Cave Inn

Head to northwestern New Mexico for a Fred-and-Wilma-style weekend

I’m standing on top of a mesa outside of Farmington, New Mexico. The plateau below me sprawls for miles in every direction before climbing into various mountain ranges: the Chuskas, the Utes and the San Juans. To the West stands Shiprock, the neck of a dormant volcano rising nearly 1,800 feet from the high-desert plain. In the cloudless sky two hawks are circling and diving. As I turn to follow their mid-air performance, I catch site of my husband, James. He’s holding a suitcase and two bags or groceries… and looking at me as if I’ve gone completely insane. I’ve promised him a weekend getaway at an out-of-the-way bed and breakfast. And right now he’s thinking I meant out in the middle of nowhere.

Before I can explain, Lindy Poole, the manager of said B&B, chimes in. For the last half-hour she’s been explaining the local flora and fauna, the history of Farmington, the oil and gas wells dotting the land and, more importantly, the specific piece of land we’re currently standing on.

“This is the roof,” she says, thumping her heel into the sandstone.

James and I scan the surroundings. Our tiny rental car parked beside a scraggly piñon tree is the only vehicle in sight. And apart from the hawks, the landscape appears devoid of life. Is Poole joking? No, she’s not. Kokopelli’s Cave Bed and Breakfast is built into the side of a cliff, seven stories underground. And the three of us are currently standing on its 70-feet-thick ceiling. As if to prove her point, Poole points out three cleverly placed fake rocks that camouflage ventilation, water and electrical pipes drilled into the ground.

“This way,” she says, pointing to a steel rod jutting up from the ground. Poole takes a few steps past the rod and quickly disappears. James glances at me with raised eyebrows as if to ask me if I’m sure about all this. I shrug my shoulders in response and start after Poole. She leads us down a set of tiny, uneven steps winding alongside the vertical cliff face, which would be adventurous even without suitcases and grocery bags. Thankfully, the howling wind constantly whips my hair into my eyes and prevents me from cringing at the vertigo-inducing drops. Ten minutes later, we round a corner and an iron Kokopelli sign appears out of nowhere. I look back to watch James as he spots the welcome sign. Instead, he smiles in the other direction. “Check it out,” he says, pointing with his chin. I follow his gaze out to the flagstone porch and immediately realize why he’s smiling: In this barren land, he has found his civilization in the form of a large gas grill.

On the porch, Poole fiddles with a key in the giant metal door covering the arched entryway. Its deep groan echoes off the cliff walls as she swings it open. To my delight there are no bats hanging from the ceiling, nor pitch-black hallways lit with torches. Instead, pink carpet and 12-foot-cielings greet us, along with furniture, floor lamps and plenty of houseplants. As Poole gives us a tour of the accommodations that will be ours for the next 36 hours (Kokopelli’s only takes reservations for one party at a time), James and I are speechless.

Eyes wide, we follow Poole around the 1,650-square-foot cavern that wraps around a central pillar where rooms flow together without doors or walls. There is a tiny kitchen, a dining room, a sunken living room (complete with futon couches, recliners and a TV) and a den with a small fireplace and replica Kiva. Nooks and crannies jammed with pueblo pottery, Kokopelli figurines and Navajo rugs adorn the walls. I pull open a set of jewel-colored curtains to reveal a bedroom three times as big as the one I sleep in at home. From the bedroom, a sliding glass door opens out onto a balcony 300 feet above the cottonwood-lined La Plata River.

Real cavemen, I’m sure, never had it this good. But even without the plush carpet, gas grill and cliff-side balcony, Kokopelli’s is not a naturally occurring cave. It was blasted into being thanks to the vision of Bruce Black, a local consulting geologist who dreamt of having an office literally built into the land. In the summer of 1981, Black hired an engineering and mining firm in Durango to make his dream a reality. While the crew worked, Black gave directions on what to leave and what to enlarge or take out. His plan called for a grand central column surrounded by a large private office, a restroom and a kitchen. After 20 days of excavating and a price tag of $25,000, that’s just what he got.

Shortly afterward, Black set up shop and moved in. There was only one problem: His clients weren’t as excited about his new office location as he was. They complained about driving outside of town and lugging documents up and down the side of a cliff. Eventually, Black was forced to move out, leaving his one-of-a-kind office sitting empty for over a decade. Then in 1995, the project was revived—not as an office, but as a complete living space. Black and his son teamed up to finish the construction, adding raised flooring, plumbing, rockwork and plastering. Anything they couldn’t carry into the cave with their hands, including all the furniture and large appliances, they lowered over the side of the cliff using a winch truck. Afterward, Black’s son and daughter-in-law lived in the cave for nearly a year, before they began sharing it with family and friends as a guesthouse. As word of the ultra-unique accommodations got out, requests to stay in the cave went through the roof. So in 1997, Black turned his original private dream office into a public bed and breakfast.

And we’re so glad he did.

Later that evening, as James and I cook dinner and sip wine (all guests receive a complimentary bottle), we find ourselves laughing for no reason.

“We’re in a cave, underground, eating shrimp fettuccine alfredo,” James says, and we start to laugh again. When we realize no one can hear us through the walls, we laugh even louder. Every once in a while, I rub my hands along the walls and examine the central pillar where earlier Poole pointed out petrified and carbonized wood and plant fragments, along with river-current direction indicators deposited in prehistoric stream channels. Farmington is only a few miles away, but it feels like millions.

After dinner, we catch an amber sunset sinking over the Four Corners from the balcony and watch the stars slowly pop into the night sky. Back inside, I fill the rock-chinked bathtub for a soak and listen as James tries to identify the various critters visiting our doorstep in search of food. By midnight, it’s chilly and we turn on a space heater in the bedroom. It casts an orange glow on the rock all around us. We climb into bed and stare up at the rugged ceiling, still in awe that we were standing on top of it just 12 hours ago.

[This story originally appeared in 5280 magazine.]