Cave swallows chirp in high-pitched voices while circling the gaping hole that constitutes the Natural Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. Approaching it on the foot path from the visitor center, my husband and I gaze into darkness from a bright day, and once we are swallowed up by the gullet, we leave blue sky and sunshine behind. Our eyes need a few minutes to adjust to the surrounding dimness. Strategically located artificial lights illuminate the subterranean space and without them, we wouldn’t be able to see our hands in front of our eyes. The drop in temperature parallels the trail’s decrease in elevation. From the high 80s, it plummets 30 degrees, to the average year-round temperature in the mid 50s. The humidity, on the other hand, climbs from 10 to nearly 90 percent, and our skin feels cool and clammy for the first time since we entered New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert one week prior.
We pass a sign pointing to a side tunnel whence tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Brazilian free-tailed bats appear every evening between March and October, having migrated from Mexico, Central, or South America. 400,000 was the highest, mind-boggling count ever recorded. This species of bat is one of 16 in the park, but constitutes the most celebrated and numerous of the flying mammals whose presence likely alerted humans to the caves throughout the ages. The bat residence is off limits for human visitors, but we were fortunate to witness their emergence on the previous evening and now envision them suspended upside-down from the roof of their bedroom, snoozing and digesting, following a night of hunting.
Switchbacks take us steadily down, and we catch a glimpse of the imposing height of a first wide cavern, our conduit to even deeper spaces. After a one-mile descent, we reach the rest area, 755 feet below the surface. Restrooms, picnic tables, vending machines and kiosks filled with curios, and elevators that typically transport the wanderers back to daylight, appear out of place, reminders of this other world we left behind. Here, also, lies the beginning of two more tours, one ranger-guided, requiring a reservation, the other a self-guided trek around the famous “Big Room”, named aptly, if a bit unimaginatively. The trail that circles and traverses this chamber also measures one mile and is relatively even, with only a few mild rises and dips. It affords close-up views of the artful designs that adorn the caves. Not being spelunkers, we learn an exotic, delicious new word and let it melt on our tongues: speleothem. This comprises the stalagmites, stalactites, columns and various other shapes fashioned by the action of mineral-rich droplets of water, resulting in a wonderland of figures which engender flights of fancy. They range from marble-, to colossal-sized, from lacy lightness to ponderous heft. In our mind’s eye we discern icebergs, snow cones, bones, whales’ baleen, Portuguese Men of War, dwarves, sentries, and moss growing off the ceiling. Draperies resemble delicate fabrics hung from the ceiling, and it is easy to envision them fluttering in an imaginary breeze. Where I see cauliflower and small icicles, earlier observers were reminded of popcorn and soda straws, a distinctly American touch. A less savory example among the creative appellations is “snottite”, or “snoticle”—no further description necessary.
It comes as a surprise to us that 95% of all formations are considered dry, and, therefore, completed. We hear and feel heavy drops of water plummeting out of the dark and visualize the creation of yet another whimsical silhouette, reserved for future visitors to behold, 500 or 1000 years hence. Some of this water has accumulated in underground lakes which generate mirror images that exist only as reflections.
We can only speculate (or should I say speluncate?) what went through the minds of the first humans to enter these cavities, but it’s easy to relate to the sense of awe overcoming each new explorer. When step after dim step on terra firma, or on ladders made from tree branches and metal wire that hung into gaping gorges of unknown depth, revealed new passages and peculiar mineral deposits by the light of a candle, or oil lamp, fear of heights and darkness was untenable. Those who publicized their experience, did not lack in superlatives, and ever since word of this hidden realm reached the public, it has been the focus of unwavering interest.
Because the elevators that usually return guests to above ground have been out of service for over six months when we visit in May 2016, we are not tempted to ride, rather than walk, the serpentine route back to the entrance. This allows us to take our leave gradually, and to relive and relish once again the immense and wondrous sphere encircling us. Our enchantment from our all-too-brief glimpse through the window into the earth notwithstanding, we can’t help but wonder about hidden treasures in the one hundred-odd identified hollows scattered throughout this region, much less in those yet unknown.
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