We might go exploring every weekend, in the mountains or the rivers - but what does it really mean to explore? Who was the first to take those unknown steps and what was it like? It's something to contemplate as you read this thoughtful essay by Steve Scher.
Steven Scher Steven Scher
University of Washington teacher
November 07, 2017
by Steve Scher, UW teacher, former KUOW radio host

My cousin just got back from Actun Tunichil Muknal – The ATM Cave, the network of caves in Belize. These caverns were Mayan burial sites. They are sacred places, now open to commerce. The stories of the people who used this enormous natural wonder are mostly lost to us.

Tourists have to swim into the cave. At a few places, where the water rises to the roof, a visitor dives, twisting and turning through very dark, very narrow passageways, chests on fire for lack of air.

Who first took that frightening plunge?

Explore, by its very definition, means to set out with no knowledge of what lies ahead. 

All an explorer can do is take a deep breath and jump in. 

But we can’t explore the outside world unless we seek the strength inside ourselves. Call it faith or spirit or will. Give it any name that comforts you against the fear of the dangers of the unknown.

Our nation feels like it is taking the plunge into the unknown. A wellspring of anger is bubbling out of some dank caves. 

But, we are explorers. So we leap in.

I just returned from exploring Alabama and Mississippi with a group of students, where stories of murder and oppression still ooze up into the stubbled fields and the sparkling cities. 

But these dank passages don’t just run beneath the South. The nation is riddled with broken promises, porous with bloody graves.

Around the country, Americans murder their fellow citizens out of fear of the unknown other, or out of a greedy desire to control, out of inchoate rage, triggered by what’s in our wallet or the color of our skin. 

Whites in America have built a culture willfully denying that in the darkest spaces all the colors become one and really, the only way through is to go hand in hand.

If you ever get a chance to talk to a Freedom Rider or a Selma Marcher, one of those Americans who stepped out into the unknown, you will find they are buoyed by faith. It stems, they might tell you, from a willingness to die for something greater than their own selves, something we might call justice or fairness or grace. And they will tell you they chose this path. They have learned a trail through anger will peter out. Anger corrodes. Anger isolates, abandons. 

The people who yet believe in a better nation had to make their way through terrible places. Still living, they connect us to the paths they followed; they point us to the unknown way ahead.

We are propelled to seek out something better. We have to hope the next place holds our salvation, unravels a mystery, taps our awe. 

The Mayans laid their dead in the limestone caves. There, over centuries, as the flesh fell away, the bones transformed. They crystallized. 

When light falls on them, those skeletons glisten. 

But for eons, there was no light in these caverns.

It didn’t matter. 

Even in the dark they shine.

Reminders of the humans they were and still are, humans who seek, humans who explore.

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2016 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.



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