Article

In a Cavern, In a Canyon

Thor Sigstedt | Santa Fe Monthly - October 7, 2014

"Excavating for a Mine, Lived a Miner, Forty-niner… and his daughter , Clementine…. drove she ducklings to the water, every morning just at nine." ♫ ♫♪

A few extraordinary things happened just now; we opened our mouths and made a sound from deep down inside our body; from vocal chords in the throat that open and shut like a frenetic steel trap, making sounds we interpret as words and music and air/breath is moving through as we do it. This ‘sounds’ an awful lot like a cave, like we have around here, say, Sandia Cave near Placitas. I have ‘darkened’ a few caves since childhood and have fascination for them, so I climbed straight up off the narrow dirt pass (later found the easy trail that slants over to it). You ascend an amazing spiral staircase/steel cage to the mouth and then command a view of the valley and plains below. No gold here; just soot and graffiti; perhaps deeper down the narrow throat, as a cave’s often pregnant with history, origin stories, bones and ‘things’

The first cave I remember was used by my intentional-poverty-oriented family as a refrigerator! near Oakhurst, California. It was dark and damp and cold and housed an occasional serpent, as I recall as a 5 year old; searching for that shape in the semi-darkness by the glistening walls. The next was on the cliff near the Cove Beach in La Jolla and we used to daringly clamber down. It was small and charming; you could hunker in it and peruse the Pacific Ocean in all its pulsating magic and be dry. I found my first camera in there; a Kodak Pony IV, which I carried to China in 1971; took lots of pictures with it, including one of the agricultural labor hero, Chen Yung Guei, next to a cave that he insisted on showing us on an impromptu tour into the deep countryside of the area, where, in the village up the road, a National Geographically un-clad young, Clementinesque woman and her father appeared and I held out my hand to shake…. they did not have a clue as to what I was doing! The cave held a coffin, surprisingly, I assume, for shelter and cool preservation, then Chen insisted on getting out his pistol and shot a few rounds off next to the cave, the pine box and our bus; unforgettable images for a 19 year-old!

I was not unfamiliar with colorful people and their ‘caverns’, as my grandmother’s compadre was Rufus Porter, ‘Hard Rock Poet’, from Cripple Creek and Victor, Colorado. He labored in the gold mines there even into the late ‘1950s, also modelled with the obligatory recalcitrant pack donkey for the huge billboard, arm pointing south; bold letters said: ‘Yonder is Cripple Creek, World’s Greatest Gold Camp’ . He gave me the 50 cent tour of the mine handed me, to take home, a bag of grey powdery dirt (gold ore!) in a cloth sack. He also wrote a daily piece called “Local Scene” for the Gazette, penning local color and such (chillingly, not unlike this here ‘column’! ).

I had tried spelunking near the Cave of the Winds, but then a bad–fall– cries–for–help–in–the dark- broken–leg- search–and–rescue–hairpin–bend- so–no–use–for–stretcher accident happened in the dark way down there; that pretty much darkened my interest for ‘deep down.' I preferred playing stalagmites and stalactites of Carlsbad Caverns like a xylophone (they encouraged us kids to do this back then), before hordes of tourists, like the bats, changed things. I like the little caves around the ranch here, all conjuring images of foxes and some actually housing them ; ♫ ♫♪ ‘Fox went out on a chilly night, …. Grabbed the grey goose by the neck…. Ran till he came to his nice warm den and there were the little ones, 8, 9, 10… They never had such a supper in their lives and the little ones chewed on the bones o….’ Even rattlesnakes around here have secret limestone caverns where dozens commingle; enjoying each other’s company. I often think, in these years of drought, of the perhaps many intricate caverns that make up our baffling and astounding watershed’s storage system.

We humans did well; carving the pumice near Atomic City into south facing passive solar homes (perhaps Mesa Verde taught them a lesson; being a little off-solar-orientation, deciding to leave after only 75 years!). One might think of a cave as just a hole in the wall until it hails hard or you need to hide, seek or sleep; then they are perfect for the occasion; interpreting thoughts of Socrates Allegory; the perfect form might be a miner drawing beautiful animals on the sacred cave wall and singing….Oh my darlin’…! Just ask any St. John’s student on this 50th anniversary celebration in Santa Fe….or get out with the ‘rosy fingers of dawn’ and take some ducks to the river below; you know – to play! Happy Speluncking!