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MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — A man fascinated with Devil's Den, who's been exploring the depths of the rocky outcrop on the side of Fancy Gap Mountain and the lore about it for years, has resolved to find the cave's exit this spring.
However, Mike Carter, 51 — known as just "Carter" to his friends — realizes he will have to find the end of the cave from the outside because most of the passages have undergone a major slump.
Devil's Den, the famous geologic feature in Fancy Gap, Va., where folklore says members of the Allen family hid after the 1912 Hillsville, Va., courthouse shootout, is caving in relatively quickly, he said,
It would be quite dangerous to clamber through the mountain to try to find where it ultimately comes out. Fortunately, Carter believes he has a good line on where the exit could be.
As an adult, Carter has been researching the cave continuously for five years, but his interest goes back a lot longer than that.
"I started out, best as I recall, when I was 7 years old," he said.
In bad weather, his family would have to drive all the way up U.S. 52 to Hillsville and take U.S. 58 to Laurel Fork, where his grandmother lived, to get there safely.
"During the winter and the snow you could see the opening of the Devil's Den and I'd always ask my mother, 'What was that?'
"She explained it was called Devil's Den cave and the story was that people would go in there with lanterns and they would go back so far the lanterns would go out.
"And the tales were that there were bottomless pits in there and people would fall to their deaths."
He would pester his mother to go to the cave anyway.
Jumping ahead 44 years, Carter said it took a health issue to get him to focus on his goal, he explained.
"January the 23rd of 2006, I had a heart attack and decided to start doing things I had always put off," he said.
As it turned out, some guys he worked with at North Carolina Foam already had the same idea. In 1995, Danny Vaughn, David Easter, David Witchard and Alan Carpenter took a camera into Devil's Den. His friends shared their story and their photographs with Carter.
When Carter made his way to the cave for the first time in 2006, matching his own pictures against those of his friends showed him that changes were underway in the mountain.
The place where his friends dropped a rock and heard it bouncing off the sides of the hole — but never heard it thud at the bottom — seemed to have closed up by Carter's 2006 and 2009 visits.
Devil's Den cave also differs significantly today from the historic records. Carter indicated a photo thought to show Baldwin-Felts detectives searching the mountainside for members of the Allen family.
It looks quite unfamiliar, compared to the cave today.
From past descriptions, what his friends found and what Carter has seen on his visits, he believes that what used to be the cave ceiling now forms the entrance where people climb down inside.
Openings still exist that people can crawl and walk through, but not as far as previous accounts have described, he said. Carter and his son went through a crevasse that has remained through hundreds of years.
They got to a spot where previous explorers left an eight-foot "pole ladder," Carter said. An 1896 article about Devil's Den in the High Point Enterprise spoke about the device.
Placed long ago, the steps carved out of wood petrified over time. But it's no longer there to assist people down and Carter concludes that its been stolen.
The Enterprise reporter from 1896 also wrote about standing at the cave entrance and looking up and seeing "solid walls of rock 200 feet high, great boulders hanging in mid-air," that seemed ready to fall and crush anybody standing underneath, according to Carter's collection.
The newspaper reporter also described climbing down into the cave on ladders and hewn steps 600 feet down from the entrance.
Carter's son Doug was able to get 82 feet farther through the cave than his father — they got 151 feet inside they went together in 2006. But, returning in 2009, it became clear that the narrower passage had disappeared.
Rocks that had made up the walls appear to have rolled and blocked that way through. Carter also points to florescent arrows painted on the caves that no longer indicate the way out — or anything but dead ends.
What he saw also differed from what the late Bob Lewis had described in exploring the cave, Carter remembers. Lewis had talked about an idea to build walkways in the cave to conduct people safely through.
Carter has a theory why Devil's Den had the fearsome reputation that his mother told him about.
It boils down to booze.
"I think this cave was basically used by bootleggers," he explained. "I think [the legends] were told to keep people out of there so the bootleggers could make their 'shine."
There is reason to believe that the cave did travel down along the mountain to lower elevations than Fancy Gap. Carter suspects that's how Sidna Allen and nephew Wesley Edwards made good their escape after the shootout.
One of the people that went with Carter in his 2009 visit to the cave was Doug Felts.
As a boy, Felts and a friend worked their way all the way through Devil's Den until he made it to the exit at Lambsburg. Carter believes this account because what Felts described as the exit had independent verification from another informational source.
He'll wait until spring to test this conclusion — giving time for any bears that might be hibernating to vacate the cave.
Carter has helped with Devil's Den Day in spring when the nature preserve opens, including leading members of the Cana Rescue Squad in for a peek at the cave.
He wants to continue to help the Devil's Den preserve by posting his research to a website and selling multimedia discs filled with photos and videos of the cave.
Profits from that project would go to support activities at Devil's Den, he says.
The cave isn't a place where people should poke around a lot, Carter feels. He believes the internal shake-up of Devil's Den was speeded up by blasting on the construction of Interstate 77 and widening of U.S. 52 over the years, and water and erosion have also played a part of it.
Carter feels that he missed out on a chance of climbing all the way through the cave himself.
"When I go in and I see arrows pointing different directions and I can't follow them, I feel like I've been cheated," he said.