The dangerous thing about reading maps is following them out your door into the world. So I am out the door at noon and across the barnyard and into the woods and topping our hill. In my mind, I carry a map of the Barrack Zourie cave system, seemingly named by Tolkien. A map can resemble a good book in this way, taking you so far beyond yourself that you seem different when you return.
The dangerous thing about going out your door is wanting to keep going, which I blame on the sunlight setting crisp shadows onto the snow. My laced-up waterproof boots and insulated overalls—rugged and encouraging—are equally to blame. Luring me on, though, is also the Barrack Zourie, the mountain close to our hilltop and the long complex of tubes and caverns traversing underground, Southwest of the depression where our farmstead sits: Buried Valley.
Thin black lines squiggle across the cave map. I begin to read the circled numbers—depths, heights. Rappelling into Barn Entrance from the surface would drop you 98 feet into the Sewers, where the water is two feet deep and the ceiling is two feet above the water surface. An ill-advised left turn out of the Sewers ends at Death’s Door, but a right turn leads to Bluestone Highway. Further on, a tunnel called Bloody Hell leaves La Grande Chambre, connecting to Nothing Yet Passage, with a twelve-foot ceiling. In Whale’s Belly and The Swim, the ceiling is four feet above the water, but the water is six feet deep.
The dangerous thing about going onward is beginning to feel like you’re searching for something. Based on the map, I should be able to find a cave opening somewhere just off my path: Cave Mistake. Not a real entrance, but irresistibly named. As I zig-zag through the almost frozen woods, I wonder if Cave Mistake is the kind of cave opening that would require rappelling into, and if so, how obvious would such a drop be if disguised by leaf litter and light snow cover. I watch the dog covering twice my distance, trusting that if she remains up top, so will I.
The dangerous thing about searching is not finding the thing, which might be more relief than disappointment when searching for Cave Mistake. Instead I find rabbit urine staining the snow like red wine, a turkey feather’s velvet spread, curling ice designs, a tree hole rasped by a pileated woodpecker. Beavers have tackled an impressive tree along the wetland, in view of Barrack Zourie Mountain. I keep hiking in the bright woods, with my mind traveling underground and here at the surface, finding exactly what I came out here for.