Friday, March 5, 2010
This story happens much later, in my late twenties. My friends (I'll call them A and B) and I were camping in the Superstition Mountains, just outside Tortilla Flat, Arizona, in a small diamond-shaped cave. The cave was up a wash in a narrow valley, above the road.
We called it the bat cave because, well, it had bats in it. Out of courtesy to the bats, the fire pit was located outside the cave in the wash. The cave itself had space for 3-4 people, but there were only a couple of comfortable spots. The floor was pitched and craggy, and although there were numerous chimneys in the center of the cave, the edges were cramped.
My friends had been camping there first, and were on an "extended stay". When I first came to the cave, it was dark by the time I got there, so I took the spot in the middle of the cave that they recommended to me.
B warned me before I went to sleep, "It's called the batcave for a reason. The bats will poop on you in the middle of the night. But don't worry, they're desert bats. It's totally dry, it just feels like little pebbles." So, when I went to bed a pulled a fold of the tarp up over my face. Sure enough, I heard rustling and squeaking above me, followed by a little pitter-patter of bat guano sprinkling down and bouncing off the tarp. I eventually got to sleep, despite this occasional distraction.
The next day, I woke up sore, as the slanted floor had slid me down and wedged me into an uncomfortable corner. My face was also slightly swollen from an allergic reaction to the guano. Dragging myself out of the cave entrance, I noticed a subsidiary tunnel I hadn't noticed the night before. It was just the size of a narrow crawl space. "Hey guys, why can't I sleep in there? The floor is all gravel, that's probably really comfortable. And I like sleeping in enclosed spaces."
They laughed. "That's the scorpion pit," said A. "When that old desert rat told us about the cave, he said never to go in there, that it was full of scorpions."
"Whatever," I said. "I don't see any and it looks really comfortable. I want to get a good night's sleep." So that night, after a strenuous, exhausting day of hiking, swimming, and rock climbing, I slept in the scorpion pit. I was a little creeped out by the thought of poisonous arthropods crawling all over me, so I wrapped my sleeping bag in my tarp, pulled a flap over my face, and cocooned for the night. The sub-cave was narrow around me in the darkness, and I felt swaddled and warm. The floor was level, and I could stretch out straight. Luxury!
I snuggled down into the gravel, feeling it conform to my back and spine; organic memory foam with shiatsu! The blue plastic tarp made crinkling noises as I shifted. I started to drift off, and I wasn't sure if I could hear the faintest scrabbling noises, like tiny claws all over the tarp, all over me. I tried to stay completely still. Was it me? the noises seemed to stop, then start again. The wind slipped in the cave mouth, moving the tarp again, making more scratchy noises. Was it scorpions? I strained to listen, to stay completely still... Of course, I fell asleep just like that.
When the warm sun awoke me, I forgot all of last night's horrors and sprung up to greet the day. From that night on, whenever we stayed in the batcave, I slept in the "scorpion pit". My friends thought I was crazy, but I shrugged it off. A few weeks later, we were able to move to a better cave as an occupancy came up, and I had only thought of the scorpion pit with faint nostalgia; it was truly the most comfortable place I have ever slept.
Epilogue: That was over a decade ago. I'd lost touch with those friends for a while, but recently reconnected with A. We ran into each other at the Middle East Cafe, and were catching up, straining our voices to be heard over the band. "Tim, I went back to the caves, do you remember the scorpion pit?"
"How could I ever forget?"
"I brought a black light out there, Tim. I shone it in the scorpion pit. Do you know what I saw?" I nodded grimly. The scrabbling noises teased at the edge of my hearing in the noisy bar, chills from a dozen years ago scrabbled up my spine, over my shoulders. "Scorpions. Dozens of scorpions. It was teeming with them. All over the floor, the walls. The ceiling. You've fucking crazy for sleeping in there." He laughed.
I gave a strained smile. "I know. I knew. I didn't care. I knew they wouldn't sting me." Was it bravado to say so? Was it foolishness to sleep in the scorpion pit, knowing they probably were there? How was I so sure they wouldn't sting? Was it perversity, daring death in a scene from a horror film? It's hard to say, now. This was not my only brush with death in the desert; but, to live out there is to live with the possibility. Everything out there in the desert is either sharp or poisonous; or both.
Cave wash courtesy Charles Buckley, Scorpion Wikimedia Commons.