With a name like Kickapoo Cavern, you would think that a regional Texas Indian tribe named Kickapoo would have discovered this cavern, thus elevating the cavern’s official name with a rich historical context and record. But you would be wrong.
Geologists and archaeologists who have mapped the cave have yet to find any artifacts or any other evidence to prove that prehistoric Native Americans used this cave for daily living or ceremonial business. However, a large mound of burned rock and chipped stone nearby suggests that Native Americans were familiar visitors to the area.
After listening to Ranger Matt’s presentation, I have a personal theory why natives might have avoided the cave. It seems that during the cold winter months, the cave acts as a warm weather haven for Indiana Jones’ worst nightmare. Only until the weather heats up outside, and all the good snakes wind their way out of their cozy cave den is it safe for humans to explore the inner depths, and that’s where master spelunker Ranger Matt was taking us.
Leah and I boarded a dirty white pint-sized school bus named Bertha with nine perfectly-mannered teenage girls and their two chaperones. The bus, created in 1986 had seen better days. Leah and I were commenting on the duct tape upholstery when Matt mentioned that we were riding in a retired Kinney County prison bus.
“That explains the bullet hole in the windshield,” I presumed.
Bertha had been given a pardon, only to be reincarnated as a park bus. For some reason, I was reminded of a road sign I spied on the way to Kickapoo that read: DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS. THEY MAY BE PRISON ESCAPEES.
Our driver returned us to the park entrance where she steered Bertha onto a poorly-marked, tipsy-turvey, hippity-dippity dirt path that severely challenged her suspension, prompting memories of “The Little Engine That Could”. And so could Bertha!
After donning colorful hardhats and checking flashlights for brightness, Matt led the way to the cave entrance…
checking for varmints before allowing us to climb through a small crack in the ground,
where we found ourselves standing on the collapsed ceiling of a limestone rock pile measuring 130 feet thick. The mouth of the room was big enough to park a Cessna if you could figure a way to get it inside.
Matt explained that according to carbon dating, we were standing where Devils River once flowed 105 million years ago. He directed his flashlight 40 feet overhead to reveal an embedded fossil of a nautilus–common during the Paleozoic Era–embedded in the ceiling…
and more recent remains of an unfortunate sheep or goat littering the floor
From there we dropped approximately 40 feet, scrambling over ledges of flat rock and boulders, on our way to survey the three largest columns (when a stalactite meets a stalagmite) in Texas. How apropos that along the way, we would pass a formation of stalactites that managed to aggregate into the shape of the Lone Star state.
There was no meaningful trail. Every step was a floating rock, see-sawing under our weight. That’s when I heard Leah go down hard behind me. I swung around to see her flat on her back, saved by her fanny pack.
And Matt was there in an instant.
“I’m alright,” she declared. “I just lost my balance on the rocks.” It was good news to my ears. For some reason, Leah and caves are not on equal footing, and rarely without incident (see “A Hole in the Head” post),
She brushed herself off and we continued along, safely negotiating the terrain while admiring scenery the likes of Yogi and Boo Boo, immortalized in stone.
We turned the corner and the room opened up. The ceiling vaulted higher to accomodate the caves’s largest column.
“Don’t be afraid to touch anything,” announced Ranger Matt. “We’re not like most of those other parks that have guard rails and ropes, and psychedelic lights with church music playing.” He was preaching to my choir.
“Just don’t carve your name on anything unless you’re willing to pay for the crime. We have little patience for graffiti here.”
“Like this one over here?” suggested a blond coed, pointing to a name scratched into the calcite that dated back to 1887.
“Ah, good ol’ C. Robinson,” Ranger Matt explained, “He was one of the early ones. But there’s older graffiti in this cave that predates Mr. Robinson–written with torch soot–but that’s in a room that’s off limits because it’s still developing.”
He was referring to parts of the cave that continue to evolve, thanks to rhythmic water droplets falling from ceiling tendrils onto budding mounds below.
“Are you sure we can’t see it,” I asked? The tour was exceeding the pre-determined time limit, but I was eager to explore more.
Ranger Matt agreed to take us further in and 40 feet deeper to give us a peek, but only if we were willing. Half the group was ready to call it a day, but the other half of us who pledged our lives to Jules Verne was ready for anything, so we descended deeper still.
“Just remember,” Matt forewarned as he led, “the deeper we go, the longer the climb out.” There were no objections and no complaints. Each of us found our own way down. When we reassembled at a flat area, we were given a new set of instructions: NO TOUCHING, and STAND AWAY FROM THE RIDGE which plunged another 120 ft. below.
We solemnly wove our way around the space, beholding the nascent natural beauty that will one day become a future column.