In Xanadu, with Kubla Khan

When we told our friends we’d be driving the southern route across the US, we asked them for recommendations. One kept coming up over and over again: Carlsbad Caverns.

Along the west coast, each person asked what our next stop would be. The answer was always someone’s name — Todd, Jeannie, Michael, Jo, Bonnie. But when we reached Bonnie and Chuck, our next friends were a thousand miles away, so the answer was “Carlsbad Caverns.”

“Have you seen Karchner Caverns?” Bonnie and Chuck asked. Sure, Carlsbad was worth seeing, but they really recommended Karchner. “A couple of guys discovered it, and they kept it a secret for years.” We were intrigued and had to see this “secret cave.”

Karchner is very special; it’s a “live” cave where speleothems (stalactites, stalagmites, etc.) are still growing. Two 20-somethings found it in 1974, and they kept the cave, which they called “Xanadu,” a secret for 14 years, until the State of Arizona made it a park. It was a huge risk — if the secret got out, vandals would destroy the delicate formations, but how to keep it a secret when the state legislature would have to vote to make it a park?

It required tricky politics and negotiation, done in the late 1980’s when the legislature was distracted by the impeachment of Arizona’s governor. At the last minute, everything came together, and they told the legislature what was going on, got the bill signed, and sent a 24-hour guard to the entrance.

Then came a tricky job of designing access to the park. Working with a mining company, they created long tunnels with many airlocked doors and a special misting system to keep lint and dander to a minimum. These were based on lessons learned from other caverns, like Carlsbad, where the elevator changed the airflow so much that it nearly “killed” the cave.

It took millions of dollars, and many years, but the result is unbelievable. You can only see Karchner through a guided tour. Each day, 500 people can see the Rotunda Room and Throne Room, and in the winter, 250 can also see the Big Room. As a result, tours are usually sold out.

We got up super-early on April 15th and were the second folks in line for tickets. When offered an 8:20 tour, the fellow ahead of us declined and took the 11:15. We wanted to see both parts of the cave, so we got both sets of tickets.

After all this hype, imagine our surprise at 8:20 am, when we found that the first tour of the day consisted of just ourselves and a guide! Although the cave is usually sold out, the early morning and late afternoon tours don’t always fill up. Our guide, Susan was pleased, because a smaller group can really experience the cave’s magic.

Words cannot describe the beautiful formations we saw in Karchner. And pictures can’t, either — when you go into the cave, you aren’t allowed to carry anything, not a camera or purse or water bottle. So the experience was fleeting but precious, and we just soaked up all the delicious-looking formations with our eyes.

For example, there were cave bacon and fried eggs. The formations ranged from pure white to deep red, with pink and orange and beige and brown. There was no sound but silence and dripping, which is the process that forms the speleothems. When a droplet fell on my shoulder, Susan told us that’s called a “cave kiss.” It’s considered good luck.

There were dramatic draperies and huge columns, and helictites, which one of the cave discoverers called “crazy linguini.” And at the end of the tour, we just sat and looked at Kubla Khan, a 58-foot tall column, more elaborate than any sculpture carved by a human.

As promised, we had a magical, quiet time in the cave. When Susan opened the final door, I was a little shocked to see the crowd standing outside the door, waiting for the next tour. To them, Karchner is something you see in a group of 20 people with a guide explaining it, not a magical, silent expedition into the earth.

At least I was prepared for the group size when we returned for our 11:15 tour of the Big Room. The formations were different, and we learned more about the female bats who come there in the summer to have their pups. The guide for our group, Theresa, was a little sad — this would be her last tour through the Big Room until it reopened in the fall. Both of our guides had a strong emotional connection with the cave, which they view as a living entity.

Partway through the tour, we had stopped to listen to Theresa when suddenly a child standing in the middle of the group created a very large puddle that ran down his legs, into his sandals, and onto the path. We stared at the guide, wondering what she would do with this calamity — would urine irrevocably damage some delicate formations? She told us that the path we were standing on was actually designed with special curbs, and that they actually washed it every day anyway to remove all traces of people. Theresa calmly reported a “bio spill” on nearby telephone, and in a little while, an employee came and washed away the evidence.

I wished there was some way I could take pictures of Karchner’s beautiful formations with me, which is how I ended up in the gift shop, buying a book on the story of the cave’s discovery and how it became a state park. The book has lots of photos of the formations, and it answered many of my questions about how it all happened.

One of the two founders, Gary Tennen, still visits the cave every month or so, but Randy Tufts passed away a few years back. Randy had a strong spiritual connection to the cave, and when he entered, he would bow to the cave god and ask for its blessing. Although the park is named after the Mormon rancher whose family sold the land to the state, it is Randy’s spirit that is preserved in the cave itself, especially on a lucky day in spring when I chanced to see it with only my husband and a tour guide.

As for Carlsbad Caverns, we visited that, too. It’s an awe-inspiring cave, huge and full of formations with names like “the hall of giants,” and “the cave man.” But after Karchner, Carlsbad seemed a bit faded. We hiked down the natural entrance, and then we took a tour of the King’s Palace, the Papoose Room, and the Queen’s Chamber. At one point, the guide said proudly that five percent of the cave is still “alive,” I rolled my eyes. “That means it’s 95 percent dead!” I whispered to Barry.

Carlsbad was discovered in the end of the 19th century, and the discoverer had a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to his find. He finally found someone who was interested — the guy wanted to mine the valuable bat guano for fertilizer. Finally, he got a photographer to come into the cave, and once the images were published in the New York Times, the Natural Park Service became interested.

But they didn’t know how to preserve the cave, and when they put the elevator in, it was the death-knell for many speleothems. The 700-foot deep shaft completely changed the airflow in the cave. Then they ripped out a lot of formations, so they could hold weddings and chamber of commerce meetings. They aimed bright lights at the formations, causing algae to grow on them. On top of that, they put in a lunchroom and some bathrooms.

Despite all the evidence of human damage, the shapes were amazing. We dawdled for hours in the Big Room, taking enough photos to make up for Karchner. At first, we felt guilty for taking flash pictures. Then we got out the tripod and used the cave’s lighting system, which made for more dramatic pictures anyway. Tourists rushed by us, audio devices pressed to their ears, stopping only when a sign pointed out a particular named formation. We would often have 10 or 15 minutes to ourselves with the cave.

Our two caving experiences couldn’t be more different. One was precious, jewel-like, saved only in the images in our memories. The other was big and overwhelming, but it resulted in some fantastic cave photography. And at the end of the day, at Carlsbad, we saw the famous bats coming out of the natural entrance, and guess what? Photographs were not permitted — electronics create sounds that interfere with bats’ navigational abilities. So, at Carlsbad, too, there’s a part that is precious, unchanged, and saved only in our memories.

One thought on “In Xanadu, with Kubla Khan

  1. Thank you for both the nice writing and for the information. Sooner or later we will go back to Southern Arizona, and also through Carlsbad. You have illuminated a part of each of those trips as well as giving us an enjoyable piece of writing. Unfortunately, we didn’t see Karchner Caverns while we lived in the area, nor did we see Carlsbad Caverns when we passed through following US 62. We know more now.

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