This is the latest installment of El Mirador an ongoing series curated by Francisco Cantú. Spanish for “the lookout point,” El Mirador collects original nonfiction, translation, and visual art on the American West, the US/Mexico borderlands, and Indian Country.
At dusk we find the cave entrance buried in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. The approach required proper desert bushwhacking through cat-claw acacia, agave, shin daggers, and canyon live oaks. A door-sized hole in the limestone bluff, the entrance is obvious. We prepare our things—headlamps and helmets, bags and pee-bottles, small packs with loose-fitting shoulder straps ideal for moving through tight places where pushing the pack underneath, over, in front of, or behind us is essential, as is breathing, remaining calm, not struggling. While we ready ourselves, Crystal Cave exhales warm breaths through steel bars. Movement of air is the sure sign of a cave system. The gate is a work of art—desert dust in color and covered with spider-web drawings—that protects something fragile, elegant and ancient. Entry to the cave requires a key because before the gates people entered the caves unfiltered and left spray painted signatures, trash, and broken formations.
Wendell Berry says: “It is wilderness that is beautiful, dangerous, abundant, oblivious of us, mysterious, never to be conquered or controlled or second-guessed, or known more than a little” and he wonders whether the capacity to do or accomplish something is reason enough to do it. Just because we can get to the bottom of the cave or the top of the mountain or the moon, must we?
What drives me to know the cave? And if I must, how do I come to know it just a little?
The enormity of the first room in Crystal Cave reveals itself through what I can’t see more than what I can. Light from our headlamps disperses and then dissipates completely into darkness; the walls and roof of the cave swallow our meager beams before they ever find them. We crawl over boulders, peering at delicate crystals in hidden crevices. The cave’s namesake, these quartz crystals are rare and ancient, formed before even the cave itself.
Some passages that we follow narrow, narrow, narrow into nothing, while others force movement through a funnel and then expand into vast rooms decorated by spindly white soda straws hanging from the ceilings, or frosted pearls planted on the cave floor, delicate crystals of aragonite reaching into darkness. One section we nickname the jaws of life because of the way we contort our bodies in a sardine fashion to make it through. I try to be cautious of where I put my hands, conscious of the delicacy of the formations, but the footing isn’t always steady and falling into darkness from darkness makes me nervous, so sometimes I put my hands where I shouldn’t, interrupting, perhaps impacting, a geological processes I can’t comprehend.
Caves are mapped entirely by hand. Bearings and angles of inclination are measured with survey tools and map sketchers use specific symbols to render passages, formations and major points of interest. As a volunteer, I took part in a recent cartographic survey of Crystal Cave with the Western Cave Mappers—a group intentionally unaffiliated with “grottos”—organized groups of cavers who work with entities such the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management—but limiting nonetheless. Before we entered the cave I was grouped with cave mappers Alfonso and Brian and tasked with surveying “the water passage,” which is a deceiving name as all passages in all caves are formed by water processes: eroding, dissolving, carving.
Gaining access to caves is a murky process, at least to those that are gated, which is many of them. The holders of the keys, often times grottos, are rumored to be secretive and territorial when it comes to the caves they monitor. In Tucson, there are two grottos holding keys to dozens of caves in the region. Access to a few other caves is controlled by the Forest Service directly, and they moniter who goes in, and when.
Caves aren’t the only places that filter entry, though they’re arguably one of the most stringent. We apply for permits to raft rivers and hike slot canyons, registering our names in books at trail heads and Forest Service Offices, signing waivers, showing we have all appropriate gear to leave nothing (our own waste included) behind. “Take only photographs, leave only footprints,” the signs say. But what if I want to pull the leaves off the sage and rub them between my fingers to smell the desert? How do I fight the urge to make contact and how do I come to know a place without touch?
For the survey, the route to our assigned passage requires a 20-foot down-climb, a barely shoulder width crawl past a second gate, then a corkscrew maneuver into what is called “the signature room,” a room scarred by people’s names and initials written in purple ink or burned with carbide lamps on flowstone, letters carved into ancient formations. The room isn’t completely destroyed. In complete darkness, the signatures melt away and the steady dripping—reminiscent of what Burroughs described as “the clock” in Mammoth cave, “solemn ticking like a great clock in a deserted hallway”—overwhelms the senses. This drip, this movement, is how we know the cave is living, active, still very much in the process of being formed. The only reason we can hear it, however, is because someone broke a stalagmite, leaving an empty cavity, now a small pool, in the ground.
From the Signature Room, we twist and crawl our way to a narrow fissure where we spend nearly eight hours measuring and mapping features unique to this part of the cave. Here, mammilaries—rounded—rounded cave aragonite bubbles protruding from the walls—are evidence of a time when this portion of the cave was underwater. There is some debate over how old the mammilaries are, and how old the cave is in general. What is known is that geothermal activity was essential for heating the water, a reaction critical to the formation process, and that the mammilaries formed well after the cave passages were already carved into the Cretaceous limestone. “The bathtub ring,” the place where the mammilaries meet the unsubmerged limestone, extends throughout the entire cave at a depth of about 180 feet. It is a surreal landscape, the glistening and rounded walls juxtaposed with the sheer and sharp face and formations of the limestone. For the better part of the day, we move between the layers, bridging millennia with a six-inch reach of a hand.
In what is perhaps the other “final” frontier, another landscape difficult to comprehend on the timescale to which I’m accustomed, my partner Stephen and I swam recently with whale sharks—the largest living fish on the plant, members of the Chondryichtye family, a classification shared by other sharks, rays, and skates. The sharks, though enormous, are docile. When they feed they situate themselves perpendicular to the surface, hovering just inches below air, and suction great masses of water through their gills, filtering for plankton. The suction creates a visible funnel, wide at the waters surface and narrowing toward gaping mouths. The sharks are reminiscent of carp in this way. While feeding they’re especially approachable, so we circle around them enraptured by the moment, the opportunity, the allusion of an interaction. We’re told not to touch them because—much like cave formations—bacteria from our hands can harm them, that it scares them, that if everyone touched them, they would probably disappear.
I swam along an especially large shark, some 30 feet in length, and looked up just in time to see Stephen reach out and intentionally graze the flesh of the fish he was swimming around with his bare hand. Our guide witnessed his reach as well and Stephen was reprimanded immediately. Though angry, I understood. I fought the urge to make contact all day. On that day I just happened to be a better follower of written rules.
Back in Crystal I’m tasked with tying survey tape to a protruding feature in advance of obtaining the next measurement.
Surveying is a slow process, one that involves a lot of waiting. At one stop, while Alfonso is sketching the cross-section of a certain passage and Brian crawls ahead to set the next survey station, I am alone in an especially narrow place some 20 feet above the cave floor, wedged between the two walls with my knees pressed against one, my shoulders and back against the other. The mammilaries across the way are so close I can lean my head forward and taste them. I do. They’re flavorless. Cave formations are varied forms of calcium carbonate, and for some reason I expected flavor. The texture is like 40-grit sandpaper, the color the underlay of a mesquite tree. I click off my light and search for sign of the others. Even though they’re probably only ten yards away, it is crushing black and near silent. I see light flecks out of the corner of my eyes but when I close them, I see the same things.
A few years ago I backpacked in Grand Gulch, a sinuous canyon weaving its way through the Permian Era Cedar Mesa sandstone in southeast Utah. The creamy canyon walls were streaked with desert varnish—those black lines of iron-manganese solution that trace the routes of rain and snow melt down the cliff face. The floor was rose hued and packed with cottonwoods, ponderosa, juniper. In early spring when I was there, the colors that paint the canyon were fully saturated. I stopped to explore ruins at the place where Kane Gulch converges with Grand Gulch, where Ancestral Puebloans made their home between 800 and 2000 years ago. Their presence lingered in the place; corn husks, shards, kivas. And smoke stains on the ceiling of rock alcoves. I smeared my forefinger in ancient soot and brought it to my nose. I touched to know, and in so doing impacted history, even if only of my own species. I don’t know what to make of the guilt I feel for the act. Grounded in the lessons of “don’t touch” and well founded in the interest of preservation, there is still a dissonance. In the evolution of time and place, what is it about the kivas or petroglyphs or structures that warrant protection over the trees cut for the ranger station? Until I washed my hand some days later I was enraptured with the scent. It smelled the way a jacket does after a night around a campfire on Cedar Mesa, with an added musk, and I through it I felt connected to others who had loved a place. What is the worth of that sentiment? What is the worth of my reverence for that scent? What if everyone touched?
In the wake of the interaction with the whale shark, the depths of the cave, the ancient soot, I consider other places, people, animals I feel I do know, if one can every truly know anything, which I don’t suppose we can, but I think the desire to, the desire for intimacy, is one of our—our as in we of the human species—most redeeming qualities. I think I’ve come close to knowing the place I was born and raised, the river that flowed through every season of growth, where I buried my feet in the silt riverbed and let the current sway me. I know the individual touch of, and the way it felt to touch, the people I’ve shared warm beds and naked bodies with. I knew my horse in the limited way we can another species—in the subtle communication that informs trust and creates patterns. If I let a glove hang from my back pocket, he’d snatch it, I’d snatch it back and toss it, he’d retrieve it. If I stood with my back to him, shoulders nuzzled against his chest, he’d lower his head, jawbone pulled tight against my collarbone in an embrace. As important as desire in the incentive to know something is the ability to approach it with limited expectation—to give a person or place or other animal their unique form, to give space. And, perhaps, it requires, at its core, that we leave the survey tape, our licenses, our roads, our guns and our gondolas in our pocket, and use instead only the soft flesh at the center of our palms.
Photography by Stephen Eginoire, a freelance photographer currently based in Tucson, Arizona. His work explores the complexity of place, especially those seldom visited and hard to reach.