“I think this is it,” my friend, Hayley Hopkins, called out as we scrambled over the boulders and thorn bushes leading up to the cave. The opening looked just like all the other crevices between the giant igneous rocks — which is why it took so long to find, even though we had both ventured through it before.
Buckman Cave is nestled in the rocks of Diablo Canyon, and it is not for the casual hiker. Inside, narrow passages, steep drops over jagged rocks, tight squeezes between walls coated with red dust, an upward passage that requires a similar climbing technique to Kuzco and Pacha escaping the ravine in the Emperor’s New Groove, and the musty smell of an ancient terrain filled with rat and bat excrement come together for an adventure far from the experience of a regular hike.
Given how dangerous the sport is and the risk of exposing a fragile ecosystem to vandalism, most caves are not identified on maps. Buckman Cave itself is no stranger to tragedy; in 1988, The New Mexican reported on a 22-year-old man falling to his death trying to reach the entrance.
Hayley, like most visitors, found the location by word of mouth — though it isn’t exactly a secret. On the hike toward the entrance, a group of rock climbers shouted to us: “You going to the cave?”
For me, the experience was worthwhile because of its novelty, despite the danger. How often does a person get to see the inside of the earth? What other activity feels as primitive and as bold?
Steve Matlock has lived in Santa Fe for 19 years and has caved in every state except Hawaii. He has explored Buckman Cave “over 500 times” and says he could go through it blindfolded. He’s come close by navigating the cave with only a lighter, an activity he does not recommend and heavily endorses the importance of backup flashlights and batteries.
Going into a new cave is “the best feeling ever,” he said. “I get to explore this? This is made by nature and water and earth — fire even. You’re walking through the elements. It’s magic.”
“Exploration is inherent in all of us and to be able to explore something you’ve never seen or set foot where some human has [never] set foot is a great feeling.” He said caves are not a final frontier of earthbound exploration, but “a new frontier. Your frontier.”
The draw of caves is pulling more people into them. There are over 4,000 caves in New Mexico, said Mike Mansur, chairman of the National Speleological Society Southwest Region and of the Sandia Grotto, and it’s getting easier to get into them.
In 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham passed a law freeing landowners from liability should an expedition go awry on their property, making it less difficult for explorers to gain permission to venture inward. The discovery of more caves in New Mexico is significant for a number of reasons, including the use of karst systems — landscapes defined by caves and sinkholes that lead to underground water sources — or the discovery of potential tourist attractions.
But the boost in explorers has also spurred a boost in vandalism.
Matlock even noted the exponential growth of graffiti within Buckman Cave; many walls are covered with spray paint — names of teenagers who made it through, arrows navigating the path to the exit, “Hell” with an arrow pointing down a crevice that leads to a depth I was not brave enough to venture toward to make an estimate and, for some reason, the imperative sentence: “Smoke crack and eat babies.”
While the spike in interest has been great for explorers, the influx in the hobby has also caused problems for caves across the world. The International Union of Speleology named 2021 the International Year of Caves and Karst in order to educate the public on the importance of these ecosystems and how to appreciate and explore the environment without damaging it. One example of how even well-intentioned cavers have caused damage is through the spread of white nose syndrome, a disease that is detrimental to bat populations and spread by humans who travel from cave to cave without properly sanitizing their gear.
Joining a local grotto is the easiest way to become informed and safely pursue the hobby. The National Speleological Society is a network of cavers with chapters in regions throughout the United States. The organization aims to promote “safe and responsible caving practices, effective cave and karst management, speleology, and conservation.”
In Northern New Mexico, the Sandia Grotto chapter of the NSS meets monthly in Albuquerque. Meetings have been virtual during the pandemic, but in-person gatherings have resumed this month. The annual membership fee is $12.
Mansur encourages amateurs and enthusiasts interested in exploring caves to become involved. It is an affordable way to connect with nature and a community of experienced adventurers who can help navigate the underground mazes, reduce the risk of accidents, share the proper safety equipment and even help maintain the ecosystem rather than contribute to its damage.
“There’s really no reason not to join one of the clubs,” Mansur said. “If you get involved with the cave groups, learn the ropes and how to preserve them, then you’re that much ahead to help pass that on to other folks.”
Mansur has also taken it upon himself to help combat vandalism in caves. Three in New Mexico are the subjects of his cave preservation project, where volunteers work to repair formations that have been intentionally broken over the years. Since the group’s creation in 2018, Mansur says they have successfully repaired over 310 cave formations using epoxy and steel rods. I recently traveled with him to Cottonwood Cave within the Lincoln National Forest and saw his work in action; in limestone caves like Cottonwood, stalactites can take thousands of years to form and seconds to destroy.
Hayley and I left Buckman Cave like a well-used pair of boots: worn out and covered in dirt. But the experience of passing through a landscape approximately 300 million years in the making lived up to the romanticization most cavers describe in their fascination with the sport.
In tense moments, I was reminded of advice from Matlock, and the innate ability each of us has to connect with the natural world.
“When you’re stuck in life or rock climbing, caving, hiking — just calm down and relax, and look around you and figure it out,” Matlock said. “That’s the biggest advice I could give to any person that wants to go into a cave: When you’re stuck and you don’t know where you are, remember where you came from.”