Day Five: Las Cruces, NM to Carlsbad, NM
If you read my last post, you already know that on Day Four we had a scare with our pup, Obi, that landed all of us in a 24-Hour Emergency Vet Hospital for a few very tense, very scary hours. For those who read the tale and for those who haven’t, you’ll be glad to know that on the morning of Day Five, Obi was not only back to his old self, he was his old self +++. After running around the hotel room, jumping up on every piece of furniture, stealing more than his share of underwear, shoes and stuffed animals, we took him for a good, long walk, and then hit the road again. Our destination? Carlsbad, New Mexico and a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Our drive was short – only 3 hours – and, thankfully, totally uneventful. As we left the flats and headed toward the hills above El Paso, TX and into the Guadalupe Mountains, we had a gorgeous view of New Mexico’s El Capitan. I could have stopped there for an hour, but we had to press on – pictures through car windows would have to suffice! Once we arrived in the town of Carlsbad, we got settled into our hotel, took Obi for a walk, and then, once he was happily back in his crate, we drove for about 30 minutes to the entrance to the National Park.
Y’all, I am not a girl who likes tight spaces. At all. So this was not a stop I was super excited about. And as we drove the gently winding road from the gate to the visitor’s center, my heart began to race. I had heard the caverns were incredible and gorgeous and that the main room was HUGE – the size of 14 football fields. All fine and good, but the getting down there was really starting to worry me. We had discussed taking the elevator down and back up, but after talking to the ranger and seeing the miniature scale model of the caverns, with the freakishly tiny looking elevator shafts, cut through 700 feet of limestone, we decided to hike down, and then elevator up.
We walked to the natural entrance to the cave, and my stomach was full of butterflies, or, given where we were going, bats (more on that later). As we hiked down the steep path toward the mouth of the cave, my mind went bizzerk. What if there are tight spots? What happens when I can’t see the sun? What if today is the day the cave decides to collapse, after millennia of stability? Um, and what is holding this thing up anyway? Clearly, I should have spent more time on that particular exhibit in the visitor’s center, but, alas, on we went, following the path back and forth and down and down, and into the mouth of the cave. Gulp.
However, as soon as we actually entered the cave, everything felt much more comfortable. Once inside, I was immediately wowed by what we were seeing – beautiful, gauzy chandeliers of stalactites hanging from the ceiling, textured walls that were once coral reefs back when Pangea was a thing (Pangea! I LOVE Pangea!), and tall, smooth columns of stalagmites. It’s like another planet down there, and the more you see, the more you want to see. We took several turns down into the cave, still bathed in the sunlight pouring in from the huge opening above. That part of the journey was just long enough to lure you in – we knew that if it was this incredible 100 yards in, what was waiting for us below would surely blow our minds. Now, I’m not gonna lie, when the path turned on itself and went under that opening, I had a moment of pause. But I took a deep Ujjayi breath or ten, said goodbye to the sun, and made my way, one step at a time, toward our final destination, some 700 feet down into the earth.
It took us about 45 minutes to get to the end of the path. Along the way, we saw more spectacular formations, and a few creepy-looking ladders, from when the first explorers descended into the cave’s depths, some 120 years ago. But when we reached the Big Room, I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The space was huge – as I said before, 14 football fields large – but you kind of don’t believe that’s possible, until you see it. The ceilings were so high, and there were people and walkways as far as I could see in every direction. Incredible formation after incredible formation was beautifully lit, as far as the eye could see. All four of us instinctively started taking pictures, knowing full well that not one picture, not 10,000 pictures, would ever do the place justice or convey in any way what we were seeing.
There are a couple of loops you can take, and we decided, of course, to take the biggest loop and check out the farthest reaches of this incredible underground room. Once we passed the last turn for the smaller loop, it was as if we were the only people in the entire cave. The space grew more quiet and peaceful with every step. And finally, on the backside of the farthest part of the path, we were completely alone. It was still, cool, quiet and simply the most peaceful place I think I’ve ever been. We all held hands, closed our eyes, and just felt it. The damp chill on our skin, the silence in our ears, the firmness under our feet, the peace in our hearts and minds. Of all that we experienced in the cave, I’ll relive those moments alone/together in the heart of the cavern for the rest of my days. I have never felt more held by the the earth or more connected to my family. It was truly magical.
As we turned back toward the elevators, the boys walked ahead, and my husband and I had a chance to take in the last 30 minutes or so alone. We marveled over waterfalls of limestone, hidden pools, and seemingly bottomless pits. We held hands and had a mini-date, deep underground. We met up with the boys near the elevator, they used the bathroom (yes, there is a bathroom in the cave), we convinced them that we didn’t need anything at the gift shop (yes, to my horror, there is a gift shop in the cave) and then we got in line to go up and out.
Once again, I had a moment of pause. As natural and inviting as the cave had been on the way in, none of that gradual transition would be happening for me on the way out. What I kept seeing in my mind’s eye was the itty-bitty, teeny-tiny elevator shaft from the model in the visitor’s center: so little in diameter, but forever in length. 700 feet back up, and in just 90 seconds, the Ranger told me. Then the Ranger turned, and started talking to the folks behind us. Yes, he said, only two of the four elevators is working. Yes, the ones that are working were just repaired the week before. No, the other two would probably take a year to be repaired, hopefully no one is in there. Ha, ha, ha. I almost threw up.
When it was our turn, the doors opened, and I realized that the actual elevator is only nominally bigger than the microscopic one in the model. They took as many of us as they could, the doors shut, and we were on our way. Once again, yoga breathing was my friend, and I kept my eyes gently closed. At one point, I made the mistake of opening my eyes, only to see that there were two windows in the elevator, and that the 700 feet of limestone were whizzing by, seemingly inches, nay, CENTIMETERS, from the glass. With eyes closed more tightly this time, I prayed for this nightmare to end, but in a really good way. Finally, finally the elevator stopped, the doors opened, and I was out, and back on top of the earth’s crust once more.
We ate a quick dinner at the visitor’s center, and then took our seats for the evening’s main event – the Bat Flight. There is a beautiful, stone amphitheater built around the natural entrance to the cave, and every night at dusk in the summer, the cave’s most famous inhabitants, the Mexican Free-Tailed Bats, do their thing. At about 7:30 pm, the Ranger began his talk. He spoke about the bats – why they live in the cave, what bugs they eat, and where they hunt. And then he told the crowd that there’s no photography allowed. Not just flash, not just lit, not just still or video – it’s all prohibited. He said that our devices don’t mess with the bats echolocation, it’s just that the park wants to “keep the experience as natural as possible.” Wow. I was loving this whole thing already.
The ranger talked for about 15 minutes, and then he stopped short, saying, “We’ve got company." Then he packed up his mic and walked to the back of the amphitheater. At first, it just looked like a few birds swooping and diving at the cave entrance, but then there were more and more, and it became clear that the creatures were actually spiraling up and out of the cave - not birds at all, but rather, the bats, heading out for the hunt. This went on for about 10 minutes, and then let up a bit. I'll admit to having been a little disappointed. But then another spiral started, and another and another. We watched the bats fly up, up and away for 45 minutes, and when we left they were still going. We probably saw tens of thousands of bats and it was unreal. We had learned that the first recorded explorer to the cave found it by following what he thought was a trail of smoke far off in the Guadalupe Mountains. Of course, when he rode his horse over, he discovered the bats, went into collect their guano, and eventually, found the Big Room, and many of the smaller, side chambers in the caverns. When you see those thousands of bats pouring out of the cave, you can understand how it would look like a pretty solid plume of smoke from afar. I also understood that I was glad I went into the cave BEFORE I saw how many bats live in there.
And, here’s the thing. I don’t have any pictures. No one in our family does. As far as I could tell, no one at the Caverns that night does. People not only heard the Ranger’s talk about no cameras, but everyone completely respected it. And as a result, our crowd of 300 or so people did something I haven’t been a part of in a long time: we all experienced something in nature, together, with our own eyes, not filtered at all through a screen. The crowd was utterly silent as the bats danced into the sky, save for a small child occasionally saying, “Bye,” as he waved them on. It was incredible. The Parks had gone all yoga teacher on us, and had forced us to be truly in the moment, in that magnificent, glorious, wondrous moment. And I, for one, am eternally grateful.
We drove back to the hotel, tired, but full of awe and wonder. Obi was full of energy, so the boys and Harry took him for a long walk, and then, in the night, I took him for another walk (or two) around the hotel in my pajamas. The Obes was back and ready to go, but, possibly, nocturnal. Sigh.
Lucky for him, our next stop was three days at Lake Austin, with dear friends….and their two dogs….
More to come!
What We Did:
Carlsbad: Carlsbad Caverns National Park