We come to a stop at the end of the dirt road and look up at the walls of the canyon. Joe extends his arm up and right, he’s got all of his fingers curled around a Coors can, except for his index finger, which points towards the top of the canyon where it plateaus and drastically flattens. That’s gotta be it, he says.
Caves get scooped out of the sides of this canyon like ice cream, exposing steep, overhung limestone. Most of the rock is too chossy to climb, but the guidebook hints at a cave that’s climbable, bolted even. We’re tired from face climbing, tiny pockets that pull on tendons and foot holds that you’ve gotta dream up exist. So overhanging jugs sound good to the boys. We’ve gotta find that place, Alex said to Joe earlier that day. You wanna come with us? He asks. I chug the last sips of my beer and shrug. Sure. I’ll just hike with you guys until I don’t feel like it anymore.
As I look up at the canyon, I doubt this is the cave that the guidebook rumors. I doubt that we can even make it up there, the canyon is steep and littered with boulders and brush. I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen worse and made it to the top, we all have, so we start the scramble. The last of the day’s sun slips below the horizon behind us and my eyes fight to adjust.
I’m slower than the boys. Alex pauses and looks back every once in a while. You good? Yeah, I’m good. Want me to wait? Nah, I’m good. The canyon grows steeper as we get higher, at some points we’re on all fours, clawing our way up loose rocks and slippery brush. Birkenstocks were a bad choice. I slide down a few feet, clinging onto dried grasses, straw really, to keep from sliding further. These grasses have strong roots, I think.
You good? Yeah, I’m good. Want me to wait? Nah. I smile. And so does he.
With every step, I imagine a rattler sinking its fangs into my ankle, injecting her poison deep into a vulnerable vein. I think about his ankles too. And Joe’s ankles. They’re about 50 yards ahead. ROCK! I hear Joe yell down to me. A rock the size of my fist tumbles by my foot. Oh damn, sorry George! At least I yelled, he says. At least you didn’t get hit in the head and die. That would have suuuuucked. We keep climbing.
You good? Yep, I’m good. I can wait for you. Nah, I’m alright. K.
We stand at the base of the cave, it’s ceiling lurching over us 100 feet up. Joe walks up to the wall, grips a protruding chunk of the limestone and pulls it off. It crumbles in his hand. Daaaaamn. This rock is shit, he says. This can’t be the place. He throws the remaining pieces of rock into the canyon we just hiked up. I listen as they make contact with the floor and tumble, satisfying pops, eventually coming to a rest. Alex looks out to the other horizon and the light hues the land, an orange that felt wild.
Bones of cattle and deer are scattered across the floor of the cave. There is a tent-sized hole that extends back further than the other walls of the cave. It’s pitch black. Something wild lives back there, we agree. Even though this isn’t the place, I’m glad we came up here. This is awesome, Alex says. It’s beautiful. What an adventure. He smiles at me and takes an arm around my shoulders.
I see something sparkle out of the corner of my eye. My head snaps around to the rock face, scanning it. I see something. I squint and jut my head forward. It’s metal. A bolt! I yell. Where?! The boys look at my face to see where I’ve spotted it. I point up to it. We all run over. It is a bolt, drilled into the side of the limestone. Signs of a climber. The rock here is hard, different from just a few feet to the right. There are many more bolts, as our eyes get better at detailing, accustoming. We walk along the side of the face and find about fifty more bolts, shiny, not worn by time and wind and rain and kids from Colorado. Locals only. One of them even left a rope strung up on their newest project route. They didn’t think anyone would ever find this place. Probably didn’t think anyone would be the perfect mix of stubborn and curious to hike up, to search in the first place. So they left their rope. And a ladder too.
We’re all laughing and yelling and hooting to each other, like a pack of coyotes who found dinner.
I stand on the edge of a rock that juts off the layer of the cave we’ve hiked up to. He tells me to look at the clouds. Look at the canyon, he says. Look at this place. We found it.