Explore the Texas Underground -- literally -- with the help of Blair Pittman's new travel guide, Texas Caves.
Texas Caves, a new book by Blair Pittman, explores the subterranean world with the affection of someone with a deep, abiding love and respect for the sanctity of the fragile environment below our feet.
Taking pictures of caves as a boy led Pittman to a career in photography with the Houston Chronicle, National Geographic, and Smithsonian. Over the years, the 62-year-old Pittman has visited thousands of caves and worked for several of the seven commercial caves in Texas. This 122-page book published by Texas A&M Press might be the masterpiece of a career that has included photographing LBJ, Nixon, and Elvis.
In addition to its beautiful photography, the book could also be school book for would-be cavers or those just intrigued by the amazing world below the surface. The pages cover a lot of ground from the critters and geology of Texas caves to a history of the exploration and development of the caverns.
"Doing the book was a trip back in time for me," Pittman said in an interview from his home in Jarrell. Until recently he was the manager of Cave Without a Name near Boerne, but his curiosity for exploring caves goes back to 1949. In one of the most enjoyable portions of the book, Pittman tells of a gut-wrenching descent 150 feet into the Devil's Sinkhole near Rocksprings, using fencing wire as a rope, underwater breathing equipment fashioned from instructions taken from a Popular Mechanics magazine, and a flashlight sealed in a Mason jar.
Probably the most special portion of the book is Pittman's interviews with three of the pioneers of Texas spelunking -- Orion Knox, Jack Burch, and Jim Brummett. With the help of hundreds of volunteers, these three men opened a new world to millions of visitors. Pittman was there with them exploring the muddy recesses, building trails, and documenting the progress.
Pittman calls the essays "verbal histories," and they read much like the subjects related the stories. Knox had never before told his story about how he and a group of students from St. Mary's University in San Antonio explored and named the rooms of Natural Bridge Caverns near New Braunfels.
Burch, an avid caver, helped develop the Caverns of Sonora and Natural Bridge Caverns. In the book, he says the caverns had to be commercialized to protect them from souvenir hunters and destructive explorers. Brummett, who was also Pittman's father-in-law, tells his story from the view point of a cave manager. Although it has fallen in severe disrepair in recent years, Brummett built Cascade Caverns near Boerne into a showplace with a campground, dance hall, and barbecue pit. "Man, could he cook," Pittman says, "everything from brisket to potato salad and beans." The stories are priceless moments of Texas cave history.
"I don't consider myself a writer," Pittman says, even though he has authored three other books and has six more in the works. "I'm a storyteller. I'm a photographer who couldn't find a writer to say what I wanted to say. I'm a photographer forced into it." The book includes a section on taking photographs in the inky underground darkness. Pittman's next book will be a travel guide on Texas caves.
Texas Caves is much too pretty of a book to use in the traditional travel guide sense, but it will inspire an appreciation for the amazing beauty of the underground formations. "I write like I'm giving a tour," the former tour guide says. "I want to simulate and get [the visitors] excited about caves."
The new generation of cavers are not as concerned with exploring as they are in "CPR," Pittman says. That stands for conservation, preservation, and restoration. "They're having to clean up the mess that I helped make," he says. "We didn't know any better 40 years ago."
Texas has more than 3,000 known caves, but most are on private property and not open to the public. There are seven commercial or "show" caves listed in the book. All of the show caves have their unique attractions.
Natural Bridge Caverns, between New Braunfels and San Antonio, is one of the most spectacular underground formations in the state. As the largest commercial cave in Texas, some say it rivals Carlsbad Caverns. 830/651-6101.
Caverns of Sonora is the second spectacular Texas cave with an array of colorful formations. A long drive from Austin, it is outside of Sonora in West Texas, 915/387-3105.
Cave Without a Name outside of Boerne might be small, but as a local schoolboy said, "It's too pretty for a name." Managed by cavers and not heavily developed, Pittman called it "the cave with the worst location." It's well worth the effort to find it, 830/537-4212 or http://www.cavewithoutaname.com.
Inner Space Cavern in Georgetown was discovered during the construction of I-35. A cable car takes visitors down to the active limestone cave, 512/863-5545.
Wonder Cave in San Marcos is the oldest show cave in Texas and the only one formed by an earthquake. Attractions include a small amusement park and wildlife park, 800/782-7653.
Longhorn Cavern outside of Burnet is part of the state parks system and once was a dance hall among other things, 512/756-4680.
Cascade Caverns east of Boerne has fallen in disrepair, but features a 90-foot waterfall, 830/755-8080.
Texas Caves by Blair Pittman is available in hardcover and paperback at most local bookstores.
Coming up this weekend ...
Earth Day at Colorado Bend State Park includes tours of Gorman Falls, Gorman Creek Springs, and Gorman Cave, Apr. 22. 915/628-3240.
Easter Fires Pageant in Fredericksburg relives the tale of the pioneers mixed with the Easter rabbit, Apr. 22. 830/997-6523.
Fiesta Along the Riverwalk in San Antonio has been the city's biggest celebration for more than a century, Apr. 22-30. 800/447-3372 or http://www.fiesta-sa.org.
Coming up ...
Texas Adopt-A-Beach Cleanup scrubs the shoreline from Port Arthur to Brownsville, Apr. 29. 800/852-3224 or http://www.glo.state.tx.us/adopt-a-beach/.
Bob Wills Day honors the native son and King of Western Swing with a fiddlin' good time in Turkey, Apr. 29. 806/423-1033.