The Cave That Waited
Articles by Richard McCord
Looking for adventure, young Jim Kennicott,
a student at North Hollywood High School in California, worked on
a U. S. Interior Department surveying crew in the summers of 1944
and '45. Both years he lived in tents in remote areas of Arizona's
San Francisco Mountains, north of Flagstaff. And in one of those
years, he is not sure which, he stumbled upon a cave.
Hidden in a yellow pine forest, the
cave at first glance seemed merely a collapsed crater, about 100
feet in diameter, left by some ancient volcanic event. But at its
bottom, 15 or 20 feet down, was hole large enough for humans to
Intrigued, Kennicott and some buddies
decided to explore that hole. With flashlights and a ball of string
to mark their way, half a dozen of them slipped into its darkness
one bright weekend day, while one guy stayed on top in case of trouble.
Near the entrance they found an old
bottle or two, signs that long-gone pioneers might have camped there.
In the next chambers they found the droppings of bats and either
a bobcat or mountain lion. This gave them pause, but they pressed
The going got rough. Several times they
crawled through tiny passageways on their stomachs. Then the cave
opened onto rooms 30 or 40 feet long, tall enough for walking. Crystal-clear
water dripped in some of the rooms, and the air was cool and crisp.
But no sign of human or animal life could be seen.
The explorers were scared all the way.
What if the cave fell in? What if they got lost, or fell off a ledge,
or got a foot stuck? What if they were jumped by a big cat, with
no room to turn or felle? Claustrophobia hung heavy upon them.
Yet on they went. After what seemed
like at least a mile, however, they could go no farther. The crawlway
tapered down to a fissure barely large enough for a hand. So they
scratched their names and the date into the moist clay, and departed.
In the early 1950s Kennicott attended
the University of California at Los Angeles. There he told two of
his Phi Delta Theta fraternity brothers about the cave, and they
wanted to see it for themselves. Finding it again proved surprisingly
easy, and everybody squeezed his way to the end. The newcomers put
their names and that of their fraternity next to the earlier ones.
Then for 40 years Kennicott forgot about the cave.
After college he went to work for an
insurance company, rising to division manager. He lived in several
places, but on his first trip to New Mexico he knew he wanted to
retire here. He bought a lot in Santa Fe, and when he reached his
60s a few years ago, he left his job and began building his dream
Up to his ears in construction, Kennicott
was startled one day by a letter sent to his Santa Fe address by
a ranger in Flagstaff. The U. S. Forest Service had just discovered
the cave, the ranger said. Could Kennicott tell them more about
Untouched in the stillness, the names
from almost half a century ago had been found. From Phi Delta Theta's
national office the ranger got the names of Kennicott and his friends.
And now, under the mandate of the 1988 Federal Cave Resources Protection
Act, the government wanted to learn all it could.
The ranger's letter asked many questions:
How did Kennicott find the cave? Was he aware of other caves in
the area? Who were all the people whose names were there? What artifacts
were found? Were bats or other animals present? Were any photos
The letter's most amazing line, however,
revealed that the cave was only 900 feet long. In memory, it still
stretched on for a mile.
When his astonishment subsided, Kennicott
sent a lengthy reply. In time the ranger wrote again: "Concerning
the cave, it is our intention to conserve it much as it was when
you visited so many years ago." Trips to it would be carefully restricted.
"When you read about the early days-John
Wesley Powell and those other guys who mapped the West for the first
time-you never think your life will be anything like that," Kennicott
says, smiling broadly in his retirement home. "But this does have
a historical perspective to it, doesn't it?"
Articles by Richard McCord