Flint Ridge

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Flint Ridge has a history of its own, which is not unrelated to the story of Adventure, or to the story of my own desperation and isolation in New Haven circa 2006, which, I should say, didn’t get any better after my trip to McFail’s Cave. In fact, with the exception of a single awkward, humiliating encounter with Jen, the trip underground left me more depressed and isolated than I had been before, probably because, while I was in the cave, I had experienced a brief moment, not of hope, but of being interested in something, but when I returned to the surface of the earth it was the same earth as it had been before, the same city of New Haven, the same Infinite Copy where I managed the same employees who held me in the same contempt. But now, instead of feeling like a dead person, like a person who had come to the end of his own life, unexpectedly, before his life even reached its actuarial midpoint, and while he was still in surprisingly good health, given his heavy drinking and weight problems and lifelong aversion to exercise, anyway, what I am trying to say is that before the cave I had felt like a zombie, and after it I felt like a zombie with an interest, which is a terrible way to feel, because now in the middle of my inertia and hopelessness I was plagued by the thought that I should be doing something. Still I probably wouldn’t have pursued my interest in caves, which was becoming more dim by the day, and harder to enter into, as though the interest were itself a cave from which I had emerged, and could not summon up the courage to re-enter, which of course it sort of is, if I am saying anything in this giant useless project it is that interest is cavelike, it’s the shape the world makes in the dark rock of the self, anyway, what I was going to say is that I would have let my interest in things subterranean be buried entirely if it hadn’t been for an annoying shift change at Infinite Copy, which left me on duty from seven to eleven AM and then again from three to nine PM, in other words, there was a four-hour hole in the middle of my day which lunch could not fill, but which was too short (I thought) to bother walking home in order to do something there (not that there was anything for me to do). So finally inertia and habit drew me back to the Bleak College library, where, with the utter weariness of someone who, I don’t know, does something he is utterly weary of, I began to read the extensive and largely quite boring literature about caves and cave exploration. I will spare you the philosophical French: the one who lay on a glacier dreaming of his girlfriend in an attempt to fathom Time; the one who found the subconsciousness of his race in a crevasse in the Pyrénées, etc.. I’ll spare you the geological Germans and the self-serving Americans who use caves to rehearse their future on the Moon. All I wanted to say, and my god, how long it has taken me to say it, is that I was surprised to find Will Crowther’s name in a book about the exploration of Mammoth Cave, or, more precisely, about the discovery of a subterranean link between Flint Ridge and Mammoth Cave, which made the Flint-Mammoth cave system the longest in the world (it still is, by far). You probably don’t care overmuch about this story, so I will be brief.

Both Crowthers (I read) were involved in the search for the connecting passage: Will wrote a computer program which translated the explorers’ survey data into computer-plotted maps, and his wife, Pat, found the tiny passage which actually led from Flint Ridge to Mammoth Cave. But in the course of weekend trips to Flint Ridge, long excursions underground, and other events which, although not documented in the book, are easily imagined, Pat fell in love with another caver, and eventually the Crowthers divorced. (Here I should note that Will was an utterly ruthless game-player, who not only liked to win but was nearly impossible to beat, which made being married to him not always that much fun—needless to say this too was not in the book.) Pat had custody of their two daughters, but they came to visit Will on weekends, which posed a problem for him in that he didn’t know how to entertain them. So he wrote Adventure, a computer game which was easy to play, because, unlike all other computer games which had been written up to that point, you could give the computer simple English commands. Take key. Unlock door. Open door. Whether or not Will’s daughters were entertained by Adventure, which was, from one point of view, a memorial to the time their parents had spent together at Flint Ridge, before the divorce, I never found out. But at least if they lost the game, they lost to it, rather than to Will.

I spent some time thinking about this story, turning over in my mind the way connection (of the cave-exploring type) led to disconnection, and disconnection (of the divorce type) led to connection: the hypothetical bond which Will Crowther was able to establish with his daughters on the basis of the game Adventure, but then also, and more importantly, the connection that people who played Adventure formed to the game, and, ultimately, to the machine on which it was played, which led me to the idea, probably false, that Adventure serves as a kind of gateway not to a limitless fantasy world of dragons and trolls, but to the architecture of the computer itself and the puzzles it presents to the programmer.

OK, well. There are a few morals I could have drawn from the Crowthers’ story. On the one hand, I could have said, this is a story about how the effort to discover things and link them together drives people apart, and maybe we, maybe I, would be happier, if I spent less time associating pieces of information and spent some time with my fucking friends, already. If I had friends. But on the other hand I could have said, look, even people less brilliant and ambitious than the Crowthers break up all the time, and maybe breaking up is natural, and maybe the work of discovering things and putting things together compensates us for our deep, intractable inability to get along, and maybe, running with this thought, if we do manage to live together, it’s because we have invented technologies which make coexistence possible, maybe our inventions are all that stand between us and the Rousseau-ian state of nature, i.e., isolated savages roaming the woods, enjoying only fleeting contact with their peers, their mates, their children. In which case I guess I might have resumed my weary effort to make something, to make this, the Adventure of my thought.

But in fact I reached neither conclusion—that kind of productive thinking (love, work!) was beyond me. All I could think was that the game Adventure had a new kind of depth to it, which was not discoverable inside the game, but which in the extra-game world seemed quite extensive, and interesting. And I wanted to poke around in it. That was the only impulse that moved me, probably it’s the only impulse that has ever moved me, the itch to keep going, to read a little more, to see what’s around the next bend, or even just to keep going for the sake of going, out of habit, inertia, zombie-like compulsion, whatever, I don’t know, just to go, to keep on, not to stop, for as long as going is possible, and it was this itch, more than any desire to make something or write something or even to leave the library and meet an actual living human being, which led me to Will Crowther.

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