/ Modified jun 3, 2011 2:45 p.m.

A Tour of Kartchner Caverns with Gary Tenen

The cave's co-discoverer revisits Kartchner often, and finds it still amazes him 40 years later. A tireless evangelist for the cave he still refers to as "Xanadu", Gary Tenen invited Mark Duggan to accompany him on a recent trip underground.

Forty miles southeast of Tucson, under the limestone rock of the Whetstone Mountains, lies Kartchner Caverns. It was discovered in 1974 by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, two amateur cavers from Tucson. A simple cleft in the rock led to a fantastic underground world they called Xanadu.

Except for telling the Kartchner family, who owned the land, they kept the cave a secret for years, fearing it would be vandalized. Eventually, Tenen and Tufts came to believe that the best way to protect the cave was to turn it into a state park. The Kartchners agreed. Years of legislative wrangling ensued, but Kartchner Caverns State Park finally opened in the late '90s.

Since then, millions of tourists have experienced the wonders of the cave as part of a guided tour. But Gary Tenen is not the cave's average sightseer. When he returns to Xanadu, it's partially in memory of Randy Tufts, who passed away in 2002. But he's also acting as a sentinel for the cave's future. He keeps a close eye on the cave's health, checking it frequently for signs of drying. “This is an amazing natural resource,” he says. “It must be preserved for future generations."

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