Sunday, June 10, 2012

Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Rattlesnake Canyon

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.
Journal of the Dead
I have been interested in this book for some time given that I work at Carlsbad Caverns National Park where the killing happened. In addition, Raffi Kodikian is from the suburbs of Philadelphia just like myself. I was so enthralled to finally have a copy of the book that I read it in about a day and a half. After I finished I decided that I needed to go to Rattlesnake Canyon to see where it had all happened.

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.
Rattlesnake Canyon Trailhead
Already it was quite hot with little shade to be found. Eventually, I made my way down to Rattlesnake Canyon itself. The canyon there is marked with a brown sign.
Rattlesnake Canyon Junction
From what I've read the sign didn't exist back in 1999 when the tragedy happened. It was near this junction that the friends disorganized campsite was found by ranger Lance Mattson along with the shallow grave that Kodikian had made for his friend. The two had gotten lost, though its hard to believe they could get lost so close to the trail.  I soon headed down-canyon. Amongst the landmarks that they mentioned in the journal they kept was the old homestead ruins. I went back there to have a look around.
I found the old stove Noelle and I had seen nearly a decade ago.
Old Stove
In addition I found the old sewing machine part that Kersten mentions in his book amongst other scattered artifacts.
Singer Base

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.
Eric in Upper Rattlesnake Canyon
I saw some sotol and lechuguilla in bloom.
Sotol Flowers
Lechuguilla in Flower
I also noticed that some of the prickly pear had ripened  fruit on it.
Prickly Pear Fruit
Coughlin and Kodikian mentioned eating the fruit in their journal. I wonder how they were able to avoid the glochids, the small, barbed, splinter-like spines found covering the fruit. There was not much shade along the route and few animals were active in the heat. I did see a few insects and birds but not much else.
Butterfly Thistle
I didn't even see any snakes or lizards.

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.
Looking Down Rattlesnake Canyon
There was even less shade outside of the canyon than there had been down in it. I was relieved when I could see the Guadalupe Ridge Trail, the old road now being overtaken by grasses. From the trail I made my way to the Scenic Loop Road where I passed the ruins of another homestead.
Cistern Ruins
It's hard to believe people tried to make a living in such an inhospitable place! I walked the road past the Rattlesnake Canyon Overlook and was soon back to my car.
Rattlesnake Canyon Overlook
Unfortunately, David Coughlin never made it back to his. On August 8, 1999 Coughlin was apparently so severely dehydrated that he had asked his friend Raffi Kodikian to put him out of his misery. Kodikian obliged by stabbing him twice in the heart. Its a story so sad that its almost unbelievable.

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. 

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