Exploring the Depths

The restlessness of sitting at home during these times has pushed some out of their comfort zones. Enjoying nature at its finest has been chosen by students in order to escape today’s troubles. At NHS, a smaller group of students share the hobby of exploring the outdoors — caves.
“[I explore] to fill out my own map in my head,” sophomore adventurer Thomas Gonzales said. “Sure others may have discovered it, but I haven’t seen it for myself.”
Exploring can be done anywhere. For Gonzales, finding new things fills his passion.
“When I go hiking I just see a cave and want to see what’s in it,” Gonzales said. “Plus my brother — before he moved — would always bring us to caves around Ozark.”
Caving is a prime Missouri activity, because the state is filled with many seemingly endless underground holes and tunnels.
“We have karst topography which means that, when it rains, the groundwater is slightly acidic and eats away at our limestone,” science teacher Whitney Rapp said. “It creates caverns and sinkholes, underground tunnels, over a course of a long period of time. Naturally with our bedrock, we have lots of caves in this area.”
Missouri is known as the cave state for a reason. Rapp teaches Dual Credit Earth Science and Biology, so she is well-verified on caves. She has always enjoyed caving and has taken her earth science students on spelunking trips every year before COVID-19.
“I just think that caves are interesting because it is fun to explore new things,” senior Joshua Jones said.
He has been exploring with his friends for a long time now, even with the business of the end of his high school career.
“I absolutely love being outside, and I’m not sure why, but I have just always enjoyed doing things like hiking, fishing, exploring and camping,” Jones said.
Loving nature is a key trait necessary to enjoy caving. A lot of physical endurance is needed to travel through the tunnels. Exploring and caving are often tied together, but students view them in different lights.
“I feel that [exploring and caving] are pretty much the same thing, except that caving is in a cave, but I prefer exploring because there is a much greater range of opportunities with that,” Jones said.
Gonzales sees caving a bit differently.
“Caving is completely different from exploring because everyone can explore, [but] not everyone can go into the depths of the earth,” Gonzales said.
Spelunking and exploring are not activities for everyone.. There are many precautions to take.
“You just have to be aware of private property vs. not private property,” Rapp said. “You need to always cave with somebody. You need to always have a helmet, a light and proper equipment — not just go in without some backup.”
Nixa has plenty of caves, but it is advised to have caution while exploring. Trespassing is illegal and caving in general can be quite risky.
“It can be a fun thing to do, but it is very easy to get lost and turned around in. Bring chalk or twine if you are new,” Gonzales said. “We almost got lost in a massive cave once.”
Frequently visited caves might have maps, but most of the time visitors are on their own. Going with a group or a friend is the best way to stay safe, as well as being fully prepared for what might occur.
“[I go with] friends, so if something goes wrong, I’m not there for days before someone figures something is off,” Gonzales said.
Caving is a more complicated hobby that requires full attention. Caves are full of danger, but also wonder.
“It is not for everyone, as you can get into some small spaces,” Jones said. “Also, it is always dark, but it gives an exhilarating rush, so I would definitely recommend [to] people with an adventurous spirit.”
This hobby is for those with an acquired outdoors taste, which is often rooted from experiences in youth.
“[What interested me was] my mom making us go to Busiek on summer days when I was little, then traveling around the USA,” Gonzales said. “When you do that, you go through some caves.”
Jones also developed his passion for caves after adventures with a parent.
“One time my dad took me to this one cave in Chadwick, and since then I have been finding new caves to go explore,” Jones said.
Being able to enjoy venturing through caves has allowed the boys to crave the adventure and want to return to see what else is hidden.
“When me and my brothers went to an Ash Grove cave, it [was] massive, and muddy — it [had] to go on for miles,” Gonzales said. “The ceiling of the cave was at least 20 or so feet above our heads and the stalagmites and stalactites were huge — in the corner of my eyes, they looked like people sometimes. Plus, we found a company logo for sewage going back to the 1800’s.”
Instead of competing in a sport and winning trophies, these students scavenge items that help bring back the memories of the exploration.
“One time, me and some friends went to a cave in Arkansas,” Jones said. “It went down pretty deep, and we had to belly crawl for a little while, then it opened up into this giant room with a waterfall going down the center. It was just amazing.”
Finding beautiful wonders outside can help those cooped up in their homes during the pandemic.
“With COVID, a lot of urban places are shut down, so going outside or exploring caves was a very viable option during quarantine,” Jones said. “You can’t get anybody else sick or get sick.”
Being in an isolated area such as a cave is even better for escaping COVID-19.
“[Caving] would be preferred [with COVID-19], you would think,” Gonzales said. “But with all the people locked in their houses, the people that don’t actually do this kind of stuff do it because it’s one of the only things they can do on lockdown, so the trails are flooded with all sorts of, well, signatures.”
In caves that have been under the public eye, but not commercially owned, it is common to find graffiti and odd litter left behind as a so-called “signature.” Overall, the outdoors have been a safe haven for these students.
“Most people completely forget about the woods behind their house or just everything out there sometimes,” Gonzales said. “They don’t realize how nice enjoying the wind in their face and the sun on their back is.”