I first visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park about 35 years ago and had never forgotten its overwhelming mystery and grand majesty. Carlsbad was an easy choice as the starting point for our 2021 Western Trek vacation as our intended series of National Park visits had to begin somewhere and what a great start!
Carlsbad is located just north of the West Texas border about 1300 plus miles due west from our home in Northwest Georgia and yes, Carolyn and I drove straight through in a 24 hour flurry of rest stops, truck dodging, and clock watching. Interstate 20 provided a well worn straight path through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and never-ending Texas. We pulled into our hotel destination in the city of Carlsbad amidst 100+ degree dry desert heat and debated whether to don sweat shirts for the mid-fifty temps 750 feet below the hot sand and rocks on the skin of Earth. We decided to risk the chill and opted for long sleeve t-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes.
There are two ways into the cave. The first is to walk into the natural entrance and slip and slide over a mile down a rather steeply inclined path passing one unearthly structure after another before arriving at the bottom. The other is the “senior citizen” route using an elevator that whisked us downward to the cave bottom in a matter of seconds. There was no waiting and my weak knee chose the elevator – a good decision!
At the bottom, there is a relatively flat mile and a fraction loop walk in huge rooms with limitless tops and holes going to who knows where. In between and next to the paved path, limestone columns form grotesque twists and bumps suggesting underworld creatures with snapping teeth and outreaching claws. Hidden lighting accentuated the surreal qualities and every turn on the trail gave new meaning to shadowy nightmares of twisted formations created millions of years ago. I can only imagine the chills and goosebumps of early explorers as they witnessed frozen creatures with gas lamps as their only light source.
The formations, as the guidebook explains, were formed drip by drip from surface water seeping from the desert 70+ stories above us. If a drip formed all this, then time becomes suddenly measurable in billions and billions of constant water drops of mineral laden water. How can this be? How can a water drop create a sixty foot monster of a column in a forest of upward and downward reaching columns to be? Such mysteries!
After an hour of visual excitement, the mind becomes numb to further stimuli and now the goal becomes one of just finishing the trek and seeking sunlight.
The trail does come to an end and the elevator is waiting – knowing that it is the way up and out of this freakish experience. But first and last – we pass near the Bottomless Pit and imagine that first explorer encounter when, at the pit’s edge, the gaslight lantern is turned and twisted to frantically see if a bottom does exist or at least a way exists around the edge to avoid a frightening encounter with “Deeper Earth”.
At last we are brought to the more natural light of the elevator door opening and the Park’s Visitor Center intent on selling us mementos of our underworld encounter. We buy a book, a sticker, a t-shirt as if our memories are overloaded and only a touchable reminder could evoke memories etched just minutes ago.
Later that evening, after a short nap, we make our way to the natural entrance and await the setting sun and the nightly emergence of the Mexican Free Tailed Bats. “Never Fear”, the Park Ranger calms us, “these bats do not bite or suck blood of weary travelers. They eat tons of insects each night after circling out of the deep, dark hole that is the cave’s mouth.”
Patiently we wait in the not too crowded amphitheater and then it happens. First birds dart in and out of the cave and then a more erratic bat slips out as to make sure the birds are mere swallows and not predatory owls or hawks waiting to feast on batty steaks. The “All Clear” is apparently given and several hundred small black creatures begin circling ever upward and head off to points unknown. Is that all there is? Not a dark cloud as expected.
Five minutes later, the second swarm arcs upward and fades to the south – then a third group – but never more than a few hundred at a time. The ranger explains that the count is around 500,000 bats but at this rate it will take hours for all to make their way to the feeding grounds. We were disappointed that they all didn’t emerge in a two minute tornado of wings and beeps but it still is a grand site to experience but sleep calls and we gradually make our way back to the hotel and eventual recovery from our 24 hour car trek and visit to an unforgettable start to our two week journey.
Tomorrow we will visit a neighboring National Park – Guadalupe Mountain – a towering peak in the West Texas desert, Thank you for visiting and stay tuned for more adventures!
2 thoughts on “Into the Bowels of Earth”
Your blog never disappoints! Thank you for sharing your adventures!
Your comments make it all the more worthwhile! Thanks!