by Kyle Dan’l Mills
Pocahontas County, West Virginia
Monster Caverns is the name of the largest room in the longest mapped cave, which is located in the Appalachian Mountains.
I can hear its existence: a low rumble, the Monster’s roar, coming from its inner sanctum and reverberating off the large limestone corridor around me. The sound is distant but recognizably enormous—the howl is primal and ancient. This is the voice of the abyss—the deep drawls of its breath pull heavy air past me.
Walking towards this noise makes my adrenaline spike and my heart punch against its cage; my eyes dilate to draw in the remotest photon, sporadic muscles twitch—a full-body physiological response. The ancestral human reaction to a perceived monster in the dark.
With each step I sneak closer to Monster Caverns- believing that my intrusion into such a place must appear covert, and with so many deep shadows and monolithic shapes, there are many places to hide. Though I am an explorer, I do not feel like a conquistador arriving on a strange shore, or an astronaut pressing into the dust on the moon, but rather, I’m like an out-of- place mouse in a church house.
I stand at the Antechamber, a room overlooking Monster Caverns. Somewhere in this circumferential void is a 103-foot tall waterfall, but I can’t see it—there is only the sound and the darkness—as they have always been.
My headlight is devoured by blackness and I’ve lost my spatial awareness. I feel like a faint star exploding in a far corner of the universe—casting my light across the great, untouchable expanses of space and time. A solitary being becoming a part of vast nothingness.
I can’t see the ceiling or walls—there are only the large breakdown blocks I am standing on. The rocks seem like the crushing molars and tearing canines on the lower jaw of some enormous beast as I climb from stone to stone—exploring the cavernous mouth of the Monster.
Ahead of me now, I see four sources of light, like comets, moving through the darkness. The radial diffraction of the light beams dissolve into nothingness, but by tracing them back to their source, I see they are attached to shadowy human silhouettes projected on the rocks around them—which are slowly penetrating the void—giving some scale to the immensity of the space.
I’m close enough to the waterfall now that I can vaguely glimpse it crashing ten stories to the rocks below. The lip of the falls is as far as my light can infiltrate, however, and the ceiling remains obscured in the blackness. Monster Falls appears as a thin, misty-white tongue of reflection—screaming as it plummets to the floor; and as instantly as it pours from the wall, it is swallowed into the breakdown floor.
We must yell to speak with each other, so we sit together in personal silences. This place is Monstrous. The noise, the size, the weight of the blackness, the feel—it is all overwhelming. It’s so obviously larger than I am—in every possible interpretation.
I can feel the wind and spray of the falls against my face-blowing tiny droplets of water around the room—creating its own stratified fog. Swirling, the haze dances around my light beam- with my own evaporative perspiration rising to join it. I watch as they intermingle and vanish from sight like the uplifting smoke from a sage prayer. I feel uniquely satisfied with this.
I shiver, a reminder that I cannot stay here—that humans cannot live here. I can only ever be a visitor this place—a muddy pilgrim to an ancient land.
This cryptic, alien world under the mountains serves as the Alleghenies’ Great Hall—a temple to the infinite process of change and the constant rearrangement of every atom in the Universe. The story of pure, unrestricted creation is told here in the stones and the darkness, and the song of the primordial struggle is growled, constantly, in this place.
I stand, I walk, and I sit. Looking all around, I only see the absences. By my feet are some small pebbles embedded in the mud. Creek stones, familiar and smooth—their touch recalls memories. These would make good skipping stones, on a quiet pool in a river, but they will not see the sun again for eons. They belong to the Monster now. I lay them back down and leave.
My re-entry to the surface is greeted by a cold, dark night—with air full of nearly forgotten smells. Walking back from the entrance, I look up and face the light of the Milky Way.
Somehow, it all seems closer now.
Kyle Mills is the outdoor recreation coordinator for West Virginia Wesleyan College and studies creative nonfiction in the MFA Creative Writing program when he is not out exploring the mountains of West Virginia.