Friday I looked forward to the gorgeous Fall weather and camping out on the Medina River at Paradise Canyon. We loaded up truck, gear and dog and battled San Antonio traffic to arrive at our destination just as the sun's rays disappeared behind oaks and cedars in a magenta-streaked sky. We rolled into the campground at 7:09 PM- south Austin time! The site is reserved only for cavers. The event pulls in a crowd of 3-400 people usually.
Upon arrival, we were welcomed by long-time friends who came from out-of-state, in-state and out-of-country for the reunion. For 33 years Texas Cavers have convened for food, fun and organizational meetings and awards to advance the study and preservation of caves in Texas. Some other factions represented here besides Texas groups, spear-headed by local leaders are the Association for Mexican Cave Studies and International Congress of Speleology.
With the excitement of this annual event gearing up on Friday night, most of us wander around the campground greeting friends and making new acquaintances throughout the evening as more people trickle in. I don't wander far from base camp anymore. I wear a plastic-molded leg brace that keeps me from falling on uneven ground. Nevertheless, I limit the amount I trudge around these days.
The campground experience is like an ancient gathering of nomads. Very few lights are visible in this campground after dark and I hear no blaring music tonight. Cavers don't mind navigating in the dark. It is amazing how much light the stars and ambient light can provide.
Some folks go to the river bank for a night swim, others stay in small camps near tents and vehicles and catch up on the lives of friends.
I think I climbed into my sleeping bag near midnight, still hearing lots of talk and laughing at camps around me.
I elected to sleep on the ground next to the river, to look at the stars and relish the cooler temperatures. I laid my ground tarp in the apex of a triangle, one side a trickle of a stream draining into the cove, the other side a still pool of water that had a gentle earthy fragrance of decomposing vegetation. I inhaled the night. I felt ground under my bones. My eyes scanned the heavens, twinkling stars replaced thoughts of blinking artificial digital billboards and teaming rush hour traffic headlights lighting the path to here earlier in the evening.
My patient partner piled into the camper in the back of the pickup truck.
Sure enough Orion stretched out over my head, visible through lacy cypress branches. I rearranged cushioning, covers and pillows. After star gazing flat on my back, I flipped from one side to the other. My dog retreated into her nearby dog crate, seeking a less busy place than alongside me.
I wasn't really expecting to sleep out there in the open.
My mind drifted to memories of adventures over the years in remote rural Mexico.
How my life had changed from penniless caver/archeologist to the staid state employee planning retirement.
I was sleeping on the ground to celebrate that I could still do it after hand surgery and a number of foot surgeries. It was important that I do some of the things that gave me pleasure when I was younger.
Gradually, out of the fog of a tired mind and body, I became aware of revving of motors and nearby vehicles speeding around. I hear a loud "Hey!". More motors. Silence.
First, I dismissed the commotion as late arrivals not adjusting their speed or headlights to the crowded campground.
I imagined perturbed campers were warning the vehicles to slow down and dim their lights.
The night air was cold and damp. I shift some more, scooting deeper down in my bag.
At first the sirens sounded far off in the distance. By the time I realized how close they were at the camp ground gate, the cover of night broke wide open with flashing lights throbbing -red, white, blue strobes emanating from the emergency vehicles. I didn't get up. I closed my eyes. We were only 30 minutes from downtown San Antonio. I thought the sirens part of an urban Friday night.
Make it go away. I don't want this reality piercing my dream world tonight.
I am feeling nature in the beauty of a river bank, under ancient cypress, listening to soft gurgling waters.
I am content in my place, in the middle of my community of friends.
I tried to make sense of what was happening from the safety of my cocoon. Wrapped in my mummy bag peering out, I called out to Ron in the pickup bed, "Are you awake? What is going on?"
He thought it was a fire truck. There was a burn ban, but campfires in pits were allowed. I wondered if there was a wild fire in the canyon.
The siren cut off, but the lights continued to flash. I don't know how much time elapsed. I asked Ron what time was it. He said 1:30 AM. I finally got up and went to the opened tailgate of the camper. Ron remained in his sleeping bag unconcerned with the presence of the now 3 emergency vehicles. Whatever was going on was far enough away to dismiss but close enough to intrude on our sleep.
"Someone must have had a heart attack" Ron posited, thinking of his many friends in their 60's and 70's that were here. In fact he was celebrating 40 years exploring caves in Carta Valley,Texas with friends. In my mind I think it likely some younger guys getting into trouble or being rowdy.
Our local campsite was quiet, no one aroused. I hear snoring from the popup camper on my right. I can't see through the trees or past the porta-potties to make out details of the emergency vehicles.
I have lapsed CPR and First Aid training. With my mobility impairment and recent broken arm, sadly I am more of a liability than asset to my community.
Something bad has happened. Someone is dealing with bad news tonight and I don't know what.
Realizing there wasn't much we could do, I returned to lie down under the stars again. Deep in the heart of Texas, the stars are big and bright.
Ron says first the ambulance left, then the fire truck and we heard other vehicles leave. I didn't sleep much. I opened my eyes and see Orion slip further down into the glassy dark waters of the Medina River. Lily pads floating on top silhouette in the night.
Time passes. I don't feel like I have slept. Near sunrise, I get up to visit the porta-can and meet a friend who had slept through the incident in the night and can contribute no new information.
Up at dawn, I started to walk around the campground close to the entrance gate, greeting friends who were up looking for coffee. I knew some friends had plans to kayak the river and were setting up a shuttle with trucks.
No one I encountered knew anything. Surprisingly several people had slept through the noise and light show. Tents and campers had muffled sounds and hidden the lights. I went and crawled back into the camper with Ron until Bill, one of my first caver friends from 33 yrs ago, came over with the news.
Our friend, Ed Alexander, had been taken to the hospital last night after he was retrieved unconscious from the river.
Despite the efforts of some friends who are first responders, the prognosis was not good.
I busied myself in morning rituals, shaking off the feeling of not having slept with coffee and breakfast. Close to noon when I am loading the pickup truck with sleeping bags and gear, I hear a mournful wail from a nearby campsite. With anguish striking my heart from recognizing the meaning of the shriek, I look out from behind our camper and see my friends' faces as they huddle together on the road.
As mother comforts children, we receive the news of his passing with sorrow, feeling helpless.
Paradise Canyon. One of the most beautiful stretches of land I know in Central Texas.
Hard to imagine hidden dangers in this idyllic setting.
Cavers are notoriously safety-conscious and like to scrutinize incidents to assess what went wrong.
The details around this tragedy may never be known, like so many un-witnessed accidents.
Ed, surrounded by his family and friends, was engaged in doing what he loved.
He was a true adventurer.
He made his home in Mexico and Austin.
He contributed to caving in Texas and Mexico over many years and leaves a legacy for generations to come.
I will miss his wicked sense of humor. I remember last year at this campsite, laughing along with him as we exchanged perspectives of the world. His observations were keen and commentary witty.
Others will share what his life meant to them. He had many so many friends and made his mark in Austin with his life's work.
He leaves a hole bigger than Sotano de las Golondrinas in our hearts.
He lived a rich, full life with many tales to tell.
He epitomized the old gringo character he played in "The Mexican".
Ed played the role of a gringo stuck in Mexico without a US passport to get back over the border to home, content to wait patiently in Mexico, until his fortune might change. His long gray beard in this movie implied that his world had been a land of "mananas" leaving him in limbo in a country that is hard to leave because of deep love for its people and places.
I remember Ed as a father to children that are personable and charming in their own right.
His light burned brightly and went out too soon. Like the meteor streaking through the night sky.
A life too quickly extinguished.
One-of-a-kind Texas caver, we will remember you.
I will remember you on crisp fall days and see you in the clear blue skies.
I will remember your stories when I hear leaves rustling in the breeze.
I will see your face in the central Texas river waters.
The mark Ed made on my life was not only the pleasure of his and his family's company that he shared with me.
He introduced me to many of the special places that mean so much to me.
From limestone caves to the unparalleled vistas of Real de Catorce, it was Ed's lead I followed. He went before, so we could come after him.
Tree of Life spans to the heavens and the underground below. Encompassing spaces far and wide.
River of Life spans the passage of time of eternity. Rebirth, Birth, Cycles of Life.
Photo by Blake and Dominique Harrison July 2009