In the Depths

I suspect that lots of you are Star Wars freaks like me. I was in third grade when the first film came out in 1977, and I have been hooked ever since. The Andor series on Disney+ has been absolutely amazing to watch, but, like so many Lower and Middle School families, I’ve enjoyed The Mandalorian even more. While I won’t give away any plot lines, I will mention one of the most recent episodes, which has the main characters going deep into a planet through a series of mines. The story got me thinking.

My dad is a geologist, and, in my youth, he took me into some caves and mines. Meaning: here is an opening into the Earth; let’s explore it in a horizontal (i.e., walking) fashion. Then, in my first job, I was part of an outdoor education group that went a bit “deeper.” By that, I mean going vertically deep—rappelling down sheer cave cliffs into darkness.

On multiple occasions, I led students into Montemayor, a deep cave in northern Mexico with multiple vertical drops that one had to rappel down and then make a rope ascent to get back up. These expeditions were intense. The opening of the cave led to a long drop into an open-air sinkhole. The next stretch included a hole we could barely squeeze through. Then, after rappelling down several shorter drops, you would encounter the first of two cliffs that were each over a hundred meters tall. The second of these ended at an underground lake in a cavern so huge that a high-powered headlamp couldn’t light the opposite wall. (Note that these trips always had two adults for every student who were experts in caving and emergency first aid.)

Caving is not for everyone. To know that your only way out is by ascending a piece of rope the diameter of your pinky rightfully inspires some trepidation. Being in a large, pitch-black, underground space can be surreal, and you have to manage your fears and trust your planning. But the challenge inspired me. Three of my most powerful memories originated in Montemayor. 

Once, I was hanging above a huge drop to ensure students were safe as they got their gear ready to rappel. On another trip, I was at the bottom of this same drop, directing the students about how to approach a 45-minute rope ascent; I waited alone below for an hour as the last group made their way out. The final memory is a descent into an underground lake, my headlamp lighting up incredible geological features and water. I was a true explorer in a place that only a handful had been before.

In a world in which so much has been defined and conquered, I am grateful to have found new pathways. I wish for our students the same sense of wonder and joy of discovery. It may not even be something that is necessarily new to others—but it will be new to them. I have had those moments, and it has only encouraged me to explore more deeply. By stepping into the unknown and being open to what I found there, I have learned new things about myself and the world.