James Rollins on the Mysteries of the Deep and The Lure of Worlds Below
I love the unknown. It started when I was just a kid growing up in the Midwest. I devoured all things mysterious, unexplained, and inexplicable. I started reading H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, then moved on to the vintage science fiction of Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. As a boy, I dreamed of exploring distant planets, lost continents, untracked jungles. But reality has a way of squashing such childish dreams. In a world where continents seem to grow smaller every year—through the sprouting of cell phone towers, the wireless spread of the Internet, the all-seeing eye of Google Earth—what is left unexplored and unmapped?
Decades ago, I discovered such a place during my sophomore year in college. Two friends of mine—John Petty and Rick Hourigan—found a rocky hole in the ground at Castlewood State Park outside St. Louis, Missouri. To enter it required dropping flat on your belly and wiggling down that dark chute headfirst. I remember that first sojourn into the inner labyrinth of the Earth. While that cave wasn’t a portal to some subterranean world of rampaging dinosaurs and strange tribes, it was still a daunting challenge and pretty darned scary. At the same time, it was easy to imagine that few eyes had ever looked upon those rarefied sights we discovered down there. As I climbed back out, I knew that at last I’d found my own lost world to explore—and it became a lifelong passion.
The official name for such exploration is spelunking. Throughout my college years, my friends and I searched out and wormed our way into the region’s countless “wild caves,” cavern systems known only to fellow explorers of the subterranean world. The entrances to such sites could be found cryptically marked in pencil on topographical maps, or, more commonly, were spread by word of mouth, and all too often required trespassing to reach them (versus “show caves,” which are open to the public with lighted pathways, stairs, and souvenir shops).
With time, I became more serious about my passion, even joining the National Speleological Society, a nationwide, ten-thousand-strong organization that supports the “exploration, study, and protection of caves and their environments.” I discovered one of their more than two hundred local clubs, called “grottos,” in the Northern California area and made friends with like-minded cavers. Over those early years, I learned the proper skills, equipment, and tricks to such sojourning.
That doesn’t mean that everything goes without mishap. A couple of years ago, while exploring a wild cave in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I became trapped in a chute, hanging in my ascending harness, squeezed between two walls. I could not move. Lodged a hundred feet underground, my caving buddies offered this sage advice: “Get free or you’re stuck there forever.” With such motivation, I spent the next two hours meticulously shifting limbs, wiggling, cursing, sweating, and making all sorts of deals with God. But I did finally break through that chute and back into the glorious sunlight.
Afterward, sprawled on my back, covered in mud, staring up at the setting sun, I felt as if I’d survived a shipwreck and been beached on an uncharted island. In that moment, I recognized a hard truth: the world might have grown smaller, but it still held a vast capacity to roll over and squash those who dared trespass where they didn’t belong. And for some reason, that both terrified and left me with a profound sense of exhilaration.
So did I go caving after that? Definitely. Will I get stuck again? I can only hope so.