Sunday, April 22, 2012


A Visit to Carlsbad caverns, New MexicoA Visit to Carlsbad CavernsI woke up the next morning to catch the sunrise on the plains below touching the peaks of the Guadalupe Mountains. I wouldn't say my sleep was entirely restful, but  it certainly was eventful. First, there was the wind. Then, there were the footsteps of some creature outside my tent. The next morning, I met a guy who told me he saw some deer disappear into the bush. That probably was the creature that walked outside my tent. Anyway, that's what I like to believe. Mountain lion? Nah.
     The Guadalupe mountains used to be ocean reefs  formed three hundred million years ago when the whole area encompassing West Texas and part of northeast New Mexico used to be a vast ocean. Over an unimaginably long period of time, this ocean dried up, the reefs got pushed up to form the mountain range we now know as the Guadalupe Mountains. Essentially, I was standing on what used to be land that was underwater. I wanted to stay longer at the park, but I had to push on to get to my next destination: Carlsbad Caverns, forty miles away.

     I dismantled my tent and stashed everything in the trunk of the car. I promised to myself that I was going to do some serious hiking in these mountains, possibly in the fall. I heard that a certain area there called McKittrick Canyon was something of a paradise, with pine trees and brooks, a completely different world from the arid desert below.
     Carlsbad Caverns is a complex series of caves in the New Mexico portion of the Guadalupe Mountain range containing formations of staggering and exquisite beauty. Everybody I asked in El Paso who had gone there told me I should go, it was worth it. I asked friends who might want to go, but everybody seemed too busy to go anywhere. I wonder what it is with life in the US. Everybody is so busy working here, even on Sundays,  that they no longer have time to get away and contemplate nature. For most Filipinos here in the US, their idea of relaxation is watching The Filipino Channel with its inane  telenovelas. Travelling anywhere seems just so much of a bother. I keep telling people, "Life is short," all to no avail!
     Anyway, I have always been a lone traveller. Simpler  that way. Once more I drove my rented Toyota down highway 180/62 (I still don't know why they give two numbers to this highway), past the site of an old Butterfield Trail coach station which I sadly had to give a miss, and an hour or so later  I arrived at White's City.
     White's City is at the junction between the 180/62 and the  access highway to Carlsbad Caverns. I wondered why this place was named a city. It was more of a hitching post or an accidental grouping of buildings built because it was at the corner of the road to a national attraction. This brought to mind a controversy back in my home province of Leyte in the Philippines about the naming of a town called Baybay into a city. Opponents of the move, mainly mayors who were afraid of the reduction of their allotment in a pot of government subsidies, claimed that Baybay did not have the income to qualify becoming  a city. For me, income aside, Baybay seemed more of a city than White's here, so having seen what I've seen, I say, it was correct to name Baybay into a city.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service
     From the turn-off, it was still about thirty minutes to Carlsbad caverns. To go to Carlsbad Caverns, you ascend into the mountains and then you descend into a hole in those same mountains.  On either side of the road, you can see cliffs whose chalky, layered  appearance told the story of their oceanic origins. At this time of the year, there were very few vehicles on the road and the weather was cool and balmy. I wouldn't go here in June or July, when there would be traffic jams and the desert heat would prove  awful. October would be cooler, and the bats would still be there.
I parked at the spacious parking lot on top of the ridge overlooking the flat desert below. The views of the plain were tremendous. 

Inside the modern park center, I bought a ticket to the caves which cost me all of $5.  I went outside and followed a cement pathway. I encountered this at the beginning of the path:
   The park officials placed this sign out of an abundance of caution because, for a reasonably healthy person, this proved not to be a strenuous hike at all. If I want strenuous, I just remember  the Inca Trail, both going up and going down: that was strenuous, with a capital "S".
    On the hillside across from the path, I saw several pueblo-style buildings that had been constructed to house the park personnel back in the 1920's.
     Carlsbad caverns was declared a National Park  in 1923 by Calvin Coolidge. It was discovered by a cowboy named James White (who gave his name to White's City). He discovered it when he noticed a cloud of smoke emanating from a hole in the ground, a cloud that turned out to be millions of bats. The bats were not in the cave when I visited it, but are there from May to October. Amphitheater-style seats had been constructed to aid in the viewing of the spectacle of the bats flying out of the mouth of the cave.
Mouth of Carlsbad Caverns ( "The Bat Cave")
     As to the inside of the cave, the only thing I can say is: the deeper I went into the cave, the more my jaws dropped, and when I finally reach the so-called "Big Room" at the bottom of the shaft, roughly two hours after I started my descent (I stopped to take pictures), my jaws had fallen completely on the floor. The experience whetted my appetite to see more caves, such as the recently-discovered Lechuguilla Cave (also in Carlsbad) and the Cave of Crystals in Naica, Mexico. Those caves are almost impossible to get to, due to restrictions, but it pays to dream does it?
      I am not a violent man, but if you can go to these caves and hesitate for whatever reason,  I'll hold a gun to your head and force you to. At the back of mind, though, the greater wonder was how the US government built the whole structure of pathways, lighting and service structure to make exploring these caves so easy. I had been to a cave in Sagada, in the Philippines, and that one I did in the rough, guided by two local boys with one petromax each, one of which fell into an abyss (the petromax, not the boy).  I can tell you that a cave without a light source and whose handholds consisted of slots carved on bare rock is not for the faint-hearted! Here, the whole experience of spelunking had been smoothed over for the estimated 500,000 or so visitors who come here every year. Instead of worrying whether you were going to tumble down a pitch-dark ravine, the railings, strategic lighting  and paved pathway left you concentrating on the stalactites, stalagmites, speleothems and other spectacular formations in this underground wonderland of New Mexico.
     And so, here in pictures, are my photos of the wonders of Carlsbad Caverns. These pictures were taken with a Canon Rebel XS.  I wouldn't have been able to take these photos with a simple point-and-shoot!

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