Tennessee Far from the light of day, cavers illuminate the four-acre, 350-foot-high Rumble Room. Reaching the limestone cavern entails dropping down a 68-foot shaft, climbing up two 14-foot waterfalls, and stooping or crawling along 2,000 feet of passageways, some barely a foot wide. (This is a panoramic composite of four images.)
Tennessee Far from the light of day, cavers illuminate the four-acre, 350-foot-high Rumble Room. Reaching the limestone cavern entails dropping down a 68-foot shaft, climbing up two 14-foot waterfalls, and stooping or crawling along 2,000 feet of passageways, some barely a foot wide. (This is a panoramic composite of four images.)
Photograph by Stephen Alvarez

Deep South

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

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.

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