I can remember the exact day that I became a “man”. Only a “quote” man because I think that becoming an adult human is a ongoing process that doesn’t have an end result, like arriving at Paris after a long flight, but is rather a life-long experience that occurs in various stages – some subtle and others dramatic. My first steps into manhood didn’t take place at 18 years old, when I went off to college; it didn’t happen when I turned 21, and had my first (legal) drink; and it wasn’t when I finally graduated college at the age of 24 (yeah, it took a while). It was shortly thereafter, while in Costa Rica on an Outward Bound trek through the jungle. I became a man the day I went into the Cave.
If you’re not familiar with Outward Bound, they are an international organization that specializes in leading life-changing experiences for youth in a diverse variety of typically remote wilderness settings. Lots of team-building activities, leadership opportunities, plenty of adventure, laughter, tears, sweat, soiled trousers, and sometimes some blood. Powerful opportunities for growth. This particular Outward Bound expedition was called CRROBS – Costa Rica Rainforest Outward Bound School.
The trek set out from about halfway up a mountain a couple of hours south of San Jose, letting us out with our combined 1000 pounds of gear, to continue trekking up that mountain to our first campsite. Within a couple hours, several of our group let forth the first rain of tears, suffering as they were from carrying 40+ pounds on their backs, hiking straight uphill with no end in sight, and probably not having done a whole lot of hiking in preparation for the trip. The drama would continue, as you might expect.
Over the next two weeks, we trekked deeper into the jungle, up and down mountains and hills, over and through rivers, up and down trees, down waterfalls by means of rappelling gear, and eventually, one day we climbed up a steep hillside and then descended into the belly of a cave. Like many caves, it was, in fact, a bat cave. That’s not just an admission of my boyish dorkhood and ongoing fascination with comic book heroes (this is what I mean by the ongoing process to adulthood, some things may just never change), but is actually somewhat relevant to the story. For one, bats tend to produce an irrational fear in many folks, and this was certainly the case with our group. Secondly, bats poop. Of course they do, they’re animals, so poop will be expected. What this translates to is both ruined white shirts (my favorite Tool shirt was sadly trashed by this experience), and even slippery-than-usual rocks upon which our expedition team was climbing.
So upon entering this cave, we all had to face the fear of going deep into the dank, dark bowels of the earth, where no human post-Neolithic era has any business of being, but also of slipping on bat crap and smacking our heads on guano-covered rocks.
It took us around 30 or 40 minutes of careful scrambling up and down the slick rocks, sometimes crawling through areas one at a time on hands and knees, until we reached the terminus: a roughly circular cavern perhaps 30 feet side to side.
At this point, we sat in a circle, as we tended to do several times a day, for a group activity. The activity began with our expedition leader requesting that each of us turn off our headlamps, and pass them around the circle to him. Naturally, deep inside the cave, this produced some anxiety, to say the least. More honestly, there were screams, cries, outright panic. Yet more tears. What the boys back home like to call Drama. Eventually, everyone relented and went along with the activity.
Blackness. Absolute and total blackness, unlike anything I had ever or since experienced.
No light of any sort penetrates this deep into the earth; there are no phosphorescent bacteria or magic glowing mushrooms or elves or anything else that might produce light. We were nothing but voices and memories of ourselves swallowed up by complete darkness.
The activity proceeded from there into a voice jam, which is like a drum circle, but using our voices. Pretty spectacular sounds, echoing inside the cave like that. Then we looked for our auras, by concentrating energy into our hands, and then waving them in front of our faces. I swear that I could see a faint glow from my hands.
Then, the real test. Our leader dropped the bomb on us: we were to find our way back out of the cave, without guidance – and without our lights.
If you thought there was some crying earlier with the hike and the lights, then I had misled you. I apologize for that. What happened then was a breakdown of all that is good in the world, like every kitten and butterfly simultaneously imploding into a black, sticky pile of goo, with a rain of tears washing it away. No exaggeration, I wouldn’t do that.
Prior to this moment, and probably throughout my life, I was never really one to speak out in a group. Never really trusted my voice in front of more than three people, and only if I knew them well.
But amidst all of the crying voices, screaming out “we’re going to die in here!”, “we’ll never make it out!”, suddenly I heard myself say, “STOP!”
“Come on guys, we can do this. Remember all of the activities we’ve done together? We can trust each other, work together to get out of this.” Surprisingly, they were still listening. “Let’s just grab hands, count out in line, and feel our way out of this cave.”
Despite a bit of persistent whimpering and occasional surges of minor panic, we did just that.
Over the course of the next two hours, we scrambled, just as we had done to get in, up and down the slick rocks, sometimes crawling through areas one at a time on hands and knees, until we reached one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen: a beam of light cutting through a blanket of darkness. We reached the surface in a mass of guano-covered, sweaty youth, still crying but now with tears of joy.
While this was a planned exercise, a survival simulation, and one that many groups before us had done, we shared an feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that probably none of us had ever experienced before.
Standing at the mouth of the cave, looking down at the jungle valley below, the darkness of the cave behind me, a felt a shift inside my soul. At this moment, I crossed a threshold into “manhood.” It was then that I had one of the most powerful realizations I’ve yet experienced.
Before this moment, I had watched with envy and admiration at the agile footing of our local guide, a young guy named Antonio. He had grown up in the jungle, knew it like it was his backyard. He flew up and down those muddy, super-slick hills like he was walking down a sidewalk in the city.
Watching him prance down the hill, I realized: “if he can do it, so can I.”
What one person can do, so can another.
With much the same agility, I found myself dancing down the slick jungle hill, inspired and fueled by a confidence I had never known. While the life lessons overflowed throughout this CRROBS trek, this was the most significant, one that still encourages me 15 years later.