The Cave That Waited 40 Years

By Richard McCord

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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 enter.

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 on.

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 house.

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 it?

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 taken?

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?"

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