THE SPIDER CAVE
THE SPIDER CAVE
I first explored the mines of the Calico Mountains in 1962, when my parents, Jerry and Carole took us four kids to the restored ghost town of Calico, east of Barstow. The town is like the ghost town of Knott’s Berry Farm and a history of the area is presented well. The Calico Mountains are so named because of their color hues of purple, orange, yellow and brown that are visible especially at sundown. These color tints are caused by the rich mineral deposits in the soil. The town was built because of the discovery of silver in the 1800’s. Many of the thousand men who dug the miles of mine tunnels found up the canyons and peaks surrounding the town are buried in a real “Boot Hill” graveyard. I wonder why they call it Boot Hill, maybe because they just marked the grave site with the guy’s boots?
After the tour of the town, the family decided to explore the area. We drove about a mile over to the next canyon and followed the dirt road into it. As the canyon narrowed and the walls became steeper, evidence of old mine shafts appeared everywhere. You could see dotted high up on the ridges dozens of open mine shafts. Every little crevasse with promise of silver ore has been excavated. In the 1960’s the dirt road up the canyon was maintained because there was still active mining going on. By the mid 70’s all the mines had been abandoned and the road was deteriorating badly. Now, it is impassable by car, you just have to walk up.
After Barrie and I were married in 1972, we would often go back out to Calico in the winter to take a break from surfing. We’d go alone or bring friends along to explore the mines up in the canyons surrounding the old ghost town. One Friday night, just the two of us drove my van out to our favorite spot deep in the canyon and up a little side canyon. In the dark desert night my van headlights threw spooky shadows on the canyon walls. It is very difficult to tell where you are because you cannot see the familiar daytime landmarks. Our little side canyon would be nearly invisible at night if you didn’t already know exactly where it was. We made camp, relaxed a while, and then went to bed.
This is my van pulling out of the canyon the next day.
About 1 am. We heard a great roar coming up the main canyon. It sounded like a division of army tanks. After some time, the roar subsided, but was replaced by even louder music, yelling and partying. We crawled out of our sleeping bags and hiked down our little canyon to see what was going on. Carefully looking around the opening, we saw around fifty Harley choppers parked in the main canyon. Gruff looking guys and girls dressed in dirty Levis, boots and “moto-garb” were partying big time around a huge fire. I considered moving my van to another location, but I couldn’t get further up our little canyon and I would have to drive past them to leave. We decided to just go back to bed since they couldn’t see us anyway. The night was long and loud. It was very late when the noise subsided enough to let us sleep.
The next morning, we ate breakfast and decided to go ahead with our plans to explore some mines. My van wasn’t visible from the main canyon, so it probably would not be noticed. The winter air was cold and I wore a heavy jacket. Considering our neighbor campers, I slipped my 22-caliber revolver into my jacket pocket. We hiked further up our canyon, which led us over a ridge and into another major canyon with a whole different set of mine shafts to explore.
We found a shaft that was nearly impossible to enter because someone had attempted to seal it up with dynamite, but by sliding on our bellies through a nearly invisible, small opening at the top of the cave-in we got into the shaft. Because it had been “sealed up” no one had been in there for years. There were ore car tracks on the floor and framing for support and steel mining implements.
Here is barrie in one of the tunnels
As we explored, we found that the whole mountain was a honeycomb of tunnels, with multiple levels and tunnels leading in all directions. There were large “glory holes” where the vein spread out wide. Often the tunnels followed the silver vanes up or down at steep angles. There is a very unusual spot (where we still go even to this day) where the tributary tunnel leads down at a steep angle, curves around to the left, passes under itself and comes to an end. At the end, another steep shaft about 8 ft. across goes off to the right and down another 20 ft. There is a large 12” x 12” wooden beam laid across the top of this shaft, probably a support for an ore bucket lift. There was a very narrow, 12” wide wooden ladder leading all the way down to the bottom. I always carried a few coils of climbing rope, so I tied the rope to the beam and threw it down the ladder. The ladder was nearly one hundred years old, worn and rotten with a few missing or broken rungs. We went down one at a time while keeping a careful grip on our rope incase the ladder failed. We both wore miner style lights that strap around your head with a headband. Air vent shafts that clear the dust away serve the main tunnels, but as you drop deeper and deeper, the air becomes stagnant, and a stifling dust cloud floats up from the movement of your feet. At the bottom, there was a very small passage, about 24” wide and 5’ high curving off in another direction. We followed it for about 40 yards to where it opened into a small room about the size of a bedroom. In the center was a vertical shaft about 20’ deep. It also had a heavy beam laid across the top, but there was no ladder. I wanted to see what was down there, so I tied my ¾” thick length of climbing rope to the beam and started down.
Barrie stayed at the top and I could see her light beam shinning down on me while I slid down the rope. When I got to the bottom, she looked so far away, and it gave me a little pang of apprehension about climbing all the way back up the rope. The bottom of the pit was just that; nothing. There were a few baseball size rocks lying around, but essentially, it was smooth. It looked like the vein “played out” and the shaft was abandoned. The feeling at the bottom of the pit was claustrophobic. The air was stagnant, and the powder dust floated in the air like a lethal cloud. The oppressive depth made me wonder how terrifying it would be to be trapped down there alone in absolute silence and blackness. What if the rope came loose? With a creepy feeling in my tailbone, I started climbing back up the rope. Barrie was kinda joking: “come on, you can make it only 10 more feet”. That only added to that creepy feeling I had like some childhood “darkness monster” was coming up from the depths to get me. I made it to the top after a lot of effort; then we went single file back through the narrow tunnel as the thick dust particles floated in our light beams. The rickety, old ladder rose up out of sight and we climbed back up keeping half our weight on the climbing rope.
We had been gone from camp for about 3 hours, but we decided to eat a snack and continue following the main shaft. It takes quite a while to explore these mines because each tributary shaft must be explored. It is truly like an anthill. We worked our way deeper and deeper into the center of the mountain until we reached a “bottomless” vertical shaft that blocked the passage forward. By shining our lights up and down, I could see multiple shafts above us and below us that also intersected this vertical shaft. Apparently, this was an elevator shaft that carried the miners to the different levels. The cables and elevator platform had been removed decades ago. We lit a paper towel on fire with a match and dropped it down over the edge. It fell like a shooting star down, down into the darkness until it was just too far away to see any longer.
Since this elevator shaft was the same width as our tunnel, you would assume that this was the end of our forward progress, except for one thing: There was a big 12” x 12” beam spanning the ten-foot wide elevator shaft. Apparently, someone had laid it across in order to bridge the chasm. The beam was about 15” from the wall, so you could brace against the wall as you walked across. This dangerous crossing is probably the reason why the shaft opening had been “sealed up”. I started the walk across. The utter blackness and unimaginable depth beneath me was silent like a quiet monster waiting for me to fall into its’ open jaws. I made it! Barrie tied the other end of the climbing rope that I brought across the beam around her waist and under her arms and I took up the slack as she came across. We continued onward but were not looking forward to recrossing that beam.
There was more exploring to do, but as we headed deeper, we had basically been heading in a direction back towards our camp since we actually started on the other side of the mountain. At first we heard talking, then suddenly a light appeared as people came around a corner only a few yards away. A lump came to my throat as I realized that I was alone in a cave with my wife, face to face with six big bikers. Instinctively, my hand slid slowly into my coat pocket and wrapped around my revolver, but this move reminded me of some old movie I had seen where when the good guy: Indiana Jones, pulled out his gun when facing multiple bad guys, the bad guys each pulled out even meaner, nastier looking weapons all making loud cocking noises. It didn’t seem appropriate to do the gun trick, but I really think that having my hand on that pistol allowed me to keep cool and not act like prey running from a snarling dog.
We were all surprised to see each other, and all asked where the others had come from. They seemed friendly enough and I didn’t get a sense that their eyes were bearing down on Barrie excessively. We told them about the elevator shaft with the crossing beam that we had passed, and they told us that the tunnel must pass entirely through the mountain since they came in from an opening on the side where they had camped. I said that I didn’t really want to cross the elevator shaft again and that we were going to just go forward and out the way they came in. I was anxious to leave their company, but they insisted on escorting us to the entrance. As we walked together, I told them how we heard them come up the canyon the previous night. They said that they had been kicked out of Barstow the night before by the sheriff and headed up the canyon where they could party in peace. I felt relieved to step into the light of day. We all headed back down the main canyon towards our perspective camps. As we came around the last corner, they were shocked to see their camp deserted with all the Harley’s gone except their own. A note was left on one of their bikes saying that the sheriff had come again and run them out of the canyon. The Sheriff’s speed patrol airplane that cruises the freeway had spotted them. They were headed off to Needles and would see their biker buddies at their other campsite on the Colorado River. The guys kick started their bikes each with a loud gunny roar and they headed on out towards the valley floor and freeway to Needles.
As we got back to camp, late afternoon was just easing in. Barrrie and I set up our chairs and started cocktail hour. We watched the pastel hues of color deepen on the mountains and we just relaxed until dinner. We were both exhausted after the stresses of the day, so we hit the sack early. Sleep came fitfully as the memories of the day were repeated in my mind. Finally, as I eased into sleep, I seamlessly drifted into a dream that seemed oh so real:
Now the story gets fun:
Barrie and I were back in the mine. We had climbed down that steep ladder. I remembered the exact location of each broken rung; the visions of dust in light beams and the narrow passage to the “room of doom” were just the same. I tied the ¾” rope onto the beam and went down the shaft.
When I got to the bottom, I scanned back and forth with my light beam and came across something strange. Over against the far wall there appeared to be small ladders, each leading about 14” up to a small ledge cut into the wall where another ladder was propped and led up to the next ledge. The series of ladders reached perhaps 4 ft. above the shaft the floor. I traced my beam further along the floor and wall where I spotted what was unmistakably miniature human bones: little femurs, tibias and grape sized human skulls were all piled up next to a dark hole in the wall. It quickly struck me that little people had been trapped in this mine and were trying to climb out by building ladders. Perhaps they were hiding in that dark hole. Maybe I could help them. I got down on my hands and knees so I could shine my light into the hole and see if they were in there. As I brought my face close to the opening, I saw two glowing red spheres. They were rocking slowly back and forth. Suddenly, they were rushing towards me and I pulled away just as the biggest, hairiest, ugliest, red-eyed spider lunged for my face. I must have leaped 3 ft. into the air, but as I came back down, I went into attack mode and aimed my heavy hiking boot for the hairy beast. But the beast didn’t sidestep; instead it met my challenge full boar and leaped at me again, landing on my leg about mid thigh. I immediately felt the mandibles sink into my flesh and the stinging injection of poison. Instinctively, I batted at the beast with my flash light and knocked it to the floor. I spun and leaped for my rope. In a dead sweat panic, I pulled my way up, but each foot gained seemed in slow motion. Barrie was looking down from the top and was shrieking my name with terror in her voice. I was nearly 8 ft. from the floor so I risked a look back down the rope. To my horror, the beast was following me up the rope, red eyes ablaze and mandibles pinching in and out. I turned back to the rope with renewed panic but found my grip more difficult. The rope was growing. It appeared nearly 6” in diameter. I got up a few more feet, but the rope was growing exponentially fatter. As weakness set in from the poison, I felt my head fall back as my hands could no longer reach around the twelve inch diameter rope. I was falling into the jaws of the beast!
I burst into consciousness; I sat up in the darkness of my van, heart pounding and gasping for breath. As I became aware of my surroundings, I realized that I had just experienced the scariest dream of my life. Barrie awoke and asked what was wrong. I breathlessly babbled on about the red eyed spider that bit me and was shrinking me for dinner and that’s why I couldn’t climb up the rope!! As I told her more about the dream, I began to realize that the little bones were from other people who had ventured down the shaft. The spider had shrunk them and was saving them for future dinners. They must have been trying to escape by building ladders. Wow, what a dream!
****** post picture of us in cave