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Tucson Weekly Cave Man

Out There Guy reaches a new and glorious low in Great Basin National Park.

By Kevin Franklin

JUNE 15, 1998:  NOT READY TO face the heat? Does the thermometer lapping at the edge of the century mark strike terror into your heart? Fear not, there's a place where the heat miser has no grip--Great Basin National Park in Nevada. The park's Lehman Caves guarantee a year-round temperature of 50 degrees, no matter how hot things get locally. But the Nevada retreat is cool in more ways than one: The Lehman Caves rank among the most highly decorated caves in the western United States.

Massive formations called "shields" are their hallmark. When calcium carbonate-rich water squeezes through fissures in the walls, it gradually forms a limestone disc. These discs, located throughout the cave walls, have evolved into formations like "The Parachute." The crown jewel of the cave, the table-sized shield hangs high above our heads, with its stalactites draping down like the cords to a parachute.

Thousands of other fantastic and whimsical shapes fill the cave. Porous bulbs resembling giant turnips grow on the ceiling. When ferreted out with the beam of a flashlight, they give off a caramel-colored translucence. Soda-straw stalactites blanket whole rooms. Fragile tubes of limestone, soda straws hang straight down or sometimes bend in gravity-defying shapes--cave Krazy-Straws, if you will.

"Bacon" clings edge-wise to the walls in wavy patterns, its thin strips of light and dark bestowing the marbled pattern of its namesake. "Popcorn" similarly adorns the walls. All this naturally crafted food sculpture is enough to make you hungry--packing a post-tour lunch might be advisable.

The guided hike wanders along the subterranean passageways for six-tenths of a mile. At every turn, some new and strange shape captures the imagination. Unlike Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, or Tucson's own Colossal Cave, you get a real feel for a caving experience here. The route in some places is tight and narrow, and occasionally calls for ducking beneath menacing-looking stalactites.

Of course, the cave is by no means in its natural state. A concrete floor levels the footing, and cleverly ensconced electric lights allow visitors to see. But these intrusions are relatively subtle. The National Park Service is doing a reasonable job of trying to protect the formations; and sealed doors keep the exchange of outside air to a minimum. Rangers keep an eye on visitors and explain to them the damage they can cause by merely touching formations.

"We all have oils on our hands," says ranger Cynthia Raider. "You know that oil and water don't mix; so if you touch a formation, it will stop growing."

She explains that it's the deposition of dissolved calcium carbonate from the water the creates the formations. If an oily barrier is established between the formation and its nurturing water, growth is no longer possible.

Parts of the two-mile cave system are so delicate, they're sealed off from visitors and rangers alike.

Rangers who work at the park get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the "Gypsum Cave," where the rare gypsum formations are so delicate a misplaced breath can break them. Other parts of the cave are sealed off for safety reasons, like the "Talus Room." A giant block of limestone is slowly creeping away from the wall of the cave.

"It definitely will fall," Raider says. "We don't know if it will be 100 years from now or tomorrow."

So the tour that once was a loop now backtracks. Still, it's one of the best caves in the West, according to 53-year-old Wayne Gaylor, who first came to the cave when he was a wee 6 years old.

"We've been in a lot of caves," he says of himself and his wife, Sue. "This is the most highly decorated we've ever seen."

Abbsalom Lehman discovered the caves in April of 1885, and began giving tours to supplement his ranching and farming enterprises. Considering that the caves have endured more than 100 years of human visitation, they're in remarkably good condition. A few stalagmites have been sacrificed along the way, but for the most part the delicate formations Lehman first discovered with his candle lantern are still hanging there today.

And it's still 50 degrees.

Getting There

Great Basin National Park is in the middle of nowhere Nevada, making it all the more ideal for a quiet getaway. The Visitor's Center is west of Baker, Nevada, on State Route 488. It's open year-round, as are the caves. Cave admission is $4. For more information, call (702) 234-733; or write Great Basin National Park, Baker, NV 89311. The park's website is at www.nps.gov/grba/.

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