By Rod Andrew
Visiting Kartchner Caverns State Park should be on everyone’s list of essential experiences in Arizona, as the Caverns are among the finest of the many geological marvels of Arizona.
Other travelers had advised my wife and me to visit them, and we were not disappointed. They are not as massive as some cave systems, but they still fill visitors with a sense of eons past, and their relatively smaller size makes the experience a very intimate one.
The story of how they were discovered and the lengthy preparations that were taken to ensure that their integrity was protected before they were opened to visitors is as fascinating as the caves themselves.
I would advise anyone contemplating a visit to make sure they watch the movie which reenacts the discovery of the caves and to pay heed to the warning that watching the movie can cause motion sickness.
It can and it did. My wife will attest to that.
Unfortunately, our trip to the Kartchner Caverns led to some embarrassment, a result of my attempt to show off my literary background.
There are two tours through different parts of the caverns. My wife and I took part in both tours, but it was the Rotunda/Throne tour that led to my moment of shame.
You see, the most spectacular part of this tour is to a large chamber which centers on a huge, impressive column, called “Kubla Khan.” The column was named after the hero in a poem by Thomas Coleridge. This poem, referred to in the cavern brochure, is an epic account of Kubla Khan’s kingdom, told in elevated language.
I remembered it from my university days and, the night before we did the tour, I recited the beginning of the poem to my wife. I told her that it might be a good idea for me to recite it at an appropriate time during the tour.
She was not so sure. Maybe the guide would already plan on doing that.
We were taken in a small bus to the cavern entrance and passed through a decontamination room on our way in. They were serious about protecting the caves.
Well, when our group reached the central chamber, the Kubla Khan was suddenly lit up in front of us. It was stunning. I seem to remember music, but might be mistaken. Our group stood in appropriately awed silence after the guide had delivered a short history of the immense column.
Still no poem.
I whispered to my wife, “Should I?”
“Go for it.”
So I did, intoning in my deepest “delivering a solemn pronouncement” voice:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
Wow! I was impressed! My voice sounded like the utterance of some biblical prophet as it reverberated off the chamber walls.
I waited for murmurs of approval, to be followed by a scattering of applause which would soon become …
Well, you get the idea.
Awkward silence. Nobody spoke, not even the guide. Nobody moved.
My wife said, quietly, “Oops.” I think she slowly moved away from me.
I reluctantly realized that the only one impressed was me. Fortunately, the darkness hid my identity, although my Australian accent probably narrowed things down.
After an excruciatingly long time, the guide spoke. “Yes. That’s the poem.”
No thank you. No compliment on my delivery.
Then, to everyone’s relief, including mine, he continued with his tour narration, as if nothing had happened.
I didn’t say another word throughout the rest of the tour.
When we finally shuffled out of the cavern and back onto our bus, nobody looked at me. The tour guide gazed over my shoulder as we thanked him for the tour. My wife, loyal to the end, sat next to me on the bus.
Now, several years later, I often wonder if our guide had intended to recite the poem, as a regular part of the tour, and was properly annoyed when I jumped in and stole his thunder.
I guess I could go back and do the tour again to find out, but I think I would be taking the tour alone.