Friday, January 24, 2014

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

I can sleep through nearly anything, and nearly anywhere. I have been known to nap in busy train terminals, and have developed the ability to sleep in nearly any contortionist form I can wedge my body into. This trait has served me well over the years, allowing me to travel cheap and has probably saved my life on a few occasions, but that’s a story for another time. However, my nearly infallible sleeping abilities have one nemesis…cold! I can not sleep if I am cold, and 23 degrees is cold, and not coincidently what the interior temperature of the car was during the night. Luckily I had planned for this and donned a hoody and an extra pair of socks before tucking my sleeping bag inside an additional sleeping bag I had. I tossed and turned throughout the night, and thought I had slept quite poorly when I realized the sun was coming up over the horizon. Apparently I had slept pretty decently as I had first shut my eyes nearly 10 hours prior. The clock read quarter past six and I decided it was time to get a start on the day. Carlsbad Caverns opened at 8 and I wanted to be there early to beat the crowds. 

I rearranged the contents of the car and headed off in search of a diner. The only place that seemed open, except for McDonalds, of course, was a small cafe tucked away along the main road. I pulled over, parking my small red coup among the throngs of dusty pick up trucks. I walked in the door and was met with a room full of cowboy hat wearing men, their faces tough and weathered, years in the desert heat working on the farms outside of town had etched their lives work into their skin. I sat at a small table in the corner of the restaurant, the waitress ran over to me and poured me a cup of coffee, evidently my appearance screamed for a need of caffeine. The cafe was bustling, surprisingly considering it was barely six thirty in the morning. I ordered an omelette, which came with toast and has browns. All my food tasted as it should, but took surprisingly long to come out considering they had five cooks working the grills. The waitress never let my coffee cup get below half empty, and never ceased to call me either honey or sweetie. After what had to have been five cups of coffee I paid and headed out, the air still had a nip to it, but the sun was shinning bright, having taken it’s post in the sky. 

The Diner wasn’t far from the edge of town, and soon I parted ways with the city limits and was back into the monotonous glory of the American Southwest. The drive was only about 20 minutes as I turned into Carlsbad Caverns National park. Instantly upon entering the park, the desert rose up, engulfing me in a canyon, tan rock rising up on each side of me. I was alone on this road and I strolled along gingerly, knowing I was too early to get into the caverns. The road slowly became to climb up as mule deer grazed on the side of the road, unperturbed by my arrival. As I rose the views were spectacular, a carpet of brown and grey stretched as far as the eye could see. Sometimes it’s difficult to concentrate on the task of driving when confronted with such immense beauty, so I pulled off to take in the view. 

I reached the visitor center as the Park Rangers were hoisting the flag, “perfect timing,” I thought, as I park my car, alone in the lot. The air was even colder here at the summit and I hustle inside. I had to wait a couple minutes before the caves themselves would officially be open so I watched a short film on the caves. In that time i was joined by 5 others. At the conclusion of the film I raced to the natural entrance of the cave, hoping to get some distance between myself and the others, I was successful and by the time I reached the cave entrance I was alone. 
This is only the first 30 feet of switch backs, and the last ones in the light.
The decent into the caves is over a mile of winding switchbacks taking you down 800ft below the Earth. Within minutes you are in a new world, a world where the sky in rock, rising hundreds of feet above your head. The decent is incredible, I was torn between snapping photographs, which is difficult is the darkness, and keeping pace ahead of the small group that was somewhere behind me. As the last of the daylight vanished behind me, I began to question my motive for separating from the group. It was dark and not altogether uncreepy, water dripped all around, echoing, along with my footsteps, deep into the cave. 
Without a point of reference it is hard to fathom how huge this really is. 
As I reached the bottom I was awestruck, outstretch in front of me was a labyrinth of amazing structures reaching down from the ceiling, stalactites, and up from the ground, stalagmites. Each turn on the walk was jaw dropping. Pinnacles reaching out of the ground and towards the hardened sky. An absolute marvel of nature. At times you could look across at what seemed like miles of breathtaking majesty, other times you were cramp into small spaces, where the intricacies of the formations was thrust into your face. I walked for hours, stopping what seemed like every foot to take a picture of another amazing feature. One set of stalactites hung from the ceiling, brilliantly lit by the Park Service, quickly becoming the center piece of my photographs, I demanded this be called the chandelier, and apparently so did whoever had the privilege of naming this beauty. 
The Chandelier reflecting in one of the immaculately pristine pools.
It’s merely a one and a quarter mile walk, once you reach the caverns, yet it took me nearly two hours to complete it, unable to take more than a few steps between stopping to admire natures underground art gallery. In the time I was down there I saw 12 people, 5 of whom were park rangers. One ranger explained to me, how in the busy season, from may through october, the amount of sound generated by the tourists coupled with the echoing of the chambers, causes the whole void to fill with sound. I however was alone with my footsteps and the ever present sound of dripping water, which from time to time struck me on the head, stirring me out of my bewilderment. at one point, called the top of the cross, I laid down on a bench and stared up at the formations on the ceiling. The silence and stillness of the cave was overwhelming, it was like being alone on a different world, I sat transfixed for minutes just admiring the divine beauty of the underworld. 
The difference in colors is caused by the different types of light sources used to illuminate the caves. Colored lights are not used, just an inability to compensate for multiple white balances.
As I neared the end I contemplated doing another lap, but the cave was beginning to fill with other people and I decided to leave me experience untainted. I ventured over to the elevators where a sign read, “restrooms,” there was no one I was going to skip the opportunity to pee 800 feet underground. I am not sure exactly how the plumbing works in such a facility, but I just attributed it to magic and headed out. 

I chose not to take the elevator, it seemed like an insult to the caverns, they had spent millions of years create this masterpiece, the least I could do was honor their struggle by walking out. Also, I wasn’t ready to leave, I wanted to stay down there, and the rapid ascent of the elevator seemed too much to bear, I needed to wane myself from this new love. A sign near the beginning of the trail out warning it was strenuous, they should use a better word. I breathed heavily as I dragged myself out, stopping numerous times to “take pictures,” which was really just me lying to myself about the arduousness of the trek out. To put it in perspective, the elevation gain of the ramp is roughly the same as a set of stairs, and 800 ft is equivalent to a 72 story building, or as the video at the beginning of the tour liked to point out, four Statue of Liberties. As I neared the top the cold outside air billowed into the cave, refreshing my sweat coated body. I turned around and looked back into the cavern, and bid adieu to the most spectacular natural creation I had ever seen. 

I would highly suggest Carlsbad Caverns to anyone, in fact I would demand you go if you are ever within a couple hours drive. However, I would not suggest hiking out, unless you are an endurance athlete or a masochist, then have at it. 

I reluctantly sat back in the car and head off towards El Paso. turning out of the park a sign read “No Services 130 miles.” I filled up at the gas station and headed off. Within just a couple emanates I found myself passing Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and decided to pull in and go for a hike to get some pictures. Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas at 8749ft, I had no ambition to climb that today, but I wanted to capture some photos of the beauty of this mountain range rising out of the desert. I stepped out of the car and knew that i wouldn't be hiking, the temperature read 27 degrees, and a strong wind was making it feel significantly colder. I quickly snapped some photos at a picnic area and hunkered by in my car. 
Guadalupe Peak is that big rocky one. 
It was less then two hours to El Paso, so I sat back and enjoyed the view, the wide open road tempted me to speed, and I responded in kind, flying through the Texas (Carlsbad Caverns is right on the border between New Mexico and Texas) backcountry, hoping the police weren't waiting for me. 

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