In hindsight, a trip to a cave for spring break might not have been the best idea considering my claustrophobia.
Yes, I love exploring and adventuring as much as the next guy.
But tight quarters with more than 100 of my fellow human beings fighting for the same space and air is more than I can handle.
My claustrophobia set in after I worked in Ukraine as a reporter at the Kyiv Post in 2004.
I attended a rally in Maidan with a million people and got sucked into the crowd. I was swept off my feet and carried for many yards against my will.
Something from that moment stuck with me, and I hate crowds to this day.
A secondary, albeit lesser, phobia is of being on something like a bus, train or plane where I cannot leave the trip at any moment of my choosing.
The standard Mammoth Cave National Park tour provides the perfect setting for both of these scenarios.
The Historical Tour, which we signed up for, often features more than 100 people and two guides.
Though it does go through the larger caverns of Mammoth Cave, there are a few parts where you do not want to be stuck with 50 people in front of you and 50 people behind you.
In order to survive my particular condition, I’ve developed some survival mechanisms.
I always have an escape plan. No matter where I am in any closed-in situation, I have an escape plan. It might be elaborate, involving my faking a heart attack or overt, like knowing where the last stop on my train line is before the 40-minute ride into Union Station.
Generally speaking, I can get get myself through many uncomfortable situations by the survival techniques I’ve learned since I started suffering claustrophobia about a decade ago.
But I don’t usually walk into a situation I know is going to be bad.
Our little spring break trip to Mammoth Cave was supposed to be a fun weekend jaunt to another national park for the kids’ collection, an interesting learning experience in a world heritage site and some exploration and adventure just a few hours from home.
By the time we walked to the entrance with more than 100 people, I was decidedly uncomfortable.
Being of reasonably sound mind, I should’ve bailed after the warning the lead ranger gave us at the entrance to the cave.
It was simple.
If you have heart or lung problems, or if you’re susceptible to claustrophobic issues, they recommend you stay behind. It’s a big cave, but it’s not always a big cave.
When we descended into the abyss, I was too enamored of the giant entryway to think too much about the fear rising in my gut.
It always starts as a tightness in my stomach, which eventually turns to cramping, which impacts my breathing, which can lead to hyperventilation, which worsens panic attacks, which can lead to the need for hospitalization.
If you know me or you’ve read my other stories, you know this has happened at least twice in my life.
The last thing the lead ranger said said before our drop into the cave was, “There are no bathroom stops for the next two hours, so if you have to go, don’t go on this tour.”
The first urge to “go” hit me during the first stop in the Rotunda, a large, aptly named room that is mind-blowing in size natural elegance.
I was only a quarter mile from the entrance at this point. I thought to myself, perhaps I should simply tell the ranger who brought up the rear of our group that this wasn’t for me, and unless they wanted an epic scene in the bowels of the earth in Southern Kentucky, maybe I could just walk out now.
I didn’t. We continued on to Giant’s Coffin, where the lead ranger told horror stories in pitch blackness using her flashlight to raise the lid on the casket.
I buried my nose in my wife’s shoulder and breathed in deeply feeling her warmth.
This usually calms me down, and it helped for a minute or two.
After Giant’s Coffin, we descended in the pit of hell, at least in my mind.
Half the group was ahead of us and half behind us.
We were trapped in between, heading into some seriously small passageways.
One, in particularly, called Fat Man’s Misery, played on my mind like the fall at Splash Mountain does when your log is bumping around the turns leading up to it.
When we made this particularly landmark, I was fully committed and had abandoned all but the most ludicrous of escape plans.
The keyhole walkway narrowed, and I, among others, had to turn sideways to fit through several small sections.
I was clawing at the air trying to fight off the panic I know can set in.
Meanwhile, the kids behind me kept wondering what it would be like for a 300 pound man to be stuck in these passageways.
Turns out our brains were on the same wavelength, minus 100 pounds or so.
I peeked at my phone to see the time, which registered half-past 1 p.m., which meant we were only a half hour from the scheduled end of this, if all the facts were true and standard.
We made it past Fat Man’s Misery and Tall Man’s Misery, where I bumped my head so hard, even though I’m not tall at all, that it took away all panicky feelings associated with claustrophobia for at least three minutes.
The pain was a refreshing break from the monotony of my mind working for itself.
While on the way to the River Room, I noticed a squared off brick structure that did not fit the natural environs.
I made a mental note, because it looked like a restroom.
The ranger confirmed as much as we sat on the benches while they prepped us for the 150 stairs we would have to climb near the Ruins of Karnak inside The Tower of Mammoth Dome.
I hung back as long as I could, knowing full well the only way out was forward. But a bathroom break might mean the difference between a desperate cave rescue in a ridiculously difficult part of the cave and and an easy stair master workout in good company.
Not sure why, exactly, but I didn’t engage the rear ranger.
It seemed asking to use the cave potties might really throw metal into the works, and I just wanted to get out unscathed.
So we climbed and climbed and climbed up the bowels of the cave.
From 360 feet deep to less than 180, we ascended the stairway to heaven, or so it felt to me, knowing we were not that far from the entrance.
I often do things that confront my most obvious issues with claustrophobia in order to grow as a human being. But these are small, controllable situations.
Entering a cave with 100 other human beings and walking underground for two miles through tight passageways where we’re all bunched up and friendly, is not one of those scenarios.
Maybe it was the kids. I have a deep fear of appearing weak to them. Maybe it was my wife. She puts a lot of stock on the fact that I haven’t had a bad panic attack that I’ve told her about in many years.
Whatever it was, we made it to the entrance at the end of that loop, and when I felt that cold forest air pouring into the cave, I knew it was going to be all right.
I fairly bounded up the stairs and through the foot wash for the bat-killing white-nose syndrome and up the walkway to the visitor’s center, where 100 others were dying to use the toilets.
And after, when we were driving down the Blue Grass Parkway, I thought about how facing your fears and overcoming them makes one feel stronger.
Each successful endeavor is evidence of what you can overcome.
Spending two hours inside the narrow and confined earth with more than 100 people pressing in around me was bad, but it wasn’t the end of things. It was just a test.
And tests are good – usually.
Yes, the shadows playing on the walls reminded me of my demons, and they were vague and unknowable.
But surviving the experience in relatively sound mind raised my game to another level, and the shadows are no longer based on real objects.
They are simply truths that I now know.
We’re heading toward the entrance and the sun, which will be blinding but good.
And the question that haunted me during that whole visit to Mammoth Cave is finally answered. Can I go back into the cave gain to be with the others?
The answer – I believe – is yes.