The accidental spelunker
entrance to the cave
Over dinner last night while discussing our adventures with Davito and Sheila, the subject of a cave just west of San Ysidro came up. I’d heard of this place with its underground river from different sources over the years. Davito said that he hadn’t been there for nearly fifteen years but remembered that the cave offered exciting spelunking opportunities, and just by chance, he was looking for something to do tomorrow. Yikes!
We set off at 10:30 this morning—Davito well equipped as usual, and me with a broken headlight duct-taped to my hockey helmet. A lifelong claustrophobic, I have never had any interest in caving. I figured that Sheila’s stories about the tight tunnels were probably exaggerated, but still, I was more than a little bit nervous.
Davito’s resume includes river running, rock climbing, and, most recently, skydiving. His appetite for adventure is considerably more extreme than mine, but he has always seemed competent and cautious.
Along the way, he entertained me with stories about the time he and a friend got lost in this same cave and nearly ran out of battery power. (We had brought two flashlights each.)
Upon arrival at the south side of a bridge just west of San Ysidro on US 550, we parked the car and walked up the side of a hill to where the cave entrance used to be, but now it was covered over by construction of the new highway. A reprieve? No, we found another way in just around the hill to the south in an arroyo that goes nowhere.
Davito explained that Alabaster Cave was formed by drainage that finds its way underground at this point and eats away at the soft gypsum formation creating an extensive network of tunnels that eventually lead to a pool on the other side of the hill.
Total darkness soon surrounded our passage between polished gypsum walls. We picked our way by trial and error until we came to a passage so narrow that Davito had to turn his head sideways, extend one arm in front, drag the other behind, and push with his toes. Panic gripped me when I tried to follow. I thought I might befoul this little corner of Hell as I backed out and refused to go any further. Up ahead, though, I saw Davito’s light and found that it was easier to climb over the tunnel.
Just after that there was another entrance to the cave. Another reprieve? No again. Davito said that we had missed the passage—cut by water—that would take us deeper on to our ill-defined final destination. We had to go back and find it.
Davito suggested that I go first because it would add to the intensity of my first spelunking adventure, and besides, I was smaller and if I got stuck he could pull my leg back out. I suspected that he’d been pulling my leg all along and that he knew exactly where we were. It seemed better for him to lead the way.
At one point, my guide could be heard huffing and puffing while making ominous digging sounds. When I caught up, he explained that he was just trying to deflate his lungs enough to make it through and that he had dug the crack out to make it easier for me. Now we sat in a chamber with lights off to experience the total darkness.
“Do you know where we are now?” I asked for the twentieth time. “We’re somewhere deep in the bowels of the earth. Man, this is sweet.” he said.
Something churned deep in my bowels. I wanted to go back, but Davito said that we were committed now.
How could I have allowed myself to be lured into this situation?
Davito emerges from the cave, after wading through hip-deep ice water
The floor of the cave dampened and the air seemed to get fresher as the passages got bigger. That was a good sign, but then we encountered a number of recent cave-ins. Finally, there was daylight ahead, reflecting off a pool of water. Salvation! But no, Davito wanted to go back and find a higher tunnel that would spare him an encounter with his phobia, which is cold water. (He wears a dry suit on a hot day on the river, just in case.)
After a halfhearted attempt, I insisted that we swim if need be. A hundred feet of numbing-cold, crotch-deep water seemed a small price to pay for another look at that unrelenting blue New Mexico sky.
The entire quarter-mile caving experience took a little over an hour, but it seemed much longer.
It’s amazing how close by an adventure can be. I’m back home later the same afternoon watching the playoffs on TV. My spelunking days are over.
The thrill of vacation ... the agony upon return
Taking our first extended vacation in several years as a family was exhausting and exhilarating. There were so many details to work out in terms of flights, accommodations, who was going to feed the dogs while we were gone, and making sure bills were paid, wills current, and the mail stopped. I was worn out prior to leaving, but after writing explicit directions to no fewer than five people, I was ready to hit the trail.
Fifteen years ago I heard someone mention Belize as the place to dive. Ever since, I had wanted to go there. It sounded exotic and enticing. So, in honor of our fiftieth birthdays, my son’s seventeenth, and my daughter’s twentieth, and using any other excuses we could find, we left the traditional Christmas holidays behind and headed for the Caribbean.
It was all we could have asked for (except for maybe a few more days of eighty-degree weather and a little less rain). We danced on Christmas Eve and ate spaghetti on Christmas Day! (Both firsts!) We swam with manta rays and nurse sharks. We explored the Mayan ruins at Altun Ha and combed the islands of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker from end to end and side to side, on foot, bike, and behind the wheel of a spiffed-up golf cart. We laughed, cried (it was the first Christmas without my mother, who passed away in February), and made friends with the natives and a smorgasbord of vacationers from Holland, Canada, Columbia, and Wisconsin! (Lots of Wisconsiners there. Can you blame them?)
I met my children as young adults and liked what I saw. I met my husband again and liked what I saw. I met myself and saw what I liked. It’s amazing what we lose of ourselves and the people closest to us as we go through the hectic paces of our daily routines. My kids thought I was drunk the entire time because I was laughing and having fun. Too bad they don’t see me stress-free more often! They would have been able to recognize my natural "high"!
We never left the island of Ambergris Caye (thirty miles long and less than a mile wide) except for daily excursions. My husband went fishing twice: reef fishing where every cast resulted in a catch, and bone fishing where the two fish he caught made the effort memorable and provided much fodder for fish stories regarding the "one that got away." My daughter, who usually hates the great outdoors, was quite the sport and was game to do everything at least once. My son made friends with almost everyone and is quite the dancer, much to my surprise and delight!
The island is beautiful. Very primitive in a sense but very cosmopolitan at the same time. Influences from the United States, Britain, Mexico and Central America result in a diverse and well-adjusted mix of Creoles, Latinos, and natives. It is an English-speaking community and the locals are appreciative of the tourism trade, which has replaced fishing as their main source of income. The growing pains are evident in a lot of ways (no deals to be had in shops, restaurants, or real estate), and made me wish we’d gone there fifteen years ago, except that my kids would have been two and five and the experience would have been totally different and would have had to been repeated later anyway!
There are two people in Sandoval County who are experts regarding Ambergris Caye: Bobby CdeBaca, who has a home on the island and has purchased over fifty acres in Belize, according to "friends" (he left the island the day we flew in so we never had a chance to drink rum punch or Belican Beer and discuss Bernalillo); and Tom Fenton, owner of The Range Cafe, who has been there twice and recommended expeditions, bars, and restaurants.
As we were leaving, we heard that one of the small planes that flies passengers in and out of Ambergris Caye went down the day before, landing in the ocean, and all aboard survived! On the last leg of our trip, from Dallas to Albuquerque, as we all sat in Aisle 13, one of the engine’s hydraulic systems didn’t work and the pit crew came out to fix the problem. Weary and relieved, we came home with all of our luggage and no strip searches.
The following morning I was awakened by the phone reporting the second in a rash of break-ins at Nearly New–A Repeat Boutique. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, someone broke a sixty-year-old window to get in and steal a dollar bill, some clothing (which we give away to families in need) and a few other incidentals. Welcome home! Since then, we have had three other break-ins with the thief (or thieves) taking toilet paper, Swisher wipes, room deodorizers, costume jewelry, slippers, trash bags, a stereo and speakers, mints, rugs, a clock that never worked, jackets, a wind sock and scissors. We have changed the way we do business since these break-ins and are seriously wondering if our efforts are all for naught.
Thank-you to those who donate, patronize, and support our efforts. For the people out there who would rather take from others and do damage in the process, I wish we could transport you to a little island in the Caribbean. There, all in the space of one week, a thief was caught, judged, and sentenced to six years in prison. Now that’s a deterrent!
Fawn Dolan is executive director of Bound for Success, Inc., a nonprofit that operates Nearly New and 313 Thrift Store in Bernalillo.