Cochise County, Arizona
Whenever I visit my mother in Abbey Country, I try to take her to someplace she’s never been before. My mom is over 90 now, a world traveler who still lives alone with relative autonomy. She’s buried a husband, son, and grandson. She is as wise as her years. There isn’t a lot she hasn’t seen. When my dad was alive, they traveled to many places near their southern Arizona home, so finding something new can be a challenge. Amazingly, she’d never been to Kartchner Caverns, a state park about 20 minutes from her house. I went there a few years ago with my husband and sons, so I already knew how indescribably special it is. Not even photographs can express the cavern’s intricacy and majesty. I figured the walk would be too much for her, half a mile in dim light, so we borrowed a wheel chair at the front desk, hopped on the tram, and I wheeled her into the side of a very ordinary looking little mountain.
Cavers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts discovered the caves in 1974 and kept them a secret so they wouldn’t get trashed by idiotic people, and thank goodness they did. Ranger Dave, who led our tour, said that men walked on the moon before setting foot in this natural cathedral. Dave, who seems to be a reincarnation of Mark Twain (who himself was a big fan of stalactites and stalagmites) was quite solicitous toward my mom, making sure she could see clearly from her perch in the chair. Her enthusiasm got the better of her several times, and she practically leapt from her seat, holding the rail and staring at the unique and bizarre formations that always look more to me like beeswax than millennia of rock, water, and nature’s chemistry. Wheeling her up and down the ramps, looking down at her soft grey curls and delicate shoulders, I felt a different kind of love for her than I’ve ever felt for anyone. It is not exactly a direct inversion, when the child begins to care for the parent. It is a sort of poetic payback, a retributive act that is in its own way romantic and warm. Pete, Ranger Dave’s assistant, kept a special eye on us, locking the chair for me when we stopped on inclines, offering his own brand of humor in his deep baritone. “What’s the difference between a cave and a cavern? A cavern has a gift shop.” Mom didn’t miss one joke, one soda straw formation or trippy “bacon strip”, or the deeply spiritual tone of the hidden world of Kartchner.
When Tenen and Tufts set out to keep their secret, they gave the caves the code name Xanadu. The most magnificent formation in the Throne Room they named Kubla Kahn. There are benches in front of this formation, and the tour ends here with a light show, complete with music. I sat next to her, she in the chair, I on the bench, in perfect silence. I thought of all the Masses she’d taken me to, then later dragged me to, all the Hail Marys and Memorares I recited with her throughout my childhood. Now, here we were in my church, and she got it.
Witnessing her enthusiasm for this gorgeous place filled me with pride. Once again I’d succeeded in showing her something new in her own back yard. She came into my room to tuck me in that night, and put her hand over her heart, holding it there, pressing gently. “Thank you so much,” she said, “for showing me those caverns. We will always have that now.” Our identical green eyes danced with each other a moment. All around us, we felt peace.
[This link offers a map of the Caverns, and clicking on the map offers you several photographs. Visitors are not allowed to take photographs inside the caves. Extensive information about the Caverns is available onllne.) http://www.pr.state.az.us/Images/parkmaps/kartchner_map.html