Before he was the Man in Black, Johnny Cash was a strung out, washed up, has-been that lived on amphetamines and self-loathing. He was 6’2″ and 150 pounds and dying by inches in front of the people that loved him. After hundreds of cancelled concert dates, the Nashville music establishment was done with Cash. His career was over, and he was either going to end up in prison or dead in a ditch somewhere. It was in this state of mind that Cash came to Nickajack Cave, near Chattanooga, in the fall of 1967.
He came to Nickajack to die.
His plan was insane. Cash wasn’t going to kill himself by overdose or hanging or a gunshot like a normal person—he planned to crawl into the darkness of Nickajack Cave and lose himself in the black beneath the earth.
But something happened down there in the dark. That’s where Cash met God.
“The absolute lack of light was appropriate, for at that moment I was as far from God as I had ever been. I thought I’d left Him, but He hadn’t left me. I didn’t believe it at first. I felt something very powerful, a sensation of utter peace, clarity and sobriety. I couldn’t understand it. How, after being awake for so long and driving my body so hard and taking so many pills—dozens of them, scores, even hundreds—could I possibly feel all right? The feeling persisted though, and then my mind started focusing on God. There in Nickajack Cave I became conscious of a very clear, simple idea: I was not in charge of my destiny. I was not in charge of my own death. I was going to die at God’s time, not mine. I hadn’t prayed over my decision to seek death in the cave, but that hadn’t stopped God from intervening.”
Cash started crawling in the darkness. He found the path that led to the light, and when he stepped out into the world again, he was a changed man. And who did he see at the mouth of the cave but June Carter, who had followed him to Nickajack with a picnic basket.
That was the moment when Cash’s life changed. He left Nickajack and played Folsom, San Quentin, married June, got himself right with God, and became my personal hero. When I think about the way a Christian should walk through this world, the person I think of is Johnny Cash.
My father lives in Chattanooga, TN. I drove down here in December for a visit, and when my old man asked me what I wanted to do I convinced him that we should take a jaunt over to Nickajack to see the place where Johnny Cash met God. Of course, the cave was flooded in 1968 to create Nickajack Lake, so you no one can ever lose themselves down there again. But you can still see the cave entrance, and that was good enough for me.
Nickajack is about 40 minutes from my dad’s place. Ingrid (my usual traveling companion for Cash-related sightseeing) and I were looking forward to seeing this special place, but we pulled up to the state park that’s sprung up around the lake and there was a gate blocking the entrance. The park was closed for the season. We drove 9+ hours from Virginia to see this cave and we were being stopped just a few hundred yards from out destination.
I asked myself what Johnny Cash would have done.
Ingrid and I jumped the fence and crossed the empty parking lot. She’s 10, and didn’t seem too frightened when she turned and asked me if I thought they’d keep us in jail for long if we got caught.
There’s a boardwalk that ends at a platform overlooking the cave. That’s as close as you can get these days, but we were there. We saw the place where Johnny Cash met God.