Friday, September 01, 2006
Down with Dashiell
The handsome young guy above (other than me, of course) is my younger son -- Dashiell MacDonald Morris. Dash has endured many things during his twenty-four years, starting with the name his mother and I bestowed upon him, in honor of Mr. Hammett and John D. His first day of kindergarten, he came home complaining: "I've got the weirdest name in the whole school." Teachers could never get it right -- Deeshul, Dayshul, Da-Shell. When he walked across the stage for his high school graduation, the announcer intoned: "Dah-she-ell..."
But he's down with his name now. He's read "The Maltese Falcon" and a goodly number of the Travis McGee books. He knows from whence he came. Plus, he's always the only Dash in the room. A lot to be said for that ...
Our family visited Jamaica recently to celebrate Dash's graduation from the University of Florida (B.S., Environmental pre-law, natural resources conservation -- anyone got a job for him?) and while there Dash accompanied me on assignment for National Geographic Traveler, exploring the caves of the Cockpit Country. This is part of a feature I wrote, entitled "Extreme Caribbean," which will appear in the October issue of the magazine.
We teamed up with Stefan Stewart, a founder of the Jamaican Caves Organization, a semi-crazed Canadian speleologist who would not be insulted by my description of him as a cross between Dana Carvey and Gollum, from Lord of the Rings. He's a small salamanderish guy who smokes cigarettes like crazy, drinks beer even crazier and is still able to handle the balls-to-the-wall physical exertion that is part of caving. The photo above was taken after we had spent five hours climbing and crawling our way through Deeside Cave in Trelawney Parish. It's an area dubbed as "The Land of Look Behind" by the 18th-century British soldiers who tried, unsuccessfully, to battle the runaway slaves, known as Maroons, who settled the interior of Jamaica.
For our assault on Deeside we wore helmets with headlamps and carried rappelling gear. We rappelled down a 50-foot cliff and then back up again. The back-up-again part was quite possibly the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life. (Please notice that in the photograph I am holding onto Dash for support.)
There were bats. And there were lots of tiny wormhole tunnels where we had to get down on our bellies and slither like reptiles. At one point, slithering through a particularly tight wormhole, trying to control my until-then undiagnosed claustrophobia, I said something like: "Sure is a lot of mud in here."
To which Stefan answered: "That's not mud, man."
Me: "What is it then?"
Stefan: "Well, you've seen all the bats ..."
So, that's not mud covering us in the photo above. That's guano. I'm told it makes great fertilizer.
Beyond that though it was a most exhilerating and exhausting expedition. At the bottom of our descent, after proceeding through The Canyon and Hanging Gardens Chamber, we stopped at the River Pit, where the roar of rushing water some 50 feet below competed with conversation. Stefan told us to turn off our headlamps.
“Behold absolute blackness,” he said. “No place on the planet gets any darker than this.”
I stuck my hand in front of my face. I could not see it. I looked all around -- there was not even a glimmer of light. It was black, black, scary black.
For the record, I was the first one to turn my headlamp back on ...