There are men who move beneath the mountains, where crawl spaces are just wide enough to slip past, where the rock hangs and bleeds groundwater, where mud coats coveralls and betrays the grip of steel-toed boots.
There are men underground.
Back in September 2013, I was invited by my new friend Adam Nawrot to shoot stills for his video project with Princeton Tec. We followed a group of cavers from the Central New Jersey Grotto Club into complete darkness, toting cameras the entire way. I was warned beforehand that anything I brought down with me would come back above ground with a new sheen of dirt and fine dust mixed with groundwater - mud.
It got everywhere. The mud was on my camera bag, lenses, and possibly seeping into the buttons and dials on the two cameras I had with me that day. Soon, my gloves were soaked through. It was under my nails, in my nose, and on my tongue, but this was the case for everyone in the group. I had teamed up with some of the most unassuming explorers that day - dressed in canvas coveralls and old t-shirts stained from past trips down the hole. There’s nothing glamorous about sliding and shimmying on a thin layer of mud across tight corridors barely wide enough to fit your helmet through. There are no trendy boots or backpacks, or wide-sweeping vistas on mountain tops. There are no golden sunsets or starry night skies. Still, the cavers slide down chute after chute, looking for rooms possibly larger than the last, and taking note of the rock formations they pass.
I can see why they do it. At least for me, it’s therapeutic. Beyond the stress of possibly not being able to fit back through the tight passages I entered from, and the amount of horror that would ensue if my headlamp happened to die before I made it out, it is incredibly peaceful underground.
While waiting for the rest of the group to move through a passage into the next room, I was alone with my own thoughts. The sound of the others started to muffle and dampen as they moved farther away. Eventually, their lights went out of sight, and in a moment of curiosity, I reached up to the headlamp strapped to my helmet, switched it off, and watched everything disappear in front of me.
I’ve never formally practiced meditation before, but for those few minutes in complete darkness, I think I was close. So I sat quietly on a rock, and let the cold mud seep through my pants. I was at peace.