Kartchner Caverns is a must see! Apr11

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Kartchner Caverns is a must see!

On the way out of Arizona heading east toward New Mexico, there is a State Park called Kartchner Caverns. It was recommended to us by so many people in Tucson, as well as our friends back home, that we easily made the choice to do the extra mileage and visit the park.

It has a pretty amazing story behind it that adds to its beauty. It was discovered by two young avid cavers in 1974, Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts. They’d been looking for caves in the Whetstone Mountains for quite some time, and finally found a narrow crack in the hillside that had warm, moist air flowing out of it. Eau de Bat Guano. They crawled in on bellies, hands and knees and after a couple hours entered a huge, untouched cave filled with formations that had been growing unseen for 50,000 years.

We weren't allowed to bring cameras or phones on our tour, but I found some photos on the Internet.

We weren’t allowed to bring cameras or phones on our tour, but I found some photos on the Internet. &copy Photos courtesy of Arizona State Parks.

The guys immediately sensed the significance of what they had discovered and committed to each other that they would do everything they could to protect the caverns. They kept it a secret for 4 years, knowing that if they told anyone about it, word would spread and the cave would be at risk to vandals. Then they told the property owners, the Kartchners, about the cave and the family agreed about the need for careful action, so it wasn’t until 14 years after it’s discovery that the caverns became public knowledge.

Ali and I had already been discussing the over-sharing aspect of our modern day lives, Facebook, our blog, photos via email and text. We had asked each other the question: Is our experience whole and complete WITHOUT sharing it with someone else who wasn’t there? Yes, of course was the base answer. However, we also agreed that with respect to the blog, there is something about the challenge of trying to describe how we were affected by what we saw, felt, or learned that “ages” the experience so to speak, gives it a new depth of character. And admittedly, there’s an aspect of pride in sharing a great photo or an arrival at somewhere noteworthy or enviable. So when we heard about these young men who kept their phenomenal discovery a secret for so long, we were a little awed, humbled. And just how many places are there left in the United States where you can’t “check in” on Facebook?

Straws

Straws

So finally in 1988, Arizona purchased the land from the Kartchners (for $5M) and it was approved as an Arizona State Park. Extraordinary precautions were taken during it’s development to protect the cave’s condition, $28 million worth, and it is the only “living” cave in the United States. We entered through 3 air-locked transition chambers that control the cave’s climate and we were “spritzed” with a fine mist to control fuzz from our clothing and hair.

The tour we purchased (one of 2 that are available) was to the Throne Room, named for the 58-foot column they call Kubla Kahn that dominates an enormous chamber. But first, we were treated to several other sizable rooms, all lit very dramatically, including one where the “floor” was covered in a thick mud that was of unknown depth (they tried to measure it with a 75 ft pole and didn’t hit the bottom) and an arched ceiling was decorated in thousands of straws. Straws are hollow, different from stalactites, where the water is moving on the inside of the tube-like formation instead of the outside.

Our guide finished her explanation in that room and then asked us all to be quiet and listen for the dripping water from the straws. Every 30 seconds or so, we heard a plink. We stood there for a while in the mostly dark, looking at the single track of footprints in the mud, the only track anyone has used to cross that room in 30 years, staring at the delicate white straws, listening for the sound of another infinitesimal layer of mineral being laid onto one of them in the multitude.

After forty-five minutes of meandering through other rooms and narrow channels, being awed and inspired by some of water’s most gorgeous artwork, it was time to see the masterpiece. Our guide led us in through dim lighting up a path to a set of stone benches. As we took a seat, we could only faintly see the tall bumpy formation stretching from floor to ceiling about 50 feet out in front of us.

The auditorium where we sat and stared at Kubla Khan.

The auditorium where we sat and stared at Kubla Khan.

During the secretive years, the guys used a code word when they talked about the caverns with each other. They called it Xanadu the mystical land of the Coleridge poem, and it was obvious to them that if the caverns were Xanadu, this majestic column must be called Kubla Khan. After our guide recited the first verse, we were treated to a beautiful light show timed with music.

A column is where a stalactite and a stalagmite have meet and become a single formation.

A column is where a stalactite and a stalagmite have meet and become a single formation.

KUBLA KHANSamuel Taylor Coleridge
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

It’s easy to feel small and insignificant in the presence of something so beautiful, so old, so intricate, but it’s also centering, a lesson in time, patience, and the artistry of tiny actions.

50,000 years of gradual artistry.

50,000 years of gradual artistry.