National Geographic : 2009 Jun
• The Goat is squeezing through the Sphincter. Groaning and clawing, neck twisted, white head scraping against the rock. To cram his body through this basketball-size hole requires yoga-like contortions---arms overhead as if div- ing, hips uncomfortably twisted the opposite of chest, legs cramped underneath. e Sphincter lies at the end of a kinked, intestinal tunnel, and Marion "the Goat" Smith is the last of our six- person exploratory team to wriggle through, a task he accomplishes with veteran agility and ceaseless cursing. "Just so you know," Kristen Bobo turns to me, careful not to blind me with her headlamp, "the more Marion enjoys a cave, the more he cusses." Bobo, 38, is a master caver herself. Small as a child but strong as a miner, with big doe eyes that belie a will as unbendable as angle iron, she slithers through the Sphincter easy as a snake. The Goat plops out into the dirt and pro- claims in a croaky southern drawl, "What goes down must come up," which is Smith s wry way of saying that we re hundreds of feet under the hills of Tennessee, and we ll have to pass back through the Sphincter to get home. A historian by profession, Smith, now 62, is loose-jointed, long, and lean, with skin so white you d think he had spent his entire life under- ground. Which is pretty much the case. He started spelunking in 1966 and has been caving hard nearly every week since. He has explored more than 50 miles of virgin passage, most of it on his hands and knees. Gristly, indefatigable, and garrulous, Smith has ventured into more caves than any person in America. Resting a er the wrestling match with the squeeze, we switch o our headlamps to save battery life. A palpable blackness envelops us. Surface people never experience such impen- etrable darkness. Up on the fair skin of the planet, even in the dead of night, there s always some light coming from somewhere. Starlight or moonlight or relight or a wedge of kitchen light beneath the bedroom door. Eyes adjust. But not inside the stygian colon of the Earth. Here the darkness is so thick you can hold your hand an inch from your face as long as you like and you won t see it. is is an ancient, undis- turbed darkness, a darkness that has been here since the dawn of the world.