Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Go Back - Bad Air

It began at REI, on a rescue mission, and a few other places, the idea that our little group of rogue hikers should go into an old mine. We are weekday slaves, working for the simple goals of exhausting ourselves, endorphin rushes, eating red meat and drinking good beer and Scotch whiskey every weekend. Our frequent lack of preparation, equipment, or a plan is something of a running joke between our small group, so the idea of taking this ethic into an abandoned mine tunnel seemed perfect. Why? Not to higrade minerals, not to drink, party or vandalize as so many do, simply for that one age old reason; Because it's there.
The sun was sliding low in the sky as we gathered to leave from the house. We had decided to go in the evening, so that Joe, our 'expert' via experience (the only one of us ever to enter an old mine previously) could finish a shift at the bar. The three of us, all roommates, gathered to inspect our two hard hats. We found them to be indeed hard-hats, and divvied them up according to who had the hardest head and therefore didn't need one. Ian, our resident (and very lost) Dane, decided he would go without and we set off.
The road from Socorro to Magdalena is a twenty-six mile stretch of highway rising nearly 2000 feet in elevation from the Rio Grande river valley to the mountain village. Passing through a rocky section at the northern end of Box Canyon before rising up onto the flats, the road carries the westward traveler inexorably into the Magdalena mountains. Dark golden with deep shadows in the late afternoon sun, the “Maggies” seem to tower over the road, standing taller above the black ribbon as it disappears between low lying foothills. With the windows rolled down, and the smallest of us folded into the narrow extended cab backseat of my old truck, we tore down the road, iPod jacked into the blown stereo fighting for sound dominance over the wind and unmuffled exhaust system. We laughed and were silent and sang along and were fixed in our place, time and purpose as we came roaring into town.
Magdalena rose before us in its most tarnished and weather worn glory. A town of roughly nine-hundred permanent residents, and a few dozen communal dogs, it was once the largest cattle rail-head in the world, as well as a center of mining activity. Now it lays nestled in the mountains, a wide spot in the road, with pretenses of being a struggling art locale. Making a left off the main drag onto a dirt street we begin to climb higher into the mountains. The music was turned down to discuss who knew where we were supposed to be going and so I could relate a story of the old house of ill-repute, which now belonged to a retired kindergarten teacher, perhaps a descendant of its last madame. Small town sounds filtered in the open windows, only to be left behind for the desolate crunch of gravel beneath tires as we left town once more.

The mine opening was small, hidden behind brush in a carved out section of hillside, a few hundred yards up-slope from the old head-frame. None of us knew what it was, it wasn't the mine we had come to find. We all agreed it was the one none the less. A small hole, carved into dirt and loose rocks, with shoring set a few feet in, it appeared to descend slightly and quickly entered darkness. Atop the shoring further down the tunnel, rubble and rock had collapsed, but the shoring held, creating no blockage. Painted around the entry timbers were multiple warnings, some of them unreadable from age, some of them rather fresh; "Go Back!" in white, and under it in black "Bad Air". We looked at one another. We breathed deeply of the cool air emanating from the breathing hole. We grinned. Joe donned his hard-hat, turned on the headlamp and hopped over the first timber dropping into the tunnel. He moved forward a couple of paces and looked back, a grin saying "C'mon you apes, wanna live forever?"
A short ways into the half-man-height entry tunnel there was an old steel door, propped three quarters open by rocks and time. Beyond was the carved out rock of the mine, ceiling barely standing room high. The darkness swallowed us deeper, sunlight making only fearful steps further in. Several yards down this tunnel we entered a larger opening which branched off in three directions. The floor was strewn with litter; old batteries, an ancient GE camera flash array, and small pieces of trash indistinguishable but distinctly human. To our left a head high tunnel carrying straight into darkness impenetrable by even our brightest LED lights. To our right a small crooking tunnel that turned downwards, descending into another bifurcation of lower tunnels. Straight ahead was a narrower, again man height, tunnel which had to be accessed by crossing a single loose board of indeterminate age covering a narrow, barely shoulder width, shaft which ran deep into darkness beyond the throw of any flashlight. We chose the right hand path, and entered on hands and knees into the lower tunnel junction via the low ceilinged, dropping and curved short tunnel. Beyond we found two tunnels of undesirable looking stability, which looked both cramped and to have been victim to recent collapse activity. We turned back, going back up to re-decide our path.
The path, as we chose it, was over the rickety board, which seemed to hold each mans individual weight without complaint. The darkness below our feet stretched away, untold depths beckoning a slip, a fall to the conspiracy of gravity. Across the board, beyond the beckoning hole, we went deeper into the rock and earth. As in the first atrium-like intersection of tunnels, small traces of human activity were present, primarily in the form of dead batteries strewn about the floor.
We passed a left-hand side tunnel, continuing straight into the depths of the mountain until we came to an obvious area of collapse. The tunnel roof dropped two feet or more in a quick grade, reducing the height to no more than three feet. Snapped timbers, splintered as if blown apart and crushed down onto themselves, lined the compressed tunnel walls. Great sections of rock protruded between beams, their smaller cousins, shattered remnants of the mountain's labor, scattered the floor. A fine dust sat on everything, powdery gray like the surrounding stone. The tunnel continued on like this beyond the play of our headlamps. We turned back.
The side tunnel we'd passed before, now on our right, seemed the best bet and we struck off into it. It was head height or better, and remained well shored. A few cracked timbers, and the usual small rubble on the floor, but no worrying amounts of damage. We continued on as this tunnel curved, and branched into another.
One branch led to another, led to dead ends and turn arounds, and returns. Along the walls were the occasional spray paint graffiti markss, remnants of post-mining explorers hell bent on being remembered by other idiots, and the more common pure black scribblings of miners, written with finger tips coated in lamp black. These soot scrawls hung on the walls, fresh as the day they were written, telling stories of the men who had pressed finger to stone that they too might be remembered, even if only to themselves. Most of them were over a century old, and many of them carried finger prints so clearly that at a turn we expected their author to be standing beside us. We looked, and did not disturb, and continued on down the tunnel.
At one seeming dead end, the side tunnel we had taken ended abruptly in a wooden chute, coming out of a higher tunnel, some four feet above the floor we stood on. A single rope of old hemp hung down from the chute. We grabbed hold and climbed up clamoring over the old oak framing and the rusting ore cart jammed into it at the top. The tunnel we entered sloped up steeply, rotten steel rails along its bottom lost in debris and loose dust that slipped under foot. Bracing hands and feet on opposing sides of the shaft we shimmied our way up and into a larger room. The confluence of three tunnels, all collapsed not far in from where we stood, had a ceiling fifteen feet over our heads, and was partially filled with rubble. In our lights everything flickered and flashed, including the very dust stirred under our feet. A rampant crystal growth covered almost all exposed surfaces. Bundles of millions of long, tiny crystal formations, sprouting out like glass thorns in all directions, none larger than a needle, and many finer than hair, laying across the rocks and dirt in great long bundles. We spent several minutes in awe, examining the crystal growth in all its fine forms and shapes before moving further on to explore the tunnel we'd branched off from to find this room.
This exploration lead, in eventuality, to another dead end, of sorts. At the end of a tunnel, we found the rocks smoothed and round, carved by years of water erosion, not picks and hammers. The rock turned back, a hollow to the side, and its smoothed features continued up, drawing our eyes to look for a ceiling we found absent. Instead, rising up into blackness was a smoothly contoured shaft, five feet at its widest and extremely smooth. A single hemp rope, knotted every foot or so, hung down from the blackness ascendant. We mingled at the bottom, gazing upward, like fearful natives below an eclipsing sun, until one of us struck upward with a hand, seizing the rope firmly and jerking it savagely. It pulled taught and held fast. Grabbing it with the other hand he pulled, bracing his feet on the wall and letting his weight hang. The rope held. He began to climb, hand over hand and with braced feet, into the blackness. He disappeared around a slight bend in the shaft, the rope quivering in the jaundiced beam of my incandescent headlamp the only reminder that he was in fact still there. The rope fell still, and his voice came down to us. The rope was securely fixed at the top, and fairly new it seemed, and we needed to come see what he was seeing. So up we went, one at a time, pulling ourselves up the rope, feet bracing and pushing on the rare shelf or rough surface of the surrounding rock. Thirty feet or so later, we emerged into a huge space. Blackness surrounded us, the walls and ceilings all nearly out of reach of our lights. The floor was hidden under masses of rubble, rocks large and small piling across the expanse. The cavern sloped distinctly downward, toward where we stood and beyond, into a piled depth. Spires of rock rose near the walls, carved out by water, lending an ancient temple like quality to the room. Bats scattered in our light, flitting and darting into the shadowed recesses of the walls, and upwards into the fractures and secure dimness of the ceiling. One side of the cavern gave way to another water carved tunnel, this one sixty feet wide or more, and half piled with debris, descending at a steep angle into unknown tunnels below. The cavern rose, sloping to an upper plateau of broken rock and dust, into which opened the remains of another mine tunnel. The rubble and combination of cracked, fractured and smoothly worn walls and ceilings suggested eons of water flow, creating labyrinthine structures deep in the mountain, suddenly invaded by hand picked and drilled tunnels of mens design and craft. The resulting years depredation of stone finally took their toll and rock broke and collapsed, dropping tunnels out, and widening the cavern. Fresh air permeated the space, a cleaner, more flowing air, than lower in the mine tunnels. We followed the movement of it up the man-carved tunnel, hoping to find an exit, until we came to a dead end of rubble. The air continued to flow, and the tunnel was rife with cracks and openings a bat could easily have moved through, but passage for a man was impossible. We turned back, moving out of the laboriously carved tunnel and back into the great cavern, carved by the violent casualness of water over eons, and victim to its own instability in the face of invasion. We made our way back down over the subterranean scree slope, until we reached our tunnel down. One after the other we knelt, grabbed the rope, swung around and climbed down, hand under hand, feet braced slidingly, on the smooth walls of the shaft.
Backtracking we reached the site of one of our previous side-tunnel excursions, and had a minor debate on the way out. I insisted the tunnel we were in was the right way, but one of us was convinced that the curving tunnel to our side was the way. We disagreed, but would leave no man alone beneath the earth, so we followed. After a short exploration he realized his error, and the three of us returned to the right path.
Darkness ended abruptly as we entered the last stretch of tunnel before the entrance, a fading gray-blue light slipping its way inwards, in a darting insurgency against the shadows. We crawled past the old iron door, and out into the fresh air and late afternoon flat light of just past sunset.
We walked slowly down the slope, back past the old headframe towering monolithic and iron above a four hundred foot shaft. Our footsteps crunching in the rock, we simply lived: Breathing, tired, covered in dust and bits of debris, firm in our conviction that we were lords of the Earth, and that all our worldly concerns lay behind us, other ghosts in the subterranean playground of fortune seekers and fools.

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