One by one, the Cave Pirates surface from the culvert pipe that shoots seventy-five feet down into the labyrinth of Ennis Cave. Squinting in the daylight, the Pirates are covered in mud.
A woman named Hardcore assists a fellow Pirate as she removes a bandage from her arm, revealing a snakelike scar. She recently had surgery on her elbow, and she’s in pain. She says, “If you could go in so soon, I thought I could too.”
Two months after chemotherapy for breast cancer, and only a week and a half after completing radiation treatment, Hardcore entered Ennis Cave for the first time.
To enter a Cave is to overcome fear of one kind or another: heights, darkness, bats, enclosed spaces, or the unknown.
It’s ninety degrees up above, and we stand in a sinkhole that is air-conditioned by cold air blowing from the cave mouth, where it remains a consistent fifty-eight degrees. I’m dressed in a secondhand Army surplus flight suit and skateboard helmet with a headlamp affixed with duct tape and Velcro.
The leader of our group is a self-described “over-educated, ex-paramedic, ex-fireman, grease monkey” named Batman. Angular and lanky, Batman is married to Hardcore, a blond with an easy smile. Theirs is a subterranean marriage.
We’re about to descend, and I’m pondering my general ineptness as an adventurer.
I’m remembering last summer’s snorkeling trip, when I had a panic attack in the Belize Barrier Reef, causing my wife to throw up and subsequently be seasick.
My wife is also readying herself for the cave. She has what she calls a “highly-evolved vestibular system,” meaning a good sense of direction and susceptibility to motion sickness and vertigo. Watching the shaky camera in The Hunger Games made her sick two days.
The climb down is slow going, and when I reach the bottom, a bat flies inches from my face. On the wall sit smaller bats, like bite-sized Snickers, that glisten with condensation.
The Arkansas Ozarks have over two thousand documented caves, only eight of which are commercials caves. Advertised on billboards, these caverns feature groomed footpaths, lighting, stairways and sometimes elevators, and a gift shop upon exit, where you can buy postcards, T-shirts, rubber hatchets, or a geode to call your very own.
While commercial caves have their appeal, you haven’t experienced a cave until you enter a wild cave. Most wild caves, whether public or private, are gated and locked for liability reasons.
In 1985, two cavers from the Missouri Ozarks, Randy and Kevin Rose, purchased the Ennis property. There are over four miles of mapped cave at Ennis. For the last twenty-eight years, the Rose Brothers hold the Memorial Day Blowout for cavers from around the country.
From 1939-1943, Ennis was mined for manganese, an element used particularly in steel alloys. Legend has it that in the late nineteenth century, the James-Younger Gang used Ennis as a hiding spot. The Younger family still lives in the area. The access road bears their name.
Batman tells me that there are a number of caves near Ennis that he won’t enter because he suspects that within them people make meth. “I’ve got no reason to mess with those people,” he says.
Nearly a hundred cavers have hauled their campers, tents, and gear to this section of woods about thirteen miles east of Mountain View and a mile west of Penter’s Bluff on the White River. To access the property, you first must pass by the Cavetaker and his sign that says TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. SURVIVORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN.
Batman takes the lead. Mudslide runs tail, making sure that no one lags, wanders, or damages living formations, some of which are thousands of years old.
Passages twist and turn, the only light our headlamps and few flashlights. A fungus grows on the cave ceiling, and it looks like a million tiny balls of mercury. Little jewels of gypsum and calcite are everywhere. Jumar and Pixie, two of the younger cavers, point out what they call “cave ‘giners” on the ceiling. Another youngster, IQ, disappears again and again, reappearing like a cave ghost.
Batman forges ahead. Along with Hardcore and daughter AbbiNormal (who’s at Disney World band camp), they have logged countless hours exploring Ennis and know the cave better than most.
Batman says that what’s most important to him is to get kids involved. He tells me that a few weeks ago, his daughter led her first solo tour. “I was so proud of her,” he says, his voice cracking with love.
Batman also has the ear of the Cavetaker. Together they’ve dug out restricted tunnels, constructed ladders and walkways, put in ropes and handholds, all of which allow others to more easily explore Ennis, but always respecting the fragile and living formations.
In the Anthrodite Room, tiny spikes and slivers form on crevices and cavities in the ceiling. We stop for a rest. We turn off our lights. Instant black. Images begin to form in front of our open eyes. Cave hallucinations? The shadows of the last images the eyes saw?
With the lights back on, Batman says, “I want to bring Tim Burton down into Ennis some day.”
“Johnny Depp is my favorite actor,” Jumar says, “though I can’t say that he’s hot anymore, not since one of my friends said that my dad looks like him. That’s just too weird.” We discuss Johnny Depp, his various Burton roles, his guitar playing with Marilyn Manson. “Someday I’m going to eat a Subway sandwich down here,” Jumar says. All we have on this trip is granola, jerky, and candy bars.
We hike to the first of several entrances to Crystal’s Room. The first is all of ten inches high. We each army-crawl through the passage, and I feel more like a snake than a soldier.
As we sit hunched in a room the size of a pup tent, Batman says, “Someone covered the entrance.” He begins to dig out rocks and gravel. Hiding the entrance to the most fragile of spaces, like Crystal’s Room, prevents damage. When Batman has finished digging, I laugh and sigh. Batman has uncovered a tunnel eight inches high.
I remove my helmet, lie on my back, and stretch my arms out. I exhale and pull myself through, as if doing a pull-up. My belly catches, and I think, Here it comes! Here comes the panic. I’ll get stuck and need to be pulled out. They’ll call me Cave Gut! They’ll call me Jaws of Life!
But with one more pull, I’m through. This is what Alice felt, and it is the nature of caving: entryway after entryway, one rabbit hole after the next.
Inside Crystal’s Room, a gentle slope rises to a high wall, and all along are tubular helictite formations, like a diorama constructed by Tim Burton himself, glassy fingers less than ten inches high. They look like they would snap if you so much as blew on them.
The Cavetaker sits in an area of the cave known as the Maze. Here, in a small room, with several tunnels branching off, he rests at a table where candlelight flickers on cans of tomato soup and sliced peaches. He’s been hauling dirt and rocks, but as he turns to us, he seems the cleanest of us all. His hair and beard are white and neatly trimmed. He is absent of cave gear, except a carbide lantern, which through a reaction with water creates an acetylene flame. He wears overalls and a T-shirt. His arms are like granite columns.
For the last fifteen years, most of it spent without electricity or running water, the Cavetaker has maintained the property (above and below) for the Rose Brothers. He leads us to Jack and Emma Junction, where his two dogs are buried. Batman helped him with the lamb-shaped headstone, engraving the dogs’ names and helping the Cavetaker haul it down into the Maze. For the lamb’s eye, Batman engraved a bat.
In the Maze, beyond where anyone ventures, the Cavetaker has a bunker filled with food and supplies. He listens to Coast to Coast AM, the place on the dial where all things paranormal reside. He’s prepared for end times—it’s 2012, after all.
To the Cave Pirates, he speaks of a creature that resides in the cave, the Cave Demon, which is possibly a Bigfoot or an alien. At Ennis, he typically has a solitary life, and I cannot help but think that all stories arise from the cave.
We head to the Breakdown Room, which is a grand theater of destruction, car-size slabs of rocks littering the floor. Rock slabs the size of a railroad car look ready to drop from various points in the ceiling. It’s the perfect locale for a drone-metal video for a song that embraces entropy.
“You’ve got to alligator crawl,” Mudslide says. We’ve arrived at the entrance of the Waterfall Room.
A small tunnel awaits, the bottom filled with water, mud rising on the sides. Pixie, the smallest among us, goes first, twisting her body this way and that, like a contortionist who has forgotten her routine.
I stand a foot taller than Pixie and outweigh her by eighty pounds. I think to myself, alligator crawl? I’m not even going to try it. I squeeze through on my belly, the water cold. Flight suit sticks to my skin, gloves slick with clay, hiking boots thick with sludge. When I lift my head, it’s to a small ramp, nothing but empty distance on either side.
Hardcore encourages me on. I grip a bent ladder that drips with mud and is secured with ropes around what looks like a lump of clay. Hardcore smiles up from the bottom of the ladder. I think, right, Batman’s a self-described “over-educated, ex-paramedic, ex-fireman, grease monkey.” He and Hardcore wouldn’t put me in danger. When we first met, Batman told me that the Pirates had practiced carrying out a live body on a stretcher board. Wasn’t this very room where they practiced?
When we finally arrive on the floor of the Waterfall Room, we are nothing but amazed, even those who have been here dozens of times. Endless curtains of white and rosy brown drip from the ceiling. These formations are like all your pleasant dreams and nightmares melting upon one another, like the drapes that open to the afterlife. As you walk around, the formations seem to shift and change, every angle different from the next. It’s enough to make you feel lost, even though the space itself is small.
Water flows from the hundred-foot ceiling and slaps into a shallow pool. The water is pirated from a stream. This is where the Cave Pirates get their name—the name is not a reference to stealing from the cave but in homage to the cave’s own thievery.
I come to understand that each grand room in Ennis Cave is not defined by the formations within. Instead, it’s the challenges you overcome to earn the room. The scaling of the obstacles increases the sensory experience of what you observe. There is joy in pirating into each and every room.
On the way to the final stop, the Birthday Room, my wife stumbles on flat ground. She says, “We’ve been walking on uneven ground for hours!”
“How about Cave Lush for a nickname?” Batman says.
“I surrender to the walls changing to floors changing to boulders, finding that all of my body parts can be used as feet and that I enjoy being in contact with the stone, gravel, and even the mud. I cave!” So says the Cave Lush.
As the sun descends, the grills and campfires are fired up. Corn on the cob, chicken, jambalaya in tall pots. The night goes dark. Out come the pirate hats and the grog. There is dancing in the firelight.
And down below, it’s still dark in the cave, the beauty growing one pirated drop at a time.
—Ennis Cave, 2012, Tyrone “Scratch” Jaeger