Sunday, August 19, 2007

Caves I've Known

In the summer of '72, my family went on a cave vacation. At least, that's how I remember it, because the goal was Carlsbad Caverns, but on the way there we stopped at the Caverns of Sonora in west Texas, and on the way back, Longhorn Cavern State Park in central Texas.

I was duly impressed by Carlsbad, such as by the fact that each tour visited only part of the developed trails, that plenty more undeveloped passages branched off, and that in fact not all the cave had been explored, and maybe never could be. The enormous vaulting ceilings are grand. The huge stalagmites, -tites and other formations are as well. And, being a kid, I was also impressed that there was a whole snack bar in one of the cave's larger rooms, and by the speed at which the elevators moved to take you to the surface.

We also waited one evening at dusk near the main entrance of the cave for the bats to come out -- there is, or was, seating available for that purpose. A park service employee was at hand to talk about bats, and I remember him mentioning in passing that it sure did snow a lot in New Mexico, and that bats rarely flew into anyone's hair, not to worry about that. The bats dribbled out at first, then became a torrent.

As memorable as Carlsbad was, the Caverns of Sonora made a bigger impression. Even at 11, I was struck by the intense beauty of the cave. Unlike Carlsbad, it didn't overwhelm with size. It's a modest cave in that way, but packed with formations, including amazing numbers of helictites, thin formations that seem to grow every which way, seemingly without regard to gravity. Of course I don't remember a lot of detail after 35 years (I haven't returned), but I do remember being blown away, and I don't think my age was the main factor.

Over the years since, I've visited a fair number of commercial caves, perhaps looking for the awe I felt at the Caverns of Sonora. It isn't quite a hobby, more of an active interest, and when the opportunity arises, I'll go, which has taken me as far as an interesting cave on the island of Shikoku, Japan -- which proved that you don't really have to understand the guide -- and a nice jewelbox of a cave in Western Australia. Closer to home, Mammoth Cave duly impressed as Carlsbad once did, and Wind Cave had its charms too. Mark Twain Cave, on the other hand, was part of the tourist snare -- "trap" is too strong -- that is Hannibal, Mo., and not that great as a cave.

Unfortunately, I never followed up on the single non-commercial caving experience I had, in July 1982, when two college friends and I spent most of a day inside the Earth at a cave some distance outside Nashville, equipped with hardhats topped by acetylene gas lamps, flashlights, candles and lunches that we packed in. It was muddy and exhausting and good fun, with plenty to see by that eerie acetylene glow, though not as picturesque as a commercial cave.

On August 4, we made it to Cave of the Mounds, near Blue Mound, Wisconsin, just in time for the last tour of the day. It's a fine cave, not lacking in worthy formations, and more interesting because the first half of the tour was done entirely by flashlight -- a special feature of the day's touring, since it was the anniversary of the day the cave had been discovered in 1939. I'm also happy to report that Ann walked all the way through without asking to be carried. This bodes well for future walks through caves, in search of one that will recall Sonora.

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At 1:42 PM, Anonymous e said...

The evening bat program at Carlsbad is still on, the seats still there. Quite amazing, watching a half million bats fly into the twilight.


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