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Arizona's Deep, Dark Secret

A subterranean treasure kept quiet for 14 years, Kartchner Caverns opens its splendors for the world


BENSON, Ariz. — It's a little eerie inside Arizona's new underground state park. Otherworldly mineral formations dangle from the ceiling. The walls glisten like frozen waterfalls. And monstrous shadows loom over the landscape.

I'll admit my previous experience with caverns is limited--mostly to watching TV's Batman and Robin in the Bat Cave--but Kartchner Caverns rates as spectacular by any measure.

Even the tale of how it was discovered--then kept secret for 14 years--is wild, involving everything from bat guano and blindfolded state officials to the mysterious disappearance of Arizona's governor.

Buried beneath a stretch of desert about an hour's drive southeast of Tucson, Kartchner was set to open Friday amid considerable hoopla. Tickets are already sold out for much of this year, and the small-town phone system in nearby Benson has been overwhelmed, park officials said last week. Of the estimated 10,000 calls per day coming in, only 2,000 can be handled. Although dwarfed in size by New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns (which has a main room nearly a mile long versus Kartchner's 300-foot-long chambers), Kartchner is billed by geologists as one of the top 10 caves in the world for rare mineral formations. It's also "alive," meaning its kaleidoscopic stalagmites and stalactites are still growing, albeit at a rate no human eye could detect: 1 inch every 750 years.

Even if you know none of that, stepping into the cavern's soothing darkness, as I did in April on a specially arranged tour, and viewing its glittering chambers is a sublime experience, the underground equivalent of gazing into the desert sky at night.

To preserve the cavern's near-pristine condition, Arizona has poured $28 million into an elaborate system of air-lock doors, misting machines and other devices designed to combat the wear and tear of an expected 150,000 visitors a year. But it's been an agonizingly slow process.

Kartchner Caverns was discovered 25 years ago this month by two amateur spelunkers from Tucson, Gary Tenen, a former Hostess delivery driver, and Randy Tufts, a planetary scientist who wants his cremated ashes scattered on the ground above the cave "so that 10,000 years from now, my molecules will be incorporated into a stalactite."

The men, who were then college roommates at the University of Arizona, stumbled across a sinkhole while hunting for caves in the Whetstone Mountains, near the dusty town of Benson in southeastern Arizona. Tufts, then 26, had visited the spot seven years earlier but dismissed it as a dead end. This time, however, something was different. A warm breeze reeking of bat guano flowed through a crack in the rocks. They knew there had to be a cave.

Tenen, who stands 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 130 pounds, had trained for tight spaces by wriggling his body through coat hangers. With an 8-pound hammer and chisel, he battered the rocks at the bottom of the sinkhole until he had enough room to slither through. Tufts, at 6 feet and 170 pounds, yanked off his belt, exhaled, and followed. "It was like being born all over again," he said.

The pair eventually made their way into a labyrinth of subterranean cathedrals--some as big as football fields--full of bizarre, gravity-defying rocks, stalagmites that resembled fried eggs, rippled sheets of iron oxide shaped like bacon, towering travertine columns and upside-down forests of "soda straws," icicle-like tubes dripping from the ceiling. One of the straws, stretching 21 feet, is the second longest in the world.

The explorers later christened the cave Xanadu, after the opening verse in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan": "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree."

They were afraid to tell anyone about it. "We'd seen so many caves that had been trashed," Tenen said over lunch at Benson's Horseshoe Cafe. Yet secrecy seemed risky too. The sinkhole was just a half-mile from the highway, so it was only a matter of time before someone else would find and possibly damage the cavern.

They figured the only way to protect the cave from the public was, paradoxically, to open it to the public. So in 1978, Tenen and Tufts approached the landowner, a retired school superintendent named James Kartchner. Kartchner, who died in 1985, wasn't entirely surprised. When he and his sons rode horses in the area, they noticed a strange echo to the hoofbeats. "You know," the old man told his sons, "it sounds like these hills are hollow."

With the Kartchners on board, Tenen went undercover to research what it would take to develop Xanadu. He attended national cave conventions and worked at caverns in Texas and Virginia, but always used an alias and paid cash for fear that other Arizona spelunkers would find out what he was doing--and deduce that he'd discovered a cave in the Whetstones, known as his favorite haunt.

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