Descending 165 feet into an underground chamber with a 20- to 30-foot-thick ceiling is every acrophobic and claustrophobic’s dream, isn’t it? Add a vertical staircase made from an aged World War I battleship with diamond-cut views overlooking the emptiness below and the combination is breathtaking – literally.

The first 65 stairs from the surface to the beginning of the spiral staircase is narrow, steep and damp. Breathing was manageable until the walls of the cave began to creep closer, inching overhead ever so slightly.

After the last flight of wooden stairs, the chamber flooded into sight and time stood still – except for the beating of the heart. The air was cool with a dampness that created a humid sweat along the skin. The walls resembled waves that have taken form in solid curves cascading downward in a natural flow.

The organs inside began to thud and shiver faster with each step closer to the staircase.

And there was the bottom – 100 feet down.

The fixed rusty railing in the center of the spiral became the focus, but five steps down, breathing had quickened. Each foot shook and vibrated, rhythmically following the cadence of the beating heart.

The old saying, “Don’t look down,” should be avoided in these situations. Almost always, people end up looking down.

And voila. Stuck. In the middle of the staircase.

The visions around became blurred, the grip on the railing tightened, and the colors of the rust danced onto the palms and stayed, soaking into the drumming of the body’s fright.

Courage came through, though, from the kind people waiting at the bottom, and the legs, still shaking, were urged forward, and the eyes refocused to bumpy, copper-colored metal getting familiar with the skin.

144 stairs later, the trembling body felt secure again on the dirt of the chamber floor, and an empty, but damp, wooden bench was welcoming with solace.

Once seated, the various elements of the cavern became louder than the throbbing between the ears.

Water trickled down and the drips echoed through the cold emptiness of the air.

Man-made lanterns built into the sides and bottom of the chamber shed light on the different natural shapes, cracks, and crevices of the marble cave. The shadows spread every which way, becoming darker where light cannot reach.

The air felt thicker, with a weighted wetness.

Then the lights went out and everything went black. 100% darkness and the breathing stopped.

In complete darkness and quiet, the thudding between the ears picked up speed again, and for five minutes, all was still, all was calm – everything around, that is.

“Up, up, up the stairs we go”

The lights switched on, and the eyes adjusted to the curvature of the chamber once again. And as people began to wind their way back up to the top, both feet stood planted, procrastinating on putting the first one forward.

When it comes to heights, ascending is as much of a struggle as descending.

The focus was brought back to the rusty railing, and the feet began to move.

The question, “Is the top close?” was asked about half a dozen times. At halfway again, the body froze there, trying to control the breathing – trying to hold steady on a platform much older than everyone on the tour. The echoes of the people talking above dissipated into a silence, and it seemed that the sound of the faltering breath was traveling across the cavern to the empty shadows hiding from the light.

From a source unknown, courage presented itself and feet reached the top of the staircase, but nerves still trembled.

Ascending the wooden staircases became easier as the cave walls cut back and allowed more room.

The feeling at the surface became mind-boggling with visuals of the chamber’s height below. The ground felt solid beneath the feet, but the heart kept pounding – racing from a dream come true.

For more information or to make a reservation, contact Moaning Caverns Adventure Park at moaningcaverns.com or call 736-2708.

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Holly has a degree in anthropology and will receive a bachelor’s degree in English soon, with an emphasis in creative writing. She has moved to the area from southern California and shares her life with a Siberian husky and three rescue cats.

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