How Two Cavers Discovered and Saved One of the Wonders of the Natural World
by Neil Miller
University of Arizona Press, 2008
|In 1974, two young spelunkers lowered themselves down into a sinkhole they had discovered some seven years earlier in
the Whetstone Mountains of southern Arizona. This time they crossed the
threshold and, like Alice through her looking glass, stepped into a wonderland they immediately dubbed as "Xanadu."
||What the young men found was a pristine limestone cave dripping with water and dazzlingly beautiful "speleothems" -- stalactites, stalagmites and other formations -- spread across two large chambers.
This book tells the story of how Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen discovered and explored what later became known as the Kartchner Caverns (named after the family whose property loomed above) and details their subsequent life-long mission to see the place protected and preserved.
Look at Kubla Khan. Drop by drop, moment by moment. Life, a relationship. The form evolves-always beautiful, always unexpected. Never predictable. It may go through periods of drought and periods of moisture, and may take years or millennia . . . Inexorable, persistent, beautiful in its imperfection and only given meaning through the eyes of a beholder. The cave is not there because the rock is intact, but because it is broken. The formation is not there because the drop was secure, but because it fell. It has beauty not because we are one with it but because we are separated, standing back to see. The hill is plain but contains in its heart, elegance and grace."
-- Randy Tufts
|Unlike other "show
caves" located in remote locations, like Carlsbad Cavens in southeast
New Mexico and Mammoth Cave in central Kenticky, Kartchner Caverns is
located just an hour's drive from Tucson in a mountain range known
primarily for its white-tailed deer and javelinas.
Had Tufts and Tenen kept its location to themselves, it might have gone undiscovered for decades. Or, some other cavers with lesser scruples might have chanced upon it and desecrated a site the two considered sacred. After keeping its location to themselves for 14 years, they opted to inform and negotiate with the landowners, James and Lois Kartchner, to secure its preservation. With the assistance of The Nature Conservancy, the cave and surrounding property were purchased by Arizona State Parks and developed as James and Lois Kartchner State Park in 1988.
|In their book about Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, The Longest Cave,
authors Roger W. Brucker and Richard A. Watson noted that while a
mountain climber could see his progress-where he had began and where he
wanted to go-for a caver it was completely different. "Within seconds
you lose sight of your starting point," they wrote. "The sinuous
passages twist and turn. Always you are confined by walls, floor, and
ceiling. The farthest vistas are seldom more than one hundred
feetalong a passage, down a pit, up at a ceiling. You are always
in a place; you never look out from a point. The route is never in view
except as you can imagine it in your mind. Nothing unrolls. . . And
when you reach the end, it is only another place, often a small place,
barely large enough to contain your body."
But a cave, even a well-explored cave, offered something that mountain climbing rarely could-the possibility of discovering places where no one had ever ventured before. "Through even the smallest virgin passage, a caver might find marvels," Brucker and Watson wrote.