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Colossal Cave Revisited

I just received my copy of Apprentice, the CD of source code put out by Celestin Company (mentioned in TidBITS #228). My CD came so soon because I am one of the hundreds of authors whose work is contained within.

Looking through the CD’s contents, I was pleased to see that the source code for Advent is on the disk. Advent is the successor to the game of ADVENTURE, which in one form or another has been known to the computing community for 30 years. On one hand, having ADVENTURE still distributed in 1994 pays homage to the tradition of this first of all the text-based computer games. On the other hand, I am pleased even more to see it because of my close association with the real cave on which the game is based and because of the tradition within the caving (call it spelunking if you must) community that the game ADVENTURE represents. How many know that the world you explore in ADVENTURE is a real place? The online help for Advent gives this brief description:

                     By Ima Wimp 
  ADVENTURE was originally developed by William Crowther, and later
  substantially rewritten and expanded by Don Woods at Stanford Univ.
  According to legend, Crowther's original version was modeled on an
  a real cavern, called Colossal Cave, which is a part of Kentucky's
  Mammoth Caverns.  That version of the game included the main maze
  and a portion of the third-level (Complex Junction - Bedquilt -
  Swiss Cheese rooms, etc.), but not much more....

"According to legend" – Hah! ADVENTURE is based on a real cave, one that is, indeed, now part of the Mammoth Cave System in Kentucky. The cave is not Colossal, however, but Bedquilt Cave. In our small circle, Willie Crowther is a famous, as was his wife then, cave explorer of the 60’s and 70’s when Colossal, Bedquilt, Salts, Crystal and the other caves under Flint Ridge, Kentucky were mapped together to become the longest cave in the world. In 1972 the Flint Ridge caves were joined to Mammoth Cave, over on the next ridge, in a series of difficult trips in low, half-water-filled passages under Houchin’s Valley. That connection is still called the Everest of speleology. The total known length of the Mammoth Cave System exceeds 350 miles and exploration is still going on.

Bedquilt was Willie’s favorite part of the cave system. I still have a copy of his map of it. Computer types who grew up exploring ADVENTURE don’t realize how accurately the game represents passages in Bedquilt Cave. Yes, there is a Hall of the Mountain King and a Two-Pit Room. The entrance is indeed a strong steel grate at the bottom of a twenty-foot depression.

On a survey trip to Bedquilt, a member of my party mentioned she would one day like to go on trip to Colossal Cave, where she understood the game ADVENTURE was set. No, I said, the game is based on Bedquilt Cave and we are going there now. Excitement! Throughout the cave, she kept up a constant narrative, based on her encyclopedic knowledge of the game. In the Complex Room (renamed Swiss Cheese Room in Advent) she scrambled off in a direction I had never been. "I just had to see Witt’s End," she said upon returning. "It was exactly as I expected." When we finished with our work, I let her lead out, which she did flawlessly, again because she had memorized every move in the game. Believe me, the cave is a real maze, and this was an impressive accomplishment for a first-time visitor.

A second funny incident also reminded us of the game. About three years ago, a party was returning from a survey trip in Bedquilt. When suspended in space at the most awkward point in the climb out of the Hall of Mists, one party member, Roger, noticed to his horror a copperhead snake (was it THE SNAKE?) on the ledge next to his right hand. This climb is more difficult than just typing "up" or "down" on your computer terminal. At the top of it, you are stretched all the way out, pressing against one wall with hands behind you and against the other wall with outstretched legs, while fervently searching for place to put your butt or back in order to support your weight. You can’t move anywhere quickly in that predicament. Confronted by the snake, Roger was so beside himself that all he could do was yell "strike, strike" as the copperhead proceeded to do just that. Tom, the party leader, had already made the climb up (and not seen the snake). Looking around for something to do, he found a stick (was it the MAGIC WAND?), in the Bird Chamber (the room with the rivers of orange stone, actually a beautiful column of orange travertine). Wand in hand, he moved the snake away. Fortunately, the snake lacked energy from having been in the 55-degree cave for a while, and Roger was wearing gloves and heavy caving attire. None of the snake bites penetrated.

An exciting and readable history of the modern exploration of Mammoth Cave, up to the 1972 connection, is in "The Longest Cave" by Roger Brucker and Richard Watson.

As a final irony, the Apprentice CD contains a small map of Bedquilt Cave and it happens to be from Willie Crowther’s mapping data. It’s in the About box for Vectors, my cave-mapping application that I hadn’t planned to be on the CD because it is such an esoteric program (it’s okay, Paul, you have my belated permission).

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