A Newbie's First Cave

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A Newbie's First Cave
Location High Guads
Author Sam McKee
Date April 17-19 2015

I packed up my things on Thursday evening, much later than I had expected. It had been several years since I had camped out and I was very excited. I had needed a break from the daily grind. Friday rolled around and before I knew it we were loaded into Joseph’s truck and headed down the road. Sitting in the back seat afforded me some time to think about what I thought I could expect and what I may have forgotten…a jacket, damn. That’s not going to slow me down, not this weekend.


The Journey Begins

We drove from Midland to Carlsbad for a few extra things, batteries and some pee bottles (even trip leaders forget things). Once back on the road we make straight for camp. I think Joseph was feeding off of Morgan and I’s fever pitch excitement. We start making the climb up the side of the mountain to our first stop. We get out, take a deep breath of fresh crisp air and follow our trip leader down the trail towards our first cave, Cottonwood. We come around the corner and there it is. Massive. Majestic. Present. Although the cave was closed to our nature of exploration, due to bats migrating and having pups I believe, the experience of sitting on the rocks outside the entrance and staring into the world that I had come to be a part of was a turning point that I will never forget as long as I am able to remember. The peace that I felt when sitting at the mouth of this wonderful place was like seeing my child in my arms for the first time. I am still seeing it as I write these words. After a few more minutes of reflection and centering my soul, it was time to head for camp and set up. We hop back in the truck, after we catch our breath from the hike back, and we head down the trail toward Texas Camp. Joseph whips the truck into place and out we clamber like children who have been in the car to long, are we there yet? Out of the truck, we unpack and scout out our little slice of heaven on the ground for the next few days. The wind has picked up and it would appear that we may have underestimated the chill factor by oh A LOT! My dull mind had become quickened at each blast of mountain air to the fact that I had left my jacket in my garage where it would be safe and WARM without me. Morgan and Joseph have set up camp near the edge of the grass and I found a perfect little spot between some trees and started setting up, taking time to meet my little black multi-legged neighbors which were not too happy about the racket going on around their rocks and tunnels. I move over a few more inches and now camp is set.

Cave Mom

Once camp was set I needed to see some of the surrounding areas to get familiar with the landmarks and roads. I had heard about the Dragon’s Teeth or Devil’s Teeth just down the road so off I went, making sure it was ok with our TL, didn’t want to have anyone thinking I had R U NN O F T or something. Permission granted I make my way around the bend and come across a Firestone’s worst nightmare. These small boulders are not only dangerous for tires/undercarriages but they are downright hazardous for the citified weak ankled me as well! Now satisfied with my short walk to get the blood flowing, not that it wasn’t already, I head back to the camp. The closer I get the more I can smell the onions and sausages cooking over the camp stove and it is a welcomed scent that puts a pep in my shoe. I had almost reached the camp when I heard a long horn blast and looked ahead to see a car coming down the road, rounding a curve to avoid some water and pull into camp. Out jumps a woman who sees me and promptly asked me my age. Being raised in a Southern household I reply “37 mam” and am greeted by open arms and a hug. I have met our cave mom, Lee Ann. She continues to move through the rest of the gang to meet Morgan and say hello to Joseph. We all stand around and talk during the extended greeting process that helps to reaffirm even the shyest of people that this is a sign of a very caring person and it becomes clear to me why she is the cave mom. I like her instantly. We move back to the cooking stove, which becomes the hang out for the evening, and continue to reveal our lives to one another much like placing cement on a foundation for a new house. The food is now ready and goes quickly down the hatch. No surprise there. Once the mess has been cleaned up and the bellies are full we continue to talk as we say goodbye the light and welcome the darkness. Once we have had our fill of words and laughs we split up and hit the hay. Sleep is hard to come by at first not only from the excitement but also the chill in the air, not to mention the occasional rock that I missed while setting up my tent. Can’t get em all!

Meeting William, Tammy and David

With the sun not quite coming through my tent but seeing that it is here, I crawl out of my tent and walk around for a few minutes barefoot. It helps me feel more connected to my experiences when my toes can appreciate the new dirt too. It also wakes you up faster. I stand at the back of the truck and notice that we have new arrivals in camp! Overnight William, Tammy and David had made it! After getting my boots on, it’s time to join the rest of the bunch. With the first night behind us and breakfast now on the stove, I am beyond excited by what is in my future. My first cave! And not the sidewalked handrailed hurried group shuffle (nothing wrong with that though, kids gotta get into this stuff somehow) but a real honest to goodness gonna get down in the dirt, might get stuck, whats that hole over there, oh cool it’s a snake, get mad or get scared, get a new scar kinda cave! I scarf my food down and we all start to get our gear ready. We check out list of items needed in our packs and once confirmed, we all head out. I am at this point introduced to the step log. Off we went with step log in hand. Being newbies to this, Morgan and I are now incharge of leading the group to the first cave via the step log. I have to admit that I felt very connected to the group when they said that we were going to read and lead the way. I felt important and a part of the trip the entire time from that moment on. Down the path we go! “That kinda looks familiar” are the words I keyed on while doing my best not to lead us to our doom. What a BLAST! Well maybe not so fast. William stepped in and calmly and cooly hinted that we should go “this” way. Marriage has taught me many things, most of which is that I am wrong most of the time. We take off down the trail. We marvel for a moment and we head from the main trail and down the side of the hill towards the first cave. Black.


We come down the side of the hill and turn just slightly and there it is. A hole. It is Black. Then entrance to the fist cave I have even gone into (although I have been to Carlsbad, Natural Bridge Caverns and Caverns of Sonora, I consider this to be my FIRST cave) Larger than I had expected but smaller than I was used to (basing that off of Carlsbad and other caves I had seen as a child). It was captivating. What’s down there? What lives in there? What will I tell my kids when I go home and they see this look of wonderment and aww on my face? (And they did!) We regroup and begin to put on our gear. While I put on my headlamp, knee pads and elbow pads Joseph announces that the lock is not locked. From what I have learned typically each cave’s main entrance, which has been recognized by the US Forest Service, has a gate and a lock. This is to keep out those who might not be able to get back out and to help keep the cave in as close to a pristine state as possible. Joseph opens the gate and in we go. Into the darkness. Into…Black. Down the entrance and into a world that is unknown. Of all of the things I felt while inside fear was not ever one of them. Peace and amazement left no room for fear. We moved through the corridors and rooms as a team allowing fresh eyes to soak up the mystery of a world seen by so few. The formations that a person might see in the Carlsbad Cavern are magnified when they are literally in your face and you can see the details of what created them. Every time I moved my head lamp (thank you William for letting me use that!) it was more amazing that the last. Each second filled with anticipation of what was around the shadowy bend or darkened corner. Every second I was able to spend in the darkness removed the same from my soul and replaced it with beauty and wonder. So many emotions that I felt, some of which I have to keep inside, just like each cave has its own formations and flow. Those are particular to those caves alone. The sounds and lack thereof. The smells of the cave. The humidity on my skin. The feeling of my boots stepping onto foreign earth. The power of knowing that I was not alone in this experience. These will not be forgotten. We moved deeper into the cave and though I was able to take many pictures they only capture images in still form. They do not capture the memory. They do not capture the emotion. Those dwell inside my soul forever now in a place created by a hole. A Black hole.

Little Beauty

Once we were all accounted for at the entrance to Black, we made our way back towards the main path. We regrouped and once again reviewed our step log to start the search for the next opportunity to be amazed…Little Beauty. As we walked down the path towards Little Beauty I was reminded of not only the beauty of the caves but of the surrounding ridgelines, valleys and hills. So much to see! I had to remind myself to keep an eye on the path ahead from looking around so much. If that didn’t do the trick a misplaced boot did it just fine. We make our way over to Little Beauty. The name can be a little deceiving and when I first heard it I wondered which description was going to be filled. Either a cave of little beauty or a cave of beauty that was small in size. In order to appreciate the awesomeness of a fuller cave, you must also appreciate the ones that may not be as spectacular. However, after finding a hole in the ceiling and boosting Leann up into it, I think there may be more that Little Beauty has to offer. Still I was thankful for having been able to eat my lunch with my friends inside her shaded room. I will visit her again. Often I hope.

Raiders of the Lost…Subway?

During the course of our lunch at Little Beauty, it became apparent that something was not as it should be. Only after a few moments of tense postulation did we regretfully realize the calamity that had befallen our convoy. A lunch was missing! That most precious of little buddies had been left behind! So after most of us had enjoyed a refreshing beverage and refueling, we disembarked from Little Beauty and we journeyed post haste in an effort to locate and rescue the separated sandwich. With the enthusiasm of Mel Gibson in Braveheart, we (and by we I mean me) set out with a resounding “They may take our lives, but they will never take…OUR LUNCHES!!!” Once we had arrived our devoted cave mom, whom was famished beyond recognition, announced a challenge for either of the 2 newbies to retrieve the refreshing hand snack from the clutches of doom. Seeing as how I had almost lead our group a stray and possibly to a most certain early demise but misinterpreting the step log, I choose to accept the challenge and sprang like a beat chicken, racing down the trail back towards Black for the portion in peril. At long last the entrance was reached. A quick survey disclosed the location of the left behind loaf and at once it was in my grasp and raised high in victory! For the Subway may not have been fresh, but that day it would be eaten by whom it had been made for being eaten by! (huh?)

P-Traps and Peach Cobbler

After dinner had been consumed in mass quantities by all parties, we collected around the tailgate of Joseph’s truck for conversation and storytelling. As we sat together and began to open up our lives to one another, as is the unwritten code of camping, William began to speak. He talked about a trip he had taken and of a particular part of a cave he called the “p-trap”. Listening to his reflection of the events that occurred that day/night I could not help but put myself next to his words and imagined being in that place with him. Out of respect for him I will omit the story in its entirety, if you want to hear it you will have to ask him in person. It is his story. I will say that what I learned from that sharing, I feel I will have to use in my own life one day. I hope I can stay as calm as he did. Thank you for sharing that William. After his story had finished and we had all sat in awe of his words, he got up and moved back to his camp across the way. It was rumored that another one of William’s treats lie in store for us to enjoy. He returned shortly with a cast iron dutch oven that was emitting a small familiar to those who are avid campers and desert carnivores alike. He had made a peach cobbler. For those who may be reading this and perhaps are too young to know what a dutch oven is, it’s a magical thing where the most amazing deserts and goodies come from and is a particular favorite cooking piece of those who find happiness in being outside. Dutch oven in tow, William walked into the middle of the circle and placed it on the ground in front of us for all to view. The lid was removed and the aroma of childhood swept across the faces of those nearby. For a brief moment in time we were all 5 year olds again. Once the bowls and utensils were handed out, the feast began. Tammy took the spoon and placed some into her bowl. I'm not sure if Leann took the next round or not because this is where it gets a little fuzzy. Like I said, for a moment I was a 5 year old kid again. I DO know that when I hand my 5 year old son a spoon with a nibbler of desert deliciousness he takes the spoon, no matter what the spoon may be used for and gobbles it down like a pelican after a speckled trout! Which is exactly what I, a 37 year old man did too. I had turned off my ears when they had said “this is the serving spoon” and failed to notice that it was twice the size of the other spoons being used by everyone else in present company and stuck that sucker in my mouth and left nothing on it except a shiny reflection of a man who’s secret addiction for sweets has now been completely exposed. I regret nothing.

Wait….Read that last part again!

The standing rule of thumb is to get up when the sun hits your tent. That is unless you are worn out and make the declaration the previous night that a later time of rousting will be set. After a hearty breakfast and check of our gear, we are ready for the hike to Cave of the Belle. As before with step log in hand, the task of navigator has fallen to Morgan and I. We set out. This trip was not quite like the one before. This was the first time that any of us had ever looked for this cave. I had heard that a few times before they tried to find it and were not successful. I wondered if this time would be any different. The step log was a bit more complicated in that there was more compass headings. I am not yet confident in using a compass which is a problem that will soon be remedied. We hike the path as best we can and take readings at each point we reach according to the step log. We find the points that are listed and make good progress along our way. Joseph finds the cairn that will be leading us to the Rock Tree. We get to the cairn and begin looking for the Rock Tree which is visible (kinda, sorta, not really) from the cairn. But we are not deterred and make way along the ridge and saddle toward the end, the whole time looking for the Rock Tree and just about when we have run out of trees, there it is. We gather at it for a few minutes to catch our breath and take another look at the step log. I read the last instruction and down we go. Way way way down. We descend the ridgeline to what was thought to be the elevation of the cave entrance. Once there we spread out and begin looking for the entrance. We look. We look. And we look some more. William shouts over to me to read the last line of the step log once more. As soon as I finish the sentence he asked me to say the last part of it again. After hearing it he lets us know that we have gone way too far down. We must climb back up. We must find this cave! After a steep uphill hike, we gather around what we hope is the area of the entrance to the cave. The step log had made clear that the entrance was surrounded by a plant, which none of us knew what it looked like. Instead of getting down about it, I chuckled to myself and thought another piece of the puzzle has been found and that means one step closer to the goal! So we split up and started searching the hillside for this type of plant which we did not know what looked like and threw luck to the winds. While clambering around the rocks and watching Morgan take a tumble into the brush and rocks (which scared the %*#@ out of me!!) I managed to get a thorn from a cactus embedded into my shin just above my sock line. This could be bad. I hiked over to a rock outcrop and after clearing the area for snakes and other cactus, I sat down. I lifted my jeans and saw a small tip of a thorn protruding from my skin. Having stuck myself with several objects, both metal and wood, growing up I knew that when I removed this irritant that (depending on how long the thorn was) that the blood was going to start pouring out of the hole. Turns out I was right. The almost 1” sucker came right out and so did the blood. But as twisted as it may sound, I liked it. I came here looking for a fresh scar or two and I had one. Once the bleeding stopped, which was not much surprisingly, I got off my butt and continued looking for the entrance. I happened to notice that there was a really pretty flower blooming down the hill off to the right a ways and I decided to go check it out. I took a couple of steps and just happen to turn to my right looking for another foot hold when I saw it, THE ENTRANCE! It was a small hole in the hillside and surrounded by bushes! I have to say it was a really cool feeling when I found that and shouted to the rest of the group!

Cave of the Belle

We gathered down by the entrance and prepared our gear for the last cave of the trip. Once our trip leader Joseph opened the cave gate, we slipped inside and off we went. There was a lot of formation in this cave! Everywhere you looked it was another type! We scale down from the first room and down into the second using a hand line. We came across a rattlesnake down the in the second room which was also partially illuminated by a second entrance! Everyone that wanted to go down went and then we looked around for the 3rd room. A passage was found near the floor and through the hole we went! Finally my first taste of crawling in a hole! Got down on my belly and moved over a stalagmite and into position for crawling. It was amazing!! I felt no fear or panic at all and was quite comfortable honestly. I got into the 3rd room and took a look around at all that it had to show me. It is amazing to see what has taken so long to create and be able to see it in person. After a brief walk around the 3rd room, I started getting hungry and thirsty. I followed David back up the wall and out the passage into the second room. The snake had not moved and seemed to be getting used to our intrusion as it was not rattling anymore. None the less it was not giving up its ground. I moved over to the hand line, read the rocks for my hands/feet placement and started up the wall. I was shocked at how easy I was able to move up the wall and feel secure in doing so. I was worried that I might break a formation and come crashing down. Once into the first room, I grabbed my pack and headed out the entrance for some hydration and lunch on the hillside! Sitting there and visiting with Leann while the clouds passed by overhead was just what the dr ordered.

Going home

We hiked back up the hillside from the entrance to regroup and catch our breath. Once we had our feet under us, we started the trip back to camp. This was a longer hike and given the added hike up and down the hill, I think everyone was getting tired. I know I was. I had not had much of a chance to get to know Tammy during this trip so I decided to take this time and do just that. I walked alongside her discussing all kinds of different things from kids to caves and sharing my past to invite her to do the same. I regret that I wasn’t able to spend more time getting to know her but what I have learned by being around her is that she is an incredibly caring and sweet lady. Her smile is reflective of her personality and caring demeanor. I look forward to being able to spend more time visiting with her on future trips. When we got back to the camp, it was a quick good bye (for now) as we had already packed up before we left for the Belle. Between the handshakes and the hugs I felt like I was saying good bye to family that I would see again soon. I look forward to more stories of the road and becoming closer to each of them. As I forced my worn out body into the passenger seat of the Joseph’s truck and he turned it back towards the road home I began to realize just how much this experience had changed my life. I had done something. I had taken a dream that started out from a documentary seen long ago and when the invitation arose I jumped at it. I had chosen to get out of my comfort zone and seek new boundaries and experiences. I will never forget this trip as long as I can remember. The sites. The sounds. The smells. The trust. The cave. These eyes are forever changed.