It is extremely rare one gets to experience true, utter darkness — a darkness that has no shadows, no movement, and no light. It’s even more rare to experience complete silence. We are not just talking about a normal silence, with the wind blowing past and a few crickets chirping. This silence is so silent that you can hear your own breath, heartbeat, and inner monologue. I had the privilege (perhaps misfortune?) of experiencing both of my senses being deprived while staying overnight at the Grand Canyon Caverns Underground Suite, known as the deepest, darkest, oldest, and loneliest hotel room on planet Earth.
Inside the underground hotel (all photographs by Matt Blitz/Atlas Obscura)
Lying 230 feet below ground level at Arizona milepost 115 on Route 66 are the Grand Canyon Caverns. They are the largest dry caverns in America, and one of the biggest known deposits of selenite crystals, making it truly a natural wonder. Unlike wet caverns, there are absolutely no living things here. The air is so dry and arid that without water, no animal or man would be able to survive past 72 hours.
It is estimated the caves were first formed over 335 million years ago, when most of the southwest United States was underwater. About 35 million years ago, rain poured into the subterranean spaces, and when it evaporated, the caverns took shape. Despite it their lifespan being millions of years, the underground site was not discovered until about 90 years ago.
It was 1927 when an enterprising Walter Peck, on his way to the weekly poker game, nearly fell into a hole in the ground. Not wanting to miss poker, he vowed to come back the next day to investigate. He did, and brought a few friends, a bucket, and rope. He had his friends lower him down, and then began exploring. Hours later, when he came back to the surface, he was grinning ear-to-ear. Peck thought he had found the only cavern in the world to be rich in gold, diamond, and silver. So, he bought up the whole property, and began plans for a mining operation. He was, of course, wrong.
What he thought were precious metals were just iron oxide and rust glimmering on the limestone rock. Not to be deterred, Peck found another way to make money from his discovery — curiosity seekers. He charged visitors a quarter to be lowered via bucket into the caverns. As one of the first Route 66 tourist stops, the caverns were a hit and remain to this day a vital stop on the “mother road.”
Peck wasn’t the only one to realize how special these caverns were — so did the US government. At the height of the Cold War, in 1962, the US government recognized the caverns as a perfect place for a fallout shelter. They sent over enough water, food (well, oddly, just crackers and hard candy), and “sanitation equipment” for 2,000 people to survive in the caverns for 14 days. These 62-year-old rations are still in the caves today, preserved by the dry climate and ready to eat. In fact, I was able to try one of the infamous “survival crackers” and a green hard candy. The cracker was stale.
Legend has it that this was also the planned spot for JFK to hideout in during a nuclear apocalypse. After all, what’s safer than a giant series of caves deep underground?
Under this premise, about four years ago, the Grand Canyon Caverns management put in what is, at least in my opinion, the spookiest hotel room in the world. Equipped with modern amenities like a shower, a television, and an iPod dock, it is like any other other hotel room — except in a cave 220 feet below ground. This was where I stayed by myself for one frightened, lonely night. No other human was within nearly a football field from me. No other light was available beside a few lamps. No other noise was heard other than whatever noises I made. It was scary and exhilarating. In a day and age where we are never truly alone and never in complete silence, this was a breath of arid, cave air.
In the interest of honesty, I’ll admit it — before I went to bed, I turned out all the lights, leaving myself in absolute pitch black darkness. Within 60 seconds, I turned on one lamp. Yeah, I’m not ready for complete darkness.