots David captured with his phone.

Having worked up a serious appetite we drove to this one-room BBQ joint called Big John’s (no relation to Uncle Jed’s, I don’t reckon) for dinner. John Paul most certainly won the award for most ridiculous meal—the sandwich he ordered was one of those artery-busting multi-meat confections, a hamburger topped with pulled pork and fried chicken tenders, a real culinary chimera if I ever heard of one—while David’s vegetarianism raised an eyebrow or two.

The sun was setting already as we pulled out of Lafayette on the road back to Atlanta. Team Speleogen was equal parts stuffed, stimulated, and sleepy. We talked some and watched the landscape roll by, settling in for the drive. When we returned to Short Street we bid Jordan goodbye and thanked him for his help guiding us through Petty John’s and especially for introducing as to the Jam Hole. The group dispersed and each member was left with his private thoughts concerning what had just happened and what our next move might be.

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