Route Table

A Creepy Crawl

Every college student has his exploits. The late ’30s, when I was a student at Bates, were famous for the pranks and practical jokes students would get themselves involved in. But few of my peers had any adventures that matched the one I found myself in during my freshman year. At the time, geology was a required subject, and the course of study included two field trips up into the limestone mountain range to our north. So one Saturday morning, eight of us set out with notepads and hiking shoes on a trail our instructor chose. We zigzagged steadily up until we came to a cave, into which we crowded with awe.On the opposite side of the cave was a hole about five feet in diameter that, according to our guide, meandered through the mountain to the other side. He knew this was true, he said, because one day when a fair wind was blowing, friends of his built a fire at the tunnel entrance on the other side of the mountain while he remained here to sample the air coming through. Wood smoke wafted in.

As he was telling his story, I was overcome with a hare-brained idea that morning and told a friend I was going through the tunnel and would meet the group on the other side. My friend said he thought I was nuts and
explained to me that the instructor wasn’t sure exactly how long the tunnel was — it might be 200 feet or it could be twice that long.

I borrowed his flashlight, anyway, and as the students went on their way I crossed over to the hole, ducked my head, and entered. The first thirty feet or so was a snap, but I was aware that the tunnel was narrowing and that it was starting to switch back and forth.

After another fifty feet I was forced to crawl, with my legs full out behind me. It was now pitch black. The tunnel floor was coated with a slick, wet substance that I later learned was calcium carbonate, the slime that creates stalactites and stalagmites.

For a fleeting moment, this far in, I considered turning around. It was very difficult to make any forward progress, and I figured I could back out easier than I could go forward. But, of course, I would probably lose face in front of my classmates, and I would have nothing to brag to the girls about.

A very sharp curve came up, and I had real trouble getting around it. I thought to myself, if I have any more of those I’m in real trouble. After I maneuvered past it, the tunnel
narrowed once again, and I began to panic. This time, I couldn’t make any headway forward with both arms out in front of me. I had to thrust one arm out ahead of me with the flashlight and keep the other arm at my side to help propel myself forward with my fingers. At the same time I picked at the bottom and sides of the tunnel with my shoes to keep my momentum going.

The tunnel began to wind back and forth incessantly, becoming all the more claustrophobic. I was getting exasperated just moving forward. Each bend in the way was narrower and sharper than the one previous, and breathing was becoming difficult, too, since there was limited oxygen in the tunnel. It also seemed to be getting colder — I guessed it was thirty-five degrees or less and dropping the further into the cave I went.

I was beginning to feel truly desperate.
I figured I was making about five feet per minute, which I was afraid wasn’t going to be good enough — with the cold and lack of air — if the passage was more than another hundred feet. And as if the situation couldn’t get any worse, two things happened that truly shocked terror into me — the flashlight flickered and failed, and some kind of slimy creatures began to dash across my face and skitter across my extended front arm. One even managed to get into my collar and was crawling around on my back. I thought they were small snakes, and worried about whether or not they were poisonous.

By now my body was becoming pained from all the scratches, and my breath was coming in heaves. Often I couldn’t find
the strength to move forward, and I knew there was no possibility of ever backing out. Every minute dragged on like an hour, and
I began to pray. I took a moment to collect my thoughts and try to calm myself and was finally able to drag myself around another very nasty bend that claimed a shoe.

I knew no one would ever be able to find me at this point, with a million tons of dirt and rock on top of me. Even if rescuers could get a rope in to me, by some miracle, then what? They certainly couldn’t pull me around those corners. A few moments later, the going suddenly became a little easier. Several minutes of slow progress, and I knew positively that the tunnel was opening slightly around me.

Far ahead I could begin to make out a slightly lighter shade of black. I crawled toward it with a surge of hope. Rounding another corner, the light became more vibrant and the tunnel widened appreciably.

The daylight was becoming increasingly blinding, and I suddenly found myself on the trail. I was a disheveled mess — one foot and my fingers and knuckles ran with blood, and two fingernails were barely hanging on. My number one priority, though, was the little
antagonist down my shirt. I tore off my jacket, then my top, and grabbed it. It wasn’t a snake but a tiny albino frog with one leg almost severed off. I discovered that some of the blood that coated my torso and trousers was mine, some was his, and some was from the other frogs I crushed on my way through.

I returned to campus to find that everyone had been very concerned about me, and that the instructor had led a search party back to the tunnel when he heard about my expedition. My roommate then told me that he had heard that no one had ever made it through the tunnel before. Somehow I wasn’t surprised.

Copied by permission from Down East Magazine, March 1997, copyright 1997. All rights reserved.