The tip-off was the breeze, warm and moist and smelling of bats. It wafted through a crack in the floor of the sinkhole, 15 feet beneath the Arizona desert. To caver Randy Tufts, it was strong evidence that he had found what he had been hunting for—an undiscovered cave, a place in which no human had set foot.
But a breeze doesn't always mean a cave. Tufts and his partner, Gary Tenen, had wiggled into scores of similar holes only to meet with disappointment. Most ended after five or 10 feet, but this sink, in the Whetstone Mountains 50 miles southeast of Tucson, would be different.
Tenen, the smaller of the two at 5'7" and 130 pounds, went first, screwing himself down into the hole. He was well prepared. Tenen used to wiggle through wire hangers as practice for such a moment.
Even so, the hole was a tight lit. "The first couple of times through, it was real unnerving." says Tenen, 40, who with his wife, Judy, owns a printing press in Tucson. "At any moment, we could've been squished."
The two cavers inched their way through two chambers and then hammered a small hole in a limestone barrier to get farther into the cave. Tufts, who is 6 feet and 170 pounds, had to remove his belt and exhale to make it through the opening. "It was like being born all over again," he says.
As they continued, crawling on their hands and knees, the ceiling suddenly rose. They were in a 10-foot-high corridor. Walking upright, they followed it for 300 feet. But by then it was late in the day, and Tufts and Tenen decided to turn back.
The following weekend they returned to the cave and crawled to the top of a mound a short distance from where they had stopped the week before. Using a carbide lamp, they spied what lay beyond—a vast blackness.
"When we shined the light and couldn't make out the next wall, we got a little giggly," says Tenen.
It took a year of further exploration before the full extent of their discovery became apparent. What Tufts and Tenen had crawled into that day in November 1974 was a cave rich in colorful mineral deposits and unusual rock formations. It was 2½ miles long and contained two high-ceilinged rooms, each roughly the dimensions of a football field, as well as 26 smaller rooms; nearly the entire area of this vast underground expanse was 100% pristine. Water was still dripping, forming stalagmites and stalactites.
"It had always been my dream to find any unknown cave," says Tufts, 43, who is working on his doctorate in geology at the University of Arizona. "But to find one of this magnitude was boggling." The cavers named it Xanadu, after the kingdom in the Coleridge poem "Kubla Khan": "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree...."
As remarkable as the discovery itself was, it was overshadowed by what followed—an arduous, sometimes comical, 14-year period before Xanadu's purchase by the state as a commercial attraction. During that time Tufts and Tenen devoted a significant portion of their time and money to the cave.
"People always ask me if I'd want to find a cave like this again," says Tufts. "I don't know. It was a terrific opportunity to do something beneficial, but there's been a lot of agony, too. It's like having a kid. We never dreamed of the responsibility we were taking on."
Fearing that Xanadu would be ruined by visitors if its existence was revealed too soon after its discovery, Tufts and Tenen decided to keep the cave a secret. But they also knew that rediscovery was inevitable. The cave's entrance was only half a mile from Arizona Highway 90. Looking down the hill from the entrance, they could see cars whizzing past them.
They decided that the best way to preserve the cave was to develop it as a commercial attraction. "It's a paradoxical notion," says Tufts. "But we thought if it had economic value, someone would supervise it and protect it."
Tufts and Tenen spent several years devising various strategies. Eventually they approached James and Lois Kartchner, the owners of the property on which the cave was located, hoping the family would fund Xanadu's development.
The Kartchners live in St. David, Ariz., near the cave site. The family has owned the property since 1941. James, who has since died, was a retired school superintendent and biology teacher, and a devout Mormon. He and his wife, Lois, had 10 children of their own and two that they adopted. Six of their children are medical doctors and one has a Ph.D.
The family didn't know of the cave's existence until Tufts and Tenen told them about it in 1978. A short time later the cavers led James, then 78, and five of his sons on a tour of their discovery. The Kartchners were flabbergasted.
"We were in complete disbelief at the size and beauty of it," says Max Kartchner, an anesthesiologist who lives in Benson. "It was almost a sacred experience, so exquisite and out of this world."
With the Kartchners considering investing in the cave themselves, Tufts and Tenen went to work on the family's behalf, researching such technical matters as building trails in a cave, rigging lighting and working with dynamite. But the two cavers wanted their efforts kept secret. So when Tenen, using money from a joint bank account he and Tufts had set up with the Kartchners, hired Jan and Orion Knox, a couple from Austin, Texas, to map the cave, he used the name Mike Lewis as an alias. He used the same name when he attended two conventions of the National Caves Association, a group that assists those interested in developing caves as commercial operations. He also quit his job as a truck driver for Hostess baked goods in Tucson and worked for five months in 1979 as a volunteer at Caverns of Sonora in Texas and at Luray Caverns in Virginia, both times using the name Mike Lewis.
Tenen never gave away his identity, not even to the man he roomed with at Caverns of Sonora. When trusted friends called him there, they always asked for Mike. He paid for things in cash to avoid using checks and credit cards that bore his real name.
"Gary Tenen couldn't do these things, because word would get back to other cavers that Randy and Gary had found something," says Tenen. "And they'd know where, because everyone knew we hiked the Whetstones."
But the cave's location wasn't kept a secret from everyone. Tufts and Tenen took into their confidence a small cadre of friends, some of whom were capable of mounting a low-key rescue if one of the cavers suffered an accident at the site.
In their obsession with protecting Xanadu, they asked those who were told of the cave's existence (with the exception of the Kartchners and, later, the governor of Arizona at the time, Bruce Babbitt) to sign an agreement threatening, as Tufts puts it, "theological punishment" to anyone who revealed its location.
Inevitably, leaks occurred. One came to Tufts's and Tenen's attention in the mid-'80s when Steve Holland, a caver and one of those who knew about Xanadu, overheard a group planning a trip to the site. Holland played ignorant and wangled an invitation to go along. "I became a mole," says Holland. He told Tenen when the group was planning its foray, and a strategy for getting rid of the interlopers was devised.
On a Saturday morning a few months later, the live cavers, including Holland, arrived at the site. As arranged, three Kartchner brothers, Paul, Rex and Fred, rode up on horseback, one of them carrying a pistol. In a scene out of a John Wayne movie, one of the brothers squinted down at the cavers and said: "What are you doing on our land?"
Holland played dumb, but he found the scene more than a bit amusing. "The Kartchners acted like rough and tough ranchers, even though one of them was an anesthesiologist and another a teacher," he says.
After the Kartchners decided that opening the cave themselves would be too costly, another idea arose—state development of the site. Governor Babbitt was interested, but he wanted to see the cave first. "So in April 1985, the governor of Arizona disappeared for a day, accompanied by two security agents," says Tenen.
On his expedition to the cave, Babbitt took with him his two sons, Chris and T.J., who were 10 and eight years old, respectively. But before setting out, Babbitt made the boys promise to keep Xanadu a secret. He lectured Chris and T.J. on the importance of doing exactly what Tufts and Tenen told them to do, and of not touching anything.
"After this great lecture, the only person who knocked over a stalagmite was me," says Babbitt, a geologist by training who now practices law in Phoenix. "We were climbing up an incline, and my heel knocked over a baby stalagmite. My kids have never let me forget it."
Babbitt was taken with the cave. "I couldn't believe it was in Arizona." he says. "I thought we'd flown in the wrong direction."
The governor wanted it placed under state control, but there was a catch-22—how to bring the cave into public ownership without immediately making its existence publicly known. Babbitt suggested that the Arizona Nature Conservancy buy the land from the Kartchners and hold it until the state was ready to acquire it.
But it took three more years, two more governors, two more state parks directors and some behind-the-scenes political maneuvering before the cave was purchased by the state.
The plan was set in motion in 1987 when state parks director Ken Travous asked State Representative Larry Hawke. chairman of the natural resources committee of the Arizona House of Representatives, and House Speaker Joe Lane to write a bill authorizing the cave's purchase by the state—and to keep the bill's wording a secret until the day of the vote. Senate Bill 1188 was essentially dummy legislation that made no mention of the cave, and its original wording dealt with routine accounting changes within the parks department.
Hawke, with Lane's help, moved 1188 from committee to committee, drawing as little attention to it as possible. It no doubt helped that at the time the Arizona legislature was busy with the rancorous impeachment proceedings concerning Governor Evan Mecham.
Only six lawmakers knew what the dummy legislation was actually about. The secrecy held. "In governmental bodies, anything older than 15 minutes is public knowledge," says Lane. "But not on this. It was the greatest secrecy I've ever seen."
On the day of the vote, April 27, 1988, the original language of 1188 was wiped out and in its place new language inserted, authorizing the state to purchase the property. (Arizona eventually paid $1,625,000.) The bill establishing Kartchner Caverns State Park was overwhelmingly approved by both houses.
Almost immediately, the parks department began studying the cave and its surrounding environment—everything from temperature, humidity and wind flow to the mites in the cave's bat guano. Ron Bridgemon, president of the Cave Research Foundation, an organization devoted to the study of caves throughout the U.S., says that to his knowledge, studies have never been done for a cave before its development as a commercial enterprise.
"These studies are usually done after the cave has opened and something has been messed up." says Bridgemon. "Then they go back in and try to fix it. What the state is doing with Kartchner is unique."
Opening a cave to the public, which includes making an entrance and exit, and building a visitors' center, a parking lot and other facilities, is a delicate operation. "Because it's a living cave, it is a real challenge from our perspective," says Travous. "It's like cutting a diamond. If we do it right, it's worth more. If we don't, we could ruin it."
Travous says the key to preserving the cave is to make sure that none of its humidity escapes into the desert air. The humidity level inside the cave stays at nearly 100% all year, with a drop of only a few percentage points. The temperature, also with only slight variations, remains at 68°.
Should a leak occur and the air inside the cave mix with that outside—where the average humidity ranges from 58% to 29% and temperatures fluctuate up to 85°—Kartchner could dry up and die. "Moisture in a cave is similar to blood in the body," says Travous. "It's what nourishes it and keeps it alive."
Travous, who calls Kartchner a "world-class cave," expects it to be opened to the public in 1995. Its features include numerous "soda straws," hollow stalactites that are still dripping water and still growing in length. One of these is a fraction of an inch in diameter and 22 feet long, believed to be the longest soda straw found in any cave in the world.
"Some of these straws have fallen from the ceiling, stuck in the mud floor and stand three feet high," says Travous. "It's amazing to think they might have fallen 2,000 years ago, and in that time no one came along to knock them over."
Kartchner is also filled with decoration and color. Its walls are not simply a dull gray, as they are in many caves, but an array of blacks, oranges, reds and whites. Among the unusual formations is a pure-white disk of calcite, called a shield, that is four feet across and looks like an angel's wing. The cave also contains a giant column of travertine that is 55 feet high and eight feet across.
Bridgemon says that Kartchner is unique in that unlike almost every other commercial cave, it has not been explored and vandalized before its opening.
"Colossal Cave [also in Arizona], for example, had 70 years of visitation before the government stepped in," says Bridgemon. "Now all of a sudden you have Kartchner, which hasn't been visited much at all. It'll probably be the nicest cave in the West that's open to the public, up there with Carlsbad in New Mexico."
Tufts and Tenen remain wedded to the cave. In 1988 they formed Arizona Conservation Projects. Inc., a nonprofit organization designed to assist the state in opening and maintaining Kartchner Caverns. "We felt the cave would always need an advocate," says Tenen. "Stewardship of a resource like this is a responsibility we just couldn't walk away from. I wanted my grandchildren to have the same view of the cave its discoverers had."
Tufts says the effort that started in 1974 to protect a single cave has evolved into an education and conservation project with lessons he hopes can be applied to all caves. And like Tenen, he says his involvement with Kartchner isn't over yet.
"To me it's a work of art that won't be complete until it's open." says Tufts. "That's when I'll be ready to psychologically relax, to say that my contribution is complete."
Leo Banks is a frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated of stories about the Southwest.