Nether Lands

You say stalagmite and I say stalactite: At these four caves, Mother Nature combines a low thermostat with over-the-top decor.

Around mid-July, I begin to hate sunshine. This summer, a cure for my seasonal solar disorder hit me like a whiff of guano: I’ll make like a bat and hide out all day in cool, dark caves. (But I’ll draw the line at eating June bugs and mosquitoes.)

Texas is riddled with more than three thousand known caves and sinkholes. These portals to the underworld can be divided into two groups: the ones real bats—and crazed spelunkers—will enter and the ones I will enter. Cavers believe that “where your head will go, the rest of your body will follow.” I do not believe this. As for heavily populated bat caves, if the deadly ammonia levels and the threat of histoplasmosis (a disease contracted from bat guano) aren’t frightening enough, consider this: An average of 268 critters—including bedbugs, skin beetles, and fleas—have been found in random samples of guano about the size of thick cinnamon rolls. What to do? Would I have no choice but to spend the summer in an Omnimax Theater, watching Journey Into Amazing Caves over and over? No way. Thanks to Texas’ show caves—outfitted with walkways, handrails, and electric lights—even claustrophobic chickens can go underground.

I began my descent into Pluto’s domain at the Caverns of Sonora, about fifteen miles southwest of the town of Sonora. On the surface, the place is uninspiring; the visitors center is no more remarkable than a nice barbecue restaurant. Jeremy Robles, who has led tours here for more than a year and still speaks of the site with undiminished awe, escorted me and three other visitors through a pair of utilitarian aluminum doors that help maintain the cave’s constant 70-degree temperature and 95-percent humidity. (The moisture-rich air is as good as any spa treatment; you’ll be positively dewy by the time you leave.)

This cave, which has seven miles of passageways, has garnered gushing praise from speleologists and guidebook writers. I dismissed it as hype—until I took the tour. If the cave were a mental illness, it would be obsessive-compulsive disorder. Except for the narrow walkways, every square centimeter from floor to ceiling is festooned with delicate formations: ice-white Christmas trees, fragile soda straws, mountains of cauliflowerlike cave coral, crystals of dogtooth spar rimming emerald pools of water, and gravity-defying helictites (sort of free-spirited stalactites) that have grown inexplicably to resemble figurines of things like a quarterback passing the ball. And just think, this land of fanciful frosting lay undiscovered until 1955, when four cavers from Dallas finally pushed past the bland first quarter mile of passages—explored by locals for decades—to discover chamber after chamber of mind-bending calcite creations.

A few years later, a group of spelunkers began worming their way into

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