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Yesterday was another of my many cave adventures, but different than most. Instead of exploring and mapping newly discovered or out-of-the-way remote cave passages, I participated in a project of the Central Arizona Grotto (a chapter of the National Speleological Society and located in Phoenix) to remove years of graffiti from Peppersauce Cave. You can see pictures of yesterday’s effort here, published by the Arizona Star.
You won’t see any pictures of me. The younger cavers were far more photogenic.
Peppersauce has become what cavers call a “sacrificial cave.” It is open and ungated, relatively easy to traverse, and very well known throughout the state. Thus, many inexperienced people go there to see it, most of whom know little about caving, the ethics of protecting them, or the proper techniques for caving safely. Yesterday, while we were working to either sand-blast, chemically remove, or grind away old spray-paint (some of which was sadly obscene), I must have seen between 150 to 200 people go by. At least two thirds of them were not wearing helmets. Many clearly had never been in a cave before. Some were not wearing headlamps, carrying flashlights instead (which makes climbing harder because you don’t have use of both hands and can easily lose your light). A few even came in with no lights, depending instead on the lights their companions carried.
Because of this heavy traffic, Peppersauce has been badly trashed. On visits by experienced cavers we routinely carry out bags of trash, only to find that trash reappearing, sometime in mere hours. The walls of the cave had been covered with graffiti, some many layers deep.
Ray Keeler of Central Arizona Grotto (CAG) has organized several projects in the past to remove this graffitti over the past two decades. The effort he is leading this year is the third, and has the help of cavers from grottos throughout the state. This was the fourth clean-up weekend, and the first that I was able to attend (having missed the first three due to scheduling conflicts).
I’ve done similar things before, but never on this scale. It was quite educational using the solvent to remove some graffiti, but unfortunately many types of paint are completely resistant to removal by either sand-blasting or solvent. After awhile I got discouraged doing solvent work. Too often nothing got removed. In the afternoon I switched to our last technique, grinding, and was far more gratified with the results. The grinder, which we do not use on formations, removes only the slightest layer of material, and thus does little damage. It however is very effective in removing all paint, no matter how resistant.
The cave is now about two thirds cleaned. We are racing to finish the rest before the summer, because a typically insane reason forced upon us by the government. You see, according to a law passed by Congress, graffiti that is more than fifty years old is considered historical, and cannot be removed without a great deal of paperwork and complex bureaucracy. Spray paint was invented in the late 1960s (about fifty years ago), and so some of this ugly graffiti, no matter how obscene, is going to be protected by our government beginning later this year. Our goal is to get it removed beforehand, so that the cave can be returned to a more natural state, for future visitors to experience.