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Still, she says, the sinkhole did have a fence around it once, back in the 1930s. The Rocksprings Chamber of Commerce put it there, hoping to charge admission and lower tourists into the hole. Business was slow, and one day some local teenage boys ripped the fence off its posts. It was wire mesh. They hung it in the sinkhole as a sort of ladder and climbed down it to explore the cavern. This was a perfect setup for a fatal accident, but none occurred. The sinkhole's fatalities were other young people—a Boy Scout and an 18-year-old woman—who were killed, in separate accidents during the last 30 years, in explorations far more orderly and careful than that of the Rocksprings high school boys.
Since pioneer times, people have looked in at big tumorlike blobs on the walls of the sink and wondered how to get at them. They contain gallons and gallons of honey and aren't easily stolen by man. Cowboys used to shoot at them and glumly watch the honey drip into the hole. Modern cavers seem more interested in exploring—and in avoiding stings.
Honey, bat droppings and crystal-clear lakes make an odd combination, but caves are full of biological and geological curiosities. The Devil's Sinkhole contains crickets, beetles, mites, pseudoscorpions and spiders, and a live diamondback rattlesnake was once found on the mountain. If a baby bat falls from the ceiling, it is quickly consumed by the arthropods that wriggle by the million in the guano below.
The sink contains creatures more appealing than those in the big room. Horned owls nest on ledges; titmice and towhees pick over mosses and lichens as much as 100 feet down. Lucky visitors get to hear the remarkably pure song of the canyon wren, which nests in crevices and forages on the walls.
Some bird watchers come specifically to add cave swallows to their life list. These birds migrate to Texas in the spring and nest in 16 caves and sinkholes on the Edwards Plateau. You can see them there, and in a certain corner of New Mexico, and nowhere else in the U.S. At the Devil's Sinkhole they stick their mud nests on the ceiling of the big room, in areas unoccupied by the bats.
We don't know what the Indians thought of the cave. In this part of the country they were Comanches, Plains Indians who felt uneasy even in open woods. Nor do we know when a white man first saw it. Folklore sets the date at 1867, when the sinkhole lay well beyond the frontier. The first verifiable visitor, Amon Billings, was herding 400 hogs when he came upon the sinkhole in 1876; no one had told him it was there. The earliest date carved in the big room says H. S. BARBER, OCT. 19, 1889. Early explorers went down on flimsy ladders wired to shrubs that grew in the rock. The walls of the sink are never truly vertical. They lean in and out and in places offer ledges and footholds for the daring.
Technology has changed rock climbing. Today's cavers use gadgets like rappel racks and brake bars that make getting up and down ropes and in and out of sinkholes fairly simple. Another school, that of the internal-combustion outdoorsmen, merely drives a truck to the rim, extends a boom over the abyss and lowers people by means of a winch.
The sinkhole's classiest and most unpredictable act is its bat flight. This may or may not take place on the day you go to see it. I tried three times in different years and saw only a few hundred bats come out. A fourth visit was more than satisfactory; it was stunning. Bats are difficult to count but I must have seen millions that day.
Around sundown, two owls and a hawk flew up and lit in the tops of stunted live oaks south of the hole. Cows and calves were bawling half a mile away, a rather pleasant sound at that distance. The cave swallows did a few aerobatics over the hole and dived in for the night.
The stream of bats began thinly, but within five minutes they were pouring out of the sinkhole like black smoke from an industrial stack 60 feet in diameter. Each bat had only enough space to flap its wings in, and together they made a muted, fluttering roar. It seemed marvelous that the principles of flight could work in air that was taking such a beating. The smell of guano was drawn up and out of the hole and became thick and sickening. The strand of bats stretched southward through the air for half a mile. Then it frayed as the bats went different ways for the night.