United States of America
The destination was the town of Franklin, West Virginia, which happens to be 641 miles away from here[Boston]. I got a lift down with a chap called Mike Cunningham, who actually lives in Maine and thus had already been driving for several hours before he picked me up on Thursday evening. We drove through the night, and arrived in Franklin at about 7.30am on Friday.
While sitting in a supermarket car park eating breakfast, we saw two cavers walking by, who turned out to be more Boston members, John and Lea, who had arrived the previous evening. We set out to do a short trip before we met the rest of the gang at lunchtime. This was Keys Cave (which apparently ought to be called Kee Cave, but isn't), which was short and sweet -- a network of interconnecting rifts, mostly walking-size. It must have been quite pretty once, but any formations were trashed long ago (it's a sad fact in caving that any formations that are too easy to get to end up being smashed up). Keys detained us for about an hour, before we went back to the motel in Franklin to meet the others.
The afternoon's trip was to Mystic Cave, which was quite a drive away from Franklin. The entrance is on the land belonging to an amazing woman called Mrs Teter, who is 88 and lives on her own in a small farm in the middle of nowhere. She likes to keep careful track of everyone who goes to the cave, and to make sure that they get out OK. She ended up inviting us into her house (all eight of us), and we sat around chatting for hours, hearing about the huge flood decades ago (I think she said 1985) which opened up the entrance; apparently the whole area was devastated, and many people were killed, including her own sister.
The cave itself was pretty impressive: a short entrance passage then a fixed ladder down to a massive streamway continuing in both directions. We went upstream, climbing up a sequence of waterfalls, until it got too wet and tight; then we turned around and headed back. At the junction with the entrance passage, Lea, John and Mike went out, and the remaining five of us went for a look at the downstream branch. This was even wetter than the upstream one had been, with one or two bits of actual swimming, before ending at a low wet crawl which none of us could be bothered with. Consulting the survey it seems there are additional entrances both upstream and downstream and we actually turned round within a hundred metres or so of both of them, but I wouldn't have been particularly keen on going further even if I'd known that! When we got out, it was incredibly cold, well below freezing, and I found that Mike had driven off in his truck. He had fortunately thought to leave my rucksack with Mrs Teter so I'd have some dry clothes to put on, but rather less fortunately I had left my trousers loose in the back of the truck, so I had nothing to put on except a pair of swim shorts (which I had packed in the bottom of the rucksack for some reason I can't now remember, perhaps anticipating better weather). I also hadn't brought a second pair of shoes on the trip, and my trainers were soaked. 0 out of 10 for planning there.
When we got back to the motel, we were in for a nasty shock: both the motel cafe and the pizza place down the road had shut for the night, and we couldn't get food anywhere in Franklin. Tim managed to persuade the pizzeria to give us some random bits of leftover pizza they had been going to throw away, so that was our dinner. I was so cold and hungry I ate it quite happily, despite the fact it was possibly the worst pizza I've ever had. Then we spent the night in warm comfortable motel rooms. Hang on a minute, no, that would be too sensible. Mike and I had balked at the price of rooms at the motel and had decided to bring camping gear instead; I had bought a tent for $29.99, and a similarly cheap airbed and sleeping bag liner to beef up the rather lightweight sleeping bag I had with me. Of course, this bargain-basement gear was no match for the vicious wind and well below freezing temperatures, and I had a pretty miserable night. On waking up I found my damp trainers had frozen completely solid; it was a challenge getting them on, but they warmed up eventually. I also discovered that my toothpaste had frozen, which I had never realised was possible.
Fortunately, it turned into a pretty nice day, and we had a pleasant walk up to Cave Mountain Cave. This is a huge railway-tunnel-sized passage boring horizontally into the side of the hill; the passage must be ten metres high and wide for most of it, but much of that is filled with massive boulders. Apparently there is a way down through the boulders into a lower series, but we didn't go down there; we just followed the main passage through the boulder chokes. One very nice section had big quartz (?) crystals on the walls, which I got a couple of good photos of.
After that, we all headed back to the campsite (where I found my tent had almost blown away during the day), and built a fire and spent the evening sitting huddled around it drinking beer. It was another cold night, but this time I was prepared for it, and got inside my sleeping bag wearing all my clothes, including coat and gloves; this just about kept me warm enough!
Sunday was entirely devoted to the drive back. Mike and I opted out of doing another cave in the morning before leaving, and instead dropped in at Luray Caverns showcave en route; it wasn't bad, but none of the formations were especially impressive -- it was a wonderful example of what you can achieve with mediocre formations and very good lighting. The drive was extremely dull; Mike was really tired, and had to stop quite frequently to sleep, so we didn't arrive in Boston until 1.30 am. I have no idea what time Mike got back to his place in Maine, but it can't have been before 4am.
So that was my first experience of caving American style. To be honest, none of the caves would have been out of place in Yorkshire; the things that struck me were the immense length of the drive, and the differences in culture between the Boston cavers and my caving friends back in the UK (this lot mostly cave in old clothes, for example, rather than the fancy dedicated caving suits UK cavers wear; anyone who owns lots of fancy gear seems to be regarded as something of a wuss, which struck me as a rather strange attitude).