GLENWOOD CANYON — Over Labor Day weekend two years ago, Andrea Croskrey and a friend came here from Denver to explore Cave of the Clouds, a two-room cave with a crawlspace-sized entrance nestled high upon a sheer scree canyon wall above the Colorado River near No Name.
They were in the cave for a few hours, taking pictures of stalagmites and spotting indigenous big-eared bats. Croskrey exited the cave and stepped into the bright daylight. As her eyes slowly adjusted to the sun, a strange figure came into focus. He was two feet in front of her.
His skin was thick and leathery, his clothes dirty. He wore a long white beard, matching his longer white hair. He said nothing, but stared at her with his brilliant blue eyes.
“I knew who it was,” Croskrey remembers. “I had been told there was a man living in some of the caves up here but that he wasn’t harmful. I was shocked, though. I just said, ‘Oh, you startled me.’”
He didn’t speak, but simply pointed at her, then pointed down the cliffside. As if to signal, “You. Get outta here.”
She hollered for her caving partner, who was still inside Cave of the Clouds.
“I yelled and said, ‘Hey Jeff, there’s a guy out here who wants us to leave!’”
With that the white-bearded man ran into the cave.
“It was worrisome,” Croskrey recalls, “I had heard he was schizophrenic. And I knew he was upset that there was somebody in the cave. And now he was in there alone with Jeff.”
Moments later, Jeff came out without incident and they hiked down from the cave.
About seven months later a father and son were climbing in the same area, 100 feet or so above Cave of the Clouds. They came upon a curious sight — part of another cave boarded up with a tight log facade and a wooden door. The son looked through a small Plexiglas window nailed into the door.
Inside there was a human body, dead and rotting.
Paul McCartney the Caveman
The coroner later identified the deceased as Gary Petkus, but around Glenwood Springs everybody knew him as “Paul McCartney.”
“That’s what he’d always say if you asked his name; he’d say ‘I’m Paul McCartney’ like the Beatle,” says Tom Ice, a longtime local, volunteer with Garfield County Search and Rescue, and part of the team that scaled up to the cave to recover Petkus’ body when it was discovered in late March 2008. “We’d see him down in Glenwood fairly often. He’d hike down, go get a couple bags of groceries, and then you’d see him heading back up there.”
Several uncashed checks made out to Petkus from his mother were in the cave with him when he died, at 57, of what the coroner called natural causes. Authorities believe that support from his mother was the only income he had in his time here.
Locals say Petkus had been hermitted in his cave for as long as 30 years. Tom Ice says everybody knew the cave-dweller was up there somewhere, but never had reason to kick him out. The cave is on private land, and the owner never complained. And there was almost never anyone besides Petkus that high up the canyon wall.
“What are you going to do with him? There’s never any foot traffic up there because the terrain is so harsh,” Ice says. “And the owner, she may not have even known he was there.”
Petkus was originally from a small town on the outskirts of the Chicago metropolitan area. He left after high school and eventually landed here, at his perch about 850 feet above the Colorado River, with a stunning view of it snaking through this red rock canyon where the elevation is almost 6,600 feet above sea level.
“I heard he came out here in the late ’70s and he went off his rocker,” says Dave Lambert, one of seven cavers from the Colorado Grotto organization who volunteered to clean out Petkus’s cave last weekend. “And he just came up here, I guess.”
The limestone den he settled in is known as Big Entrance Cave because, yes, it has an extremely wide entrance. You can actually see it from Interstate 70: if you’re heading east it’s way up the canyon wall on your left just after you come out of No Name Tunnel.
Big Entrance quickly narrows into a small space, just tall enough for a man to stand in and about the size of a college freshman’s dorm room. This is where Petkus built his homestead.
Heather Rousseau/Aspen Daily NewsVolunteers with the Front Range chapter of the Speleological Society finish their climb up to Big Entrance Cave to clean up garbage and belongings that collected there for about 30 years.
He blocked it off with a wall of logs connected together with string and some nails likely found along the abandoned aqueduct on the canyon floor. He stuffed foam insulation between the logs and installed a wood door with a small window and steel hinges.
Inside he had a homemade table and a log from which he hung clothes. A pile of foam pads and blankets served as his mattress. Candles remain, along with some blackened stone indicating Petkus built fires here. But there are no flashlights or headlamps or battery-powered lanterns. Down in Cave of the Clouds he left behind cups he used to catch and collect water.
In Petkus’s cave there are still many pairs of hiking and caving boots. There are plates from a fine China set. There’s a bucket of sludge. A Playboy from 1999. And this intriguing item: a paperback book called “The Cave of the Ancients” by Lobsang Rampa. It’s a tale of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and ancient spiritual traditions that took place in Himalayan caves — perhaps a hint that Petkus was not simply a troglodyte loner who thought he was Paul McCartney, maybe a sort of spiritual seeker.
Or maybe not. Inside “The Cave of the Ancients,” Petkus stuffed some handwritten notes on folded white paper, including what appear to be some attempts at haiku:
Her [illegible] Stan
and she meant it.
Hours of his one river —
Also some nonsensical scribblings, like,
their wine pencil
(Pineapples help Love). . .
He also left behind a handwritten calendar titled “Black Bug. . . DECEMBER,” where he noted the days he left the cave to go into Glenwood Springs, marking them “town.”
Big Entrance, big cleanup
Though he lived and died in a cave, Petkus was not quite living off the land, nor was the recluse a very good steward of the cave that sheltered him for so many years. He kept two deep trash pits — still filled with empty bags of Ruffles and Snickers wrappers, coffee cans, plastic City Market bags and peanut butter jars, lots of peanut butter jars.
“He sure was a fan of peanut butter,” exclaims Paul Ryan, another of the volunteer cavers.
And, mind you, they are “cavers,” not “spelunkers.” It turns out “spelunker” is an epithet in cave lingo — sort of like “gaper” in the skiing world. “A spelunker is someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing underground,” explains Amy Bern, a forensic chemist with the Environmental Protection Agency and a recreational caver who joined the cleanup effort last weekend. “We like to say, ‘Cavers rescue spelunkers.’”
Their subculture is similar to the rock-climbing cult (take away the suntans, add some lovable science geekery).
The Denver-based caving crew, whose Grotto organization is sponsored by the National Speological Society, are here to erase Petkus’s legacy from Big Entrance Cave. His settlement — and his trash — are believed to be polluting the cave’s slow-dripping water, which eventually runs off into the Colorado River. And his presence made Big Entrance uninhabitable for big-eared bats.
Caves are sensitive ecosystems, and cavers adhere to stringent hands-off guidelines when they camp in them. “Any organism living in the caves will be affected by someone living in there,” Bern explained. “And why would we want those organisms to live in a trash heap?”
But getting Petkus’s mounds of belongings and his rubbish down the canyon wall is no easy task. Hiking it out would take hundreds of trips. So the cavers, with the assistance of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and their search and rescue team, set up a series of four zip lines to get it down.
They load Petkus’ belongings and his trash into garbage bags, then stuff the bags into duffels. They hook the duffels up to the zip lines with carabiner, then send them down the canyon. Some cavers repel down to the two lower stations, where they switch the bags from zip line to zip line.
At the very bottom, volunteers load the last evidence of Gary Petkus’s long subterranean hermitage into a Dumpster.
They sent dozens of bags down from the cave but they didn’t quite finish the job. After two full days of sending Petkus’s detritus down the zip lines, a whole weekend of steep climbs and repels in the August heat, they ran out of time. Petkus just left too much behind.
The volunteers are hoping to come back in the spring to finish up.
“It was tough,” said Ice, of the county search and rescue group. “Nobody has ever done anything like this here before.” email@example.com