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.