Subterranean Surprises Scientists are discovering that caves more complex than we ever imagined may yield vast riches about the origins of life
By Evan Hadingham Smithsonian magazine, October 2002
By Kevin Downey
A few miles south of Lovell, Wyoming, near the Montana border, the Burlington Northern railroad begins a gradual climb out of pastures and cottonwood groves. The track rises into a honey-colored gorge cut through Madison limestone, a formation already ancient by the time dinosaurs roamed Wyoming’s seashores, then passes above an underground chamber, 30 feet below, known as Lower Kane Cave. The cave entrance is nearly invisible, a crack almost buried by the steeply piled rubble of the railway embankment.
Stumbling down this ankle-twisting slope behind a team of scientists, I squirmed feetfirst through the 30-inch crack. Bent double and fumbling my way forward in the gloom, I slipped into a fast-moving stream and floundered on all fours before finding enough room to stand upright on the mud bank. My eyes soon adjusted to the dim glow of my headlamp, but my skin remained sticky; unlike most caves at this latitude that stay pleasantly cool year-round, the temperature in Lower Kane hovers at an uncomfortably humid 75 degrees. An acrid, rotten smell stuck in my throat.