The cave man’s birthday
November 20, 2005
If it rained we were screwed. That was obvious by the texture of the road. The smooth gray folds of hardened mud were marked with tire tracks from the last storm. Dave’s tires were about as bald as my head, and with two-wheel drive, we were pushing the edge.That’s nothing new in my sojourns with Dave, which are typified by a canoe trip years ago on the San Juan River. I paddled in the bow while Dave steered from the stern. Every time we approached a long line of standing waves, I would discreetly guide the bow to one side to avoid a soaking. Just when I got us into position, Dave would dip his paddle and lever us into the gut of the biggest curl.As I shivered beneath a shower of icy snowmelt, Dave howled with laughter, pushing the bow into the trough of the next wave, and the next, and the next, until both of us were roaring with laughter on a fluid rocking horse ride.This muddy road was iffy, but the black storm clouds from a blizzard the day before seemed to be abating. Overhead was a magnificent hole of blue sky with sun streaming through a perfect halo. At the trailhead, we slung on our packs and marched hard toward the low, setting sun. The trail followed the canyon rim and overlooked our destination a thousand feet below.When the trail finally plunged off the rim rock, it was like somebody had turned out the lights. Our magical halo was consumed by the blackest-looking cloud since Dorothy flew to Oz. A cold wind whistled in our ears and rain came pinging down.Dave shrugged it off with a cheerful hoot while I envisioned a wet night under a piñon tree. A cluster of boulders near the bottom of the trail seemed like a safe haven, but safe havens are not Dave’s idea of adventure. He marched off down the canyon at top speed. “We’ll find something better!” he shouted.Panting after him 10 minutes later in the failing light, I could hear Dave hooting like a cuckoo in the distance. I rounded a huge boulder, but there was no sight of him. Then I heard a muffled call and glanced into a crack in the rock where Dave’s flashlight flickered. A cave!Two enormous slabs of sandstone were leaned up against one another. Both ends had been walled in with rocks, and the floor was soft, dry sand. As the rain drummed outside, Dave lit candles and placed them in alcoves, casting a warm, orange light.We made ourselves comfortable, but Dave was still restless. He put on his jacket and headlamp, and ventured into the murky night. A distant hoot signaled another find, and moments later Dave leaned in to announce that he had found another, better cave.We called the first cave “the condo” and left our sleeping bags there. We called the second cave “the lodge” because it had a natural fireplace that we soon had roaring with fragrant piñon wood. Our fire rose up a natural flue and its golden glow transported us to a different world. “We’re cave men now, Andersen!” laughed Dave.It was Dave’s 58th birthday, so I had brought homemade buffalo stew, red wine, a flask of scotch and all the necessities for healthy outdoor living. We ate and drank like kings. But that cave was the best birthday present Dave could have wished for. It became his cathedral.Snow blew through the loose-fitting walls of “the condo” that night, but we slept comfortably until the dim light of dawn revealed a clear, robin’s egg blue sky. Coals in the fireplace leaped into flame with dry kindling, and we sipped coffee and ate muffins by firelight until the sun warmed the redrock walls of the canyon.We explored and discovered yet another cave, which we named “the penthouse,” and then hiked back to the truck and promptly got stuck in the mud. With rocks and brush and unflagging spirits, we finally made it out, feeling like we were about the luckiest people on earth.We’ll never forget Dave’s 58th birthday, and we’ll never forget the cave with the roaring fire, the golden glow, the buffalo stew, and that rare sense of adventure in the wilds when everything seems to work as if it was planned just for you. Paul Andersen thinks caves have been underrated for centuries. His column appears on Mondays.