Down under: Arizona boasts the 'show cave of the century'

  "I love caves."


Just a whisper in the dim light of the cavern, and not addressed to me, but to a husband from his wife.


I almost turned and said, "Me too," then remembered we were on a cave tour - everyone on it probably loved caves.


Until that tour of Kartchner Caverns State Park, I'd never thought much about why I loved them. I figured it was the same as some people's love of outer space: all that dark unknown.


In some ways, Kartchner Caverns remained unknown even longer. A man walked on the moon before the cave ever registered a footprint. Not until 1974 did two young cave hunters exploring the Whetstone Mountains in southeastern Arizona crawl down through muddy tunnels to discover this series of caverns.


With Carlsbad at 36 miles and Mammoth over 300, Kartchner is modest in length at just over two. But size is not what makes this cave system extraordinary. Nor do its two main galleries with 100-foot-high ceilings dripping with colorful stalactites and floors jutting up with matching stalagmites set it apart. What is extraordinary is that the cave was found late enough to profit from the mistakes made at other caves, and thereby, perhaps, remain alive.


That's what the explorers wanted. They waited four years to tell the property owners, James and Lois Kartchner. After clandestine meetings and quiet work by the Legislature, Arizona State Parks bought the cave for $1.8 million from the Kartchners in 1988.


Ken Travous, director of state parks, said his staffers spent the first four years just studying the place: "The day we've quit worrying is the day we've not done our job."


Before my group tour, I meandered through the fine new museum - aka Discovery Center - and read up on different formations, or speleothems, we'd see along the way, ones they've taken such care to preserve. I liked that so many of them were named for food: "fried egg" stalagmites, ceiling bacon, butterscotch, popcorn. Soda straws are so fragile, if you breathe on them, they break.


I liked it all, but I preferred the sound of dripping water they'd piped in to the exhibits, the dim lighting. I liked that cave mood.


Then I came upon a display of the explorers' old mud-crusted boots, memorialized behind glass. I had heard about those boots earlier in the day, when I stopped in nearby Benson for lunch. Across from the new old-fashioned train depot rising up on Benson's main drag, the Horse Shoe Cafe, with its 10-foot horseshoe on the restaurant's wooden ceiling blazing in white neon, has been dishing up eats since 1937. Diners who show their ticket from the state park get a discount. Since the park opened, employees estimate their business is up 40 percent.


As it happens, this was also the hang-out of Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, the college students who found the cave. The two explorers used to come into the Horse Shoe to chow down after their adventures, boots crusted in mud. Since most of the formations inside the cave are named after food, you know they were hungry.


The day they found the sinkhole, the cave was exhaling the smell of bat guano. For 25 feet, the hole was so narrow, they had to stick one arm overhead and push themselves forward with the tips of their toes, just hoping for something on the other side. It was a 200-foot bellycrawl before the explorers could stand upright.


I'm still staring at those boots when an intercom calls my group outside.


From the Discovery Center, an electric tram shuttles each tour group to the cave entrance. It would be an easy enough walk, but with the high volume of visitors - almost 500 a day since opening Nov. 12, 1999 - tours are carefully orchestrated.


"No one's ever done anything like this," public information officer Ellen Bilbrey tells me as we're waiting to enter the first door into the cave. "Anyone that has a show cave is calling us."


Show cave?


A moment later she says, "Basically, we're trying to teach people what it's like to be a wild caver, a spelunker."


On a guided path?


Our tour guide is giving what sounds like a carefully rehearsed spiel. I am riveted, though, when she says, "In the highly unlikely event the lights do go out, please remain calm. Don't start screaming. We will start screaming."


I cross my fingers for a power failure, and under my breath, ask Bilbrey about claustrophobia. Does anyone ever suffer panic attacks in the course of the tour?


Sure, she says. About once a week, after the first door clangs shut, someone starts flushing red. Rangers can spot the transformation right away.


We enter the first door. Already the humidity shoots way up. This cavern system has more water than a tropical rainforest system, says our guide.


That door clangs shut behind us and I look around hopefully. Will someone please freak out on us?


No one does.


Through the second door, we enter the conservation chamber, dimmer than the first, its lighting indirect.


The Arizona State Parks Department had to develop the cave without destroying the unique micro-environmment that made the cave's calcite decorations so colorful. The cave is 68 degrees and 99 percent humidity year round - environmental stations constantly monitor the high humidity and moderate temperatures, since its "vital signs' contrast dramatically with the dry, hot Chihuahan Desert above. The cave exchanges air through its sinkhole every four or five days, the same hole the bats still use, but evaporation is 800 times greater outside the cavern - if all the doors were left open, every formation would dry up in three weeks.


We enter the Rotunda Room, the length of a football field, its ceiling 100 feet high. The floor of this room is mud. Deep mud. We're told engineers sank a 20-foot PVC pipe and in some spots never hit bottom. Looking across these wet, cracked mud flats, we see the path Tufts and Tenen followed into the cave, those steps first taken a quarter-century ago. Only one set, because with every trip, more than 100, they only used one path. We see the bucket they used each time to scrape off their boots before venturing farther.


"The mud is greedy" here, says our guide. I think how it must have sucked at their boots.


The steps lead away, disappear into the dark. I want to follow them, but of course we're led away, up a ramp, and now I understand why cave tours disappoint: I don't want to tour these caves. I want to discover them.


Maybe caves unleash an innate human craving for discovery. If so, it's not the sort of craving that can be satisfied by a stroll through a discovery center, despite its name, or on gently lit and graded paths that wend us safely through. Discovery requires something unexpected, even incomprehensible. Some revelation.


Before we enter the second big room, our guide stops us. "Have we met or even surpassed your expectations?" she asks.


Who cares about our expectations? I think. You didn't make this, and it wasn't made for us.


If the raw cave wasn't made for us, its display was. In the Throne Room, the walking path winds upward to a three-row amphitheater and it is clear that we have reached the apex of our tour. The lights dim and magically, music rises - the sort of music you would get if you crossed Enya with an African children's choir. It's pretty enough, even tasteful, but as in a movie, when the music swells, one knows that if one is ever supposed to feel something, it's now. I resent it.


A moment later the light show begins. First one formation is lit and then another, near and far, high and low. There are good reasons for doing it this way. At the Mammoth Caves, formations have turned algae-green from long-term exposure to light.


Here the light bounces, provides depth, contour, subtlety. Everything about the cave seems masterful, and in good taste.


"Show cave of the millennium," Bilbrey says as we exit the amphitheater.


On the way out, the tour guide asks if we're satisfied with our experience. I see that as tourists, experience translates to product. We are not discoverers, but consumers.


Our money has bought more than a good show, of course. It's bought this cave, unlike so many before it, protection. On the day the park opened, I got a chance to talk to Gary Tenen, one of the explorers, about that.


"The discovery wasn't really the significant thing," he said then. "It was that for some reason as kids we were able to understand that this park needed to be protected and come up with a plan. The stewardship is really the story, not the discovery."


They had seen what happened to other caves without protection, such as Peppersauce Cave, north of Tucson.


"It's terrible, what's been done to that cave," Tenen said. "I guess every community leaves a cave like Peppersauce, where people can go to have their beer parties. It's sad."


The stewardship by Arizona State Parks is the story, and it is a success story, at that. Kartchner Caverns is beautifully done. It is also a show cave. It has no choice.


As we march toward the exit, I feel a certain relief. It's not the light I missed - the light seems harsh - but the fresh, buoyant air. This, at least, I imagine the explorers must have felt, too, each time they emerged from their muddy hole. It's that mud I will remember, and those bootprints, as they trek into darkness and that rarest of things, a land unknown.


Former High Country News intern Karen Mockler reports for the Daily Astorian in Oregon.

Kartchner Caverns State Park cave tours are full through May, with weekends full through July. The number to call for reservations is 520/586-2283.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Karen Mockler