For many Americans, the day begins with a climb into a car and a drive to work. Arlo Shelley’s daily commute to the workplace, however, is a bit of a different climb: He hikes a mile and a half up to a cave.
That’s where Shelley conducts tours as an interpretative park ranger at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, in American Fork Canyon near American Fork, Utah, (pop. 21,941)—an attraction that draws more than 100,000 visitors annually.
Shelley’s interest in caves was nurtured early on. In 1938, his fourth-grade class went on a tour of the Timpanogos caves, and the youngster came away with visions of caving for a livelihood. “It was a beautiful place,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Boy, if I could get paid to do this!’” He would get his wish. Shelley, 74, started working in the caves in 1944 at age 16.
The trail to Shelley’s “office” rises more than 1,000 feet in elevation and is physically demanding. “If you do it every day, it’s not bad,” he comments. The scenery of the surrounding Uinta National Forest in the Wasatch Range is breathtaking, and the geographical history of the area is a geologist’s dream.
Three caves comprise the monument of Timpanogos: the Hansen Cave, discovered in 1887 by Martin Hansen; Middle Cave, found by Hansen’s son and grandson in 1921; and Timpanogos Cave—the third and most spectacular of the three. Discovered by James V. Gough around 1914, Timpanogos Cave was strangely and quickly forgotten before Vearl Manwill rediscovered it in 1921. A year later, on Oct. 14, 1922, President Warren G. Harding declared the caves a national monument.
The limestone caves are hardly asleep. They are considered “active” and are renowned for the variety of stalagmites and stalactites—icicle-like deposits of calcium carbonate that either hang from the cave roof (stalactites) or protrude upward from the floor (stalagmites). Shelley has personally followed the progress of a stalactite-stalagmite pair that grow closer together each year. In 1952, the formation was measured one and three-fourths inches apart. The distance has now closed to just an inch and a half. A column when the two adjoin should be created in about 275 years.
“If you want to drop back in a couple hundred years, it will probably be getting close,” quips Shelley.
The guide enchants visitors with the romantic Legend of Timpanogos, a tale created in the early 1920s.
As the story goes, a young Indian princess, Utahna, was to be sacrificed to the Great God of Timpanogos. After Utahna made her sacrificial leap from the top of Mount Timpanogos, the brokenhearted Indian warrior, Red Eagle, laid her to rest inside the cave. The two hearts melded into one and can now be seen hanging deep inside the cave as the Great Heart of Timpanogos, formed through several stalactites. Other accounts claim the great spirits hung Utahna’s heart within the cave and laid her body on top of the mountain as a warning. Looking closely at the skyline of majestic Mount Timpanogos, the outline of the sleeping princess can be seen.
“In addition to his knowledge of the cave, he’s also a treasure trove of tidbits about area history,” says Don Helsel, a visitor from Crescent City, Calif., of Shelley.
“He’s a very valuable resource because he’s lived through so much of the history of the monument,” says Suzanne Flory, the monument’s chief of interpretation. “We tap into Arlo all the time.”
Shelley, married and the father of six children, has seen his passion for the caves trickle down like a slow cave drip through his own family, with several of his children and grandchildren spending summers working in the caves.
After 51 seasons in the Timpanogos caves, Shelley says, “I’ve been everywhere I can get.”