Published: June 2009

Deep Southern Caves

Underground cavern

Deep South

Hard-core cavers in three southern states stop at nothing to probe an underworld wilderness.

By Mark Jenkins
Photograph by Stephen Alvarez

The Goat is squeezıng through the Sphincter.

Groaning and clawing, neck twisted, white head scraping against the rock. To cram his body through this basketball-size hole requires yoga-like contortions—arms overhead as if diving, hips uncomfortably twisted the opposite of chest, legs cramped underneath. The Sphincter lies at the end of a kinked, intestinal tunnel, and Marion "the Goat" Smith is the last of our six-person exploratory team to wriggle through, a task he accomplishes with veteran agility and ceaseless cursing.

"Just so you know," Kristen Bobo turns to me, careful not to blind me with her headlamp, "the more Marion enjoys a cave, the more he cusses." Bobo, 38, is a master caver herself. Small as a child but strong as a miner, with big doe eyes that belie a will as unbendable as angle iron, she slithers through the Sphincter easy as a snake.

The Goat plops out into the dirt and proclaims in a croaky southern drawl, "What goes down must come up," which is Smith's wry way of saying that we're hundreds of feet under the hills of Tennessee, and we'll have to pass back through the Sphincter to get home.

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