September 16, 2011

Lessons learned underground

by Lorraine Collins

Last Saturday morning when I first woke up I lay in bed thinking, for some inexplicable reason, of a spelunking tour I'd taken in Jewel Cave back in 1973, guided by Herb and Jan Conn. Why was I suddenly remembering that? I most vividly recalled dangling from a rope at least 20 feet in the air as I tried to move up from a rather large cavern to a small hole high in the wall. We had already been in the cave several hours and I was exhausted.

Jan, who was encouraging me to swing my legs up and over a ledge, leaned down to say, "Now Lorraine, do you know what you want to do?"

I said, "Yes! I want to go home!" She laughed.

With my head still full of the memories of that long ago adventure, I went to the front door to get the Saturday paper and there on the front page of the Pioneer was a color photo of Jan and Herb Conn. Boy, talk about ESP! Somehow, the happy news that the Conns were being inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame must have penetrated my semi-conscious mind.

I read the story and then headed down to the basement to look in my file cabinet for the story I wrote about the Conns for Denver Post's Empire Magazine before that spelunking trip more than three decades  ago. And I thought about how much Herb and Jan had taught me, not only about caving, but about journalism and life.

For instance, when I first visited Jewel Cave's visitor center and saw some of the artifacts associated with the Conns' years of exploration of the cave, I thought they would be a good subject for a story. As a freelance writer I was always interested in good subjects. I wrote to them saying I wanted to come visit them and write about them. They said no. They were not interested in an article about them, only about the cave. So I learned there are people in the world who are not flattered by public attention.

 I wrote again, trying to persuade them to let me visit them, and I did something I had never done before or have done since. I promised I would let them read the article before I sent it anywhere. It was a good thing I did. After I interviewed them and sent them the article, Jan wrote back saying that when I wrote of "walking" in the cave, I obviously had no idea what caving was like. She said you do not walk in a cave. "You scramble, climb, spraddle, crawl and ooze." I used that line in the article.

It's important for journalists to be aware of their own ignorance, and if I hadn't thoroughly understood that before, I did after Jan enlightened me. You really shouldn't write about something you know nothing about. Unfortunately, I think there are quite a few people in the media who still need to learn that.

But one of the most interesting things we can learn from Jan and Herb Conn doesn't involve caves or journalism. It's how we can live our lives doing what we want to do without waiting for retirement to do it. Jan said it's simple. "The biggest thing is not to want anything expensive!" At the time, that included electricity and running water.

Just don't want anything expensive, and you can liberate yourself from a lot of problems of our consumer society, including debt. You can spend your life pursuing a hobby that becomes a challenge, a cause, a contribution to knowledge and history that could not be gained any other way. You can end up in the South Dakota Hall of Fame, whether or not you're kind of embarrassed about it. Not many of us have the grit to do what Herb and Jan Conn have done, but we can certainly learn lessons from them.

When the Conns invited my husband and me and another couple to go spelunking in Jewel Cave, they wanted us to see a spectacular array of crystals, which we could see only if we climbed that rope and squeezed through that hole. They decided we were capable of that, so they took us there. That's something else to learn. You never know what you can do if you don't try.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at

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