Little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous – Willy Wonka
The Grand Canyon with a roof on it – Will Rogers
Whites City and the twisting road that leads into Carlsbad Caverns National Park lies just across the Texas border in New Mexico, thirty two miles north of Guadalupe Mountains. Route 62 splits Capitan Reef, a black ribbon across the brown desert floor. To the west, the reef rises up, dragon’s teeth smoothed by time. To the east, the reef remains hidden under the Pecos River, waiting for the earth to shift and expose her fossil encrusted crown. Ahead, there is a place where the ground opens. In this place of silent darkness, a marriage of water and sulfuric acid has endured millions of years to create some of the most eerily beautiful structures on earth.
The parking lot is almost full when I arrive on a cool morning. People hurry from their cars to the visitors center, bundled as if an ice age had descended over southern New Mexico. Winter hats, gloves, puffy jackets. A few grown men actually jogging while yelling over their shoulder, “I’ll meet you inside.” Having learned from my visit to Mammoth Cave, that temperatures in the cave will be a balmy 55-56 degrees (thank you Kim), I am in shorts.
So what’s the best way to see the caves? “That depends on how ambitious you are,” says Ranger Pam. I’m ambitious Pam. “Are you in good physical condition?” I simply wave my hand vertically from the top of my head down to my knees. Next question Pam. “How much time do you have?” Are you trying to pick me up Pam? “No sir. The entire cave system is approximately three miles. If you want to see it all I would suggest you do the self-guided tour. It starts at the natural entrance and leads down the main corridor. At that point you will be over 800 feet beneath the surface.” Okay, that’s what I’ll do. “Plan on spending several hours underground.” As long as I can resurface at some point. “One last item. Have you been in a cave during the last six months?” Yes. Mammoth Cave a couple of months ago. “Please see a Ranger at the information desk before entering the cave.” Okay. Thank you Pam. You’ve been most helpful. “You’re welcome sir. Enjoy your visit.” You bet. “Nice shorts.”
Hi Phil. Ranger Pam said I should stop by before beginning my hike into the cave, because I’ve been in a cave within the last six months. “Thank you. Are you wearing the same boots or clothing?” Same boots. I’ve changed clothes a couple of times since then. “Are you familiar with white-nose syndrome in bats?” Somewhat, yes. They were very careful about decontaminating our boots when we left Mammoth Cave. Then without inhaling once. “White-nose syndrome is an emergent disease of hibernating bats that has spread from the northeastern to the central United States at an alarming rate. As of September 2017, millions of insect-eating bats in 31 states and five Canadian provinces have died from this devastating disease. It is caused by a fungus that infects skin of the muzzle, ears, and wings of hibernating bats. It can be carried on boots from one cave to the next. Any questions?” Have you said that before? “Yes.” Can humans get white-nose syndrome? “No.” Would you bet your hat? “Yes sir. Please use these wipes to thoroughly disinfect your boots. Thank you for telling us you have been in a cave.” I have nothing to hide. “Have a nice day.” I have since learned that Phil is also a ventriloquist.
Entering the cave, you are immediately overwhelmed by it’s size and grandeur. Razor edged stalactites hang 200 feet above, as spiraled shapes rise up from the moonscape floor. Passing ‘Devils Spring’ (who named these places?) a plaque explains how water from rain and snow percolates through the reef, forming carbonic acid, which slowly dissolves the limestone. As it reaches the cave it releases calcite, dripping on the floor, creating stalagmites. When the calcite stays on the ceiling it forms a stalactite. I vaguely remember this science from Dondero High School, where I still hold the record for fewest classes attended during a four year period. But I digress.
Further down, the path ambles around what another plaque says is a 200,000 ton boulder that broke loose from the ceiling thousands of years ago. It’s massive. Looking up at the ceiling you can see the concave space it left behind. Immediately I am looking for other 200,000 ton boulders above me. Their are cracks and fissures everywhere. Exactly how random is mother nature feeling this afternoon? Perhaps a plaque in 2218 will read, “You are standing on the exact spot where a 200,000 ton boulder fell on a man named Smitty. We were able to identify him by the single strand of hair that shot skyward as he was crushed.” Am I that far off base to think that everyone down here is having the same thoughts? I think not.
After passing the ‘Boneyard’, a scene of indescribably diverse formations, the path forks. Left leads to an elevator and blue sky, while the other leads to an additional 1 1/2 mile loop. The ‘Big Room’ is ahead and there is no way I’m shuffling through this Freudian fun house without seeing the majestic ‘Big Room’. I turn right and march on, but nothing prepares you for what you are about to see. At 1,800 feet long and 1,100 feet wide, this is the single largest underground room outside of Borneo. I am awestruck. An 8.2 acre cavern. Sound carries in caves and I am muttering to myself. I can’t say what I was muttering, but mothers were seen covering their children’s ears.
As you walk around the edge of the ‘Big Room’, your brain tries to process what it’s seeing. I have a rather small brain and it simply can’t comprehend what it is being presented. Dozens of 40 foot columns merge into sloping flowstone. Helicites poke Medusa-like through the floor, a maze of spiraling white. Argonite crystals shimmer. Cave pearls dazzle. Stalactites and stalagmites reach for each other, almost one after millions of years of trying. Flat black stares back at you from an opening in the wall. Small pools of clear green water, rippled by droplets from above, produce perfectly patterned movement. At any moment I think the Oompa Loompas are going to show up and start dancing.
Once you circle the ‘Big Room’, the path brings you to ‘Top of the Cross’, where two passages meet and the ceiling soars 225 feet. Further, the ‘Bottomless Pit’, yawns open and black. Once thought to be a thousand feet deep, it has since been measured at a depth of 140 feet. I felt this should have prompted a name change, but I was not consulted. Around a corner, just when you think you’ve seen everything the caverns have to offer, ‘Crystal Spring Dome’, the cave’s largest active stalagmite stands directly in front of you. Well hello. At this point my mind is numb. I should have taken the elevator, watched a cartoon and ventured back down. It is simply so much to take in all at once. Finally I begin to hear other people muttering. Apparently I am an early adapter.
On the elevator back to the surface, a guy turns to me and asks, “Are you the guy on the van?” Yep. Smitty. We shake hands. “Keith. That’s pretty cool man. How long have you been on the road?” About 14,000 miles worth. “Cool. Where to next?” Joshua Tree in California. “Cool. Solo?” Yep, just me. “Cool. Well good luck man.” Thanks Keith. Hey before you go, what did you think about the cave? “I loved it. Freaked me out, like seriously freaked me out, but I loved it.” Yeah, me too. Take care. As I walked over to the gift shop to get my book and a single piece of paper stamped with the date and name of the park, I couldn’t get his comment out of my mind. ‘Freaked me out, but I loved it.’ I couldn’t agree more. It was staggeringly and uniquely beautiful. But I’m still waiting for something to fall from the ceiling – and I’m in a library.
NOTE: For more information on Carlsbad Caverns National Park and all the National Parks and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service.