I currently live in Austin. It's a nice enough place, but because of work and personal commitments I hadn't been more than 50 miles from Austin in years. I was getting pretty sick of seeing and doing the same things again and again, I had been without a girlfriend for months, my job had settled into a boring routine... I decided I needed something utterly different. I decided a cave was just the thing.
I had been kind of fascinated by caves for most of my life. When I was a child, visiting caves was a standard part of our summer vacations. We went to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the caves under Lookout Mountain, others that I don't remember clearly anymore. I decided to revisit Carlsbad Caverns. I remembered how cool I thought it was when I went there at age 12. It was close enough for two days' easy drive or one day of hard driving, and far enough that I would be completely out of familiar territory. It sounded perfect. I figured while I was out there I would also visit the mountains in New Mexico. I had always enjoyed the kind of stark beauty of the high pine forests. I needed to get out away from all the noise and the crowds and the air pollution. I decided I would tour the cave, hike some in the national parks, and generally spend enough time in the high lonesome to get the city burned out of my system.
My car was old enough that I would have been a bit nervous taking it on a trip as long as what I had planned. So I rented a car. I made sure it was less than a year old, thinking that would free me from worry about breakdowns. I took a big wad of cash with me, just in case. I've never really trusted card payment systems and I'm old enough to remember travelers' checks, and I figure it can't hurt to have the means to pay for things even when the phone lines are down. I also put a couple of gallons of water in the trunk, just in case the engine overheated.
I had spent years traveling on the congested highways in the Austin area, and I was tired of having to contend with traffic. So, I figured I would go out on the lesser roads, the state highways and the county roads, rather than the Interstate. I thought, that way not only would I avoid traffic, but I'd get a better feel of what the rest of the state of Texas really looks like. With hopes of being invigorated by new sights and the possibility of adventure, on a clear Saturday morning I entered my rented vehicle and set forth.
Because of nature, most of Texas west of Austin looks like an ash heap. Because of the oil industry, most of that area stinks like Satan's armpit. And because of man, the entire area is rich with the evidence of decay and failure. With the possible exception of the Gobi desert, no place else can you find so much nothing full of so much ugliness. Every small town I went through showed the unmistakable glaze of poverty and hopelessness. With one exception, everything was rusted through and worn out and on the verge of falling over.
San Angelo was surprisingly nice. The downtown part, although tiny, was clean and orderly. San Angelo was the ONLY Texas town on the entire trip where it looked like the local population had not surrendered to despair. It was the only place that showed any sign of people trying to keep things nice. Maybe it's because that was the only town in that part of the state where there is still some money.
The land between San Angelo and Fort Stockton is ugly. Ugly. Ugly. There is NOTHING there but rock, sand, thorns, gravel, dust, rust, rot, abandoned oil field equipment, and ancient buildings falling apart. If someone took snapshots of that country and airbrushed out the fences and thorn bushes, you'd swear you were looking at pictures from fucking Mars. The people who live out there look as sandblasted and hopeless as their skeletal cattle. There are mesas and hills you could climb to get a wide panoramic view but you shouldn't do it, because the view is of bleak, ugly emptiness.
The land between Fort Stockton and Pecos is horrible enough to drive strong men insane. There isn't even a mesa to interest the eye - it's as flat as stale beer and sunbaked like an alkali pizza. Suicide because of depression is probably considered death by natural causes out there. Fuck west Texas. Now that the oil is gone we should saw it off and give it back to Mexico, or give it back to its original owner, Satan.
I stopped for the night in the town of Pecos, Texas. Pecos is a dingleberry on the ass of Hell. It is unspeakably ugly. The entire place looks like a dry-rot ghost town, even the parts that are still inhabited. In Pecos I swear to God you can't tell where the pavement stops and the ground starts.
In the huge truck stop restaurant I entered, I noticed several men seated at a counter looking up, obviously watching a TV set. They were animatedly discussing whatever was showing - I thought it was probably a rodeo or NASCAR race or some similar redneck shitkicker sport. When I reached a spot where I could see the TV, it was showing a weather report. That faded into a traveler's advisory about high winds and possible flash flood areas. That gave way to a blurb about missing children. The entire time I was in that restaurant, the TV showed nothing but things like public service announcements and weather news and farm reports and locations of highway rest stops.
Can you imaging a place that is so lifeless the people there get excited over watching news about highway closures? It does exist. I saw it.
I decided to leave and drive around town to see if I could find some other place to eat. The cemetery in Pecos is in the center of town and it is huge - it takes up about half the town. Pecos must a damned unhealthy place to live. There was only one place, on the main drag, that looked like it wouldn't give me food poisoning. When I got there it was 9:04. It was closed. On Friday night, they close at 9 PM. They don't just close at 9, they run people out - one of the locals in the parking lot told me that customers have to actually leave their seats and be out the door by 9. I wound up eating a cardboard burger at a Sonic drive-in.
The southeast corner of New Mexico is every bit as dry, scorched, ugly, and depressing as west Texas. If anything, it stinks even worse. But I did arrive at my destination. My first day in Carlsbad, I did not go immediately to the caves. I decided to check out the scenery. The eastern part of Carlsbad, near the Pecos River, looks kind of OK. Sort of old-time middle America meets the Anasazi. The western part looks like your standard road town strip-mall hell, except drier and dustier than usual.
I decided to check out some of the local attractions other than the caves. In doing so I found the New Mexico highway department has a really stupid and annoying way of marking distances. When the sign reads, "Destination X, soandso miles," apparently it does NOT mean soandso miles until you arrive at Destination X. It means soandso miles until you reach an intersection where you have to turn onto another road in order to get closer to Destination X.
I was looking for a place the tourist bureau advertisements called Sitting Bull Falls. The pictures made it look like some kind of pocket rain forest up in the canyons. I turned off the highway where a sign read, "Sitting Bull Falls 22 miles." I came to another sign that pointed down a different road, and it read, "Sitting Bull Falls 11 Miles." I turned onto that road. After 15 or 20 minutes I came to another sign that pointed down another road, and this one read, "Sitting Bull Falls 10 Miles." I knew damn good and well I couldn't have driven all that time and gone only one mile, so I reset my trip odometer. Sure enough, when the odometer read 9.8 miles, I came to another sign that pointed down another road, and it read, "Sitting Bull Falls 8 Miles." So I had driven almost an hour and covered 43 miles, and I still could not be sure how much farther it was. I gave up and went back to Carlsbad.
I still had a lot of day to kill, so I decided to go to a park at a man-made lake north of Carlsbad. I'd seen it on the map and I figured I'd take a swim. There is nothing in that so-called park. Nothing. There's about a dozen concrete picnic tables. No trees, no shade, no plants but cactus and scraggly-ass thorn bushes. The "beach" is brick-red pea gravel. The water is the color of weak coffee and blood-warm and it smelled bad. I had driven about 40 miles and paid a $5 entry fee to find a lake that looked and smelled like a runoff pit in a steel mill slag heap.
Suspecting that I was going to regret leaving Austin, I returned to the motel and spend the rest of the day floating in the tiny swimming pool and watching television. So far, my attempt to escape tedium had resulted in my finding nothing but ugliness and depression. Hoping that tomorrow would be another day, I nodded off to a dream about my car breaking down in the middle of the Joshua Tree National Forest.
The next morning came clear and cool and I was up early. The air was clean and the dust had settled during the night so it was only a minor nuisance. The morning felt hopeful, and I loaded my stuff back in the car (no way am I going to trust a motel room lock or the cleaning staff with my possibles). I found a Shoney's open for breakfast, and it was very pleasant. It had been years since I had eaten a morning meal more substantial than a bagel and coffee. That was why I had left Austin - so I could find a situation where I could relax and take my time like that. I was considerably heartened when I finished and got back on the road.
I dallied on may way, stopping often to get out and look around. Flat and bleak and desolate, but at least it was different. At White City, I turned onto the road that led into the park. The road to Carlsbad Caverns wound uphill for miles on the sides of a steep-walled canyon. The road more or less followed the course of a dry creek, and the area was thickly covered with armed and dangerous vegetation, with impressive rock formations. It was actually beautiful in a grim sort of way. I turned around and went back and forth a couple of times, to see the canyon from different angles. There were a couple of hairpin turns and one section of very steep slope. On the way up, I pulled off into an overlook area and stood on the low rock wall at the edge. The view was magnificent - I could see for miles down the canyon, out onto the flat desert hundreds of feet below that stretched to the horizon. It was the first time in decades I had been in a place with air clear enough to see so far, and I felt great.
The parking lot at the visitor center was pretty well full - there were several tour groups there, including one from Germany. I overheard a couple talking about living in a town where I had been stationed in Germany when I was in the Army, decades ago. I invited them into the coffee shop and bought us some stuff while I asked them what Germany is like now. The inside of the building also had several exhibits about types of rock and how the caves were formed and the bats that lived there, and I killed a good bit of time checking them out. I even got real touristy and spent a good bit of time in the souvenir shop, buying some posters and a calendar that featured some of the cave's more impressive formations.
By this time it was almost noon. I decided to take the unguided trip down the natural entrance to the cave, rather than take the elevator down. That's the most strenuous trip because it's the longest, but it's also one that lets you see the greatest part of the cave that tourists are allowed into. And it's the way we had gone when I and my family had visited the cave so many years before. So I bought my ticket, and followed the trail across the gully that separates the visitor center from the natural entrance.
At the natural entrance to the cave, there is a stone-seat amphitheater where people sit to watch the bats take flight at dusk. To enter the cave I went down the stairs beside the seats. They led to a step trail that was a series of hairpin-turn switchbacks that wound back and forth down the face of a steep slope. It was kind of like going down a fire escape only not quite straight down.
I started out fine, just trucking along downward. The farther I went, the more the rock on the other side of the entrance slowly stretched overhead. I got almost all the way down into the part of the carve they call the twilight zone - a region where it isn't full dark but the natural light coming in isn't enough. All the time there was the sense of that cave roof looming over me on the other side of a huge gap. And that's when I started to lose it.
I'm acrophobic - scared of heights. I have the genuine article where your knees start to buckle and you get vertigo and you start to waver like a top that's running down. But I hadn't had an attack in years. Hell, on the way up when I stopped at the overlook point on the road, I had stood on the edge of a drop of hundreds of feet while I admired the view, and had no problem. You might expect someone to feel claustrophobia or fear of the dark in a cave, but fear of heights?
But there it was. I think what set me off was the awareness of the overhang. Looking up and across the void at the overhang made me start to feel wobbly. It was the looking up that did it. And the farther I went, the worse it got.
It was too late to go back. There were lots of people coming down behind me. If I tried going up against the flow it would be dangerous for everyone. The trail was narrow, nowhere more than 3 feet wide. AND, there was no !@#$ guard rail. I shit you not - a steep trail winding down the outside of a slope at about a 60 degree angle, and for the first hundred feet or so down, the only thing between hikers and the void was bricks that stuck up about 2 inches, just enough to stub a toe on and make you stumble.
I was afraid of the drop beside the trail and I was afraid to stop. I worried that if I stopped I might not be able to force myself to start again. What would happen if I freaked out and couldn't make myself move? Would the park rangers have to drag me out somehow? That formed a lovely picture in my head - me on a stretcher or in a fireman's carry on a narrow, winding, steep trail in almost total darkness. And I weigh almost 200 pounds. They would have to completely stop traffic on the trail. If someone had to try to evacuate me, most likely the only result would be we would die together. Christ, I had to keep moving.
I stayed as close to the uphill edge of the trail as I could. I pulled down the bill of my baseball cap and fixed my eyes on the trail right in front of my feet so I couldn't see anything but the pavement of the trail surface. And I kept forcing myself to move my feet, a little at a time. Shaking, sweating bullets, I proceeded down. I figured my only chance was to reach the bottom. There, I could reach the elevator that went back up to the visitor center. The only way back was through the bowels of the Earth - all the way down and then squeeze out at the very bottom. I kept moving.
A considerable distance down into the cave, there was finally a handrail on the outside edge of the trail. Actually, it would be more accurate to call it a grim parody of a handrail. It was a single piece of ½-inch pipe, supported by stanchions of the same material at 6-foot intervals. I kept going. I had to. Honor demanded that I not put other people at risk by stopping the flow of traffic (it may sound stupid but thinking it at the time helped me keep moving).
There were a few places where the park service had carved out the side of the trail and made some seats where I could have rested for a minute. I bypassed them, still afraid that if I stopped I would be unable to make myself start again. It was hellish, but I was making it.
I was wrong. Hell was just about to start. About halfway down, my guts started acting up.
At first I thought I was just so frightened I was literally feeling it in my guts. But it kept getting worse. It got more painful, spasms that came harder and more frequently. I started to feel that awful internal sliding like things are moving south and you can't stop them. There was a weird taste in my mouth. My sweating was even worse, and it smelled different.
Recognition suddenly hit me. It had been about six hours since I had eaten breakfast. The timing was right. I had finally recognized the symptoms. I had experienced this before, and I knew what to expect. I could expect to die soon.
Ever heard of staphylococcal enterotoxin? It's a type of food poisoning, an organic poison produced by the breakdown of certain staph germs. Cooking does nothing to it; the heat kills the germs but does not neutralize the toxin. Cooking actually just makes the toxin form quicker by speeding up the breakdown of the germ cells. A lot of the time it comes from a staph infection on some food handler who hasn't washed his hands properly. Some asshole at Shoney's had poisoned me because he was too lazy or stupid to put his hands under a faucet.
Its effects come on usually between 4 to 8 hours after eating, and it is devastating. It starts with weakness, greasy sweating, that awful puke precursor taste in the mouth, and, probably worst of all when on a trail in a cave beside a pit, dizziness. Next comes fever spikes alternating with chills. All while the stomach is churning. You start having terrible cramping pains and finally you erupt at both ends.
A bout of this stuff lasts several hours, maybe even a day in a severe case, and it leaves you totally drained. I mean totally. The body is trying desperately to purge itself, and it keeps going long after your stomach and your intestines are completely empty, and that hurts. In a bad case you wind up seriously dehydrated, and that can screw up your electrolyte balance to the point that the effort of standing up can cause your blood pressure to drop so low, you pass out and fall like a puppet with its strings cut.
I felt like I was burning up, and sweating bullets. And then suddenly I had that explosive feeling; I clamped my cheeks together as tightly as I could, but it was no use. I will spare you the gory details. The people behind me came to a dead stop, and some of them tried to push back uphill away from me. People farther up the trail, who weren't yet close enough to know what had happened, kept coming down, and a log jam started to build up on the trail.
I turned and pressed myself as close to the rock as I could, to clear the trail. I tried desperately to tell them how sorry I was, to explain what had happened, but suddenly my stomach clenched so hard it felt like a mule had kicked me, and it happened again - just at the upper end this time.
When I regained some measure of control I tried to keep moving down, so people wouldn't jam up on the trail. But I kept having to stop because I was exploding at both ends. I was afraid to stand at the rail - there were places where the trail was a switchback and that would have meant hitting people farther down on the trail, and I was still afraid of falling over. I tried to keep moving, and I kept getting weaker. I finally found a place where the rock on the upper side of the trail slanted enough that I could lie against it so people had room to get past me. I lay there groaning and shuddering, while people skittered past as best they could.
Somehow the park rangers had finally gotten word of this, and managed to reach the scene. They set up safety ropes and helped people get through the choke point, gagging themselves. It wasn't just disgusting, it was downright dangerous because the trail was now slippery. People were cursing and children were crying. They were scared of me as much as revolted - for all they knew I had Ebola or anthrax or God knows what. And they were furious. Hell, who wouldn't be? Who wants to come all the way from Germany to see a natural wonder, only to be trapped on the edge of a precipice in the dark behind an apparent madman who is spewing filth? Because of me, there are probably a bunch of people around the world who will never again be able to think about going into a cave without having a fit.
So there I was, hundreds of feet below ground, alone amid a crowd of terrified, sickened, and enraged vacationers, on a 3-foot-wide trail that slanted steeply down into the bowels of the earth, with nothing between me and a drop into absolute blackness except a single handrail so flimsy that any OSHA inspector who saw it would probably shoot the man who built it. About every 20 minutes I was having a fire-hydrant outburst at one end or the other. When the rangers had finally cleared the trail enough to get me moving again, I left a trail behind me like some kind of hellish garden slug.
By the grace of God I finally made it to the bottom, shaking and so weak I could barely stand. By that time I had thrown up everything but my immortal soul, and my stomach was working on that. The park rangers guided me without touching me toward the elevator, while everyone else got as far away as they could. I had walked all the way down into the depths of one of Nature's great wonders, a thing of breathtaking beauty, and I had seen not one damn foot of it. But at that time I didn't care. I still wasn't sure if I was going to survive. If I passed out I could still fall hard enough to break my skull. I moved like an octogenarian with rickets toward the elevator.
On the trip up - nobody in the car but me and one ranger - nobody said a word. The ranger looked at me with a mixture of disgust and what I think was hatred. Can't blame her, really, considering I stunk worse than a hundred portajohns on a hot day. But I was conscious enough to think her all-too obvious dislike was odd in one way. I figured someone would have at least some pity on another person who was sick, and I got absolutely nothing from her but disdain and revulsion. Not once did I see or hear even the slightest sign of any kind of compassion.
My suspicion was confirmed when we reached the top. The elevator was met by the visitor center manager and a couple of the beefiest rangers he could find. From the comments they made to each other, I realized they thought I was messed up because of a drug overdose. So I wasn't a victim of disease to them, I was a filthy criminal scumbag who had dishonored their park with my disgusting addiction. They were talking about calling the police and having me arrested.
Great, I thought. I'm going to jail in New Mexico, where I'll probably get buggered by drunk Navajos who are pissed off because white men stole their rocks. And this place is Federal land so I'll get tried in a Federal court, and that's all hard time. I'll wind up in Leavenworth with mother stabbers and father rapers and people who eat their victims. I tried to talk but my vocal cords were raw from puking and I was still weak as a kitten. I couldn't make myself understood, and I finally broke down in despair. I started to cry like a little girl.
The manager stepped back and looked like he wanted to spit on me. He said, "I don't want this God damn junkie freak stinking up my building any more. Drag his sorry ass outside and throw him in the cactus."
With their hands wrapped in paper towels from the bathroom, the park rangers half-helped, half-dragged me outside, complaining every step of the way. They tried to decide where to put me, and then I had a flash of inspiration. I would ask them to take me to my rented car, so I could lie in the back while I recovered. I would be out of sight so I wouldn't alarm other visitors, and the ground was so hot I'd get burned if they put me anywhere else.
Somehow I managed to croak out the words, and they finally agreed. They took me to my car and let me crawl onto the back seat, where I lay moaning in genuine misery. They took the key from me, and left the doors open so the car wouldn't turn into an upholstered Dutch oven. Then they retreated toward the visitor center, muttering about waiting for the police and speculating idly if I would die. They didn't sound concerned either way.
It had worked.
My condition had actually helped; they could not believe that anyone so ill could still have enough presence of mind to work a deception. Once they were out of sight I closed up the car and slid - almost literally - into the drivers' seat, and retrieved the spare key from it's hiding place under the mat. I was lucky; I was in a space with no one parked in front of me, and a slight downhill slope from the parking slot into the traffic lane. To leave the lot, drivers had to make a right turn into the exit lane, which was downhill from the rest of the lot, below the top of the ridge and out of sight from the door of the visitor center. I turned the key just far enough to unlock the steering wheel, then put the car in neutral and let it roll. With no engine noise to betray me, I guided the car down the curve into the exit lane.
With the engine off I had no power steering and almost no brakes. It took every ounce of strength in my vibrating arms to turn the wheel sharply enough to make the curve. I had to practically stand on the brake pedal - if the car picked up enough speed in the curve it could go off the side of the ridge and strike out for the desert floor hundreds of feet below. But I made it through the turn, and when I was out of sight of the visitor building I started the engine. I drove slowly and sedately until I was past the entrance to the park complex, and then I stomped it and took off.
On that careen down the canyon I did not take my life in my hands - I took my life between my teeth because I needed both hands on the wheel. I left skid marks from braking and acceleration and turning all three. There were a few times I'm sure the rear end of the car must have hung out over the void at the edge of the road. Later I found ocotillo branches in the front grill. How I survived that motorized slalom I'm not sure, but I made it back to the main highway.
Between the park and Carlsbad, I yanked the car onto a dirt road leading out into the desert, and drove until a dip in the ground hid me from the highway. There I stripped naked and threw my contaminated clothes on a cactus. With the emergency water from the trunk I managed to wash off. I also cleaned the car seats - good thing it was a cheap rental so the seats were vinyl. Even after multiple scrubbings with soap from my travel kit I still stunk somewhat, but at least I no longer smelled like the god of septic tanks. I doused myself with Old Spice and hoped the omnipresent dust of New Mexico would have sandblasted the noses of anyone I encountered.
I abandoned the car in the parking lot of the local airport - later I would call the rental agency office in Carlsbad and tell them where it was. I left $100 in the glove box for the gas refill charge and more cleaning. I bought a ticket on the first flight out, paying cash. I thought that not using a payment card would leave less of a trail. I figured if the park rangers had put out a warning for the cops to look for me, paying cash would make it harder for them to find me. I don't know if that made sense or if the sickness had my head screwed up. All I know for sure is that no police came for me later. Maybe the park rangers decided I had been punished enough and gave up.
The local puddlejumper airline took me to El Paso. Everyone on the plane was obviously put off by my odor, and only one actually spoke to me. Cautiously, he said, "If you don't mind my asking you, mister, where you headed?"
"I'm going to a trade show to check out new lines of novelties for my sex toy store."
That failed to dissuade him sufficiently; after a few minutes of regarding me distastefully, he finally worked up enough nerve to return to the conversation:
"Well, I figure that sort of thing's each man's own business. But I am kinda wondering about things because... well, no offense meant, but... I was wondering if you're alright, because there's kind of an odd sorta smell..."
"I'm fine. On my way out of the house my neighbor's Great Dane knocked me down and peed on me and I didn't have time to change."
That finally convinced him to leave me alone.
In El Paso I got a Southwest Airlines flight back to Austin. I can't describe how relieved I was to be back. I was safe from the Park Service, back where I belonged. I was back in civilization, where the water didn't smell like slag and the road signs made sense and there were green things and I wasn't in danger of falling to the center of the Earth. I dealt with the nastygrams from the rental agency and I haven't left Travis County since then.
If you ever go to Carlsbad, I very strongly recommend you take your own food.