Kartchner Caverns

It is full of shadows, depths, spaces with a presence and a texture. Against these, between these, through these spaces the formations stand clumped or alone, strange and wonderful and misshapen. The skill of the lighting picks out the speleothems: tiny and delicate twigs and antlers, the fragile and luminous curtains, the massive and awe-inspiring flows. Above them all arches the roof, itself a thing of wonder, a broken and shifting mass of banded limestone that hides mystery in its fractures and faultlines.

It is much about the spaces of darkness as the wondrous formations of calcite dropped and bubbled and crystallised and soda-strawed by water laden with minerals and pigments that has worked its tortuous ways through the limestone to create. It is still creating.

I just wanted to sit there and stare. Drink in. Feel. Something shifts inside of you in places like this.

I still remember the excitement when the knowledge of these caves was made public — 1988, and I was just a kid. We’d only ever seen the fake (but very impressive) caves at the Desert Museum, and trying to imagine something magnitudes bigger, more wonderful, more beautiful…I stretched high and wide to do it.

I failed, but not for lack of trying.

Even then mum had impressed upon us the wonderful gift that Kartchener Caverns were, how important it was that they get it right, that they protect such a thing of wonder and age still living and growing. The story of how they had been discovered and that secret kept hidden, protected for fourteen years as the cavers Tenen and Tufts and the Kartchners tried to figure out how they could be protected — well that story always wrapped those caves around like a blanket, and gave their fabled wonder even more strength. Even that young we knew that people ruin things like that if you do not protect them. When the waiting list stretched to years for entry once it finally opened to the public, I think I nodded, unsurprised. It was expensive. Not for folks like us. I was still glad they were protecting it though.

Fifteen more years of exploring all over Southern Arizona and I still had never been.

We went today, and they were more beautiful than I had imagined. Bigger and stranger and more wonderful.

Even now, the theme of stewardship, of these caves as something that belongs to the people and need to be cared for by us so that they can still be there for our children and grandchildren is what is emphasised most. It made me happy, I wish we had more talk like this.

We were in the Big Room. Words fail, as do pictures, to give you any sense of what it is like to stand there

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Courtesy of AZ State Parks
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Courtesy of AZ State Parks

Pictures flatten it out somehow, remove that echoing sense of vast enclosed space. Remove some of the awe. Remove the warmth and the humidity and the smell of rock breathing. Still, it was torture not to be able to take pictures or just sit there and stare, try and drink all of it in. Other people deserve a turn here though, and the tours are always full.

What surprised me most were the formations, these wonderful rippled sheets I had never seen before:

Kartchner-Caverns
Courtesy of Kartchner Caverns State Park

Helictites, ‘eccentric’ stalactites that have defied gravity, twisted and turned and curled upon themselves. Fried egg formations, formed of crystal so that light shines through them. 1-centimeter crenellations ridging and rippling up and down certain formations as they do in caves all around the world, and no one knows why (how much do I love the unknown, the undiscovered, the still-waiting and still-inexplicable). Lips and ledges and wonders of all kinds.

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Courtesy of Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic
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Courtesy of AZ State Parks

From April to October this room is a nursery for myotis bats and we yield it to them for the summer — that was perhaps one of my favourite facts. We will be back to see the Throne Room and Rotunda, but I wouldn’t mind making this a yearly pilgrimage.

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