An archaeology of dread

David Feela - 08/10/2017

Just like that noted Egyptologist, Howard Carter – the one who discovered King Tut’s mummified remains surrounded by a breathtaking array of splendid treasures – except in my case, no treasures. All I’d come nose-to-nose with in the dim tomb-like confines turned out to be the desiccated carcass of a cat that had never belonged to me. I bagged the corpse and dragged it out of the crawlspace. Then, sucking a few more gulps of fresh air, I went back in to fix a leaking water pipe.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes, a sentiment that must hold true for crawlspaces. As a boy from the Mid-
west, I was raised in houses with full basements. My subterranean subconscious tells me they still stand for stalwart tornado shelters, laundry rooms, workshops, root cellars, and even musty bedrooms. But I never experienced a crawlspace until moving to the Southwest.

My catacomb-like expanse stretched out the length of our 1970s doublewide trailer, yet was barely 2 feet high. Previous owners had stacked field stones around the residence to substitute as skirting, then plastered the stones together with cement. The outside sunlight filtered through myriad holes and cracks where the cement had fallen away. Spiderwebs hung like beaded curtains. I absolutely did not want to be in that space and had avoided it for years. In fact, when we first purchased the place, it required only a cursory peek behind the access flap with a flash-light to assure me that nothing could possibly go wrong under there!

Of course, sewer lines seep, pipes freeze, critters creep and snakes slither. It’s deterioration was enhanced by human nature’s willingness to build as cheaply as possible and then sell while the getting out is good. Clean crawl-spaces actually exist, with vapor barriers, tight foundation footings, leveling and lighting, but not where I’ve lived. One home I inspected came with the equivalent of a bear den under the floor, another with a set of trenches straight out of the history books from WWI. My tour of duty began when I moved to Cortez. Though the city enjoys an average of 240 sunny days annually, there are dark places people don’t talk about.

The only way to reach my water pipes required unrolling a long black avenue of sheet plastic which I pulled myself along, using its slickness against my back while grabbing the undercarriage of the mobile home’s metal

frame. Dust clouded my vision with each foot of progress. My partner in excavation stood somewhere above me tapping a broomstick against the kitchen floor, emitting a kind of wooden sonar designed to help me locate the offending leak. I wore a headlamp like a miner, its beam punctuating my fright each time it lighted on some creepy shadow off in the distance.

The dirt floor was littered with rusted cans, beer bottles, mason jars, useless lengths of pipe, a Barbie doll, crumpled and yellowed newspaper, and shards of tin, all amid the rubble of wood and concrete blocks that once propped up the trailer’s frame. I began to suspect a hidden trapdoor existed in the floor above me where former residents simply dropped their trash.

How else could this mess have arrived? Unless people host secret crawlspace gatherings, plotting the overthrow of governments, near and far. I wasn’t sure.

With a shudder of despair I noticed that no cables had been secured to keep the trailer from flying away in a Wizard-of-Oz-ish fashion, so I knew I’d be underneath again, tethering my worries. Then the critter agenda manifested itself, a gap in the stones where an unidentified flurry of furry critters had left evidence of their visitations. My head-lamp swept the area like a searchlight, expecting to find a set of glowing eyes staring back at me. All I found was a dusty soda bottle tipped on its side, only the crescent of its bottom still visible above the soft dirt like a new moon on its way to ground.

Eventually I located and fixed the pipe, which proved to be much easier than I’d expected. The task required all my concentration, so immediately all the ghosts receded from my imagination as I shuttled back and forth along my plastic slide, retrieving the tools I needed.

But I should also mention the curse that manifested itself as a result of opening the crawlspace. Every time I even think about going back down there, a trickle of sweat works its way down my temple. When I think about something else, it goes away. Imagine that.