By the sound of it, the woman behind me was somehow managing to fall in every single puddle as we hurried after our guide, a physically nimble but socially awkward guy in his late twenties who’d warned us that if we didn’t rush we’d risk an abridged tour. The CO2 in our breath threatened the existence of the very thing we’d come to see, so our visit was limited to an hour and a half, and required hustle.
We chased this guy through pitch darkness, our hand-held spotlights jostling over the uneven floors and walls of a cavern so massive that I felt none of the residual childhood claustrophobia I usually experience in underground or underwater spaces. The air was stale and a little damp but temperature-controlled. What ground I could see looked like packed, beige-colored mud, and our path was pocked with small puddles and bordered by larger ones, glassy and still in the timeless underground hollow. Here and there a massive stalagmite bullied us off our course, glistening like a big melting candle with no flame, and the ceiling was sharp with stalactites.
The cave-clambering was thrilling, and my muscles were primed for it because, unlike every other member of the fifteen-person tour, I hadn’t spent the last hour or two sitting still. With no rental car, I’d set out on foot early enough that morning to glimpse sex workers hanging out on literal street corners near the train station in Toulouse (scenic!) and caught the first train to Tarascon-sur-Ariège, a tiny town spanning the river in a valley that only gets about six hours of sun this time of year. As I walked to the town center from the train station, the light was everywhere and nowhere, spilling over and around the cold hills.
With some time to spare and not much desire to set off toward the caves until the sun got a bit higher, I’d settled down at an open bakery with a coffee and a pastry. As people entered, they and the woman behind the counter greeted one another by name and made comments like, “oh, no, I don’t need one of those, I still have half of that baguette to finish, you know.” I was clearly the only stranger in town and it was all very quaint.
As I walked out of town, the late autumn sun lit the late autumn leaves, orange and brilliant on the slopes ahead. My route took me along a pretty decent-sized highway (thus the waiting for better light: better light = less chance of becoming roadkill) and was mostly a straight shot. Still, I checked and double-checked my progress on my phone, because I now rely, maybe too heavily, on my creepily, miraculously accurate-without-data-or-wifi Google Maps to navigate all of my travel adventures).
Eventually I realized that what had looked on Google Maps like a smaller road continuing off the highway to my destination was actually a faintly-trod path through the woods. Confused, I continued along the road a bit further, entering the town of Niaux, and turned. Fortunately, from there I could see the gaping mouth of the cave halfway up the hill and felt confident enough to take a different, better-cleared path with vague “to the caves” signage.
This path ran through other people’s backyards and pastures, of course. The ground was white with frost, but I started sweating through my layers as I climbed straight up the hill to rejoin the more meandering road.
After a total of about three miles of walking, I arrived at the cave. I hadn’t been harassed, run over, or lost. However, I was chilly and tired when the French couple who’d arrived just before me said they were surprised I’d walked because “Americans usually aren’t sporty,” a statement both false and kind of offensive. I find that no one ever hesitates to insult my country to my face here, even though we’re the ones with the reputation for rude outspokenness.
The cave entrance was a black hole in the cliffside, the tiny tour office/gift shop crouching in front of it under a metal structure. Atop the structure was an exhibit about the many caves and cave art in France, and the geological and anthropological history of the surrounding region.
Anyway, fast-forwarding through the arrival of other tour members, check-in with our nimble/awkward guide (who was also the only person running the place), payment of an insanely reasonable ten euros, distribution of spotlights, brief tour introduction, and descent through locked doors into the cave itself…
…There we were, practically running after our guide in the dripping darkness. (Here I would like to highlight the fact that the woman falling into the puddles, huffing and puffing behind me, was the same one who’d told me Americans weren’t sporty just half an hour earlier. Who’s sporty now?) We climbed sandy slopes, ducked under rugged overhangs, and squeezed between rock formations, stopping only a few times: once to look at the graffitied signatures of tourists from just after the cave was re-discovered hundreds of years ago, and once to look at a stretch of indecipherable symbols painted thousands of years ago.
The main attraction, though, was the Salon Noir, a massive, rounded chamber more than a kilometer from the entrance of the cave (thus the hurry). Here the guide collected all of our extinguished flashlights and we blindly followed him along the wall of the chamber, in front of which small, individually-operated spotlights were set up. We couldn’t see anything but the light of the guide’s flashlight moving over the floor, until he switched on the first spotlight.
Paintings of animals, crude and overlapping in places, but intact, were clustered across the cave wall in front of us. The guide talked about each animal in turn, and eventually turned off the spotlight to follow their outlines with a single hard light. This ritual was repeated as we made our way around the cavern. Lines appeared out of the black emptiness like invisible ink, work otherwise destined for obscurity. There were buffalo, deer, horses, and antelope in various states of completion, some of them capitalizing on the shape of the cave walls to create a sense of motion and three-dimensionality, and clear attempts at perspective long before it was “invented.”
“These are 11-14,000 years old,” the guide said.
11,000. It’s an amount of time I have trouble grasping. There are well over a thousand lifetimes between my existence and that of the artists, a concept not unlike the enormity of space. Gazing at these drawings was a little like looking at distant stars, ones long dead in their time but still shining in ours.
We stared at these artifacts in deafening silence, at the receiving end of a garbled message broadcast across the centuries. It’s a message more poignant and frustrating for its mystery. Why these people hiked deep into a cave by torchlight to painstakingly draw pictures is unknown, but you’d think they had more pressing things to do at the end of the Ice Age, like maybe stoke fires or hunt for food or invent the space heater. Why did they take the time and effort to make art? What was even their conception of art?
The experience was humbling, to say the least. I could almost feel the years piled like the stone overhead, an unimaginable weight. But what I mainly felt, aside from amazement and wonder, was privilege.
We are small, we are fleeting, but we are here.