MILLBORO SPRINGS, Va. - Deep in the cave, my headlamp barely lighting the rock walls, I crawled on my hands and knees toward the stranger I'd gone underground with - the only one there with a map and a clue.
I don't normally court danger with men I find on the Internet. But this was different. I'd decided to try caving, and the only way I knew how was by hiring a guide who would take me and my friend Jay into the bowels of the earth for a morning.
Luckily, the guide I'd found was Lester Zook, an outdoor-ed teacher at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He drove down to the tiny town of Millboro Springs to take us into Crossroads Cave. It would be my first taste of spelunking.
I'd been in caves before, but always in attractions such as Luray Caverns, with their smooth walkways and guides pointing out well-lit stalactites and stalagmites to a chorus of "oohs" from tourists. But caving - real caving - is more like full-body, muddy hiking, with tight crawl spaces and hibernating bats.
Snuggled in the Allegheny Mountains, Bath County has some of Virginia's longest cave networks, carved out of limestone by groundwater over millions of years. The temperature underground remains between 50 and 60 degrees, so the caves are perfect venues for rugged adventures whether it's freezing or sweltering outside. But many are on private land, and amateurs should never enter one without a seasoned guide.
That's where Zook, 47, a father of four, came in. A wilderness guide for 15 years, he planned to take us on a half-day trip underground, teaching us basic safety techniques as we explored a beginner-friendly cave.
We followed his dusty Jetta to a parking lot filled with SUVs; then the lessons began. While Jay and I fitted our headlamps to our helmets, Zook offered an assessment of why accidents happen in the outdoors and what the dangers in caving are (entrapment, falls, getting lost). I hadn't quite grasped how dangerous caving could be, or how complicated a cave rescue is.
We agreed to take our time in the cave and to check our pride at the car. Speaking of cars: "Never, ever, ever take your car keys into a cave," he said. "If you drop them down a hole, you're never getting them back."
Gotcha. We hid our keys with his near the Jetta and headed down a wooded slope.
After a brief lesson on whistle-talk (One toot: Stop! Two toots: Come here! Three toots: Danger!), Zook directed me to enter the cave first. I wriggled myself into a rocky hole no more than three feet wide, bonking my helmet as I went.
Even after Zook joined Jay and me in the cave, I couldn't see farther than my nose. And that was with our headlamps on.
We felt our way to an opening where we eased onto rocky seats and turned off the headlamps to experience total darkness. For fun, we did the obligatory Life Savers trick - chewing them produces sparks. When we turned our headlamps back on, my eyes had adjusted a little. We were in a high-ceilinged room, sitting on boulders next to walls covered in thick ribbons of rock.
Our next destination was the Duck Waddle room. Squat-walking through a low-ceiling tunnel, I soon learned why the name was so apt. As I crawled on the wet rocks, with the ceiling just feet above my head, I tried to keep as much of my body in contact with the rock as possible - a key to safe caving. Waves of claustrophobia came and went, and it was a relief every time we got to a part of the cave where I could stand up and look around.
Throughout the trip, we saw a dozen or so hibernating bats clinging to the ceiling with their tiny feet, their wings folded against their bodies for warmth, their fur matted with dew. Some of the tunnels were so narrow that we had to turn our heads to keep from brushing the sleeping critters with our helmets.
Our last challenge was squeezing through a narrow hole at the mouth of the cave to get out - a different entrance from the one we'd entered by. We had to rotate our bodies till we popped out like champagne corks. Blinking in the sunlight, we congratulated one another, and I couldn't stop smiling despite the frigid March wind piercing my sweaty, muddy clothes.
Afterward, Jay and I unwound at the Jefferson Pools, run by the posh Homestead resort that's five miles down the road in Hot Springs. In 1818, a rheumatic Thomas Jefferson took in the Warm Springs waters, which bubble up from the ground at a soothing 98 degrees.
The white octagonal pool house where he soaked remains, but it's ordinarily for men only; the women's facility, built in 1836, is next to it. After slipping into the pink flowered romper the pool attendant gave me, I scampered into the pool, where the warm water was incredibly relaxing. At about 41/2 feet deep, the pool was shallow enough for me to stand, though most women clung to brightly colored foam noodles, a disarmingly modern touch.
The next morning, after sleeping like, well, rocks, in a nearby B&B, we couldn't resist one last soak in the Jefferson Pools. This time, it was coed "family hour," so I got to try out the men's pool, where Jefferson sought his cure. The rafters in the men's bathhouse were a little more worn, the water in the pool a bit deeper, but the soak soothed my sore muscles just the same.
Romper returned and car gassed up, we hit the road, muddy clothes in the trunk, the smell of sulfur in our hair. As we drove over the Alleghenies, I imagined a network of caves under the road, dark tunnels that now seem a little less mysterious but much more alluring.
Spelunking in Virginia
Warm Springs, Va., is about 200 miles southwest of Washington. Take Interstate 66 west toward Front Royal to I-81 south. At Exit 220, go right on 275 west. Exit at Route 254. Take 254 west, then go south on Route 42 for 27 miles and west on Route 39 for 21 miles to Warm Springs.
Things to do
The caves. Lester R. Zook's Wild Guyde Adventures (540-433-1637, www.wildguyde.com) leads beginners on caving trips and other adventures such as rock climbing. A half-day caving trip costs $120 for one to three people, $30 for additional people.
The baths. The Homestead operates the Jefferson Pools (540-839-7547, www.thehomestead.com/spa_at_the_homestead/jefferson-pools.cfm). An hour-long soak is $17. Seasonal hours; open daily in summer. Note: Noon to 1 p.m. is coed "family hour," and 1 to 5 p.m. is segregated by sex (and clothing-optional).
Places to stay
The Inn at Grist Mill Square Court House Hill
From $110-$140 a night, double occupancy. Has 17 rooms and suites and two cottages. Rooms are in five restored 19th-century buildings. All units have refrigerators, and some have fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. Amenities include a restaurant, tennis courts, outdoor pool, and sauna. Continental breakfast is delivered to each room.
Three Hills Inn
348 Three Hills Lane
From $79 to $179. Ten units in a 1913 mansion built by novelist Mary Johnston (To Have and to Hold). Some suites have kitchens.
10849 Sam Snead Hwy.
From $75. Fourteen units, some with full kitchens, each with private bath, refrigerator, microwave, coffeemaker, and cable TV.
Places to eat
The Waterwheel Restaurant at Grist Mill Square serves dinner daily and Sunday brunch. Selections include trout and onion soup; entrees are $26 to $34. 540-839-2231.
The Pit Stop is a classic roadside grill inside a convenience store; pork barbecue sandwiches are $2.99. 12291 Sam Snead Hwy., Warm Springs, 540-839-5852.
Country Cafe offers home-style cooking and opportunities to chat up locals. Sandwiches from $2.95; dinner entrees from $6.95. 6156 Sam Snead Hwy., Hot Springs, 540-839-2111.
Bath County Chamber of Commerce
- Christina Talcott