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True Stories by Steve Keely
Deep in the Biscuit Mine
I throw a rock into the hole. ‘One, two…three,’ counts my partner in climbing gear. A wind whistles up the 5-foot diameter portal.
Underground Civil Defense shelters were placed strategically around the country during the Cold War scare of the 1960’s. I grew up in the prior decade listening to the Duck and Cover Turtle order us under our kindergarten desks as the air raid siren shrilled, our family had a fallout shelter in our Idaho Falls basement pantry stocked with canned cherries and a chin-up bar, and I always thought while chinning myself to the top, ‘One day I’ll get into one of those five-star shelters reserved for generals and politicians’.
‘Whew!’ trills Andrew at my side. ‘Eighty feet deep!’ Our third explorer, Justin, also a rock climber, hums ‘Gonna Fly Now’. I, acrophobic as a hamster, quiver and backpedal from the brink of my childhood dream.
‘Tell us about the rumor that brought us here,’ Andrew suggests.
‘Years ago, an old man told me of the discovery of a mine in the southwest desert operated by the U.S. Gypsum Co. until closure in the 1970’s. He explored just a portion since the tunnels run perhaps five miles at three levels with rail tracks, subsurface offices, and one catacomb with a great Civil Defense cache of water, food and hospital supplies. The codger saw this with his own eyes before all the entrances were blasted shut. Now the sole entry is this thin air vent for which he provided GPS coordinates.’
Since the news, I had twiddled thumbs for rock climbers to appear in my life. The two arrived last weekend hours apart at my Sand Valley, Ca. rancho saying they had read my homestead stories. Andrew from Arizona and Justin from Oregon hadn’t met previously however, as if destined to bring my childhood dream come alive as well as cure a horrid acrophobia, each rose to 6’3’’ dressed in black with huge, scraped hands from rock climbing. I worked into our early conversation the airshaft.
The three of us departed Sand Valley in Andrew’s Jeep on Monday’s sunrise and drove off-road for two hours, parked in an Ironwood wash, and humped fifty pounds each of climbing gear for an hour up a moonscape canyon. We found the promised vent per the coordinates that matched a black dot on a topo' map of the defunct U.S Gypsum mine. Its sole 5-feet aperture is blocked by rebar to form a grate.
‘The rebar is to let bats out,’ suggests Justin. ‘But we can just squeeze in,’ adds Andrew. I peer down, see black, and tremble at the updraft. ‘Is this safe?’ I ask retreating. They shrug. A gray, 200’ climber’s rope drops into the hole and hits the unseen floor- our descent rope. The duo expertly rigs three belays: The gray 1’’ rope from the grate, and two backup lines to posts at the pit edge. Justin tugs mightily to test the tri-anchor and Andrew sanctions, ‘Rock and roll!’
The first descent is won by Justin in a coin flip. He steps into the leg loops of a purple climbing harness he calls ‘Swami’, straps on silver carabineers, and squeezes between two parallel rebar with a thumbs up. I lean over the grate to watch him rappel down the center of the long tube, his headlamp revealing a widening at midpoint of the descent to a cavern. He touches bottom in thirty seconds, hollers up, ‘Climber down,’ and I withdraw into myself.
Andrew motions me to the pit rim. ‘Come sit with me, Bo.’ I thrust trembling hands into my deep pockets with feet dangling over the abyss. ‘This is a routine descent really,’ he says gently. ‘Put on the waist harness.’ I step into it and fasten the belt snugly as I’d studied Justin do. ‘This carabineer snaps from the harness to this belay plate that the descent rope runs through. Push the belay plate away from you to drop, and pull it toward you to stop.’ Now Andrew moves from the hole and I sit alone, peering into the portal.
I edge forward, exhale and hardly slide between the two rebar. Under the grate, I grab an iron and hang inside the tube a second- thinking back fifty years to a chinning youth in the family fallout shelter. Then take a deep breath and let go. The sensation is of a spider on a tether of silk in free space.
The free descent key is the belay plate attached between the harness and vertical rope. The rope runs through the plate causing friction along the descent. I play the plate closer to my body to slow the rappel, away to speed the fall. The ground, brightened by Justin’s lamp, draws suddenly up until my feet touch. I take the first deep breath in what seems a long time as Justin claps my back ‘Well done!’
Our strategy is for the two subterranean searchers to strike out for the Civil Defense treasure while Andrew remains aloft in case of emergency. He has the only cell phone that doesn’t work beneath. We are allotted one hour to find the cache and return to the vent, or Andrew will rappel to investigate. Now, separated by 80’ but tied by synchronized watches, we bid adieus and take the first steps along a 20’ wide tunnel.
Real perils may lie ahead, and we advance gingerly looking down for drop-offs, up for cave-ins and side-to-side for rattlers in the walls. ‘We must mark every turn also,’ I advise him, ‘And look back often to recall features for the return.’ I finger fifty white elastic ponytail bands in my breast pocket on which our survival hinges.
Justin takes the lead with a Black Diamond headlamp that brightens the passage 30-feet ahead. I lag ten yards behind for potential drop-offs or cave-ins using a AAA Mini-Mag light. A rail runs beneath our feet and electric lines course the ceiling off which innumerable side passages take branches of both lines. We keep to the main stem, forking again and again, where we mark our way with the hair elastics stretched around rocks.
After thirty minutes of exploration with countless delays into blind alleys, I sadden that we must turn around without the ‘gold’. Suddenly Justin cries, ‘There’s a water barrel ahead!’ and we scramble to a green drum 2’-diameter and 3’-tall with black print on the side: ‘Survival Supplies. Office of Civil Defense. 17.5 gallons.’ We spot lights down the tunnel to reveal another barrel, and more… ‘The vein!’ I yell, and we hasten through it.
At an intersection of sundry passages the ceiling raises abruptly to thirty feet. The mother lode! Hundreds of sealed water drums stack to the roof, though a few are burned from an early vandalism. I see also hundreds of 6’’x8’’’x16’’ biscuit tins with print on the sides: ‘Civil Defense All-Purpose Survival Biscuits. Date of Pack: Feb. 1962. Ingredients: Flour, sugar… Net wt. 5 lb. 14 oz.’
We crack one of the survival tins and sample wafers that appear and taste like fresh Graham Crackers. ‘They were packaged before I was!’ booms Justin. ‘If we get trapped down here,’ I rejoin, ‘We’ll live to philosophize a hundred years.’ Instead we excavate a dozen mint tins and load our packs and arms.
Tunnels with continuing supplies including medical tins spoke in all directions from the mother lode. Yet, our watches tick incessantly and we can’t explore everything. We reverse the maze spotting the white bands all the way to the air vent screaming, ‘Biscuit fever!’
I thrust a gold tin under the cone of light at the portal- it gleams- and shout, ‘Look down!’ Andrew’s tiny form shows in the distant aperture and his shout echoes up and down, ‘Nuggets!’
Justin ascends professionally to topside. Then Andrew rappels smoothly. We speedily retrace the white bands to the biscuit veins and mine many more.
With ample time to explore, we set off into new tunnels. The immeasurable maze is often lined with pre-century electric wires and fixtures along the ceiling. We reach one side tunnel that slopes 50 feet down to a second level coursed by a railroad track. Soon our way opens to a large auditorium with a dozen natural 20’-thick pillars left by the original blasters. ‘Light out,’ begs Andrew, and then, ‘Whoo! he murmurs inside the black silence.
We select one of ten passages exiting the amphitheater, elastic it, and advance. Later the air grows stale. I shine my mouth-held penlight at the wristwatch and mark twenty minutes remaining. We reverse direction to the dimming shaft of light below the portal.
Andrew signals me to the rope. ‘The ascent is called the Texas Prusik after the two prusik knots around the vertical and the Texas cavern where the technique was developed. The two knots provide friction against the vertical, so you will slide one knot at a time with your hands to ‘inch’ higher and higher up the rope. One prusik line attaches to your harness and the other forms a loop for one foot. Go ahead and step into that one.’ I do and, with the waistline also attached to the vertical rope, discover I can, by alternating the body weight from the foot to the waist lines, push one knot a foot at a time higher. Soon I dangle ten feet above the cave floor and look down to see Andrew encourage me higher with a raised fist.
Twenty minutes later, and fifty feet above the cavern base, I hear him scrabble below and surmise he’s lingered to this point to block my fall. Now it’s up to me. I shinny another twenty feet almost to the tube top where I must rest my tired hands. I lean back in the harness from the vertical and look back in the black with total serenity. My acrophobia nightmare is a dream come true.
We all pop out the hole at sunset.
‘I’ll donate my tins to Dad’s WWII memorabilia,’ chimes Andrew at the brink. ‘I’m going to eat mine,’ relishes Justin. ‘I’ll turn mine into gold on eBay,’ I claim.
It was a hard day at the Biscuit Mine.
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