Lindy Poole leads the way down, hefting a colorful backpack. She's made this trip – 75 precipitous steps to get to a short ladder, ending 70 feet below the ground – thousands of times. But she acts as though it's the first, urging her less practiced guests to follow her example and take hold of the intermittent handrail, all the while cracking macabre jokes about going over the edge.
This earthy introduction is not what one might expect from the manager of a vacation destination featured in travel stories that trade in superlatives: Kokopelli's Cave (bbonline.com/nm/kokopelli) appears regularly beneath headlines like "Top 10 Best Extreme Hotels" and "The 10 Most Adventurous Overnight Lodgings." Yet for all the dramatics of a bed-and-breakfast blasted into the face of a sandstone cliff, with a sheer 280-foot drop to the riverbed below, Mrs. Poole is astonishingly low-key.
It's fitting. Kokopelli's Cave, after all, was initially a quirky geological research office – not the brainchild of an exotic hotelier.
Poole, a trace of her Oklahoma accent still audible, is integral to its charm. She's a small woman with short wavy hair and the coloring that comes from spending days in the high desert sun.
Carrying on a familial attitude that began when Bruce Black, the cave's owner, set out to excavate his "office in a rock" 26 years ago, Poole has made its creation myth part of the elaborate introduction she shares with each new visitor.
"I'm a sponge," she says. "And I'm a great storyteller – I improvise a lot."
Colleagues were unwilling to visit Mr. Black, the story goes. So he turned the cave into a guesthouse for family and friends. In 1997, it opened to paying guests – Poole became hostess in 1998.
Today she's acquainting the Hill family – Andrea and Larry and their children, Rachel and Daniel – from nearby Los Alamos, N.M., with their subterranean lodgings. The tour begins at the house that Poole shares with her husband, Mark, then moves over a pitted dirt road that ends above the cave. Pausing to point out rock deposits and petrified trees in the 65-million-year-old sandstone cliff, Poole leads the family into the 1,650-square-foot cave. The temperature hovers between 65 and 75 degrees F. year-round. The walls are rough, unfinished sandstone. But plush carpeting and an eclectic southwestern décor give the cave an unexpected homey feel.
Off the bedroom, sliding glass doors lead to a balcony with panoramic views. Poole shows the Hill family – here on a last adventure before school begins – how to use the "bat phone," a clunky, early-model black cellphone. The entertainment center includes a "Flintstones" DVD.
Once Poole leaves, the Hills will be on their own. In the morning, they'll serve themselves a continental breakfast from the stocked kitchen.
Two final flourishes: a replica kiva modeled after the circular rooms thought to be used for ceremonial purposes by the ancient Anasazi, cave dwellers who were part of the inspiration for Kokopelli's and its name; and a stone waterfall shower that flows into a small hot tub in the bathroom.
These favorites of the Hill children most likely also helped land the cave a spot on those "Top 10" unusual hotel lists – along with the luxe Ice Hotel (icehotel.com) and the pricey Jules' Undersea Lodge (jul.com).
But it seems better suited to the pages of "Mountain & High Desert Hideaways," a travel pictorial published last year. "I didn't want all high-end resorts – but places that were interesting for travelers, not just tourists," says author Gladys Montgomery.
The cave seems to attract both – those looking for a retreat in the mythical Four Corners region, and those intent on crossing another exotic destination off their list. Poole is happy to accommodate either.
After moving with her husband from Tulsa, Okla., 14 years ago, Poole had dreams of starting her own B&B. She gave up on the idea, though, thinking: "I'm not going to be a slave to five people's beds and five people's potties – who I don't even know! – 30 days a month."
The cave arrangement suits her, giving her time when it's closed – Dec., Jan., Feb. – to indulge her inner "beach bunny."
With over a thousand guests, Poole has built a palimpsest of lore. Oddly enough, her favorite piece to share is the story of my mother's visit with my stepfather eight years ago. "A lady and her husband," she'll say, "are coming from Santa Barbara, Calif. It's their anniversary, and they always try to outdo each other."
Poole goes on to tell how my mother had him pack a bag, without saying where they were going. When they landed, it was dark, she continues. "So he couldn't appreciate the views. But once we got on top of the cave, I told him, as part of the surprise: 'You're standing seven stories over where you'll be staying.' And he said: 'All you need is six foot.' He was thinking we were going to knock him over the head and bury him – Happy anniversary!" she finishes, laughing.
I ask if everyone understands the joke. She says they do. I wonder, though. But it's just the kind of offbeat, colorful wisecrack Poole likes to weave into her tours.