In The Darkness, Who's To Say What's Legend And What's Reality.
By Kevin Franklin
MOST CAVES COLLAPSE when they turn dry," says our tour guide.
Looking up at the ceiling of Colossal Cave, I see several Volkswagen-sized protuberances staring back at me.
"But," she adds, "the last cave-in we had was more than 3,000 years ago when this cave went dry."
I find faint comfort in this as we descend deeper into the belly of the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson.
The park draws more visitors in summer than winter, says head cave man John Flettre. The pleasant year-round Colossal climate of 70 degrees is an easy sell to sweltering locals and bored school kids.
Nevertheless, we had just a few minutes' wait before our tour began and we never experienced that packed-in, group tour feeling.
The tour lasts about 45 minutes and covers a half-mile underground. The cave extends for 2.7 miles, making it one of the three largest dry caves in the Western Hemisphere. Even so, Colossal Cave is no Carlsbad Caverns. It has little in the way of vast rooms, towering ceilings or stunning structures. Nor does the tour of Colossal Cave bear much resemblance to an actual spelunking experience. In 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corps began laying a half-mile of flagstone walkways and installed railings and electric lights. There are still a few opportunities for the pitifully stupid to fall down a hole or otherwise injure themselves. There are also some low overhangs that might smack a few inattentive heads, but that's about it.
The greatest threat to visitors is their own gullibility. It seems some of the tour guides embellish on the history of the cave--from its size (39 miles is the largest figure tossed around), to adding a tale of the CCC worker who supposedly died from fright. It's all in good fun, especially if you know about it beforehand and can watch with amusement your fellow visitors' legs being pulled.
Stretching the truth is an old tradition here. From 1922 to 1934, Frank Schmidt gave tours as a private enterprise and started more than a few legends, including the "colossal" nature of the cave's size.
But there was also a serious side to the old-time tour. Back then no flagstones were laid, nor were railings in place. Those who wanted to explore needed to carry ropes and lanterns, and the inexperienced were in considerable danger. Even so, no one was ever seriously injured, Flettre says.
The danger, size and mystery of the undeveloped cave was welcomed by the bandits who used this place as a hideout in 1884. Four bad guys fled to the cave after stealing $62,000.
The sheriff knew where they were hiding, and waited for them to re-emerge. What the sheriff didn't know was there was another exit, which the bandits took. They laughed all the way to town, where shortly thereafter three were shot dead. The fourth spent 28 years in prison and then, legend has it, made his way back to the cave, took the money and enjoyed his golden years on a beach sipping piña coladas.
When Schmidt stopped giving tours in 1934, he donated the cave to Pima County. Now it's administered by the private Pima County Parklands Foundation which has been subleasing for 40 years to the same folks who actually run the place.
Colossal Cave Mountain Park has expanded from the original 500 acres surrounding the cave to 2,100 acres. Redington Land & Cattle Co. offers horseback rides through the area.
But back to the tour: Along the tour path, nearly every stalactite and stalagmite within reach has been snapped off. Why people steal these things is beyond me. Sitting in a shoe box, a little cylinder of limestone makes for an unimpressive trophy. Only among hundreds of other formations deep inside a cave do these rocks inspire awe. Taking one with you is like taking a paint chip off the Mona Lisa.
A few years ago the cave delivered its own brand of justice. A man was yanking on a three-foot stalactite when it broke loose and impaled him to the cave floor. You can still see the bloodstains today.
Did I mention I'm leading my own tall-tales tour of the cave?
From central Tucson follow Broadway east to Old Spanish Trail and follow that for about 17 miles. From I-10, take exit 279 (Vail) and head north for about six miles. Follow the signs for Colossal Cave. Park hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays and holidays. Admission is $6.50.
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