From the beginning I have been hyperfocused on digging in order to stave off dark, horrifying feelings of claustrophobia. But now, stuck like a rat in the throat of a snake, a sickly anxiousness sweeps over me. I violently kick my legs, but to no avail: I'm swimming in dirt. I realize that by not using the drag tray to remove the dirt, I've buried myself.
I try to calm my racing thoughts, but my mind is preoccupied with the millions of tons of rock above me. I've been told that caves seldom collapse, and yet here I am, trapped at the bottom of a breakdown, in a cave that obviously did collapse. I try to slow my frantic breathing because I've also been told that hyperventilating expands one's lungs and only tightens the squeeze, which is exactly what's happening. Suddenly I'm thrashing shamelessly, kicking and clawing and writhing. I manage to knock off my headlamp, and everything goes black.
Cavers aren't like you and me. "I don't get claustrophobia," Kristen Bobo explains. It is twilight, and we're seated in wooden rocking chairs on her lush backyard lawn in Cookeville, Tennessee. "In fact, I'm very comfortable with a wall six inches or less in front of my face." Bobo, five feet four and 102 pounds, won the "squeeze box" competition in her age and weight class three years in a row. A fixture at caving festivals (bacchanals famous for cheap beer and champion bonfires), the squeeze box looks like a medieval torture device. Two sheets of plywood are placed one on top of the other like a sandwich, with the space in between adjusted in quarter-inch increments. Bobo can slide through a six-and-a-quarter-inch space.
Despite wearing a helmet, gloves, elbow pads, shin pads, kneepads, and a reinforced nylon suit, Bobo is covered with scrapes and bruises from our journey into Jaguar Cave. "That's the normal state of affairs," she says dismissively. "Cavers are too obsessed to worry about such trivial things. We all just want to go right back underground. We call it cave fever. You can see it in our eyes—a certain glow."
Bobo has explored more than 700 caves. In the process she has broken her back, torn muscles, snapped fingers and toes, and almost died from hypothermia. But what really hurts Bobo is when a cave is injured. In 2001 she visited a cave where the stalactites and stalagmites had been wantonly broken off.