"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.
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
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
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
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
I'm still staring at those boots when an
intercom calls my group outside.
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."
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
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
Sure, she says. About once a week, after
the first door clangs shut, someone starts flushing red. Rangers
can spot the transformation right away.
the first door. Already the humidity shoots way up. This cavern
system has more water than a tropical rainforest system, says our
That door clangs shut behind us and I look
around hopefully. Will someone please freak out on
No one does.
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.
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
"The mud is greedy" here, says our
guide. I think how it must have sucked at their
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
They had seen what happened to other
caves without protection, such as Peppersauce Cave, north of
"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
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
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