Monday, April 11, 2005

Day 9- The Caverns

One of the best things about this trip is that I seem to be missing the high season pretty much everywhere I go- even the Grand Canyon wasn’t crowded. But I don’t think I can take much credit for the lack of people at the Carlsbad Caverns; that place is way the hell and gone in the middle of nowhere. I mean, seriously. The nearest ‘city’ is El Paso (more on that later) which is about two hours away on a two-lane road through even more nowhere. So, as spectacular as the Caverns are, I don’t think they’re ever overrun with tourists. But it is a spectacular place, if you ever happen to be passing by.
I went in through the ‘natural entrance’, which is about a mile of walking downhill along paved switchbacks. Swallows live up at the top, near the mouth of the cave, and they were flocking around and chirping as I started down in. You get out of the reach of the sunlight pretty quickly, so there’s electric lighting the rest of the way down- it means you never really develop any night vision, but at least you can see. About halfway down I found myself walking at the same pace as a ranger, who was going along and picking up all the trash that people had dropped in the cavern. He said this wasn’t exactly in his job description, and we talked a bit about the basic human need to throw things in holes (my favorite quote: "Later on I’m going to have to rappel down into the bottomless pit and clean out the stuff in there.") He said that, aside from trash and coins, the things he finds most often are baby bottles, reading glasses and sunglasses. (Just like my story! What do you mean, you haven’t read it? You should read it.) Anyway, it was nice to have someone to talk to.
I wish I could come up with a good way of describing the formations I saw in the caverns. It seems that this is a problem of mine- this total inability to describe these incredible things I’m seeing. The thing is, you know what it looks like- the delicate forests of soda straws, the waving draperies, the giant, liquid-looking stalagmites- the pictures are accurate enough. What I can’t get across is the three-dimensionality of it- the same problem I had with the Grand Canyon- I can’t put into words what it is that makes you stop and say ‘wow’. So maybe I had just better not try.
One thing I can describe is the bathroom. It was probably one of the most surreal things I’ve seen so far, walking down seven hundred feet below ground through all of these amazing stone formations and finding at the bottom: a bathroom. And a snack bar (selling nachos!). But the bathroom really got me, because it was so amazingly ordinary- the stalls, the white tile floor, the fluorescent lighting- all in the middle of this natural wonder. I did the long loop around the Big Room (about a mile and a half) and tried to take a bunch of pictures, although I don't think most of them came out.
While I was there, it occured to me that all of the park-type places I have been to have been water-related. The Grand Canyon was dug by it, the Petrified Forest was formed by it and the caverns were dissolved out by it. I'm not going anywhere with this, it's just something I noticed.
I left the Caverns around three-thirty and got to El Paso a little before six, driving through the emptiest countryside I have seen yet. There were wildflowers, though, mostly yellow with huge masses of them covering entire fields.

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