B lair had promised an opera singer performing in a natural cavern the early Cinnabar miners had busted into a hundred years ago, about 75 yards deep into the base of the large mesas on which his cabin sits.  He said this event would be followed by an excellent BBQ dinner and other entertaining events to be held in the ruin structures on the surface. We were not disappointed! 

The party group – we counted over 80 people – was composed of many eccentric people who, like Blair, have come to live in the Big Bend; plus, a number of outsiders – like ourselves – mostly friends of Blair’s from his photojournalist time spent with the Houston Chronicle and National Geographic.  There were also lots of Blair’s fellow Spelunkers for whom he is something of a celebrity, having written a number of books on the subject and almost single-handedly invented the art of Cave Photography.

Judye and I were among the first to be lead into the mine, which, once inside, became a maze of shafts going off in different directions.  Tiny votive candles very dimly lighted the route to the natural cavern.

Ok, I’ll admit it right now: I didn’t like the experience and have since vowed that I’ll not be going underground again for as long as I can avoid it. A sense of claustrophobic panic was fast rising in my throat as I tired to pick my way through the labyrinth while holding tight to the neck of an opened 1.5 liter bottle of red wine.  I could feel the pressure of more experienced people behind quickly growing irritated with my slow pace.  It was taking every fiber of my being simply to place one foot in front of the other and  I could hear voices behind me saying, Hey, what’s the hold up?  Let’s get moving up there!”

The opera singer was excellent.  She sang some selections from Puccini, each high “C” finding me looking nervously up at the stalactites on the high cavern ceiling.  Everyone else seemed to find the opera cave event simply marvelous.  For my part, Yoyo Ma, Django Rinehart, and John Coltrane could have been accompanying Maria Callas and I would have wanted outa there just as fast!  Judye took a number of photographs with her digital camera and we were later surprised to discover that the tiny bits of mica in the cave walls reflected back, making for very interesting effects.

Blair had timed the party’s exit from the mine so that all the guests could walk up the path to the top of the mesa in time to enjoy the incredible sunset against the Chisos Mountains. the sky was simply marvelous and worth every minute of panic  inside the mine.  We then had an opportunity to visit with some of the other guests.

We spent some time talking with a very attractive young woman dressed in a long print skirt with tall cowboy boots who said she was building a house in the ghost town of Terlingua.  She said she was carrying the materials on her back up a ¼ mile path.  She had come to the Big Bend on a chance visit from her home in Seattle and found that she did not want to leave.  Several other people we talked with were river guides working for Far Flung Adventures, the Rio Grande outfit that takes tourists through the rapids in Santa Elena and Boqiullas Canyon.  Oh yeah, Blair’s BBQ briskets and fixings where marvelous!  He had smoked many large briskets slowly for 24 hours.  The resulting smoke ring and taste was simply superb.

The next day, the four of us drove deep into the Big Bend National Park and found a place to set up our camp, drink wine, cook some marvelous steaks, and lay back to look up at the Milky Way.  Later, we drove to Marfa, TX where Bert & Leon opted for a night in the recently remodeled hotel where the cast of Giant once stayed as Judye and I moved on north to park the RV in the Davis Mountains.

That night, Bert & Leon drove out to the parking spot officially operated by the State of Texas for roadside viewing of the Mysterious Marfa Lights; and, actually saw them!!!  They said they rose from the horizon as luminous balls of bright light – turning from blue to orange – and darted around the sky at hyper speed.

So, that’s the story, folks.  Texas is still a very big, wide-open place with lots of very marvelous sights to see and interesting people to meet.  Let’s hit the road again, soon. ok?

Blair Pittman
Villa De La Mina
HC #70
Terlingua, TX 79852
(432) 371-2154

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Caves and Cavers

C aves have held an attraction for man since prehistoric times, with a wide range of human activities taking place within their depths. In the lower Pecos River region of Texas, hunter-gatherer residents of 6,000-1,000 years ago used caves for burials and left a vivid record of their presence in paintings on rock shelters in the area. For modern-day cavers, the lure remains. Sundry motives fuel their passion for exploring underground: the love of adventure, natural beauty, scientific discovery, physical challenge and more.

Texas caves are as diverse as the cavers who roam their passages, offering something to suit everyone. For sheer beauty, the Caverns of Sonora in Sutton County rival caves worldwide, with their sparkling chambers of pure white or mineral-tinted formations. A very different, watery setting greets wet-suited ­visitors to the state’s longest cave, Honey Creek in Kendall and Comal counties, which comprises more than 20 miles of active stream passageway draining to the Guadalupe River. In Edwards County, the legendary Devil’s ­Sinkhole — a 350-foot deep pit caused by the roof collapse of a giant underground chamber — boasts a large bat colony as well as an intriguing 133-year history of exploration and exploitation. “Long, tight and dusty” are words to describe Airman’s Cave in Travis County, a popular destination for Austin locals. Enchanted Rock Cave, a granite cave in Llano County, is an example of pseudokarst, in which caves are formed in non-soluble rocks by processes other than dissolution.

From three-dimensional mazes to steep drops to stunning decorations, the charms of Texas caves have cavers coming back again and again. Sometimes, for decades. Blair Pittman’s romance with the underground dates back to his first visit to Carlsbad Caverns when he was just five years old.

“I was hooked,” says the pioneering cave photographer.

Pittman, who grew up in Pecos, had to wait a few more years for his first wild cave, the formidable Devil’s Sinkhole. But in 1949 at age 11, accompanied by an adult friend, he gingerly descended 150 feet down a ladder made of sheep-wire fencing to the top of the guano mountain that rises from the depths of the enormous pit. Soon he was caving regularly. And, entranced by the beauty of the formations he saw — and eager to share it with his parents — he began to teach himself the difficult art of taking pictures below ground, starting with a simple Brownie Hawkeye.

Stalagmites and Stalactiets

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s — the “Golden Age of Texas caving” — he continued to hone his photographic skills in a wide range of caves in Texas, adjoining states and Mexico, making multiple trips to many. He participated in the early explorations of such great show caves as Natural Bridge Caverns, Inner Space Cavern and, especially, the Caverns of Sonora (then called Mayfield Cave), which became his personal muse. “Once I got into Mayfield Cave, that was it. Trip after trip after trip to it only, photographing the fantastic formations,” he says. He also worked there with developer Jack Burch to help develop the trail and electrical systems.

Photographic prowess led to a professional career. In 1962, he joined the Denton Record Chronicle staff, moving in 1964 to the Houston Chronicle, where he stayed until 1978. Next came a five-year stint with National Geographic, followed by years of freelance work. Caving took a backseat to job and family concerns, though he still found opportunities to cave in England, Ireland, Malaysia and Ecuador, while racking up a long string of photography awards.

In 1995, when Texas A&M University Press contacted him about doing a book, he had been out of serious caving for almost three decades. “I’d forgotten how hard cave photography is,” says Pittman, who was soon squeezing through tight passages and floating heavy equipment down subterranean rivers to revisit locales he’d photographed years before. Texas Caves, published in 1999, contains 66 of his finest photos, old and new, along with 33 more by other eminent explorer/photographers of his era.

Today he’s retired to a cabin in Terlingua Ghost Town in the Big Bend, a stone’s throw from an abandoned mine, a natural cave and a 150-foot pit. And though busy with other projects, like penning two slim volumes of local lore, he still caves on occasion. “But I stay away from the tough stuff,” he says.
Blair Pittman
"If it Ain't the Truth, It Oughtta Be!"