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Bustamante On My Mind

by Gill Ediger

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A talus fan spreads out across the valley floor,
Covered mostly by the dingy green of desert plants:
Acacias by the score--
Mesquite, huisache, catclaw, and black brush,
Just to name a few;
White brush, sage, and mountain laurel
With deadly red mescal beans dangling there like peanut pods;
Cholla, prickly pear, and tasajilla (the jumping cactus)
Represent the family cactacea;
The yuccas--spanish dagger, lechuguilla Waiting innocently to spear intruders; and
Ocotillo--long barren arms reaching up to heaven,
Begging for some rain to make them green.

The soil's a ruddy mix of sand and clay and
Rocks, both angular and round,
Brought down by countless rains and
Puffed by winds to form the desert pavement
Scratched and shuffled many times by hoofs of
Mexican goats and burros out to make a living
Eating thorns and dried up sticks.

Banks of low gray clouds
Have played across the valley all day long.
They came first from north and west,
Piled up behind the mountains,
Spilled slowly over--slowly creeping waterfalls--
Cascading halfway down the slopes before evaporating--
fizzling out--
Into thinning horsetail wisps, only to reform
Lower down as mere ghosts of scuddy clouds--
Thin, swirling curly-cues of cloudy gossamer,
Spinning swirls of misty currents--
Rising, falling--eddies moving up and down and
here and there,
Distracted by the undulations of the mountain side.

Thunder heads imbedded in the higher clouds
Boomed out deep bass rumbles that shook the ground and
Shook the car-sized rock I'm sitting on.
Lightning hit the high line in the valley and
Blew the power out in town.

Gray slanting streaks of rain moved in the valley,
Kicked up the desert dust, and
Turned it into mud before amalgamating with
The saw-toothed mountains on the other side.

Canyon wrens sing, now, in their descending call; and
Blackbirds--grackles--perch on boulders,
Watching over their domain,
Fussing in their gravelly voice at
Anything that makes a move within their field of view.

A flock of flying objects, unidentified,
Flutters by-
Diving left and right in unison--
All screeching, squawking as if to call attention to themselves.
A pair of something else birds beats and batters,
Screaming in a bush beside me,
Too caught up in their copulating frenzy
To pay me any mind.

The clouds have changed direction now,
Passing back to northwest, stopping,
Dammed up in the valley by the mountains as
They slowly rise to get away from
Warmer southeast winds that push in from the Gulf.
The front passed over, left its mark then
Petered out and passed back whence it came.

Broken clouds still dot the sky.
Intermittent holes allow the sun to
Beam its rays upon the valley floor as
Little spots of light line up like soldiers
Marching slowly over fields of onions, beans, and garlic
Toward the drabness of the unkempt desert.

This desert, as I've said, sits on the talus fans--
The out-wash cones of cobbles, silt, and sand
That's mothered by a million rains and
Brought down the canyons
From the limestone mountains up above.

The fan in front of me was fathered by
The Caon del Palmito,
A ribbon-like arroyo with a cobbled bottom--
Gray--
And winding unconcernedly across the fan
To join the little river--
Sabinas it is called--
Aheadin' to the sea.

When I first came here 30 years ago
That arroyo and a narrow serpent gravel road from town
Were all the punctuation marks there were upon the desert floor.
They came together, finally,
At a fairly level, dusty, thorny, river gravel covered
Piece of ground we called the "parking lot".
The road came to an end!
Or rather, it transitioned to a trail
Then wound on upside the arroyo for a while.
The canyon headed up and up and up an ever steeper gulch--
Diminishing dendritically--till somewhere,
Near the top,
It lost itself amongst some rocky cliffs where
Resurrection plants and lechuguilla
Clung to cracks and razor sharp rillkarren.

The other way, out past the talus fan, the valley lay.
Still does!
It's changed a little. No!
It's changed a lot.

The sleepy-looking, slowly-moving town of Bustamante
Lies off to the left--the north--
With the water tower sticking up, as prominent as ever.
All the rest is just a dull mosaic mass of
Avocado green and dusty white and
Aqua blue and titty pink and
Rust-ban red amongst the trees-and
Other fauna tropical.
Like any other of a thousand Mexican towns.

Beyond that, groves of trees--
Mostly pecan,
A major source of income here--
Spread out
To cover 50, maybe 60 hectares of the desert floor.
Always have, as I recall.
Watered by acequias from the same Sabinas River,
Flowing out of Caon Bustamante.

The railroad running valley-center
Forms as straight a line as can be seen.
Nearby, the road--State highway number 1--runs parallel.
Fence rows surround the garlic fields--
No vampires here.
Aside from that,
In 1967 all there was to see
Were the peaky hills across the valley
Rising into ever higher purple ridges of
Cavernous limestone as they transitioned into sky.

Today a long straight stretch of graded gravel road
Runs from the town right to the "parking lot".
It replaced the two-track donkey road we used to use and
Ripped the talus fan asunder.
From up above it looks for all the world
Like the runway of some major airport--
Bustamante International perhaps.

Back then--in '67--
The two-track road left town and
Headed, sort of, for the "parking lot".
It didn't really have what you could call "direction".
It just wound around;
Went up and down; and
Basically, just wandered toward the cave.
It's twists and turns weren't really guided by the ground--
It could have been put anywhere.
More likely it just followed some forgotten goat path,
Avoiding brush and cactus long since dead.
It took the path of least resistance,
Though rather crookedly, at best.
I don't think a dozer blade had ever moved a rock
Or scratched a thorny bush--
The road just formed one day and,
By God,
That's where it stayed--
With all its rocks and ruts and
Twists and turns and
Trials and tribulations.

It ended at the "parking lot."
Or "campground" it was sometimes called.
(We didn't know about the campground in the canyon then.)
Someone had run a dozer up the creek and
Shoved some river cobbles 'round and made a flat spot--
Well, fairly flat--about an acre big.

Then they'd gone away and let the stickers grow.
Those that didn't grow just kinda laid there
Waiting for whatever, whomever, to come along.
In places there was soil where
Bermuda grass made a valiant struggle to survive,
But goats and burros kept it cropped so close
That it just barely did,
Although they fertilized it well.

The rocky ground was seldom flat.
It wasn't quite the world's worst campground
But better than a KOA.
It was handy,
All we had,
And we were young and tough and
Inexperienced as campers.
We'd come to cave,
Not to complain about the cultural exhibits.

Arriving there at 1 a.m.
We'd lay out our groundsheets
Avoiding--mostly not--the thorns and lumpy rocks.
Then we'd roll out sleeping bags--
Army surplus,
Chicken feather filled--
That cost as much as fifteen dollars--twenty with a cover.

Feathers would sneak out of
Rips and tears from time to time and
We were loathe to sew them up by hand,
But did.
Duct tape hadn't yet become
The general purpose mender it is now.
Foamy sleeping pads hadn't been invented yet, I think,
And air mattresses were rendered worthless by the thorns,
So we crashed there without much fanfare,
On the ground.

Someone always had to mention just
How bright the stars were here
And whistle up a verse or two of
Deep in the Heart of Texas.

Or if there was a norther blowing,
Then they'd bitch about the wind and cold.
Sometimes it rained.
We'd stuff ourselves into cars-
We didn't fit-- and
Try to sleep asittin' up.

Nobody had a tent,
A tarp,
A plastic sheet--
Not anything!
We just toughed it out.

Twice we toted stuff up to the cave and camped out there.
I guess that once could be condoned;
But why would anybody do it twice?

Late at night the only sounds we heard were
Coyotes singing to their moon or mates.
And whistles blowing and
The rumble of the train upon the tracks.
The dimly glowing blue-green light shone
Out of windows of the
Passenger cars and
Moved across
The valley floor well out ahead of its associated noise--
A rumbling glow worm
Chewing its way
Slowly
Through the desert darkness.

The NAFTA trains fly through at 80 miles per hour now.
The station's closed and boarded up!

Mornings there were almost always chilly.
Maybe because we always went in winter.
Maybe because that's how the desert is!
Beer left out overnight to cool
Was often had for breakfast--
Along with eggs and bacon and canned juice and
Day or two old store-bought sweet rolls.
Any cooking that we did was on a Svea stove in
Teflon coated frying pans.
Later we got some Coleman stoves,
But kept the stupid Teflon frying pans.

During and after breakfast
Caving gear was sorted out;
Carbide lamps were loaded up,
Their water drippers tested.
Packs were packed,
The cars were locked, and
People started up "the trail".

"The trail" was right at one mile long.
It started at the west end of the parking lot.
From there it paralleled the canyon
For a quarter mile or so,
Climbing gently as it cut into
The limestone of the mountain side.

It was, without exception, unimproved.
What work they'd done had usually made it worse.
Erosion had left sticks and stakes and boulders
In the path like pins and bumpers in a pinball game.
Mostly 3 to 6 feet wide
It rambled on along taking pretty much whatever
Rock or ledge appeared in stride.
(Shorter people took a shorter stride, of course,
But also took a lot more of 'em.)

Suddenly the straight track took a different turn.
It turned back to the left to start
A steep ascent that didn't stop
Till it had climbed a quarter kilometer
Right up the wall.
It hung tenaciously to limestone cliffs and
Doubled back upon itself,
Then doubled back again, and then again.
Forty-three switchbacks is what they claimed,
And sometimes several numbers in between.
I suppose if every little turn and misalignment were considered
One might count up several hundred dozen.

At any rate,
The trail climbed steeply ever upward--
With but one or two slight declinations--
Toward the platform shelf
That forms
A resting/waiting spot before the very entrance to the cave.

New people were always eager to get started from the camp.
They'd be up and moving early,
Checking out their gear,
Asking questions,
Watching for some sign.
After breakfast we'd check their kit and send them on their way.

The first part of the trail was rough and awkward
But offered little reason for concern.
They'd thought the hike would be a breeze.
That is if they had thought about the hike at all.

Before fifty footsteps had been laid upon the first incline
Their hands were resting on their hips
Their lungs were breathing deeply in their heaving chests.

Upon the third switchback the sweat was flowing freely.
And by the fifth their long sleeved
Shirts and sweaters were removed--
Even on the coldest days.
Soaking wet T-shirts hung upon their sticky backs.
They stopped and rested,
Stood akimbo, leaning forward,
Panted heavily,
Then looked, forsakenly, on up the trail--
Along the slope--
Which headed up the mountainside.

Disdain and disbelief were showing in their eyes.
Most had never climbed a little hill
Nor even hiked a mile.
They were flatlanders--South Texans--
From a land where the
Water only runs
Which ever way the wind decides to blow.

They had no way of knowing that
Three dozen switchbacks and
Three-quarter thousand feet of elevation change lay just ahead!

They tied their shirt sleeves 'round their waists,
Took one more daring, long and doubting look
Up the steep trail and,
Having regained most of their composure,
Sighed heavily and hung their heads and
Plodded on again.

That scene would be the standard fare,
Repeated every three or four minutes
Along the trail till everybody reached the top.
Their gaze fell mostly on the trail
Just three steps up ahead.
They had to watch their step, of course,
But feared that what they feared
Might really be up there,
In front,
Somewhere!

They blocked the future from their minds;
The be-here-now was hard enough to deal with
At the moment!
The question, "What am I doing here?"
Rolled over in their thoughts
More times than they could count.
But among the puffing and
The panting and
The sweating and
The anticipating fear to look ahead,
They put one foot before the other
Time and time again.
For one brief hour out of time
Their lives were dominated,
Totally,
By this trail and
By the mountain where it lay.

They bowed their heads in reverence--
Unrealized.
And moved their feet ahead
One at a time.

And made their peace
With what they had to do.

To the old hands,
Knowing what lay ahead
Made the trip a lot more bearable.
We knew the trail and what it held in store and
So prepared ourselves to take it all in stride.
You could pace yourself and still keep up a steady clip.
You knew not to stop and let your muscles chill.
Keep moving was the key!
You knew how far you had to go,
And how and when to drink your water ration.
You could leave camp last and still
Arrive on top before the main mass did.

You'd pass them on the trail,
Panting, puffing,
Hearts pounding loudly,
Bulging blood veins pulsing on their necks and temples,
Throbbing beneath their ruddy, sweating skin..

Their chests heaved rhythmically
As their expectant eyes watched my approach.
"How much farther?" was their invariable request!

It didn't matter where along the trail we were--
First switchback or near the last--
"We're just about half-way!" is all I'd ever say.

"Half-way? Oh, man!" they'd whine,
And slowly shake their heads,
Crest-fallen.
Resigned-resigned, I say-to meet their uncertain fate,
For not the last time on that momentous day.
Their pondering gaze would drop back to the ground
As thoughts of turning back went through their troubled minds.
But the logic,
"It would be stupid to have wasted all this
Time and energy to just turn back now,"
Rolled off their countenance like
The very sweat from off their brow.

"Half-way?" they'd ask in disbelief--
Again--
Whilst adding up the time and distance,
Toil and sweat that
They'd just made it through, to try and see
If they still had enough reserves to do it all again.

"Half-way!" they'd mumble to themselves
And shake their heads--
Again!
They'd look up the mountain side where palm trees
Clung to craggy cliffs and
Wonder
Where up there they had to go,
Then look back down to see how far they'd had to come;
And then they'd look back up again.
"Half-way? God damn!"
"Come on along,"
I'd say, not even letting up the pace.
They trusted me for reasons still a mystery!
They hitched up their packs;
They stood and turned and
Started up the trail,
Their chins still resting on their chests,
Their hands still weighing on their hips.

And so it went,
Time and time and time again until I neared the top.
Just before the last switchback,
However-
The very last one, understand--
There lay a certain, smooth, flat weathered wall of
Dark gray limestone--like the blackboard in a school.
It begged to have a word or two scratched on it-
Perhaps a sentence written here or
A problem of arithmetic.
It begged, at least,
To serve a purpose more than
Just to be a rock.
So, sometime early on,
I'd picked up a chunk of chalk-white calcite from the trail
And printed large block letters

HALFWAY

On that rock.
To me this rock was always dear because
I knew
The end of trail lay just around the corner.
But it--the word--

HALFWAY

Wrought fear and loathing in the hearts
Of many a newbie caver through the years.

I'd go on up to the entrance shelf and
Sit there while the
Sweat dripped off and
Pulse rate stabilized.

The sound of gravel grinding and of
Puffing breaths warned of cavers coming up the trail.
I'd hush the crowd assembled there
And have them listen for a while.

A hundred feet before the trail's end--
Which they had no idea at all where was--
They'd come upon this dark gray, impressive rock
That said in no uncertain terms,

HALFWAY

"Halfway?" we heard them cry in disbelief.
We giggled silently.
"He said halfway was way back there!"
"God damn! I'm going back!" another said.
"I don't believe it!" yet a third one wailed, "I'm dead!"

By then we all were giggling and
Poking fun and
Hooting down at those below.
They heard our voices and called up,
Exhausted,
"Hey, how much farther is it?"

"You're almost half-way," I said,
And everybody with me'd laugh.
"Ah, this is bull shit!" came the tired reply.
"Come on up here and rest," I hollered down.
"There's a flat spot and some shade."

Low rumblings and debative voices could be heard
As they discussed it 'mongst themselves.
Told us that they were coming up.

The entrance to La Gruta del Palmito
Yawned open
Just behind my back.