Great Escapes

12.12.13

New Mexico’s Amazing Man-Made Caves

An artist in New Mexico has spent decades chiseling out fantastical caves from the mountains, one pickaxe swing at a time.

So you want to own an underground, hand-carved cave? In Embudo, New Mexico, a region bordering the Rio Grande River and the Carson National Forest, 67-year-old Ra Paulette has spent the last 25 years using a pickaxe to hack a labyrinth of 14 caves into sandstone cliffs just an hour’s drive from Santa Fe. And now, a 208-acre parcel of land in Northern New Mexico that includes two of the caves, referred to as underground “cathedrals or meditation chambers,” is on the market for nearly $1 million.

“I have a history of going into my extended back yard and exploring it very thoroughly and if I find a beautiful place I make a spot for myself,” Paulette, a self-described “friendly hermit,” told a historian a decade ago. Part-archaeologist, part-sculptor and full-time eccentric explorer, he calls his painstaking tunneling into a mountainside, “the dance of digging,” describing it on his website as mental, emotional, and physical labor. Balancing the three, he writes, is “the secret of how this old man can get so much done.”

His work, done with a pickaxe, shovel, and wheelbarrow, involves massive excavation of the soft sandstone and incredibly detailed artistic carving. It’s work that’s both at odds, and surprisingly in line, with his background as a Vietnam veteran and farm laborer, during which he “was known as the human backhoe,” a fit, gray-haired Paulette says in CaveDigger, a new documentary short by Jeffrey Karoff competing for an Oscar at the 2014 Academy Awards. In the dramatic expanse of New Mexico’s desert, Paulette is pitted against a seemingly inhospitable terrain of stone and dirt. But a vista stretching as far as the eye can see doesn’t deter him. “I’m totally obsessed, I’m thinking about it all day long,” he says in the film of his work.

The end result—an expansive network of caves—has become a part open-air, part-underground attraction, where in-the-know visitors can hike and explore Paulette’s creations. The exact location of each cave is hard to track down: many are on private property belonging to locals, some are fully public, and one, the “Earth Shrine,” was commissioned by a local business: the Relais & Châteaux resort for its 225-acre property.

“Inside, the soaring caves and intricate carvings nod to a fantastical Alice and Wonderland underworld.”

Inside, the soaring caves and intricate carvings nod to a fantastical Alice and Wonderland underworld. One of the chambers included in the for-sale lot is dubbed, “The Tree of Human Kindness,” and features fluffy hearts, ribbed tree roots, and blooming flowers carved into the walls, along with candle nooks, and seating alcoves. Sunlight streams in from circular skylights some 20-feet above. Others boast colorful tiles, captain windows to take in the vista, and fitted doors that give the appearance of a hobbit dwelling. One, with a grand main chamber dramatically illuminated by candle niches, recently shared its acoustics during a concert. Another, offers a desk and chair for writers seeking solitude.

In Embudo, Paulette is chiseling away at a 10-year project combining all he’s learned in the past quarter-century. Sun will shine through many openings of the “Luminous Caves,” which he refers to as his magnum opus and his final excavation. His fierce independence has made working for others hard, and this one, he says, is just for him. The project may be his last, but he’s only a third of the way into what he promises will be “both an environmental and social art project that uses solitude and the beauty of the natural world to create an experience that fosters spiritual renewal and personal well being.”