Before Nevada becomes Utah, down Highway 50, the loneliest road in America, past the silver mines of Eureka, beyond the neon motel signs of Ely, up a slow and sleepy road, buried 190 feet below the surface of a mountain peak, lies a colony of caves. These caverns, like ancient tombs preserved in absolute stillness, are over a million years old.
As we meandered along our cross-country journey, we took pause at the Great Basin National Park to take the 90 minute tour of the Lehman caves, to discover their great secrets.
Inside, colonies of stalactite formations reach their great fingers from the cavernous ceilings toward their stalagmite kin below. Draperies, where water has dripped down cave walls for hundreds of thousands of years, cascade in calcite ripples. And shields, like great round clams protruding from cave walls, ooze their long, stoic tentacles. Where water drips, they glisten, like prehistoric jellyfish.
The whole scene appears so other-worldly, that our tour group begins spouting all manner of similes to describe it, to take it all in.
“It looks like something out of Indiana Jones, or an alien movie!”
“I feel like I’m at Disneyland, the buried treasure is just around the corner…”
“Look at that wall, it looks like a curtain.”
“These two, almost touching, like the painting, where God reaches out to Adam.”
“This one looks like a dildo.”
These stalactite formations, monuments of nature’s patience, are still growing, imperceptibly.
“Quiz,” the tour guide says, “see these broken off pieces,” he says, pointing to some sheared off stalactites” these couldn’t have been broken until after the cave was discovered in 1880, but not after it was preserved in 1922, so how old are these little growths?” He points to a thinner piece, no more than two inches, that protrudes from a sheared off stalactite.
“That would make it anywhere from 90 to maybe, 130 years old,” someone replies.
“Exactly,” the tour guide beams. Our mouths all gape as we look beyond, to the massive stalactites that reach 30 or 40 feet from the ceiling, realizing all at once the scope of such a project. How many droplets of water trickled through that straw before such a structure was constructed?
When we reach another opening, our eyes fall upon the low ceiling, which is covered with the initials of former explorers, scrawled in candle smoke and preserved in the chill, still air. “Graffiti,” someone mutters. “Boy they really messed this place up,” says another.
The tour guide interjects, “These were created sometime before the caves were preserved in 1922, so they’re considered a part of history. What do you think of them?” He surveys the group, I’m sure making what could be for him a very monotonous job, into a study of the humans who pass briefly through his path every day.
“Well, I guess they’re a part of history, but I don’t like them,” someone grumbles.
“What God made, man cannot top,” laments another.
The tour guide looks almost disappointed. He searches the crowd for a dissenter.
Finally, a scruffy young man boldly ventures, “I wish my name was up there,” and everyone chuckles knowingly. For who, at some point, has not desired immortality? Isn’t this why we carve our initials into tree trunks? Why we write epic pieces of literature? Why we build architectural bohemoths, monuments to last the tides of time? Don’t we all want to leave our mark, to say that we were here, and that we had lived?
The tour guide remarks that before 1922, kids would hang out down in the caves, even hold dances there, bringing with them live music, and beverages, and building camp fires. I imagined teenagers who, having made the extra effort to brave the dark crawl into this particular cave, emerged, feeling their own ant-sized mortality surrounded by nature’s ancient might, and instinctively feeling the urge to leave their mark. The same way the water had left its own calcite mark all throughout the caves. I smiled to myself thinking about those kids, scrawling their names upon this immortal place, and I wondered, could you really blame them?