Editor's Note: Tim Woodward spent part of October and this month in the Southwest. This is the first of two columns from the trip.
BENSON, Ariz. Most visitors to the Southwest are drawn by its warm climate, cultural diversity and sporting events caves dont top a lot of lists. Who wants to crawl around in a cave when you can be enjoying the desert sunshine?
Thats what I thought, at least, until a friend told me shed been to Kartchner Caverns three times.
Theyre one of the most beautiful things Ive ever seen! she said. Its a living cave! Youve got to go there.
We took her advice and learned just how impressive caves can be.
From outside, Kartchner Caverns doesnt look like much just a couple of nondescript hills on the cactus-dotted slopes that make up the landscape of southeastern Arizona. Thats all anyone thought they were until Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen came along. Cave junkies, they were exploring a sinkhole on a November day in 1974 when they hit the spelunkers jackpot.
Twisting through a crack, they found two small rooms and a crawl space ending at a saucer-sized hole. With a small sledgehammer, they enlarged it enough to wriggle through and found themselves in a different world: glistening stalactites and stalagmites, stone spires, spaces so vast that their lights got lost in them. It was like a set from Journey to the Center of the Earth. There were no footprints or any other signs that humans had ever been there.
They were the perfect men to make such a discovery. And James and Lois Kartchner, who owned the land above, proved to be the ideal stewards. They could have put up a sign and charged admission, resulting in graffiti and destruction of mineral formations millennia in the making:
Get out the hatchet, Billy. Lets take a stalactite home to Uncle Horace.
That didnt happen, because from the beginning preservation was the top priority. The caves were kept so secret that not even legislators who approved their purchase for a state park knew what they were approving until the final vote. It took 14 years for that to happen, another 11 to install walkways, lighting and other amenities with virtually no vandalism or the sort of missteps made at other parks.
Consultants from Carlsbad Caverns, for example, warned against repeating their mistakes of installing elevators or a parking lot above the caves, which upsets the delicate forces that created them. The result is that Kartchner Caverns is still pristine, still living (the dripping water that created them continues to do so), still awe-inspiring.
A tram takes guests from the visitors center to the entrance. From there you walk through four doors that keep out the desert air and maintain an average humidity of 99 percent. You pass through blowers and misters to remove contaminants from your clothes. The environment is so fragile that you cant touch anything. If you do, you tell the guide, the spot is marked, and the oil from your skin is later removed.
The caverns are smaller than Carlsbad, but more colorful. Minerals absorbed by water percolating through the soil above create hues from white to gray, brown, gold, rust, blue, green.
But colors dont begin to describe the unearthly shapes or their impact.
There are soda straws, for example long, thin stalactites that take 750 years to grow an inch. One is nearly 21 feet tall. You dont want to be the one to trip and break it.
Food seems to be everywhere: Fried-egg formations white around the edges with yellow yolks in the center. Cave bacon looks like giant slabs of its namesake. There are popcorn formations, turnip formations, carrot formations we passed giant icicles, curtains resembling lush draperies, columns, totems, moon milk ... it seemed endless.
At the end of one of the two tours that are offered, the guide turned off the lights. Gradually, other lights illuminated the other-worldly features of the aptly named throne room. I wont even try to describe it. But the feeling it evoked in the awed silence was something like reverence.
When we think about the beauty of the natural world, we think of mountains and forests, lakes and rivers, seashores. ... We dont stop to think about the world beneath our feet as different from the one above as it could be, and in its own way just as spectacular.
Now I know why my friend went three times.
© 2013 Idaho Statesman
Tim Woodward's column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.