Recently, a friend at work lent me the book Journal of the Dead by Jason Kersten. The book describes the killing of David Coughlin, a young Massachusetts man, by the hands of his friend Raffi Kodikian.
I've been to Rattlesnake Canyon before. Noelle and I hiked there in the fall of 2002, just after we had both started working at the caverns as seasonal interpreters. The hike had been so long ago, that I don't remember much in the way of details, but I do have a few photos from our walk. I recall that we hiked the lower section of Rattlesnake Canyon, because I remember walking past the ruins of the old homestead there and the few photos of our hike were taken at the homestead. On another occasion I hiked the upper part of Rattlesnake Canyon by myself. I hiked it as a loop combined with the Guadalupe Ridge Trail and Walnut Canyon Scenic Loop Road. One aspect of my solo hike that sticks in my mind is the odd thing that I found on that hike. It was just a small, torn-off piece of a business card. On the one side, though torn, I could make out that it originally belonged to someone who worked at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. On the other side was written the word HELP! At the time I didn't think much of it. I picked it up and threw it in the trash, but when I mentioned it to a co-worker he told me about the killing that had happened there. Could that small scrap of paper have been a piece of evidence that had been overlooked from the murder investigation? I had always been curious.
When I got to the park I dropped Noelle off at work. Unfortunately, the Loop Road was not yet open, and so I killed some time by walking the nature trail and then checking the weather on the computer. It was going to be a hot one! The forecast called for temperatures in the city of Carlsbad to top out at 109. At least the weather would give me an idea of what conditions were like in Rattlesnake Canyon for the two friends. In case you are not aware of the story David Coughlin and Raffi Kodikian were traveling across the country as Coughlin moved to California for graduate school. They had stopped in Nashville, Austin and a few other cities as they made their way west. Almost as an afterthought, they decided to visit Carlsbad Caverns to see the world-famous subterranean chambers. Because they had arrived late, they decided to get a permit to camp in the backcountry. The ranger instructed them to Rattlesnake Canyon. They were ill-prepared for travel in the rugged Chihuahuan Desert. Their fatal mistake was not taking enough water.
The loop road opened at around 8:30. I drove the dirt and gravel road to the trailhead and parked there. I was surprised to see another car already there. I changed into my hiking boots and made my way down the entrance trail.
From the homestead ruins I headed back up the canyon back to the junction where the "Entrance Trail" headed to the trailhead and my car. I decided to head to the upper part of the canyon and the Guadalupe Ridge Trail. There is no actual trail in the upper part of the canyon. The route simply follows the dry wash upstream.
Soon I started to make my way out of the canyon. I could look back to the rugged, serpentine bends of the canyon I had just hiked out of.
As for the business card that I found down there with the word HELP! written on it. Kersten mentions in the book that over a year after Coughlin's untimely death in the canyon, a hiker named Brian Tenney found "ripped-up business cards, with notes from Emily Shulman asking for help." It turns out that like, Kodikian and Coughlin, Schulman had gotten lost and dehydrated in Rattlesnake Canyon. Luckily, Emily Schulman's story has a much happier ending. She was found later that day waving a T-shirt to the search plane that spotted her.