The temperature drops a degree in unison with every step – or so it seems – as you descend, descend, descend into the darkness.
You feel the cold before you see where it’s coming from – should have worn a jacket — descending through a long concrete tunnel to a metal door that opens to the basement of the earth.
Cross the threshold, and it takes the students a second to begin to process the modestly lit surroundings, though the olfactory senses require no such adjustment period: a thick smell of stone saturated with humidity, the scent of under -ground, engulfs you all from all sides. the way the smell of popcorn seemingly pervades every inch of a movie theater.
Nichole Andler turns off the lights.
“This is what the cave naturally looks like,” explains our guide.
Thing is, it feels like nothing at all now – like, nothing – the purest distillation of the color black comes to life, as if your eyeballs have been momentarily ripped from your skull and replaced with small bits of charcoal.
Think about it, it’s like stepping into a gigantic, cavernous reservoir of sensory deprivation carved out of limestone and marble: calming, dislocating, and a bit unsettling all at once, that feeling of being cocooned in complete and utter silence.
It’s a cool time – literally it’s about 50 degrees here – a kind of visual palate cleanser preparing you for what’s to come, a breathtaking journey through a 2.5 mile long maze of some of nature’s wildest architecture, millions of years in the making.
And then the lights come back on, and so many forms emerge from the shadows at once, organic and alien at the same time.
We’re about to embark on a journey through Lehman Caves, one of Nevada’s most fascinating natural attractions, nestled in Great Basin National Park near Baker, Nevada, about a four-hour drive away. north of Las Vegas.
One hundred years ago this weekend, ceremonies were held here to commemorate President Warren Harding declaring the Lehman Caverns a national monument earlier in 1922. On Saturday, the occasion will be celebrated with a day of events on the site, including cave lantern tours just as visitors would have taken a century ago.
It’s sunny outside on a recent Monday morning when we enter the caves for our own visit.
It will take nearly two hours before seeing daylight again.
Millions of years in the making
Did it all really start with a thieving pack rat?
As she stands in front of the cave entrance, sporting a ranger hat and an air of tireless enthusiasm, Andler shares one of her favorite stories of how the Lehman Caves came to attention. of a local prospector and rancher around 1885.
The story detailing how these dark caves were first revealed to the public was never officially told at the time, so it became a thing of regional folklore.
According to this particular thread, cave namesake Absalom Lehman was outside his cabin one day when he noticed the aforementioned rodent scurrying about with one of his possessions – something shiny, shiny in the sun. .
Lehman gave chase and eventually fell over the caves after his horse gave way under him.
“Maybe it’s a bit of a far-fetched story,” smiles Andler.
The truth is, no one knows exactly how Lehman came across the caves, though he likely found them while herding sheep or looking for stray cattle, according to Andler. (To say he “discovered” the caves would be inaccurate, as Native Americans were using them as burial grounds long before Lehman arrived).
Lehman then helped turn the caves into a tourist attraction, carving his way through the winding maze of rock.
In January 1922, the site became a national monument. Eleven years later management was transferred to the National Park Service, and then in 1986 the caves were incorporated into the Great Basin National Park when it was created.
The caves are at least 2.8 million years old, the age at which one of its rock formations has been dated, formed by a combination of hot water coming from below to carve the rock into the various rooms that we walk through, along with surface water picking up carbon dioxide from decaying plant and animal matter – forming carbonic acid – then dissolving limestone and marble from above.
As the water drips, it releases some of this carbon dioxide and deposits the calcite crystals in stalactites, which descend from the ceiling of the cave, and stalagmites, which extend from the floor.
During our visit, we notice several places where water continues to drip.
Nearly three million years and counting, the Lehman Caves continue to grow before our eyes.
Presentation of the cave turnip
“Look at your face!”
Andler issues the order with the frequency of a Walmart greeting asking customers to have a nice day.
While traversing here, the space gets cramped at times, forcing you to bend your body Gumby-style to navigate the occasional narrow passage and duck under numerous low rock formations as if dodging the blows of Mother Nature herself- same.
It’s part of the call.
Although there are much larger caves to visit in the Southwest – including the more than 100 caves found in New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns State Park, some of which stretch 30 miles – explore the Lehman Caves is a much more intimate, up-close-and- personal experience.
Think of it as seeing Metallica – if Metallica were a jaw-dropping assortment of rocks – in a small club rather than a 20,000-seat arena.
About halfway through our tour, we encounter another distinctive feature of Lehman Caves: the Parachute Shield, a towering geological specimen that resembles a frozen waterfall or an overturned bowl of spaghetti, stalactites instead of noodles.
“The Parachute Shield is really the shield that has become the icon of the Lehman Caves,” Andler explains. “He was a famous one who spread the word, ‘Lehman Caves has shields.'”
In addition to its comfortable dimensions, one of the main attractions here is the abundance of “cave shields”, large round rock formations consisting of two joined plates.
They are rare in most caves.
There are over 500 here.
“It was the shields that made us special,” Andler notes.
She guides us to a pair of structures in question, which she dubbed the Captain America Shield and the Jabba the Hut Shield, highlighting a key part of the Lehman Caves experience: identifying rock formations that look like rocks. famous and/or real things. , a baby alligator here, a big-eyed frog there.
It’s kind of like an underground version of pointing animal shapes into cloud formations, locating the rabbit in the sky.
Speaking of which, Andler interrupts the tour at one point and gestures to a spot above his head, where a cluster of round stalactites hangs.
She calls them Cave Turnips, due to their similarity to the vegetable.
Although most stalactites are longer than they are wide, there is a variety called bulbous stalactites that form underwater.
Given that she and her colleagues don’t believe these caves were ever completely submerged to the ceiling, this could be a new discovery unique to these regions.
“We call these Turnipites,” she said. “Our own thing from Lehman Caves.”
Our tour culminates where B-Series astronauts once roamed an imaginary realm teeming with monstrous maggots and low-budget aliens.
We entered The Lodge Room, one of the most spacious stops on our hike.
In the mid-’60s, scenes from the cheesy sci-fi parody “Wizard of Oz” “Wizard of Mars” were filmed here, complete with the aforementioned creatures and all of their squeaky costumes.
Four decades ago, when Prohibition was still in effect, this space was sometimes used as a speakeasy.
“They literally had a band here,” Andler says, “so you could dance.”
There have also been a number of weddings here – you can still get married on site – the last one taking place in 2018.
The Lodge Room is the last stop on our journey.
We passed by the Music Room, where tour guides once made their titular ‘music’ by pounding the walls with hammers until they stopped doing so due to the obvious damage done to said walls; the Registration Room, where visitors were allowed to scribble their initials on the ceiling decades ago (don’t bust the Sharpie today, you’ll be cited for the graffiti); and a myriad of other places rich in history and mineral deposits.
Along the way, Andler notices a particularly dark brown patch of rock, indicating that it is heavily composed of iron.
She’s been leading tours for eight years now, and this is the first time she’s seen one.
“Almost every time I go into the cave, I notice something different – again,” she says as we walk towards the exit, emphasizing the nuance and depth of the landscape she passes through, an almost geological puzzle. impossible to complete.
To everyone’s surprise, it was raining when we exited the caves about an hour and a half after entering.
No one had the faintest idea that a storm front had set in.
How could we?
We were sailing in another world entirely.