Tim Woodward: The beauty beneath our feet

November 24, 2013 

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 don’t top a lot of lists. Who wants to crawl around in a cave when you can be enjoying the desert sunshine?

That’s what I thought, at least, until a friend told me she’d been to Kartchner Caverns three times.

“They’re one of the most beautiful thing’s I’ve ever seen!” she said. “It’s a living cave! You’ve got to go there.”

We took her advice — and learned just how impressive caves can be.

From outside, Kartchner Caverns doesn’t look like much — just a couple of nondescript hills on the cactus-dotted slopes that make up the landscape of southeastern Arizona. That’s 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. Let’s take a stalactite home to Uncle Horace.”

That didn’t 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 won’t 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 don’t 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 woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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