Monday, December 4, 2017
The men were both encased in mud. They sat on the tail-gate of the pick up truck and looked across the twilight chaparral into Mexico – a mountain range hovered on the horizon serrated like a hacksaw blade. The mud on them was sinewy, the color of wet cardboard and its smell was ancient and musty, the odor of the cave. Their hard hats with smeared carbide lamps sat on the tail gate next to them. Above the eyes, their hair was slicked down with sweat but not caked in mud and their foreheads were startlingly white.
Two-lanes of black-top ran across the grasslands and the lights of a military base arrayed against the Sonoran mountains twinkled like stars fallen to earth. A passing car threw headlights into the gathering darkness. The road dropped into the basin and, after the car had gone by, it could not be seen any longer although they heard the hum of its engine. Otherwise it was silent and, although the wind roamed in the mountains behind them, the range was bare and nothing caught the attention of the breeze to make it musical.
Both men were weeping but their tears were hidden in the mud on their cheeks. Traven stood up first, legs a little wobbly. Wolf rose also and some of their armor of mud flaked off and fell onto the sandy track below them.
"It’s the greatest day of my life," Traven said.
"But now what do we do?" Wolf asked.
Wolf was also a little unsteady on his feet. Fatigue had softened his posture and his knees bloody under the pads threatened to give.
"There will never be a day like this," Traven said. "Never again."
"I know," Wolf asked. "But what do we do now?"
"I don’t know," Traven said.
They embraced. Mud rubbed against mud. It smelled of a musty tomb.
The pick-up bumped down the narrow track, winding down the slope of the mountain foothill. Wolf drove. He stopped at the fence near the stock-tank and Traven got out to open the gate. The highway was closer here and, when cars passed, they could hear their radios blaring.
The pickup truck headlights speared a jackrabbit and, confused, the animal ran straight ahead, lunging forward until it outran the light and was gone in the darkness.
Traven caught the bug when he was eight or nine. His father was an earth sciences teacher at a Junior High School in Tucson and he collected rocks. Traven’s father said that he was a "rock-hound" and that, therefore, his little son was a "pebble-puppy." Abandoned mines were good places to hunt for mineral specimens and, on weekends, Traven’s father took him to those places. Most of the time, they prospected the tailings piled up around the dark, mysterious openings cut into the barren hills. But, sometimes, they put on hard-hats with small, smelly lights burning above their eyes and entered the mines. The shafts were unpredictable, sometimes flooded and, in other places, half-collapsed. Rats and scorpions lived in the rubble near the entry and, near the point when the last light of day was lost, bats seethed in dark colonies on the low ceilings. Galleries pitched into the central adit at odd angles and, sometimes, the tunnels cut into shallow pockets or niches toothed with glittering crystals, azurite, malachite, amethyst gleaming in alcoves frosted with quartz. The crystal caves were wonderful and Traven peered into the gleam of the crystals in the hollow places exposed by the raw, blasted rock, the gemstones seeming to lunge and jerk when his father took flash photographs of them. Traven asked his father if they could use their hammers to smash out some specimens to take home, crystals that could be displayed in school for "Show and Tell." His father shook his head and said that the crystals were alive, creatures growing far from the light according to their own secret laws, and that they should be left undisturbed in the bowels of the mines where they had been discovered.
In High School, Traven wrestled and excelled at gymnastics and, most weekends, he went to the gymnasium to practice his sports. He had an old Jeep Cherokee that he bought with money earned bagging groceries and, sometimes, at semester breaks, explored the old mining trails in the foothills of the mountains near Tucson. It was basin and range country and the mountains had once been at the bottom of great, turbid seas and so the stone was limestone, karst formation, by and large, riddled with caverns. Generally, Traven explored the hills with a friend, a kid on the wrestling team or one of his fellow gymnasts.
One afternoon, Traven was systematically inspecting dry ravines in the Dragoon Mountains 40 miles from Tucson. It was warm and the tracks leading up into the gulches were rough, ruts sometimes so faint that Traven lost sight of the path on which he was driving. The sky was cloudless and the sun’s full weight fell upon the grey and brown land and the saguaro and ocotillo cactus seemed tormented in the blazing light. A couple of times, the Jeep got high-centered – pushing got them over the bump in one case; in the other, Traven had to hitch the tow-chain to a boulder and engage the power take-off – the jeep jerked off the boulder, but, then, a hundred yards up the track, lurched to the side with flat-tire. Traven and his buddy repaired the flat tire and, then, checked their water – they were low and it was dangerous to be abroad in the desert without adequate supplies of water and, so, they were laboriously turning the jeep around, an operation conducted between the narrow and rocky jaws of the ravine, when the prospector appeared.
The prospector was an old man with a torn flannel shirt open on his grizzled white chest hair and he was leading a small, sad-eyed burro along a ledge overlooking the narrow gorge where Traven was spinning his wheels in the loose gravel and sand. A couple state-of-the-art metal detectors were slung over the back of the mule. Traven greeted the prospector and admired his metal detectors. "They are unerring," the prospector said.
"What’s up that way?" Traven asked the old man, gesturing up the gulch toward the low, overhanging peaks, each of them conical as a witch’s hat.
"Not much," the prospector said. "Snakes, I guess. The workings of a copper mine just under that point." He aimed his hand at a peak.
"We’re looking for caves," Traven said.
"Why?" the old man asked.
Traven ignored the question. "Do you know any in this part of the hills?"
"I know all these hills," the prospector said. He took off his sunglasses so he could look Traven full in the face.
"There’s one cave," he said. "Ain’t much, but you can find the hole over there."
He gestured back down the hill and, then, toward another dry wash a few hundred yards away. At the foot of the wash, there was a fan of sand that glittered in the sun. Uphill, a cluster of writhing, spidery mesquite showed a place where water sometimes collected.
"A little to the left of the mesquite," the prospector said.
Traven thanked the man and, then, continued the enterprise of turning the jeep in the tight trench-like ravine. When he looked up from the steering wheel and gear-shift, the man and his burro had vanished.
"Let’s see if we can find that opening," Traven said to his friend. The other boy shook his head. "It’s awfully hot," he replied. "We’ll go back after we check out that hole." Traven replied.
In fact, the sinkhole was easy to reach – there was a well-worn dirt path leading up to the pit from a place where local kids had apparently parked their cars. A bumpy, but passable track led uphill and they could see crushed sage and broken cactus decorated with a scatter of smashed glass from beer bottles with some potato chip and candy wrappers caught in the thorns.
Some withered, spiky tumbleweeds were caught in the sinkhole’s throat. A half-dozen wolf spiders darted away when Traven crushed the tumbleweed to the side. The pit was a dozen feet deep, shaped like a funnel and choked with brittle-looking stones and sand washed into the hole. The pile of fallen debris almost blocked access to the gloomy closet tilting downward away from opening. Traven had to turn on his side and half-skid, half-roll into the adjacent chamber. The place opened a little and he could squat under the dry roof of cracked stone. It was like being in the mouth of a big animal, moist and warm and foul-smelling. A notch in the wall led into a larger room, a dark round dungeon without any formations. On the smooth parts of the wall, kids had scribbled their names or obscenities. Trash covered the floor and there was broken glass, even a couple of cans of beer that someone had abandoned without opening.
"Nothing," Traven said as they scrambled back out of the sinkhole.
Traven went to the State College and studied education. He met Wolf in a PE class. It was an introduction to rock-climbing and the students rigged rope-lines into harnesses with belays so that they could ascend the taller buildings on campus and, then, rappel down onto the lawns. Traven excelled at these exercises because he was cautious and patient – he took care to untangle the nylon ropes, passing them through his hands and around his wrists to inspect for frayed lengths or splices, checking each knot and carabiner not just visually but by touching the hitches with his fingers and pulling against them. Wolf was intuitive and disdained the rope and said that he wanted to free-climb without the bother of the harnesses and other hardware. When he rappeled down the facade of Old Main, he threw himself out over the abyss so enthusiastically that he lost control and plunged through an open window, swinging into a class of sophomore macro-economics students. Wolf was older that Traven, enrolled in a MFA program, and he wrote poetry. He was the opposite of Traven in many ways and, so, they became friends. On the weekends, they climbed together, making an ascent of the sheer needle of Picacho Peak between Tucson and Phoenix and bouldering in the rock field at Texas Pass at the rest stop on the freeway to El Paso.
Traven tried to persuade Wolf to spelunk with him but Wolf wasn’t interested. "Why would you want to hide in a dark hole in the ground, when you can be outside and enjoy all of this?" They had climbed to the top of cliff overlooking Tucson and Wolf lit a Swisher Sweet cigarillo, gesturing down at the sunbaked city stretching out beneath them.
In November, Traven drove with Wolf down to the Dragoon Mountains, ostensibly to look for stone faces they could climb. Traven was student-teaching in a Tempe suburb. Wolf was still enrolled in the MFA program at the college, editing a campus literary journal.
The day was overcast but the air was clear to a great distance, a sort of magnifying lens poised over the grey flats and the stony ridges. Sometimes, the clouds dipped down to swath the spine of the mountains in mist, withdrawing upward at intervals to show the uppermost heights sprinkled with snow. The jeep tracks in the hills were abysmal, forcing Traven and Wolf to focus on the smashed rock ledges that they were navigating to the extent that couldn’t look away and across the slopes at the landscape. They came to a couple of mines, conical slag heaps facing one another across a narrow brown ravine – the slag from inside the earth surprisingly dark, like melted chocolate. One of the adits was buried under a landslide, but the other glared at them like an empty eye-socket. Traven tried to persuade Wolf to explore that shaft but he refused, sitting in the jeep smoking a cigarette while the other man poked around in the rubble heap with his chisel and hammer.
They drove to the crest of the ridge. There was nothing on the other side of the hill but a crumpled and abject landscape, treeless and without any roads or paths. Wolf was irritated: "I thought you said there were some faces up here."
"That’s what I thought," Traven replied.
"Not even any boulders," Wolf said.
Descending into the foothills, they saw the long scar of the Interstate incised into the desert, the deep sandy wash beneath the mountains where a dry river-bed twisted through a scatter of houses and commercial buildings rising to a sandy terrace where some bars and pawnshops lined the two-lane blacktop running cross-country to the military base. "What’s that town?" Wolf asked. "GI strip for the base," Traven said. "I don’t know that it’s got a name. Interstate exit 322 or something."
A thin, dilute column of white smoke rose from a brown crease in the hill.
"Something burning," Wolf said.
"Probably a prospector," Traven replied. "Let’s check him out and see if he’s got any intel."
The jeep track broadened into a gravel ranch road and slipped down the hill through a couple of cattle-gates. The smoke ascended over a clutch of tormented-looking mesquite trees, charred-looking and miserable under a plume of white sand. They didn’t see any vehicles near the smoke than hung like a faded, pale banner in the cool air.
"Could be a wild fire," Wolf said.
They found a rutted way that led toward a funnel-shaped depression in the gulch. Traven recognized the place. "It’s a sinkhole," he said. "I’ve been here before. Years ago."
Cheerless as before, the little dimple in the ravine was leaking mist upward. A smashed mountain bike clogged the shaft and the edges of the crater were sharp with broken glass.
"I’m not going down there," Wolf said. "It looks like a dump."
"It’s been used as a dump," Traven said. "But it’s a sinkhole."
"You’ve been down?"
"Yes," Traven said. "It wasn’t anything but...this mist, this fog..."
"What does it mean?" Wolf asked.
"The cave’s exhaling. It’s venting. The humidity in the cave air is making the mist," Traven said.
"This is a lot of mist," Traven said. "It means a big, big cave."
"I’m not going down there," Wolf said.
Traven told him that he was going to crawl down into the sinkhole and see if he could find the vent from which the wet warm air was leaking. "It’ll just be a minute."
Traven slid down into the hole, crouched, and, then, squirmed out of sight. Wolf lit a cigarette and watched the big semi-tractor-trailers on the freeway, drifting to the right, even onto the highway shoulder, as they climbed the grade out of the deep, sandy wash six or seven miles away.
After a few minutes, Wolf heard the staccato concussion of Traven’s rock hammer muted and underground, tapping against the stone as if knocking on a door. The tapping sound continued for a long time. The rhythm of the blows against the stone was vaguely iambic, a pulse that reminded him of a poem, perhaps verse by Andrew Marvell. Wolf rolled a joint and smoked a little weed. The sun came out and the moldy-smelling mist diffused a little.
Traven stood near the jeep. His hard-hat was cocked a little to the side and crusted with mud.
"You gotta help me, dude," he said. Wolf blinked at him. He wiped the sleep out of his eyes.
"I’m half-way through," Traven said. "Chipping my way into the cave."
"What is it?" Wolf asked.
"I found a blow-hole, like the size of the bottom of a wine-bottle maybe," Traven said. "There’s a gale blowing out of that opening."
"Big cave, big, big volume cave," Traven said. "The stone’s friable, brittle. I’m making decent progress knocking a way into the cavity. But you gotta help me."
"I’m not goin’ into that hole," Wolf said.
"Come on, Dude."
"It smells like shit. It smells like a fuckin’ open grave," Wolf said.
"That’s the cave smell," Traven said. "This could be a big discovery."
Wolf stepped out of the jeep and, then, rummaged in the back for his hard-hat. Traven found him another rock-pick and, then, hurried ahead of him to the funnel-shaped sinkhole.
The place were Traven had been working was a little tilted cavity in the corner of the chamber. Shards of broken limestone were strewn around the bowl-shaped hollow and they were sharp, cutting against Wolf’s belly.
"You gotta be kiddin’ me," Wolf said.
"Just a half-hour," Traven said. He began to swing the hammer against the sides of a dark vent in the rock. The cave’s breath wheezed and hissed through the blow-hole.
When the stone opening had been enlarged to the width of Traven’s shoulders, he said: "I’m gonna try to squeeze through."
"Suit yourself," Wolf said.
Traven wormed forward and the upper part of his body vanished. For a while, his hips were held in the tight claws of the rock. Then, Traven wiggled his feet and, suddenly, vanished, knees and calves twisting into the hole like the tail of a snake.
"Follow me," Traven shouted.
Wolf wrote the vow of secrecy on an envelope for an unpaid bill that Traven had in his briefcase. They agreed that neither would enter the cave without the other present. Both of them signed the back of the envelope.
Traven was student-teaching in west Tucson. Another young teacher, Elizabeth took an interest in him. They went to a movie together and, after a couple of dates, she invited Traven to come to her apartment for dinner. Elizabeth wanted Traven to spend time with her over the Winter Break, but he told her that he had other commitments. She was sad and seemed a little suspicious but didn’t question him about his other obligations. Wolf was married. But his wife, Miranda, was a member of the National Guard and about to be deployed to the Middle East. Most of her weekends were spent training for her deployment.
Traven deposited his wages in a Savings and Loan in Cortaro. He rented a mid-size Safety Deposit box at the Savings and Loan and put the envelope with the signatures there together with some video tape that Wolf had taken of the big room in the cave.
Over winter break, Traven and Wolf explored the cave. Wolf had the first roll of film developed at a Walgreens near the air force base. He thought that the clerk looked at him askance when he retrieved the photographs and, so, he drove to Phoenix to have the next six rolls of pictures processed. He didn’t use a check, but paid in cash for the pictures. Traven put those pictures with the negatives in the lock-box at the Savings and Loan.
One day, the two men climbed a jagged heap of rock-fall, big slabs of greasy-looking and wet limestone dropped down from an enormous tub-shaped cavity in the ceiling. The rock-fall was pimpled with knuckle-sized nascent stalagmites, and so they knew that the ceiling stones had collapsed thirty or forty thousand years ago, a violent calamity nonetheless that crushed the speleotherms under it, plank-shaped boulders squeezing out pale silica roses and angular lance-tipped formations from between layers of fallen boulders. Traven took the lead and he marked his path with bands of yellow police-scene tape, fencing off the particularly fragile formation along the zigzag ascent. (Traven’s wife was in the military police and, for some reason, there were a couple of rolls of the yellow tape in a kitchen cupboard.) At the crest of the rock-fall, a grey limestone slab pointed diagonally up at the ceiling, a kind of stone pulpit. Above them, the fissures in the ceiling leaked water in a continuous drizzle, falling water channeled by the forest of yellow and cream stalactites adorning the dark crack overhead.
Traven and Wolf sat on the protruding edge of the pulpit stone, legs dangling down, and looked across the wet dark canyons beneath them. A great column, fluted with salmon-pink flowstone rose out of the darkness. The column seemed to rotate, twisted like a baldachinno and streaked with bands of reddish rust, rising to the point where its great spade-shaped top pierced the dome and was fused there. At the column’s base, buttresses of delicate flowstone dipped their dainty toes in crystal pools impounded by fragile-looking calcite dams.
"How big do you think it is?" Traven asked.
"At least six stories high, maybe higher," Wolf said.
"Do you know of any speleotherms in the State that are taller than that column?"
"Maybe something in Carlsbad Cavern," Wolf replied.
"But in this State?" Traven persisted.
"I don’t think so."
They sat in silence, the two men side-by-side above the spiraling path upward marked by the orange-yellow tape.
"I’m gonna call this feature, ‘Kubla Khan,’ " Wolf said.
In a loud voice, he recited: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree...where Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea..."
"Xanadu?" Traven repeated.
"So this is all ours," Wolf said.
"None of it is ours," Traven replied
"But how do we develop this?" Wolf asked.
"Maybe, we shouldn’t develop it. Maybe, we just leave it all as we found it." Traven said.
"I like that idea," Wolf replied. "It’s our private place. Something no one else knows about. You didn’t tell that woman – the other teacher..."
"I didn’t say a word, not a word. And you?"
"She’ll be in Iraq next week. But I didn’t breathe a word to her."
"So what do we do now?" Traven asked.
There was no reply. In the beam of their hard-hat lights, the immense column, draped in its elegant flow-stone drapery, seemed to shift and wobble a little – the column rose from lower darkness and ended in the darkness above them so that it seemed, for a moment, to float weightlessly beyond the black wet gorge, a vast angel casting a shadow in their lanterns like a black wing or sword.
"Maybe it’s best that the place remain wholly fantastic, I means, just an idea that the two of us share," Wolf said. "It’s our private playground."
Traven didn’t respond.
A couple of hours later, Traven drove the jeep down the hill toward the ruinous ‘in-drive" off the two-lane blacktop running between the military base and the freeway. He cursed. In the rear-view mirror, he saw a big red pickup truck lurching down the hillside, skidding right and left and fishtailing on the washboard curves to catch up with them.
"Shit," Traven said. "We’ve got company."
The pickup careened over a big hump in the jeep track, kicking out a spatter of stones and sand, as it charged forward passing them on the right. The oversized tires of the red truck tore up the sage and crushed a dead mesquite bush. A hundred yards ahead of them, the vehicle slid sideways to block access to two-lane asphalt.
A young man wearing a cowboy hat and a shirt with the sleeves torn off at the shoulders got out of the pickup, signaled them to stop, and approached their jeep.
"Who are you two?" the kid asked.
Traven gave their first names and offered his hand through the window. The kid ignored the offer.
"What are you doin’ up in the hills?"
"Exploring, checking out the abandoned mines," Traven said.
"I’ve been patrolling. The ranchers pay me. Someone’s been leaving the gates open and the cattle have been out, running loose as far out as down here. One of ‘em got hit by a soldier on the way back to the base a couple nights ago."
"We’re very careful about shutting gates," Wolf said.
"No, you ain’t," the kid replied. "And I want to know what you been doin’ up in these hills. I seen your jeep three times this past couple days."
"Exploring the mines, the tailings," Traven said. "Rock collecting."
"I don’t think so," the kid replied. "Do you know that this here’s private property? All of it."
"I didn’t see nothing posted," Wolf said. "You sayin’ there’s a posting."
"I’m not saying that," the kid said sullenly. "I’m just telling you what should be obvious to anyone."
"We don’t know who owns this. We just thought it was federal land."
"It ain’t," the kid said. He spit on the ground. "The ranchers hereabouts pay me to patrol."
"Okay," Traven said.
"You take anything, any souvenirs or specimens from the workings up there," the kid asked.
"No," Traven said. Wolf repeated the word "no."
"You better not," the kid said. "How’d you like if someone come to your house and harvested your cactus or took your stones?"
"Wouldn’t like it," Wolf said.
"Then, you two don’t do it here," the kid said.
"We didn’t," Traven said. "We won’t."
"And you need to get some fuckin’ permission," the kid said. "Otherwise, you’re trespassing and liable to have someone take a shot at you. I ain’t kiddin’."
"Who do you get permission from?"
"Well, you can start by getting permission from me," the kid said.
"Okay, what’s your name? How do we get permission from you?" Traven asked.
"You don’t," the kid said. "I think you’all better just stay away."
"Okay," Traven said.
The kid backed away from the jeep, spit again and, then, got into his pickup. He pulled his pickup to the side so they could pass, almost slipping down into the gravel-edged ditch next to the jeep road. Traven looked in his rear-view mirror.
"The son-of-a-bitch!" Traven said. "He’s writing down our license plate."
Traven stabbed his foot down at the accelerator and the jeep burst up onto the black-top, scattering gravel as it turned. There was a car coming, very close, and it swerved hard to the left to avoid hitting them. An oncoming pick-up, northbound toward the freeway, was aimed at the swerving vehicle and both cars did a tense, little minuet on the black-top narrowly avoiding a crash. The pick-up laid on its horn and this caused the kid in his battered red vehicle, a dozen yards behind them to hit his horn also. He pulled out onto the highway, turned away from the freeway direction where Traven and Wolf going, and shot down the road in pursuit of the other pickup.
"Jesus!" Wolf whispered.
"That was a close-call," Traven replied.
raven couldn’t sleep. He imagined the kid in the cowboy hat and the sleeveless work shirt wiggling like a worm along a limestone bench studded with delicate helictites. The boy’s body was big and coarse and it crushed the delicate crystal cricket-cages of the formations into glittering white powder. Traven’s rage burned in his face and ears and his eyes were hot with tears.
He rolled and tossed in the warm bed and Elizabeth woke up, extending her hand and exploring the darkness with it. Traven told her about the cave and said that he wished nothing more than that she might see it with her own eyes.
"I get claustrophobic in elevators," Elizabeth said. "I could never crawl into a place like that."
Traven described Kubla Khan to her and said that the column of calcite was a big as a sequoia, surrounded on all sides by cave-flowers, fist-sized crystals glittering like astonished, wide-open eyes.
"It must be wonderful," Elizabeth said.
"It is wonderful beyond my ability to tell you," Traven said. "I don’t have words."
Then, neither of them could sleep. Sex just made them more alert and tense. Dawn lengthened across the desert and they saw the yellow school-buses moving like figures in a mirage, stopping and starting on the brown suburban lanes at the edge of the desert where the saguaro gestured at the orange sky and, then, a custodian raised the flag at the school where they both taught and they faced their students with great, burning eyes.
The secret that they guarded between them brought them closer together. Elizabeth and Traven were married. Traven traded his old jeep for a big used SUV. "It’s not a practical vehicle," Elizabeth complained. "But I need something different for the roads by the cave." Traven told her.
Traven took her to the highway that led from the interstate to the military base. The Dragoon Mountains cast long, humped shadows across the deep sandy valley braided at its lowest point by the salt-white channels of the dried river-bed. They pulled onto the side of the highway and the traffic hurrying back to the base zoomed past them, everyone speeding it seemed on this featureless stretch of two-lane blacktop.
"It’s over there," Traven said, pointing into the hollow between the ridges at the place where a clump of remote green marked the sinkhole.
Elizabeth shuddered to think of the tight blowhole and the secret, hidden passages studded with crystal under the hills. "A terrible place," she whispered.
"No," Traven said. "Wonderful. Very wonderful."
Unlike other caves, Xanadu was not a system. Some caves branch into labyrinths of innumerable tiny chambers, an underground capillary system ventilated by places where sinkholes pierce the karst. Other caves end in watery sumps, drowned corridors and black lakes tilted toward waterfalls pouring ceaselessly into the center of the earth. But Xanadu had a top and a bottom – the cave had hollowed out one of the round, capitol-shaped foothills to the mountains and all chambers radiating from the two central basilicas, great rooms with towering domed ceilings, terminated in decisive dead ends. At the highest point in the cave, a great wet shield loomed overhead, festooned with clusters of stalactites like chandeliers. The bottom of the cave was a round basin the size of a baseball stadium filled with grey-brown mud. The mud seemed to be bottomless and, when Traven and Wolf explored that part of the cave, they took care to leave only a single, deeply rutted pathway through the mire. It was best to stay always on the paths that they had carefully established – the density of formations in the cave made any other route perilous: you might impale yourself on a lance of glistening travertine or inadvertently crush a pendant soda-straw or finger-shaped stalagmite 50,000 years old. In some places, long soda-straw formations, hollow nascent stalactites, had snapped under their weight, pulled down from the overhead ceiling and, like pins, the white straws pierced the field of mud, standing upright in the clotted bog. The big swale of mud in the belly of the cave was its heart. When rain fell, water percolated down into the mud and, sometimes, there were standing pools of water, even, occasional floods that submerged the white hollow straws stabbed into the mire like porcupine needles. Moisture rose from the mud and condensed on the cool dark stalactites riveting the dome of the big rooms, that same water drizzling back down with its burden of carbolic acid and dissolved limestone. In one corner of the mud field, there was a chocolate-colored smear of bat guano, dark as an oil spill, but without bats in that part of the cavern, a fossil deposit that meant that at one time the lower chamber had been open to the upper air and sunlight. Now, that part of the cave seemed hermetically sealed. In the higher big room, one panel of overhead stone hissed and twitched with a colony of Mexican long-tailed bats, a suppurating pyramid of guano swarming with bone-colored beetles and centipedes. It was impossible to approach to bats too closely because the ammonia stench burned in your eyes and throat. Presumably the animals flew through an exit somewhere in the corkscrew passages atop the dome, although Traven and Wolf never could find that way into the cave and didn’t ever see the bats departing into the night a sunset.
Wolf had an eye for detail and a strong three-dimensional imagination and he filled up several Moleskines with maps of the cave. Always keeping to the trench that they had made slogging across the mud-basin, they measured the cave from one side of the black amphitheater to the other. Adding the distance from the sinkhole entrance through the upper room, smoky with bats, Wolf was able to assess the amount of surface that they would have to acquire to own the caverns below. They paced out the dimensions of the cave on the side of the hill, climbing up to the top of the rounded knoll that they knew concealed the dome-shaped big chamber below. At the corners of the tract, they built inconspicuous cairns of piled rock and marked those monuments with shreds of red bandana knotted into the thorns of nearby cactus. The work that they did on the surface, above the cave, was accomplished in the twilight or, even, after dark so as not to draw attention to their labors. They were accustomed to park the SUV a half-mile away near a concrete bridge spanning a dry ravine that rock-hounds sometimes favored – a good place to find lapis lazuli and azurite in the outcroppings cut by the periodic flashfloods. They alternated Traven’s SUV with Wolf’s VW van and, even, sometimes, unscrewed the license plates from the vehicles, when they hiked into the hills to survey the land.
Wolf’s uncle was a lawyer in San Diego. His name was Poore. On a couple of occasions, Wolf and Traven went to the offices of Poore, Locke, and Bass by the glittering harbor and discussed circumspectly their desire to acquire some land in the foothills of Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains. Poore formed a holding corporation, valid under California Law, Ari-Xanadu, LLC. with Wolf and Traven as the sole shareholders. Ari-Xanadu hired a real estate title and abstracting company to make some discreet inquiries at the Cochise county seat in Bisbee – the first step was to learn who owned the land on which the cave was located. All of this was done secretly with payments made in cash.
Wolf’s wife returned from her deployment embittered and fearful. She accused Wolf of betraying her with a woman in southern California, someone from San Diego on the basis of receipts from that city she found receipts in her husband’s clothing. Wolf wouldn’t explain to her why he had gone to San Diego, not once but three times, and so they were divorced.
"I’ve lost my marriage because of this goddamned cave," Wolf said. "It had better be worth it."
"It will be," Traven said. He didn’t think that Wolf had been happily married and, in fact, had seen his partner flirting with waitresses in restaurants in San Diego. Wolf was a handsome man, an adventurer with a fierce look and he could recite poetry. On a couple of occasions, Traven had glimpsed him with other women. But he made no remark on that point.
Traven compiled a list of title holders in the vicinity of the cave. Patents on the land grants went back to the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. The pioneers in the Dragoon Mountain hills overlooking the San Pedro river basin were mostly ranchers and prospectors. They built scattered farmhouses with high adobe walls penetrated by slits from which defenders could fire their rifles, fortified compounds built around water seeps. Some of the earliest pioneers were scalphunters, men who earned their living from bounties paid in Nogales and Durango and El Paso for Apache scalps. Needless to say, war was constant: the Apaches attacked their fortified places and killed their cattle as they roamed the range and the scalphunters kept their hogs close at hand, within their walled compounds, man and beast sleeping in the stye as some accounts had it. The country turned out to be too dry for cattle and the scalphunters abandoned their forts so that the big adobe walls melted into the desert, worn down by wind and rain into flat scuff marks on the hillsides. Prospectors tramped through the hills and acquired mineral rights on the land, but the fee title remained in the descendants of the old scalphunters, families that had scattered by the 20th century so that the miners sometimes had to acquire a dozen signatures from as many States on a single contract to exploit placer silver and gold in the area. The mineral rights lapsed after a matter of years or were terminated when the prospectors abandoned their claims but the gold and silver rush left the barren slopes and gulches crisscrossed with mule trails on access easements and decaying head-frames. Ultimately, Traven concluded that the 20 or 22 acres under which the caverns were located was owned by as many as forty-five heirs and next-of-kin, people with fractional interests arising under wills and through intestate succession. Some slivers of land had reverted to the State by reason of tax liens. Nothing had been consolidated and, in many instances, ownership of premises couldn’t be precisely determined – a quiet title action was probably required to clear the fee title with respect to part of the acreage. All of this was very complicated and transactions had to be accomplished secretly and money, of course, was at a premium. Traven and his wife now had a family and it wasn’t easy to make ends meet on their teachers’ salaries – particularly, since Elizabeth didn’t work part-time in the summer but stayed home with the children.
Wolf was restless. He free-climbed some of the big pitches in Yosemite and, then, summited Mount Logan in the Saint Elias Mountains in the Yukon. He wrote several articles about his exploits and one of them was published in Outside magazine. Wolf moved to Santa Fe where he lived with his wife, a former ballerina with the San Francisco ballet who was working as a potter and photographer. He met with Traven only a couple times a year and, then, under compulsion. Ari-Xanadu was required by its by-laws to have two meeting annually.
"Why can’t we just acquire mineral rights?" Wolf asked Traven. They were eating lunch at a casino in Las Vegas, the place where Wolf had demanded that one of the two annual meetings take place. Wolf’s face bristled with a half-beard that he affected and he looked hungover.
"It won’t work," Traven said. "Those contracts always provide the owner with a percentage of the profits on minerals extracted from the ground. And if you don’t exploit the minerals in seven years, the contract automatically terminates and reverts to the owner."
"We’ve spoken about this," Wolf said. "We should just use the oil and mineral contract to get us seven years access. It’s a toe-hold and, then, we negotiate from there."
"So we put in an access tunnel," Traven said, "stairways, clear out trails, set up a lighting system. All the improvements belong to the title-holder."
"But we’ve got a negotiating posture," Wolf replied.
"The risk is that we invest a million dollars and lose it all on the reversion," Traven said. "And I don’t have the money."
"You’ll have to get it."
"How?" Traven said. "Tell me how?"
"That’s your problem," Wolf said. "Listen, Dude, I think you’re just delaying because you don’t have the wherewithal."
Later, Traven saw Wolf in the casino with his wife. The woman was whip-thin, with huge black eyes like those of a nocturnal animal outlined in charcoal. Her posture was so erect that it shamed those around her, even, Wolf in his expensive blue blazer.
"So this is your college roommate," Wolf’s wife said. Her words were sweetened by a foreign accent that Traven couldn’t identify.
"More or less," Traven said. He shook her hand. Her fingers were cold and strong and instrumental.
Elizabeth was back in Tucson with the kids. "You told her didn’t you?" Traven asked Wolf at breakfast the next day.
"Of course not," Wolf said. "She thinks this is just some kind of college roommate weekend."
"But we were never roommates," Traven replied.
"You start lying," Wolf said, "you never end. That’s how it goes." He shrugged.
Wolf nodded. "We have to proceed on Xanadu," Wolf said. "I feel like my life is in some kind of limbo."
"I thought you were climbing Mount McKinley or something...this winter?"
"Denali," Wolf corrected him. "Okay," Traven said.
"I’m on assignment for the magazine," Wolf said. "But that’s irrelevant. We need to move forward."
In the summer, Traven took a job as a roofer. It was terrible work and, a couple of times, Traven thought he would pass out from sunstroke. His skin was burnt until it blistered. But the pay was good and Traven brought peanut butter sandwiches to work for his lunch and didn’t join the other laborers in the bar after knocking off and, so, he managed to save a few thousand dollars.
Wolf seemed to be wealthy. He matched Traven’s funds and they bought an easement from the highway up to the sinkhole. They also acquired the acre of land where the sinkhole was located, a transaction with a lawyer in Phoenix who represented two families with title to that part of the tract. Traven attended the closing with a realtor hired by his lawyer in San Diego. Traven had given the realtor power of attorney and he introduced himself as "Bill Mercator," a representative of the California corporation. Bill Mercator said that the colonels and generals living at the military base to the south of the freeway enjoyed hunting. Upper brass were well-paid and could afford nice homes and Ari-Xanadu planned to stock a ranch in the foothills to the Dragoon Mountains with big game. After paying a fee, patrons could hunt the premises for elk, bison, white-tail deer as well as exotic game such Yugoslavian red stag and Iranian bighorn rams. "All trophy-worthy," Mr. Mercator said. He had printed a couple of business plans and, even, an example of the brochure he intended to distribute at the Base.
No one believed the story. The acreage that Ari-Xanadu was trying to acquire seemed too small for big game hunting. An article appeared in the Base newspaper, The Fort Huachuca Scout: local businessmen, it was reported, were buying land in the mountains for an ostrich ranch. Ostrich meat is famously lean and salubrious, an enemy to the plague of obesity afflicting the nation. The article was reprinted in the Benson Desert Messenger. The correspondents for the Scout and Messenger tried to reach Mr. Mercator for comment, but he was not available and, indeed, could not be located.
Both articles noted that Ari-Xanadu had posted some land in a dry gulch in the mountain foothills as "No Trespassing."
One of Traven’s sons had a blood disease. The child was chronically ill and medical expenses impoverished Traven. He had no surplus money to contribute to acquiring the land in which Xanadu was located.
Wolf’s lawyer in Santa Fe specialized in entertainment law – he doubled as Wolf’s literary agent. But the attorney knew enough about general practice in New Mexico to set up an assumed name, Nubibus. Acting under that dba, Wolf contacted a business that operated several show caves open to the public in the intermountain west. Wolf said that Ari-Xanadu would have to partner with that business to develop their cave. His lawyer sent out a couple of inquiries and the business operating the show caves, Family Entertainment Enterprises, Inc. ("FEE") expressed some interest. Of course, Nubibus didn’t reveal the location of the cave or the status of ownership of that property. After some additional correspondence, a meeting was scheduled in Albuquerque between representatives of Nubibus, Mr. Bill Mercator and Mr. Samuel Taylor, and the manager of development for FEE. The meeting was scheduled for the middle of August, before his work required Traven to report to the pre-academic-year duty days preparatory to the Fall semester.
At the end of July, Traven drove to the hill country in Texas to tour one of the show caves managed by FEE. Wolf met him at the airport in Austin. He was returning from Nepal and severely jet-lagged. The tips of several of his fingers had been frozen black and were purplish and oozing and his face was badly sunburned and peeling. Wolf walked with a limp and winced when Traven shook hands with him.
"You look like shit," Traven said.
"I heal fast," Wolf replied.
They drove across rolling hills dotted with brawny-looking cattle. The ticket building at the caverns was built like a castle with forty-foot high fieldstone towers. In a café next to the rest rooms, visitors could buy grilled bison burgers served with pickled nopal and french fries. Traven had a burger. Wolf sucked on a vanilla milk-shake. The place was crowded and they had to wait ninety minutes for their tour. After eating, they sat together on a metal bench under an awning where the tour guides, all of them young women wearing tight shorts oriented their guests. Traven and Wolf sat away from the groups of people gathering every fifteen minutes for their excursion underground. It was sunny and the brown hills glistened with mica outcroppings. A jack-rabbit darted through the brush. Wolf told Traven about the monasteries in Nepal. One of them owned a balding conical bit of fur that was said to be the scalp of a Yeti. One of the climbers on Wolf’s expedition had died. A Buddhist priest chanted over the body wrapped in a mylar shroud and, then, a helicopter came from between the peaks to take the corpse away.
Their tour-guide was a blonde girl who said that she attended the School of Mines in El Paso. The girl’s skin was bronzed, as if she were part Latino, and her nose seemed to have been broken at one time and, then, badly healed. Her shorts were very tight and she spoke in a high-pitched singsong voice. The tourists leaned forward to attend upon her words.
She said that the cave had been discovered when a longhorn steer vanished into a sinkhole. The cowboys had climbed into that pit and discovered a wonderful world of crystal formations. She advised that the formations were still growing and that the cave was, in spelunking parlance, "live". "I have to ask you to not touch the formations," the girl said apologetically. "What will happen to me if I touch?" an old man with a crooked mouth asked. "We will have to spank you with a wet noodle," the girl said. Everyone laughed. She hefted a tusk of dead, brownish stalactite in her arms. "We call this our ‘get-it-out-of your-system’ stalactite," the tour guide said. "If you want to touch, please touch this stalactite." There were about 20 people in the tour and they clustered around the girl to touch the pointed bludgeon-shaped stone. "Smooth," the old man with the crooked mouth said. "Touch it, Lacey," a young mother said, lifting her daughter’s tiny hand to stroke the broken stalactite. "Isn’t it awesome, Lacey?" the young woman asked. Lacey giggled.
Someone asked about bats. The girl answered evasively. "We probably won’t be lucky enough to see any of them," she told the tourists.
"Have any of you ever been in a cave before?" the girl, then, asked her group.
People raised their hands. Even Lacey raised her hand. The tour guide asked people about their favorite caverns. "I really enjoyed Carlsbad," Traven said. The girl nodded. "My favorite is Xanadu," Wolf said. "I’ve never heard of that cave before," the girl said. "Where is it?" "Arizona," Wolf said. "It must be new," the girl said. Lacey’s hand was still up. "What is your favorite cave?" the tour guide asked. "Oh, she is just holding up her hand because everyone else is," the young mother said. "Are there bats in the cave?" the little girl asked.
They entered the cave through a horizontal silo, metal-rimmed and tilted diagonally into the side of the hill. "This is not the historic entrance," the tour guide told her party. "You would have to crawl on your hands and knees for forty feet to get into the cave through the historic entrance."
After the outside, it was cold and humid in the cave. There were some metal steps that were slippery with condensate and Traven saw knuckle-shaped mucous-textured stalactites of bacteria growing above them in the entrance tunnel chiseled through the grey and brown rock.
In the cave, they stood on a sort of windy balcony, a stone ledge with dripping iron railings. The cave spread out below them, lit dramatically by hidden bulbs. A hundred yards away by a great pillar of rock supporting the vaulted ceiling another tour was listening to the guide’s lecture. Voices echoed off the stone walls. The air smelled like a freshly furrowed field, an odor of soil and earthworms.
The girl pulled a sweater that she had tied around her waist over her shoulders. She said: "The air in this cave circulates naturally. It will follow the trail that we take. That’s how the cave breathes. It means that if any of you passes gas, the scent will follow us wherever we go down there."
The old man with the crooked mouth chortled: "I’ve had a stroke. My bad."
Lacey’s mother laughed. The child was fearful and she laughed anxiously also.
A dozen yards into the cave they came to the formation called the "Pygmy Bathtub," a small crystalline puddle within a travertine tub shaped a little like two cupped hands. "What is a pig-me?" Lacey asked. "I’m a pig-me," the old man said. "I’ve had a stroke." Traven saw that the edges of the pool were a little green with algae.
"The lights make algae grow," Traven said to the tour guide.
"Yes," she said. "It’s a problem. That’s why the lights will go off once we leave this area. They are controlled by an automatic photo-sensor."
They followed a winding trail under a roof studded with stalactites. The tour-guide stopped to show them the fossil of a fish imprinted in the wall. "It is millions of years old," the girl said. They stopped again at a stalagmite that was the color of scrambled eggs. "We call this the Baby Bottle," the tour-guide told them. The people in the group whispered to one another. "Why is it called the ‘Baby Bottle’?" Lacey asked. "That’s an awesome question, Lacey," the young woman told the little girl. "It’s called the ‘Baby Bottle’ because it looks very much like a baby bottle," the girl said. "Can I touch it?" a woman asked. "No, ma’am, please don’t touch it," the girl in the shorts said. "But why is it called the ‘Baby Bottle’?" Lacey asked again. This time her mother didn’t congratulate her on the question. "It looks a like a woman’s titty," the old man with the crooked lips said. "Some people say that," the tour guide girl said, giggling a little.
The walked through the Comanche Council Room and, then, down the corkscrewing corridor of the Underground Bowling Alley. The girl told the people on her tour about carbolic acid and how caves are formed. She used a laser pointer to show a crack in the ceiling rimmed with a spiky-looking forest of stalactites. "The water comes through there," she told her tour. "We call it the cave’s life-line." "Will the acid burn my skin?" a young man wearing a Metallica shirt asked. "No," she said, "it is a very mild acid."
In a corner of the Queen’s Parlor, a stone grizzly reared at them, thrust forth in bas relief from the shadowy wall. "It’s so perfectly carved that some people think an artist actually chiseled the grizzly into the wall." "Who was the artist?" the old man with the crooked mouth asked. "There was no artist," the tour guide told him. "God was the artist," Lacey’s mother said. "God?" the little girl asked. "How did God get down here." "God is everywhere," the man with the crooked mouth said. "He was with me when I had my stroke."
The tour-guide turned her laser to point to another formation. "The Marble Madonna," she proclaimed. "I don’t see it," Lacey whined. "It’s right there," Lacey’s mother said. "I can see it," the kid with the Metallica tee-shirt said. "It’s easy to see," the old man declared. "But I don’t see it," Lacey said. She squirmed and tried to break free from her mother’s hand holding her own hand. "I’m hungry," Lacey said. "I’m hungry too," the old man with the crooked mouth said.
"Then, you can have bacon and eggs," the girl said. She pointed with her red laser light to a couple veils of pinkish stone, smooth and glistening like strips of raw bacon. A daisy-colored deposit of stone below simulated a fried egg.
"It looks like a pussy," Wolf whispered to Traven. "Pussy lips," Traven agreed. A dark-haired man said something in Spanish to his wife and the woman giggled. "I know Spanish," the tour-guide said. "Lots of our Spanish-speaking guests say the same thing."
"Make me real hungry," the old man with the crooked face said.
"I’m hungry, mom," Lacey repeated.
It was warm outside the cave. Traven shook the humidity and chill of the cave off his shoulders like a wet dog shakes himself coming inside from a rainstorm. Wolf just looked down at the concrete pavement and muttered to himself.
Wolf asked: "What did you think?"
"It is what it is," Traven said.
Three days later, Traven parked his Suburban at the overpass where rockhounds sometimes found azurite and lapis lazuli. He met Wolf at the sinkhole.
"How long’s it been?" Traven asked Wolf as he shook his hand.
"More than two years since I’ve been down under," Wolf gestured at the funnel-shaped pit.
They slid into the sinkhole. The bottom of the crater was dusty and Wolf sneezed. Nothing had changed: caramel-colored broken glass, dark as a spider’s eye, lurked in the rubble. Trash was tufted in the tumbleweed clogging the pit and a tangle of rags, like an animal carcass, was underfoot.
When you are underground, time seems to slow down. This means that even ordinary gestures and speech seem somehow accelerated. You are moving at a pace incongruent with the slow drip of water and the accretion of limestone particle by particle on the growing formations. Traven and Wolf dismantled the heap of rubble that they had piled around the blowhole, paddling the stones away from the dark dent in the cave’s wall. It felt as if they were working maniacally, clawing the rocks away from the opening, but, in fact, they moved deliberately and with care in an effort to avoid stirring up too much of the fine, granular dust sifted onto the sinkhole’s floor.
When the opening was clear, Wolf glanced at Traven and, then, back at the round cavity.
"Dude," he said, "you aren’t gonna fit."
Warm, humid air gushed into their faces from the blowhole.
"I’ll make it," Traven said.
"If you get yourself stuck," Wolf said, "I ain’t gonna pull your ass out."
"Let me try," Traven said.
He wormed forward, pushing himself with the toes of his boots. His head and his shoulders fit easily enough into the cavity.
"I’m in," Traven said, his voice muffled.
"Not so soon," Wolf replied. "You don’t gain weight in your shoulders. You’re not at the thickest part yet."
Traven twisted sideways and his feet went up into the air a little and another eight inches of his chest corkscrewed into the hole. His arms were ahead of him, as if he were diving.
"There’s nothing for me to grip," Traven said.
He wiggled forward another couple inches or so and, panting, stopped.
"Inhale," Wolf said. "Then slide in."
"It’s too tight," Traven said. "Grab my feet and yank me out."
Wolf took hold of Traven’s boots and crouching leaned backward, letting gravity pull against the man pinned in the hole. One of Traven’s boots came off in Wolf’s hand.
"You’re stuck," Wolf said.
He pulled again and Traven twisted sideways and, then, came unstuck so that Wolf sprawled back, the other boot ripped free as well.
"Too many fuckin’ Big Macs," Traven said. His arms and chin were scraped and bleeding.
"You gotta go on a diet," Wolf said.
"Too many Big Macs," Traven repeated.
"Now what?" Wolf asked.
"You go ahead," Traven said. "Just be careful. Check you clock."
They synchronized their watches.
"Be out in an hour," Traven said. "That should be plenty of time."
Wolf speared his lean body through the hole. His boots kicked a little, a flipper motion as if he were swimming. Then, he was gone.
Carrying his boots in his hand, Traven squat-walked across the bottom of the chamber. A piece of broken glass bruised his heel, but didn’t cut him. He clambered up the dusty funnel and, then, stood blinking at the high, blue sky overhead. He untied the laces of his boots, put them on, and, then, after retying the laces, kicked at some of the stones near the crater. Cursing, he wiped tears out of his eyes, and paced in tight circles around the sinkhole.
After about forty minutes, a young man on a mountain bike came down the jeep track that led up to the mines. The young man was wearing a khaki-colored Tilley hat with a Hawaiian shirt and cut off jeans that showed his bald, sunburned knee-caps. The kid saluted Traven from across the gulch, parked his fat-tired bike on a level patch of the lane, and, then, strolled between the squat mesquite and cactus toward him. Traven hid his hard-hat with the LED behind a rock. The kid waved at him again.
Traven walked quickly away from the sinkhole and met the young man in the middle of the narrow valley.
"Nice day," Traven said.
"Gorgeous," the young man answered. He said that he had been exploring the mines at the top of the valley.
"They’re interesting," Traven said. "But it can be dangerous."
"I know," the young man said. "I’m real careful."
"I think this area is posted," Traven said. "No trespassing."
He pointed to a sign stapled to a cactus beyond the ravine.
"I didn’t see those markers," the young man said.
"There’s a bunch of them," Traven said, gesturing.
"I heard that some rich guys formed a partnership and announced that they were gonna turn this mountain into some kind of safari-ranch," the young man grimaced. "Some kind of pay-for-play big game hunting."
"That’s a cover," the young man said. "The mountain isn’t big enough. You can’t have lions and tigers out here without a shit-load more land. It’d be inhumane. And elephants – you’d have to make some kind of waterhole for them. They need lots of water."
"I didn’t think they were going to import lions and tigers," Traven said.
"That’s the story,’ the young man replied. "But it’s bullshit. This isn’t large enough for a big game reserve. I think they’re planning on raising ostriches here. It’s gonna be an ostrich ranch."
"The best, leanest meat there is," the young man said. "And you get the hides and feathers too."
Traven glanced at his watch. Wolf had been in the cave about 50 minutes.
"You know what," Traven said, "some archaeologists have been around here and they found some ancient Indian sites."
"Really," the kid said.
"If you promise to keep this quiet," Traven lowered his voice conspiratorially, "I’ll show you."
"That’d be great."
Traven led him up the ravine to a little hollow in the hillside close to the cactus posted with the "No Trespassing" sign.
"Look," Traven said, pointing.
Seven or eight fire-blackened stones formed a disorderly cairn and other rocks formed a crude alignment around the charred place.
"Those are hearth-stones," Traven told the young man. "It marks an ancient fire-pit. And those rows of white and brown rocks – see them? – that was a wall of some kind."
"Wow," the young man said, gaping at the cairn.
Traven stooped over and pointed to a white, serrated lance-point embedded in the crumbling clay bank of the ravine.
"That’s a Clovis point," Traven said. "Paleo-Indians. More than 10,000 years old. It’s just beautiful."
"It looks like it could have been made just yesterday," the young man replied.
The pale, serrated lance-point was shaped like child’s outline of a Christmas-tree and its base was delicately fluted.
"Such wonderful craftsmanship," Traven said.
"Is it valuable?"
"Museum-quality," Traven told the young man.
"Why didn’t you take it?"
"It’s against Federal law," Traven said. "You can’t collect antiquities like this for yourself. This Clovis-point is over 10,000 years old. It belongs to everyone. Our common patrimony.
"Over 10,000 years old?" the kid said. He cocked his head and looked puzzled.
"Someone gets caught collecting an artifact like this – shit, you go to jail for 15 years. Fifteen years or more. It’s against the law stealing artifacts like this."
"Holy shit," the young man said.
"Listen," Traven lowered his voice again, "you gotta pledge to me that you’ll keep this quiet. You can’t tell any one. Do you follow?"
"I do," the young man said.
They shook on his promise. The young man walked up the ravine to the red "No trespassing" sign tacked to the cactus. He reached up and ripped the sign off the cactus, kicking it under foot into the sandy wash.
"Take that mother-fucker!" the young man said.
Then, he scrambled up the hill, hopped on his bicycle, and pedaled down the rutted jeep track toward the highway. Traven watched him zigzagging around the more formidable gouges in the lane. Looking toward the sinkhole, he saw Wolf’s muddy helmet and dirty face peering over the rim of the sinkhole funnel.
Traven walked back to the crater as Wolf climbed out.
"So how is it?" Traven asked.
"Unbelievably beautiful," Wolf said. "You forget how beautiful it is."
"Really," Traven said.
"It’s so much more beautiful than you can remember," Wolf said.
Wolf looked up at the empty blue sky, blinking. Traven shook his head.
"You know, I can’t imagine people, crowds of people traipsing around down there," Wolf said.
"We’ll have to come up with another plan," Traven said.
"Who was that man?" Wolf asked.
"Just some kid, a wannabe desert rat. He was snooping around up at the mines," Traven said.
"Well this land’s posted," Wolf said.
"I told him that," Traven replied. "And, then, I took him to see the ancient Indian site."
"Did that work?"
"Sure, kept him a quarter-mile from the blowhole," Traven said.
"That’s was the best idea you ever had," Wolf said. "Coming up with that distraction."
They hiked back to their vehicles parked beside the bridge over the dry-wash. "I have to go to Antarctica," Wolf said. "It’s an article for Men’s Health, an assignment."
"Sounds exciting," Traven said.
Two weeks later, Traven came out to the land. He parked at the dry-wash and, then, hiked over the low ridge to the ravine where the paleo-Indian site was located. The beautifully sculpted Clovis point was gone. Traven opened his backpack and took out another bone-white lance-point. He examined the artifact and saw that it was still marked "Made in China" so he peeled off that decal. Then, he pissed on the clay, muddied the lance-point, and, carefully, embedded it in the eroded side of the ravine above the monument of charred stones.
He spent another half hour, hiking the perimeter of the acreage that he had purchased with Wolf, posting another half-dozen no trespassing signs. He had a reserve of white quartzite lance-points at home. You could buy them for ten dollars apiece at the Heard Museum of the American Indian in Phoenix.
One night, while channel surfing, Traven saw a picture of Wolf hanging from a bright blue rope over a dark abyss. The TV showed Wolf gritting his teeth heroically and, then, sliding the visor of his face-mask down over his handsome features. He slipped into black waters and swam away from the camera. The program was called "The Deepest Cave" and, a couple days after the ad, it aired on Nat Geo. Traven watched it with his wife and children. They ate Orville Redenbacher buttered popcorn as they sat in front of their television.
The show had been produced in the Yucatan and was followed by a profile piece in The New Yorker, not written by Wolf but about him. Traven emailed congratulations to Wolf.
Wolf suggested that they meet at Flagstaff, more or less midway between Santa Fe and Tucson. He emailed that he was lecturing at the college there about adventure and exploring. Traven drove up to Flagstaff and they spent a few hours discussing Xanadu but couldn’t come to any agreement as to how they should proceed. Wolf suggested again that they partner with some enterprise to develop Xanadu as a show-cave. Traven replied that he had made some discreet inquiries through the local Sierra Club in Tucson – perhaps, the Nature Conservancy was interested in financing acquisition of the cave to protect the Mexican longtailed bats that used the upper chamber as a maternity roost. They argued bitterly and the encounter made Traven feel weak and unhappy. The next day, he told his wife: "I wish we had never stumbled onto that place. It’s just a hole in the ground but it’s ruining us."
For a year and a half, Wolf was out of the country, reporting on wars in the Middle East. He was embedded with combat units and survived fire fights and mortar attacks. Sometimes, Wolf appeared on TV to comment about the wars on which he reported. Invariably, it was the middle of the night in the Middle East when Wolf appeared live on CNN – he stood in a garden under exotic trees sometimes luminous with fruit and there was an ancient wall behind him that seemed to be yellow-orange in the camera’s light. Wolf’s trademark fuzzy half-beard looked neatly groomed and his eyes were intense and serious and, sometimes, the burning wick of a flare or Tomahawk missile lit up the dark, velvety sky behind him.
When Traven saw Wolf next, he looked haggard and the whites of his eyes were yellow. He said that he was suffering from an amoebic infection that he hadn’t been able to shake. Wolf said that he was exhausted from war reporting and had resigned from that position.
"I’m going to write a book," Wolf said. "I have seen a lot of amazing things."
Wolf and his wife had moved from Santa Fe to a more remote place, Gallisteo. Wolf offered Traven a large sum of money to buy out his interest in Xanadu. Traven was tempted at first because the offer was large. He said that he had to sleep on the proposal. The next day, he met Wolf for breakfast and rejected the proposal. "I guess I’m relieved," Wolf said. They shook hands. "I’ll see you soon, partner," Wolf told him.
Wolf returned to Oaxaca to report on a cave diving expedition into the Sistema Huautla. He was pushing a sump at the 1100 meter depth when his rebreather failed. Disoriented because of the poisonous mix of gases, Wolf swam into the wrong passageway, became trapped, and drowned. The other divers were able to pull his body out of the sump, but there was no way to drag the corpse upward through the many shafts and siphons that had to be traversed to reach the Huautla’s entrance. The explorers wrapped Wolf in his sleeping bag and, then, slid him through a muddy chamber into a small niche in the wall. They set Wolf’s gear next to him, including the fatally malfunctioning rebreather, and, then, gathered stones to fit them together to wall off the little cell where the body lie. One of the explorers videotaped the process for Wolf’s wife. The images of Wolf’s burial in the cave began with a sixty-second image of the dead man’s face. Wolf’s beard was longer and flecked with grey. His eyes were closed but his lips were retracted in a faint snarl over his teeth.
After the service in Santa Fe, Wolf’s wife approached Traven in the little walled garden next to the old adobe church. Her hands were trembling and, although it was a warm and sunny day, she seemed to be very cold. A shrub was flowering and the big heart-shaped leaves of a catalpa tree gestured toward them.
Wolf’s wife had big black eyes. Her face was wet with tears. A dramatic swath of white slashed across her otherwise dark hair. She spoke with a faint accent.
"You had some secret with Wolf," the widow said.
They were momentarily alone, the others still standing in the church or at its threshold.
"We were just good friends, college friends," Traven said.
"No, no," she replied. "There was some secret with you. Wolf carried it close to his heart. It almost ruined his life."
"He had a wonderful life," Traven said. "People from all over the world have come to this service."
Wolf’s wife was very slender. She wore a brilliantly colored scarf twisted over her throat although the rest of her clothing was black. The scarf was patterned with the Zia sun sign.
"Please set my mind at rest," Wolf’s wife said. "Tell me his secret."
"There was no secret," Traven said.
A crowd of wellwishers from New York and Los Angeles came toward them over the cobbled stones in the church courtyard. Both the women and men bent forward to embrace Wolf’s widow. Traven backed away from her. He went to his pickup truck, tore off his tie, and, then, drove away.
A couple days later, Traven went to the safety deposit bank at the Savings and Loan in Cortaro. He spread all the papers on the table in small work room adjacent to the lock boxes. He withdrew all documents signed by Wolf and put them in a manilla envelope. Then, he examined the Moleskine notebooks containing Wolf’s survey notes. Wolf had used a mechanical pencil to make the notes and draw the diagrams in the little black book. Traven carefully erased Wolf’s initials from the sketches, blowing the flecks of synthetic rubber crumble off the edges of the paper. Wolf had written his name in blue ink on the first page of the notebook along with his address and phone number. Traven ripped out that sheet of paper from the Moleskine. He sat alone for a long time at the metal desk in the workroom, his fingers idly turning the pages of the remaining documents on the table – the easements, articles of incorporation, the deeds transferring land to Ari-Xanadu.
Traven thought of Wolf underground wrapped like cigar or a joint of marijuana in his sleeping bag. His cheeks burned and his ears were red. When his complexion had returned to normal, Traven put the documents remaining after his inspection back into the safe deposit box.
His wife was visiting her sister in Phoenix. Traven went to a Burger King and ordered supper for himself and his children. He didn’t use the drive-through but went into the restaurant. A garbage can stood sentinel by the door and Traven dropped the manila envelope containing his handwritten agreements with Wolf into the trash.
Traven’s mother died and there was a small inheritance. He used most of the money to acquire more land in the Dragoon Mountains. His wife opposed those purchases and said that they should pay off their mortgage with the cash or contribute more to their 401K. The quarrel was long and bitter and, for a time, Traven was afraid that the dispute would result in a divorce. He wondered if his wife would claim half-ownership of the cavern.
Instead of a divorce, Traven got cancer. The illness began as a skin cancer, a purplish melanoma, on his cheek and the back of his neck. Traven imagined that the cancer was a result of the summer that he had spent roofing in the blazing Arizona sun.
Cancer cells infiltrated Traven’s thyroid. He had surgery to remove his thyroid and the melanoma. For a couple months, Traven suffered radiation treatments. These were followed by seven months of chemotherapy.
When the chemotherapy was completed, Traven drove out to the sinkhole. Because he was weak and couldn’t walk well, Traven maneuvered his Suburban over the jeep track and parked close to the crater. The "no trespassing" signs were still in place, although some had been peppered with bird shot. Traven hobbled around the desert hill, leaning on his cane.
There had been more wars, and the threat of wars, and the military base had expanded. This meant more traffic on the highway between the freeway and fort. Big silver transport planes buzzed like bumble bees over the stony peaks of the mountains. From the slope over the state highway, Traven could see earth-movers next to the right-of-way cutting the hard, dusty caliche with their blades. A couple of heavy trucks were parked a quarter mile away on the part of the highway that had already been widened to four lanes and a median. A cloud of creamy lime rose from where the concrete mixers were pouring wet cement and aggregate to make the new lanes.
The warm sun and the breeze blowing down from the mountains was refreshing. Traven got back into his Suburban, rolled down the windows, and watched the machines working to widen the highway. Traffic was reduced to a single lane through the construction area and a pilot truck moved back and forth leading the columns of cars along the shoulder of the road, past the gouged-out place.
A Honda SUV pulled off the road, nosed its way to the jeep track, and, then, lurched uphill toward where Traven was parked. Traven cursed under his breath. The trail was too rough for the Honda and, so, it stopped a hundred yards from him and a young woman wearing a baseball cap climbed out of the vehicle and made her way up the hill toward him. There was no escaping her. The Honda blocked his way to the road. He looked at the dimple funneled into the hillside and back toward the young woman striding in his direction.
"Good afternoon," she greeted him.
Traven nodded suspiciously.
"Do you know who owns this part of the hills?" the young woman asked him.
She had a freckled face and was wearing a wedding ring.
"Who wants to know?"
"I’m a reporter down in Benson and with the newspapers in Tombstone and Bisbee as well," she said. "I’ve heard some rumors about land in these hills and I wanted to know if you could confirm what I’ve been told."
She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and took out a small notebook.
"I don’t really care to talk to you," Traven said.
"Please," she said. "Do you know the owner out here?"
"Whoever posted the ‘no trespassing’ signs," she replied.
"That I don’t know," Traven told her. He took a few steps away from her to see if she would follow him. The young woman reached up and rotated her baseball cap so that the bill was over the back of her neck and, then, she followed him.
"Here’s what I’ve heard," she began. "There’s a Bill up with the legislature to exercise eminent domain over a couple thousand acres in these hills. Supposedly, there’s an impressive limestone cave hereabouts. The governor wants to acquire it for a state park."
"What?" Traven leaned toward her.
"A state park. Somewhere in these hills," she repeated.
"A cave. A big underground cave,"
"Caves are usually underground," Traven said.
The girl grinned at him and squinted because the sun was bright.
"So what do you know about that?" the young woman asked.
"I don’t know," Traven replied. "Ten...fifteen years ago, I explored all the cracks and crannies in these hills."
"What did you find?"
"Not much. Nothing worth touring that’s for sure," Traven said. "There’s some crawlspaces, some squeezes you can wiggle into, but they don’t go anywhere. Just dirty little holes."
"That’s so," the woman said.
"And the problem, to be honest with you...the problem is the wild life, the zoology, I guess you would say."
She nodded at him as if she knew what he meant, but, then, asked: "The wild life?"
"It’s the creepy-crawlies," Traven said. "You go into any of the cracks and nooks in these hills and the first thing you meet are tarantulas, big hairy fellows that can jump six or eight feet, then, the fire ants that flop down off the ceilings into your hair, and, finally, the scorpions..." he paused. "I tell you that a hole in these hills will be just full of scorpions, forty or fifty of ‘em, in the first six feet. And all kinds. The little guys who will crawl into your pants and up your legs and down the back of your neck and, then, big fat ones, the jumbos who are about the size of a Maine lobster. And, then, you got the bark scorpions –black as night so you can’t see them in the cave, charred-looking little buggers but if one of them stings you, it’s light’s out. I heard of a spelunker out there who felt a tingling in the back of his hand – at first, I guess it’s like an electric current – and, then, this blinding pain, just red hot, like a molten dagger going into his and, so, he backs up out of the crawlspace and the little amber scorpions are just dropping off the walls and roof like leaves falling, he’s got the things all over him, he’s wearing one over each eye-socket like wiggly blonde eyebrows. But the little ones aren’t bothering him so much – it’s big black scorpion latched on his right hand, clinging there and its sting embedded about an inch in the meat of his hand and it’s pincers waving defiantly. He looks and he knows it a bark scorpion and he knows what that means as well – so the guy whips his knife out of his backpack and hacks off his own hand and, then, takes that hand in his other hand and throws it as far away as he can and the whole time that scorpion, black as night, is riding the severed hand, hunkered down on it like a mouse on a frisbee..."
Traven paused. The girl bit at her lower lip.
"This isn’t true," she said.
"Of course, it is," Traven told her. "I’ve seen the tarantulas and the whip-scorpions and the bark scorpions, the red fire ants, not to speak of the fucking bats, the vampire bats. I’ve seen ‘em and felt ‘em crawling on me when I went on my belly into those caves."
"The cracks you got to navigate aren’t any bigger than a good size dinner plate. You gotta go in head first," Traven said.
"Sounds awful," the young woman said,
"I was in one of those tunnels, narrow and hot and full of spiders and scorpions – the whole thing like a pipeline I was wriggling through, and, then, I come face-to-face or...I guess ... face to jaws with a huge centipede. The thing had to be a yard long and white as a ghost and it was coming right at my mouth and nose and, I tell you, I couldn’t exactly step aside, there was no place to go, and the thing had a head like a baseball bat with these weird razor-sharp shears going back and forth, back and forth, and, I’m telling you, the thing just kept coming, right at me and, then, it climbs to the side and tries to go around me, but that doesn’t work so the thing slides right into the collar of my shirt..."
Traven paused. "You see how I’ve got the collar of my shirt buttoned-up right under my chin."
"I see that," the reporter said.
"Ever since that day," Traven said. "I keep buttoned-up because...well, just because... I mean that creature got in my clothes right next to my skin and slid along the whole length of my body, all those little spiky legs, and, then, emerged, crept right out under the cuff of my pants."
"This isn’t true," the young woman said. "There aren’t any centipedes a yard long."
"No," Traven said. "You caught me there. I’ve been exaggerating. I think the centipede was maybe 15 or 16 inches long. That’s what it was."
The young woman shuddered. She slid her baseball cap back around to the front to cast a shadow on her face.
"It sounds awful," she said.
"It is awful."
The young woman looked dejected. She put away her notepad, shook his hand, and walked back to her SUV.
After she was gone, Traven went to his Suburban and bounced down the jeep track to the road. He waited patiently a little uphill from a little yellow CAT pushing gravel with its front-end loader bucket. The dust-smeared pilot truck passed by, a little Hyundai pickup, followed by a dozen cars northbound from the base to the freeway. Traven pulled over the rough, gouged shoulder onto the road, falling into line behind the last vehicle.
A quarter mile down the road, over the rise in the land, the single lane procession crossed the concrete bridge over the dry gulch where rockhounds hunted for malachite and geodes and lapis lazuli. On the flat terrace near the bridge, a dozen cars and trucks were parked. Traven had never seen so many vehicles in that place and, at first, his heart beat at an accelerated pace – the hills were full of people searching for his cave. Then, he noticed the blue chemical toilet next to the parked cars and realized that these were the vehicles the road construction workers had driven to the job site. He sighed heavily.
The pilot truck veered off to the side. Beyond the bridge, the road had already been widened – two lanes coming and two lanes going. The pack of cars divided into those willing to speed, those daring to outspeed the speeders, and the vehicles content with traveling at the posted limit. Traven was exhausted and so he drove the speed limit.
Throughout the summer, Traven rose early and drove with his border collie to the mountain park. At first, he hiked the short trails around the visitor center. The air was heavy and dew sparkled on the thorns of the saguaro and, sometimes, his dog strained against his leash, anxious to harass the javelina croaking and snorting at them from the thorny dry ravines on the hillside. The place became crowded as the day advanced and the parking lot at the trailheads filled up by 8:30 am and so it was best to come just after sunrise, before the sun was too high overhead and the desert pavement radiating heat like the inside of an oven.
After his morning hike, Traven drove back into town. He ordered a milk shake with fries at the In-and-Out Burger, sharing the fries with his dog. Gradually, his strength increased and, by the end of the summer, he could walk several miles without becoming tired. In mid-October, Traven’s PET scan showed that he remained cancer-free.
One morning in November, Traven drove to the cave. He no longer thought of the cavern as Xanadu. Rather, it was nameless, something inaccessible to which he had devoted his life, more a memory than a place.
Above the sinkhole, the hills were empty, nothing stirring beneath a lead-grey sky tightly nailed down over the desert. The crater smoked like a fumarole, diffuse columns of mist rising over the cave’s opening. Traven opened the gate that he had installed around the property, the metal rails cold, almost electric, against his hand and, then, drove his SUV to fog-capped sinkhole. Downhill, traffic shot by on the four-lane highway between the interstate exit and the army base.
He slipped into the sinkhole and, crouching, slid down the rocky slope to the place where the blowhole was hidden behind a loose mound of book-sized stones. The beam of Traven’s flashlight cut through the haze in the chamber and illumined the pale white dust whirling around him. They had stacked the stone in a disorderly way, hoping to simulate natural rock-fall, and the barrier collapsed easily enough when he removed some of the larger rocks. The black hole leading into the cave was exposed, a naked socket in the limestone wall exhaling an odor of mud and lime-water, a musty no-outlet smell that Traven associated with the slow accretion of time, seconds heaped up to become minutes and, then, hours and days and years, and, at last, millennia: a dark, dusty, defleshing, buried-alive smell that was not rot but the essential pre-condition for rot. In the probing beam of the flashlight, the opening seemed surprisingly large, a neat passage bored down into the rock.
Traven turned around and climbed up the slope to the funnel-like entry to the sinkhole. On the surface, he rummaged in the back of his vehicle and found his old, battered hardhat. Traven said to himself that if the LED mounted on the hardhat didn’t light, he would hike the perimeter of his property, check on the "No Trespassing" postings, and, then, go home. He tilted the LED upward and, then, switched it on. Beneath the dust, the light shone clear and bright. Traven checked the spare halogen bulb in its receptacle – to his surprise, it looked intact and, when he tested it, lit as well. In a black 40 gallon garbage bag, Traven found his knee and elbow pads, satisfyingly scuffed but still intact.
Under the crater’s funnel, Traven scuttled up to the blowhole and tilted forward to inspect the black oval dent in the wall. The cave blew its breath into his mouth. Traven’s heart was beating very hard against his ribs and he felt slightly dizzy – it was the way that he felt the first time after his diagnosis when he was slid into the round sepulcher of the MRI machine. Only a fool enters a wild cave alone and Traven thought briefly about Floyd Collins pinned in the crooked passageway of the cave in Kentucky. – I will just put my head inside, Traven thought to himself, look around for five minutes and, then, come out.
His shoulders were now the widest part of his body and he wormed through the blowhole without any difficulty. After the constricted space, the darkness expanded around him explosively and the beam of his light, thrown out against the darkness, caught crystal, caught flowstone, caught a drizzle of falling water, each droplet flaring like a diamond against the blackness, and, then, was lost in the silent distance of the big room. Then, it all returned to him, muscle memory of the inclines and drop-offs in the room and he saw the stark yellow ribbon, the crime-scene tape marking the optimum pathway among the formations studding the floor. With the tape as his guide, there couldn’t be any harm venturing a little more deeply into the cave.
Traven followed the corridor of yellow tape up an incline to where the overhanging ceiling opened to a high dome. He looked up and the probe of his light caught the forest of slick spear points all aimed down at him. Water infused with ancient stone dripped into his eyes. The tape-route zigzagged across the cave’s floor, using big, bland slabs of rock-fall as stepping stones through the wet lagoon of sculpted flowstone and quartzite crystal. He could walk upright and the tip of the LED beam went ahead of him, now sweeping across the floor, now lost in the black distance. The nursery roost overhead murmured to him and he heard many leathery wings rustling and, sometimes, a bat would fall from overhead like a falling leaf, dropping black into the black mound of guano, the air all poisonous with ammonia fumes that drove the tape-trail to spiral down in the darkness, reversing its direction so that he had to crouch at first among sphinxes of flowstone and, then, crawl head down among the knobs of stalagmites, a long painful slog to the other big chamber tilting down to the cave’s mud bowels.
Traven recalled that Wolf’s first wife had been a soldier in the military police and the yellow crime-scene tape leading him downward between the underbrush of delicate formations was something that his friend had found stored in a kitchen cabinet. He and Wolf had placed the tape together, many years ago, in their first enthusiasm of exploration, marking the optimum route through the cavern – it was important to conserve the cave’s wonderful formation and the trail was designed to lead visitors downward without bringing them into contact with the more delicate formations. The narrow twisting corridor between the two big rooms was crooked and steep and the crawl tired Traven. He took a deep breath and was dizzy and, so, he sat for awhile with his head tilted forward and his eyes closed. While he rested with his eyes closed, he felt Wolf at his side. Wolf was breathing heavily through clenched teeth and Traven could smell the faint scent of his deodorant dissolving in his sweat. Wolf put his hand on Traven’s shoulder to encourage him to continue. Wolf was smiling, no longer underground but atop a white conical peak – he had an ice-axe in his hand and he waved it above a chaos of peaks and fractured glaciers.
Traven felt thirsty and he was sweating, but the yellow tape urged him deeper into the cave. He scrambled down a broken and irregular slope to a brown stone pier thrust out over the amphitheater filled with mud. The tape defined a path past some encrustations of cave popcorn, little crystal blossoms the color of rose quartz on the stone slabs. A tangle of helictite fogged an overhang and, then, the tape barrier drooped down and stopped at the edge of the mud. The room smelled of rot and the mud looked organic, the detritus of a swamp. There was no need to mark the path across the mud flat because the trail incised across the mire by Traven and Wolf was still exactly as they had left it a quarter of a century before – each of their steps was engraved in the mud forming two parallel trenches that passed between the glistening syringe-needles of the soda straws fallen from the ceiling and embedded in the muck. Traven slid down to the edge of the mud lake and rested there. This was the very bottom of the cave.
When he closed his eyes, Traven saw Wolf again, not a vision but a memory – he recalled how they had crossed the mud, each step an agony because the muck filled up around their feet and calves and thighs, holding them tight to the buttocks, mocking them with an obscene sucking noise as they struggled free of its clasp. Wolf was smiling over his shoulder, encouraging Traven to follow him. The sweat streamed down their faces and salted their eyes. The cave had been in him so long, concealed in the hollow beneath his heart that, now, Traven had the peculiar feeling that the darkness and the formations and the unceasing drizzle of water was both inside and outside. The cave was all around him but it was also under his ribs, the same size in that place as around him, and Traven sensed himself, like a worm, moving through a darkness that was hidden inside of him, a tiny, inconsequential figure in the belly of the great darkness that was his body, the cave concealed as it had always been and as it would always be within a fabric of lies and deceit and indirection, and, yet, at the same time a very palpable exterior all around him, a vast cathedral-like landscape where he was now sitting, his legs dangling over the black mud.
He turned his head and saw something that riveted him to the spot. The beam cast out and reeled back to his eyes another track through the mud. A dozen yards to the side of the two parallel trenches that Traven and Wolf had cut into the mire, he saw another path – a single set of footprints piercing the crust on the mud and, then, step by step leading away, crossing the concave basin in a completely different direction. Overhead the great spire of Kubla Khan rose up to suture the ceiling to the bottom of the cave but this was invisible in Traven’s head-lamp. Instead, he stood up, reeling dangerously and almost falling, the beam of his light capturing evidence of an interloper in the cave, someone else underground, another explorer. Some cave roses crushed under his boots as he staggered toward the stone rim of the mud lake. The trace was unmistakable: footprints marking someone else’s stride across the belly of the cave.
At first, Traven wondered if Wolf had come into the cave during the years when he was too fat to pass through the entrance. But he and Wolf had scouted to the very edges of mud basin, explored its perimeter for leads and there would have been no reason to cross the flat in a different direction – no reason and, indeed, this would have been perilous for a man exploring alone. Wolf had always been very cautious and, so, Traven was convinced that the new set of boot marks pocking the mud was from someone else, even, perhaps, another claimant to the cavern. His mind reeled and Traven felt dizzy and nauseated. Perhaps his whole life, and Wolf’s life as well, had been in vain.
Traven didn’t recall reversing his steps and scrambling up the slippery rocks to the upper room. Somehow, he deviated from the tape-marked trail and was briefly lost and panic made his heart throb and burn in his chest. Then, his head-lamp beam caught the yellow ribbon framing the proper path, high above the dead-end of a dank sump rimmed with crystals the shape of sharks’ teeth. Traven cut his forearm and hands hauling himself out of the pit. He found the blowhole and wiggled through it and, then, came to the surface.
– How long have I been underground? The condensation from the blowhole had spread across the landscape. He was enveloped in a pale mist that blurred the outlines of his SUV and made the cactus along the jeep track seem half-formed and unfamiliar. When he latched his steel gate, the metal was dripping with water.
The desert basin was invisible. The mountains behind him showed snow crusted on their grey upper heights and they were shaggy with fog.
Traven reached the State Highway. – Who had invaded his cave? He looked in his rear-view mirror, half-expecting some interloper to appear pursuing him down the sloping, rutted lane behind. For a moment, he startled – but the mud-splashed, appalled face in the rear-view mirror was his own. He thought that he would have to drive to Bisbee as soon as possible and search the tract index for new real estate transactions on the mountain.
Traven turned left onto the two-lane highway in the direction of the interstate. A semi-truck marked with the golden arches of McDonald’s hit him head-on. Traven had forgotten that the road had been widened to four lanes, two coming and two going. The McDonald’s truck smashed into his SUV in the left, passing lane of the state highway bound for the military base. The impact killed Traven and threw his SUV into the gouged-out median. The truck was damaged a little and jackknifed across the right-of-way, but the driver was not seriously injured. Traven’s spelunking helmet shot like a cannon-ball through a shattered window and was found 80 feet from the crash. The helmet was intact and its LED lamp still operable. The sun came out and cleared the mist. The State Trooper who retrieved the battered, turquoise-colored hard hat from road’s shoulder looked at it curiously. When he switched the lamp on, its wan beam shone faintly against the brightness of the day.