Just west of Interstate 35, in the region where the flat Texas coastal plain ends and the rolling Hill Country begins, ancient history rules us still. It was here, 20 million years ago, that the limestone began to shift and break in a stair-step pattern of fractures and form the Balcones Fault Zone, providing an infrastructure for life. From above, moist air from the Gulf rises over the escarpment and swirls, forming generous, pregnant clouds; from below, cold and clear springs burst through the porous limestone. Those who first roamed this mostly fertile, green strip—and the ranchers who live here now—would tell you that when those cumulonimbus clouds surrender their rain, the water drives into the limestone like thousands of nails. Some of the rainwater evaporates and returns to the clouds; some of it is drawn up by the roots of the bluebonnets and peach trees. The rest seeps into a domain beyond our regular view, a world deep and strange. 

In the labyrinths under the earth’s surface, baby bats quiver in their nurseries, clutching their fuzzy mothers for milk. A blind salamander, only two inches long, gulps down tiny shrimp as it glides through pristine water, its pink gills feathering out like a ruffed collar. A colorless daddy longlegs skitters over the bones of a mastodon, never knowing the cushion of lush grass or the sunbeams that turn night into day.

Bill Steele is a familiar visitor among the bats and salamanders. He parks his truck near the edge of a cliff northwest of San Antonio and steps out, the late-May afternoon choreographing its last cool breezes of an extended spring. With his white beard and mustache, Steele looks like he just finished an Arctic expedition, though he prefers tight, deep holes to wide expanses. He knows his predilection gives a lot of people the willies. “I’m not claustrophobic; I’m exactly the opposite,” he tells me. “I’m claustrophilic.” He once spent thirteen days inside a cave without surfacing. Now 75, he has descended, climbed, spider-walked, wiggled, or swum inside hundreds of caves around the world, including many in Mexico and in Texas’s vast subterranean zone, liver-shaped on a map, stretching from Waco through Fort Stockton. 

When Texans talk about the land, they’re usually referring to the shape of the state and its diverse geography: the desert, hills, plains, woods, rivers, streams, and swamps. They don’t often think about the hidden spaces under our feet that extend toward the center of the earth, about 4,000 miles below. Some of those passageways are beautiful; some are deadly. Some are both. Adventurers like Steele who burrow down and report back are as valuable to our understanding of our ecosystem as a surgeon is to understanding a human body. What is the status of our groundwater? Of our insects and bats? What prehistoric bones of extinct horses, camels, mastodons, dire wolves, and tapirs reveal the life that preceded us right on this spot? 

On this weekend, as on so many in his life, Steele is overseeing and mapping untouched passageways. And Honey Creek Cave, which he’s about to enter, is his favorite Texas project. The longest cave in the state, it stretches at least 21 miles, much of which is an underground stream, explorable only by swimming. The rest requires wading or sliding through thigh-deep mud thick as peanut butter, climbing up into drier areas, and crawling on all fours between a low ceiling and a rocky surface. The subterranean network is located on a private nature preserve, but select cavers such as Steele have an agreement with the landowners to explore four weekends a year. An astounding 173 unexplored passageways remain beyond the 21 miles already surveyed. “I don’t know that there’s any other geographical place in Texas that that could be said about,” Steele says.

Pseudouroctonus reddelli (Texas cave scorpion)
Pseudouroctonus reddelli (Texas cave scorpion). Ethan Perrine
Cicurina brevis (cave spider), shown with her spiderlings.
Cicurina brevis (cave spider), shown with her spiderlings. Ethan Perrine

“Honey Creekers,” then, are often Texas’s most die-hard cavers. On this day, fifteen of them, divided into three teams, have already gone down ahead, where they hope to “push leads”—their term for exploring those unseen corridors that have proved tricky. On a foldout table under a tarp, Steele rolls out a map to show me the sections he’s explored over the years, such as the Boneyard, where Ice Age mammoth limb bones and tapir molars lie in the gravel floor of the stream. (The animals likely fell into a hole around 15,000 years ago.) He points to names such as Beat My Ass, Camp Awesome—“very much not awesome,” he notes—Creep in the Deep, Holy S— Passage, Michael’s Butt Hole, and Saturn 5, each with its own distinct features. 

Standing on opposite sides of the truck, overlooking a Monet vision of water, turtles, and lily pads, Steele and I strip down to our swimwear and pull on our wet suits. Having explored this cave since 1982, he’s as familiar with its entrance as he is with the foyer of his Irving home, and he offers to show me a route most appropriate for an accompanied novice like me, an opportunity that grows more questionable in my mind as he talks about the daunting challenges. 

For one stretch a few feet long, called Whistler’s Mother, he warns, we’ll have only a few inches of air between the water’s surface and the cave’s ceiling—a condition known as low air space. As we grab our fins and scramble down the rocky incline, Steele tells me about shepherding a caver through a two-hundred-foot-long passage of low air space in Honey Creek. She panicked and began drowning—the kind of situation he generally describes as someone “not having a good time”—because she couldn’t manage to tilt her head and sip air as he’d instructed. “I had to grab her head and push it up to the ceiling and whisper in her ear, ‘Don’t die,’ ” he says. He laughs, zips up, and looks at me as if to say, You ready for this

Steele reading a clinometer, a cave-mapping instrument.
Steele reading a clinometer, a cave-mapping instrument.Photograph by Ben Lowy

Not all caves require a wet suit, kneepads, or headlamps. At Texas’s popular “show caves” that are open to the public, including Natural Bridge Caverns, just north of San Antonio, and Boerne’s Cave Without a Name, owners could stage a musical inside and still have plenty of room for an audience. From May through September each year, visitors to Bracken Cave Preserve, just a few miles from Natural Bridge, gather near the entrance at dusk so they can watch 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats spiral out for a nightly hunt. The underground attractions at several parks—Colorado Bend State Park, in Bend; Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area, near Rocksprings; Kickapoo Cavern State Park, north of Brackettville; and Longhorn Cavern State Park, in Burnet County—draw those with at least a passing curiosity in geology.

But serious cavers share a more primal motivation. They view the subterranean unknown much in the same way Ernest Shackleton saw the virgin Antarctic ice or Neil Armstrong saw the untouched dust of the moon. “Ever heard of the explorer gene?” Steele asks me. The goal of many underground explorers is to enter unseen territory—what they call “scooping booty,” as in finding pirate treasure—and they’ll stretch the limits of misery to do it. One newbie going into Honey Creek Cave with Steele on a past trip wanted to push a lead at an area that would later be known as the Worst Place on Earth. “He was all excited about going somewhere nobody had ever been before,” Steele tells me, “And I said, ‘I’ll tell you what: you drag that survey tape down to the end of this passage, and you will not only go where nobody’s been before, you will go where nobody will ever go again!’ ” 

In the first part of the twentieth century, no one could have imagined Texas would become a magnet for cavers. The state had caves, sure. The elements predicted them. Plentiful calcium-rich shelled organisms—such as clams and snails—that lived and then died at the bottom of Central Texas’s shallow seas between 86 and 118 million years ago became limestone; rainwater’s natural acid eroded the limestone; and around 14 million years ago, dissolved rock along fissures in the limestone began forming a karst landscape characterized by a kind of honeycombed rock that sometimes yawned wide enough for a human seeking shelter. (As if he needed a reminder of predecessors, Steele once found a three-thousand-year-old grindstone, used on acorns and mesquite beans, in a shelter cave near Honey Creek.) 

Contemporary caving in the U.S. didn’t begin until around the middle of the twentieth century, when a growing middle class found time for esoteric hobbies such as collecting teapots, assembling model airplanes, and burrowing into karst. Building on European caving techniques that had been improving since the late nineteenth century, Americans developed their own maneuvers for navigating underground passages, and, by the 1950s, caving hobbyists were forming clubs called grottos, where explorers would meet others who dreamed of hauling their homemade ladders and carbide lamps into the world below. 

Enthusiasts in Austin formed Texas’s first grotto, in 1951, followed by other groups such as the Texas Speleological Association, the Texas Cave Management Association, and the Texas Speleological Survey, which was cofounded, in 1960, by Bill Russell. A restless explorer when he wasn’t toiling away as a tax examiner at the Internal Revenue Service, Russell, who grew up in Bryan and moved to Austin to attend UT, was an early and especially eager underground explorer who would become a leading force in Texas caving for six decades, until his death, at age 81, in 2019. “I called him the walking encyclopedia of Mexican and Texas caves,” Steele says. 

In the early sixties, Russell was the first caver to enter Honey Creek. A few years later, while he was studying topographic maps of places where limestone was known to be thick and rainfall was heavy, a sinkhole in northern Oaxaca state caught his attention. In a single afternoon in 1966, Russell and his team discovered multiple entrances big enough to enter the Huautla cave complex—a system that would soon rank as the deepest known cave in the Western Hemisphere. 

Sistema Huautla was the underground equivalent of Mount Everest. It changed everything in the Texas caving scene and beyond. Cavers didn’t just begin mapping it; they studied its biology, geology, and paleontology. “There’s only a handful of caves in the world with such an ongoing effort to do all the studies possible,” says Steele, who heads up annual expeditions to Huautla, now known to be at least 5,118 feet deep and 62 miles long. 

Hippies with a burrowing instinct and a craving for epic challenges at Huautla moved to the system’s closest U.S. caver hub: Austin. More specifically, starting in 1971, cavers gravitated to Kirkwood Road, a block and a half of two-story mid-century duplexes northeast of the University of Texas. The first caver apartment was 1307½ Kirkwood, where as many as fourteen people inhabited the 860-square-foot second story, the attic crawl space, the detached garage, the front balcony, and even a platform at the top of the stairs—“actually a very comfortable accommodation,” according to 1976 resident Barb MacLeod, an anthropologist specializing in Mayan culture. 

Cavers Gill Ediger, Bill Stone, and Jerry Atkinson eating at an apartment on Kirkwood Road, in the late seventies.
Cavers Gill Ediger, Bill Stone, and Jerry Atkinson eating at an apartment on Kirkwood Road, in the late seventies. Courtesy Bill Steele
Bill Stone’s truck being loaded on Kirkwood Road, in Austin, for a 1979 Huautla caving expedition.
Bill Stone’s truck being loaded on Kirkwood Road, in Austin, for a 1979 Huautla caving expedition. Courtesy Bill Steele

Eventually, they took over at least six duplexes on the street with various residents pooling rent to make it affordable—at one apartment, rent was a dollar a night—and allow for frequent caving trips. They read maps and practiced vertical rope techniques in the yard, and every so often they’d pile into a couple of Dodge Power Wagons and head off to caver conventions, where they were often so gung ho they’d attract others to move to Austin. (Even now, Steele believes, the Texas groups are the most fun at conventions.)

Many of the world’s greatest cavers lived on Kirkwood at some point: Steele, who called it home in 1976 and 1977, four doors down from Russell; Peter Sprouse, a longtime cave-exploration leader in the U.S. and Mexico who has managed caves all over Central Texas, studying their ecosystems and controlling their invasive species; and Bill Stone, an aerospace engineer who has explored Mexico’s caves for decades and now focuses on Chevé Cave, which winds through the terrain just south of Huautla and could prove to be even deeper—and the deepest in the world. 

Kirkwood was not just any gathering point. It helped Austin become, as one old-time caver put it, “the speleological hub of the Western Hemisphere.” It cemented Texas’s reputation, one that continues to draw cavers to the state today.

A UT Grotto caver directs his light deep inside Honey Creek Cave.
A UT Grotto caver directs his light deep inside Honey Creek Cave.Ethan Perrine

Cavers literally wear their dedication on their sleeves—and their socks. At the annual three-day Texas Speleological Association convention I attended in Boerne this past spring, at Cave Without a Name—a national natural landmark complete with a campground—caver T-shirts celebrated the group’s irreverent sensibilities: “I Believe: Bigfoot Is a Caver,” “Cave Slut,” “Get Sucked Into Whirlpool Cave,” and “Aggie Speleological Society: A.S.S.” Two guys wore matching suits decorated with bat silhouettes, while others sported bat-themed socks. 

Just a few feet from the dramatic stalactite formations befitting a Lord of the Rings set, attendees watched slideshow presentations with titles such as “GIS Modeling of the Ranges of Endangered Troglobites.” Some took workshops in surveying and cave sketching, poring over drawings that looked like capillaries, and others practiced rope techniques in the limbs of the property’s live oak trees, climbing like Tarzan in a helmet.

While Kirkwood cavers eventually moved out of the neighborhood in the eighties, replaced by students and anyone else who needed cheap rent, the number of cavers in Texas may have grown higher than ever. More than one hundred showed up in Boerne, with many more following the TSA Facebook page. “As far as knowledge and passion for caves,” says Ethan Perrine, president of Austin’s Underground Texas (UT) Grotto, “this is the golden age.” Other local clubs, which are open to anyone, include the Aggie Speleological Society, the Bexar Grotto, the DFW Grotto, the Greater Houston Grotto, the Lubbock Area Grotto, and the Permian Basin Speleological Society. Members will cave in Texas year-round except in some caves where, during the summer, carbon dioxide levels rise beyond safe levels. And every spring—considered peak caving time because of Mexico’s dry season—some take a week or more off from their jobs and caravan or fly south of the border, pushing leads and surveying passages in Huautla, Chevé, or other formations. 

Inside the campground’s pavilion, during a storytelling competition, attendees regaled one another with tales of their greatest close calls. A caver named Eléonore Le Corvaisier, a member of the UT Grotto, went first. She walked up to the microphone and stood in front of the audience, which was gathered at picnic tables. 

In March of this year, Le Corvaisier began, on the fourth day of caving inside the Sierra Madre Oriental, in Tamaulipas, she woke up at 6:30 in the morning, took out her earplugs, and saw Peter Sprouse looking concerned. He “utters those immortal words: ‘Food, water, batteries, and run for your life,’ ” she recalled. The cause for panic was a grumbling noise—an adjacent passageway filling up with water from the nonstop rain above. She listened to the grumbling. Then the noise stopped—a bad sign, the audience knew: the water was coming Le Corvaisier’s way. 

“I feel like I’m being puppeteered by my adrenaline, and it’s looking really ugly,” she continued. The team made a dash toward the entrance—“at this point, it’s every man for himself,” she said. They finally made it to an area of the cave out of harm’s way. Then Le Corvaisier delivered the hard-core-caver punch line that would win her the contest: “Peter was able to uplift our spirit and rally the troops by making this suggestion, ‘Should we survey?’ ” 

Such an obsession requires carving out a life to fit an atypical schedule. The conventiongoers held a wide variety of jobs. Even Steele, who was in attendance as usual, financed his early caving by working as a contract archaeological excavator, a substitute teacher, a dump truck driver, and a meter reader, until he got a job with the Boy Scouts of America in 1980, eventually working his way up the ladder to become a national-level director and moving to Irving, to be near the headquarters, in 2001. (He retired in 2014.)

Not that cavers talk much about their careers when they’re underground. In a teammate, they’re looking for someone who is safe, has a good attitude, and isn’t an adrenaline junkie out for personal glory. It helps if they’re not squeamish or private. You might think you know your friends pretty well, but are you familiar with their farts and snores and sweaty smells? Can you rely on them to keep you from drowning, hyperventilating, getting lost, and giving up hope for survival? 

Not everyone understands the attraction. Steele got lucky about twenty years ago when he met and moved in with a burgeoning caver named Diana Tomchick, but he has witnessed the effects the hobby can have on significant others. Once, at a convention, Steele sang a song he’d written about the predicament of romantic relationships formed outside the caving world. “She Ain’t No Caving Girl” was the title. It goes: “Oh fair thee well, fair thee well, fair thee well, my caving world; I’m about to get married, raise a bunch of kids, and she ain’t no cavin’ girl.” Apparently, hobbies that involve phrases like “run for your life” don’t universally inspire romance.

Bill Steele.
Bill Steele.Photograph by Ben Lowy

At Honey Creek, Steele and I climb down a forty-foot cliff to the mouth of the cave and slip on our flippers. Then we frog-walk in the stream, with headlamps on, until we reach total darkness and the water is about twenty feet deep. Holding onto kickboards, we can see all the way to the rocky bottom of the roughly seventy-degree water, free of sun-dependent algae. When we glance up, Styrofoam-looking stalactite fingers reach down toward us, stopping at just three feet above our heads. The ceiling looks like an upside-down obstacle course. In the quiet, I can hear the stream sloshing against the wide edges of the cave, echoing a thumping beat as if a party nearby were in full swing.

The three other teams are already deep in the cave. Steele guides me through the first thousand feet, heading for an underground waterfall. Until the late seventies, he explains, cavers had been stopping at that waterfall, considering it the cave’s endpoint. Even the property owners stopped there in the fifties; the men would strip down and swim up to the waterfall with friends after Sunday church services and picnics. It wasn’t until 1980, when some other cavers built a trench in the floor and thus lowered the water level a few inches, that they could map beyond the waterfall. They have been mapping ever since, often with Steele taking charge. 

When we glance up, Styrofoam-looking stalactite fingers reach down toward us, stopping at just three feet above our heads.

“I’ve been reading this seven-hundred-page biography of Captain James Cook,” Steele tells me later. “I can relate to his leadership style.” I ask what he means. “Oh, being approachable,” he continues. “Not necessarily being great friends with everybody but being open to talk. Sticking to objectives, keeping people on task, making quick decisions, being decisive, taking counsel from people you trust.” He’d just come back from five weeks of leading the most recent expedition at Huautla. “There were daily decisions to make to keep it moving and keep it safe,” he says.

Formations known as “soda straws” at Cobb Cavern, in Williamson County.
Formations known as “soda straws” at Cobb Cavern, in Williamson County.Ethan Perrine

The urge to explore hit Steele young. When he was fourteen, he went to his library in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio—“home of the Wright brothers,” he adds—and pulled from the shelves books on the exploration of the deepest known caves in the world at the time, in France. “I read through those, one after another, and saw what was out there—what people are doing. It sounded like the most adventurous thing I’d ever heard of.” 

Decades after entering his first one, he still expresses a childlike wonder about the magical nature of caves—the 110-million-year-old clam beds now above us, the thread-thin roots that dangle from the ceiling, and the solitude—so much so that as we swim, I find myself forgetting about the risks. Steele figures he’s had about seventeen close calls: hypothermia; fast-rising water levels from heavy rain; arms and legs stuck in crevices; a fractured skull from a falling rock; abandonment with no rope for ascending to an exit. He has helped others with their close calls as well, including the time when a flagging teammate not having a good time was begging to be left alone inside a Montana cave to freeze to death. “I gave him hell,” Steele recalls. “I yelled at him, made him mad, got him moving, and continued to taunt him until I could switch back and be a nice guy.” 

Since 1960, at least seventeen people have died while exploring Texas caves, according to William Elliott, a cave researcher and former editor of the Texas Speleological Survey, noting that many of them were not affiliated with a caving organization. While such deaths are rare, any veteran knows the possible consequences of a wrong turn or a faulty harness. Just this October, 56-year-old renowned cave diver Brett Hemphill, of Florida, died 36 miles north of Fort Davis in the Phantom Springs Cave—believed to be the deepest underwater cave system in the U.S.—after being separated from his team. 

Steele and I reach a point where a thick row of stalactites touches the water, creating prison bars. This is Whistler’s Mother, one of the shorter sections of low air space he’d warned me about. I swim in place, waiting for instructions. 

“I’m gonna teach ya something,” he says. “You feel the air coming through there—the wind?” 

I can feel a breeze on my face coming from behind one segment of the stalactites. 

“There’s a saying among cavers,” he continues, “ ‘If it blows, it goes.’ ” Translation: if a passage has good air flow, there’s more to explore. He narrates the instructions as he shows me how to get past the stalactite wall. “So what I’m going to do is take my helmet off, because I got to get my face up closer to the ceiling. Don’t drop your helmet! I’m gonna bring my knees up, I’m going to flip my face up against the ceiling—slowly—and then . . . I’m here.”

Attempting this awkward limbo, I face my flippered feet forward and lie on my back, fanning myself forward with my hands. 

“Look at you!” he says, encouraging me as I come through, practically kissing the ceiling to catch breath between dips underneath the water. “Just breathe all the way through there.” 

I emerge on the other side of the stalactites and sigh. 

“Remember,” he says, “it weighs on you now that you’ve got to go back through there.”

Kevin Pride, of the UT Grotto, slithering through a passage inside Honey Creek Cave, between Boerne and New Braunfels.
Kevin Pride, of the UT Grotto, slithering through a passage inside Honey Creek Cave, between Boerne and New Braunfels.Ethan Perrine

Noncavers driving down a Texas country road do not see what a caver sees. While a noncaver admires the pretty trees, the caver imagines holes pockmarking the landscape, opening portals to a great unknown, and yearning sets in. Because the majority of the state’s nearly seven thousand known caves are on private property, most of those doors to the mysterious underworld lie behind a barricade. 

To access these doorways, cavers must summon their diplomatic skills with private landowners. At Spring Creek Cave, near Boerne, for example, the developer who bought the property stopped allowing cavers inside in the eighties; when it changed hands, Steele successfully persuaded the new owner to let the DFW Grotto resume mapping the cave. 

Sometimes, for exploration allowances, cavers sign agreements that relieve landowners of liability and prevent the visitors from reporting endangered species. Cavers agree to keep locations private. They often provide trash-extraction services for ranchers whose predecessors may have spent decades stuffing the openings with debris to keep livestock out, or with their own garbage. 

I assumed cavers would see cleanup as a burden, or at least a bummer. But when I talked to the leader of a project in Kyle, where cavers recently pulled twenty tons of trash from a cave over four Saturdays, cleanup was more like an itch he needed to scratch. “I told the Kyle landowner, ‘If you get me a dumpster, I’ll get you an army,’ ” he said. A plugged cave messes with the ecosystem, he explained. Bug-eating bats, for example, save American agriculture an estimated $23 billion a year by eating the insects that would otherwise require pesticides. 

A trio of Perimyotis subflavus (tricolored bats)
A trio of Perimyotis subflavus (tricolored bats). Ethan Perrine
Lithobiomorpha (stone centipede)
Lithobiomorpha (stone centipede). Ethan Perrine
Left: A trio of Perimyotis subflavus (tricolored bats). Ethan Perrine
Top: Lithobiomorpha (stone centipede). Ethan Perrine

The greatest threat to caves, though, comes not from owner negligence but from urban development—expansion around cities such as San Antonio and Austin that are built on karst. Few know more about this challenge than George Veni, the recently retired executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute, in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Veni has a thick, gray beard and speaks thoroughly and confidently on anything geological or hydrological. His obsessions would be obvious to anyone who spends five minutes with him. I once emailed him while he was on vacation, and he responded that he was spending some of his time off near one of the world’s largest hydroelectric dams, at the Brazil-Paraguay border (“Dam, Katy!” his email began). 

“Twenty percent of this country is karst, and much of it’s not being managed properly,” he told me one day at the caver convention. “We see a minimum of three hundred million dollars in road damage in this country because of sinkhole collapses that occur—that’s a minimum number in terms of actual damages, because many states don’t keep track of sinkhole damage.” Add to that the value of businesses, homes, and vehicles swallowed by sinkholes. “It’s a quiet crisis,” he continued. “I think easily we’re looking at over a billion annually in damages just in this country. If a flood did a billion dollars’ worth of damage, it would be in the news.”

Another reason we need to pay attention to caves, he said, is because aquifers are vulnerable to depletion and contaminants. While many aquifers do provide some degree of filtration, those composed of karst limestone allow contaminants through, like petrified Swiss cheese. “One of the things that drives me crazy is when I hear TV news reporters say, ‘Water gets filtered as it moves through the limestone,’ ” he said. “Bullshit!” 

Steele and others had to educate the public in 2018, when Honey Creek Cave seemed to be in danger. Some landowners filed an application for a treated-sewage discharge permit, to build a development, initially planned to contain nearly 2,400 homes, abutting the private ranch containing the cave. Contaminated water from the development (E. coli from sewage leaks, fertilizer and pesticides from lawns, and oil and gas dripping from vehicles) not only could get into the cave during heavy rains, Steele and other advocates warned, but some of it would likely then enter the Edwards Aquifer, which about two million Texans, including thousands of ranchers and farmers, depend upon for their water. 

In the end, the Nature Conservancy and other nonprofit groups brokered a deal for Texas Parks and Wildlife to acquire 515 acres for $25 million. But cautionary tales about aquifers that serve large groups aren’t hard to find, whether the threat is contamination or overpumping. “The city of Blanco went dry briefly for the first time in the early nineties,” said Veni, “and Comanche Springs, in Fort Stockton, went dry a long time ago because of big wells that went in.” While Blanco’s aquifer stabilized with rainfall, water demand has grown greatly in Central Texas, and Veni said its aquifers would not necessarily remain forgiving.

He was armed with a worst-case example for contamination, and his voice rose as he told me the tale. In 2000, after a farmer in Walkerton, Ontario, spread manure on his field, a heavy rain flushed harmful bacteria into the aquifer, and the chlorinator that would normally kill it for the community’s water supply well failed. Consequently, the well’s water was contaminated with E. coli. Seven people died, and about 2,300 became ill. 

The hydrogeologists who were called to assess the situation assumed the limestone aquifer was not karst—and to prove their point, they developed a computer model that showed that any bacteria-laden water would take 720 hours to reach the well, long after the 72 hours required for most bacteria to die off. Crucially, the model was wrong because it didn’t apply to karst aquifers.  

To figure out what happened, a couple of Veni’s hydrogeologist friends conducted a nontoxic dye trace on water from two other wells. Based on the computer model, any contaminated water in the farthest well should have reached the water supply well in over 1,400 hours. “It took twenty-six hours!” he said. 

“Now, I’ve had many people say, ‘Well, George, okay, yeah, we get it. You’re a cave guy. Calm down.’ That’s like, ‘Damn! I’m not going to calm down,’ ” he said. “This is serious stuff, you know, and strictly speaking, no one did anything wrong other than that they didn’t understand that this was karst.”

Steele at Spring Creek Cave, which he first explored in the late seventies.
Steele at Spring Creek Cave, which he first explored in the late seventies.Photograph by Ben Lowy

As the cicadas grow louder around Honey Creek Cave and the darkness settles, a group of cavers who finished the day’s expeditions ahead of Steele and me sit on foldout chairs under a tarp illuminated by lanterns, eating watermelon and waiting for the remaining team to return. The gathering is a cross section of Texas cavers: a teenager who works at Panda Express part-time when not in school, a mechanical engineer, a contract researcher for the government, an intellectual property attorney, and Steele’s partner, Tomchick, a biophysicist. They ask how I fared in Whistler’s Mother, and I admit my nervousness. They laugh about the newcomers who sometimes arrive cocky only to discover that their skills or muscles aren’t useful for squeezing through tight spaces. “For years, Bill was famous for bringing in decathlon champions, triathletes, marathoners, super athletes, and killin’ them,” one caver says. 

Another suggests that the most miserable experience for any underground explorer, new or old, always involves mud. “Back in some of these areas we’re surveying in Honey Creek, it’s just soupy mud—everything is covered in mud—and you’re sitting in it, waist-deep, for six or seven hours,” he says. “You have to lick the mud off the surveying equipment.” 

“And you know what?” adds Tomchick. “Nobody could pay you enough money to do that, but you do it for free in your spare time.”

Steele has a story to top that. Back in 1977 in Huautla, he tells the group, he was trapped underground with a diabetic named Don who’d run out of insulin. After rappelling down a series of waterfalls, one teammate who was “not having a good time” took off on his own and headed for the surface, but he accidentally snagged the rope up to a higher level with him, so the group couldn’t climb back up. While they were stranded for four days in an isolated room before being rescued by a teammate from aboveground, they began calling the immobile Don “the Lump.” Steele recalls, “Somebody whispered away from him, ‘Well, you know, in the end, we may have to end up eating Don.’ I said, ‘Not with the scant amount of fuel we have, and I am not eating Don raw.’ ” 

“Skinny as he was, there wouldn’t be much meat there,” says one of the other cavers.

“Hard to chew, wouldn’t it be?” Steele says. 

A while later, the final team emerges from Honey Creek, a little dazed. They’d gotten lost, they say, after they missed a turn and found themselves facing a fifteen-foot piece of flowstone, a sheetlike rock formation that looks like a frozen waterfall. “I was like, ‘Wait, that’s not right,’ ” one of them recalls. 

His teammate says, “I’ve never been there before. I’m guaranteed never to make that mistake again.”

Along the way, the first caver lost a tooth. He seems unfazed as he tells the story. “I was going through a narrow spot and managed to hit my face pretty good. Knocked off my light, so my light is gone, my tooth is loose in my mouth. It was all very complicated.” He pulled the tooth out and put it in his water bottle.

As he talks, I think to myself that this did not sound like a good time. But I don’t believe I have the explorer gene. To me, crossing the street unscathed is a blessing; I find no satisfaction in courting danger. Those who do have the gene know who they are, and here, they are among their kin, radiating satisfaction, exhausted in that satisfying way that comes only from physical struggles. 

As some cavers turn off their lights and snuggle into their sleeping bags and others start a bonfire, Steele explains that cavers are much like mountain climbers in some ways. Both activities are physically taxing and can involve serious risk. 

But they’re also different. It occurs to me that cavers are the strangest of breeds. Although they have their high-five moments, they get their thrills not from reaching a summit and relishing the views, but from the painstaking work itself—surveying, mapping, pushing leads. There’s often no major accomplishment to check off a bucket list, only an idea, a hope, and a hunch: What lies around the corner?

The entire Honey Creek Cave system likely won’t be mapped in Steele’s lifetime. Maybe the children of the teams here tonight will explore it, or their children’s children, filling in the passageways hiding on the blank areas of the map. “One thing that mountaineers say often is that they conquered the mountain,” Steele says. “Cavers never say that.” 

If a caver loses a headlamp and knocks a tooth out, they keep pushing leads. If someone says they want to lie down and die, the others nag them until they get out. If a team member yells that it’s time to run for your lives, well, sure, run. But after that? They know what comes next. 

Ready to survey?  

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Deep (Very, Very, Very Deep) in the Heart of Texas.”   Subscribe today.