I’ve always liked hiding places. Growing up, I had my own room, but I still liked to wedge into the small portion of my closet not inhabited by a dresser and read with a flashlight.
Like most kids, I’ve put in my time knocking on walls and examining floorboards in hope of finding a secret space.
I also used to enjoy climbing into the white wicker laundry hamper in our hallway and shutting myself in with the lid. My knees would squash into my ears and I’d just sit there, all folded. I told this to Garrick once and he suggested I never tell that story again, on account of it’s really weird.
Best of all, my brother Jackson and I had a secret spelunking society. Yes, I did previously say we grew up in a suburb of Washington D.C., but we had caves in our neighborhood. And by caves I do mean sewers.
They weren’t toilet sewers – just a rain drainage system. We found the small opening down the street from our house and one day Jackson, about five cousins and myself decided to see where it went. Imagine that, seven kids, just disappearing into a hole one after another, pop pop pop.
The tunnel sloped upwards into a room. If you hoisted yourself up, you could peer out the storm drain crack onto the street. On the opposite end of the room was another tunnel, which led to another “room,” and so on. Sometimes there would even be two tunnels branching off in opposite directions.
Jackson and I would pack a bag of supplies (yarn to mark our path, flashlights, bug spray, sticks to beat any murderers/zombies/raccoons, food to bargain with any murderers/zombies/raccoons, chalk to decorate the rooms and walkie talkies in case we needed to split up) and go on expeditions in the sewers. We drew maps and charted the routes. We also deemed a few select friends worthy, brought them into the complex and let them sign their names on the wall.
One time Jackson and a friend were inside the tunnels and I was above on the street. We had decided to explore a new direction, so the boys were in the tunnels while I recorded their progress from above.
Well, now I have to say things in my life like, “Sorry I lost you in the sewer that one time, Jackson.” I did re-find them, eventually. I rounded a corner to see a fishing net pop out of a storm drain and wave about wildly, just as a jogger trotted by a half foot away. But she didn’t see, people rarely look up or down.
I think my draw to hiding places is directly related to that affinity for running away. It feels good sometimes, to know that nobody you know knows where you are. Not forever, but for a moment.
It just makes for a nice break when a Kit-Kat bar is not readily available.
Ok, now you will understand how much Carlsbad National Caverns enthralled me.
We made it back to the main road after Dell City and quickly reached the Guadeloupe Mountains. It was still the middle of nowhere (no gas, no chicken) but with winding desert hills and valleys, which was a pleasant change.
We passed Guadalupe Peak, the highest Mountain in Texas at 8,749 feet. A Texas Historical Commission sign told us the mountain dominated “one of the most scenic and least known areas of the state.”
It also said legends of gold in the area dated back to Spanish rule and that Chief Geronimo believed the richest gold mines in the western world lay hidden in the Guadalupes.
The sign hurries on to inform readers “the true value of the area is in the scenery and associated life that resemble the same landscape experienced by early inhabitants.”
In other words: Don’t go digging for gold, you dumb butt bucket.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is about half an hour southwest of Carlsbad the city.
Coming from the south, Whites City is the last town before driving fifteen minutes through the mountains to the caverns’ visitor center.
That’s not a mistake (Michael). It’s Whites City, New Mexico, no apostrophe. I know. I hate them, too.
Whites City, population 7, consists of a few adobe motels and lean-to’s for rent, the Cactus Café, the Velvet Garter Saloon and a strip of gift shops for all your alien and/or Indian themed needs – squashed pennies, snow globes, waffle makers, bobble heads, etc.
You can buy an apron that says “New Mexico” in your choice of a “spaceships and green alien heads” or “dream catchers and coyotes” print.
How is this not offensive? The aliens must be pissed.
The drive to Carlsbad Caverns National Park was patched with snow. You’ll be relieved to know that if you didn’t purchase enough figurines, T-shirts and cookie tins in Whites City, the opportunity presents itself once again at the visitor center.
But for all my griping, I must say the visitor center was airy, open and well laid out. The staff was friendly and the museum portion was well done – it can’t have been easy to simplify and present geology as riveting to an audience that consists of every sort of person.
We got free tickets because of Garrick’s willingness to go to less fun, more terrorist-filled deserts and buzzed through the museum. Like I said, it was really good, but there was also a giant cave just waiting to be explored beneath us and we were eager to get started. Who wants to look at pictures of stalactites when you can get yelled at for inspecting the real thing too closely?
Under the unassuming stretch of desert lie 118 caves with more than 180 total miles of known passages and rooms. The Big Room is larger than six football fields and could fit Notre Dame Cathedral inside.
This system put my sewers to shame.
The Big Room is the main attraction and visitors can take a 1 and ¼ mile hike underground through the Natural Entrance Route to reach it or they can take an elevator directly down.
I understand the elevator is a wonderful thing for the handicapped or elderly – what’s sad is that most Americans seem to choose it.
We spent much of the four mile trek to the Big Room alone in the caves. We heard the occasional echoed exclamation from a small group ahead or behind us, but most of the time it was just the looming columns and spires, unearthly green water sometimes pooling beneath, and us.
The lighting in the caverns is masterfully done. The soft golden projections are sufficient at allowing you to see what’s around you and where you’re stepping next, but without disrupting the hushed atmosphere.
Most of the hike is downhill and the descent is equivalent to 79 stories. Garrick and I spent much of it half-jogging and half-skipping because the caverns were so magnificent and we were full of joy about being alive and in an underground, all natural castle/alternate universe.
“I haven’t felt this much like a little kid in a long time,” Garrick said.
There is a clear, established path often accompanied by metal guardrails. There are also passages that just lead away into the darkness. Some of them have “authorized personnel only” signs and some of them are not marked at all. We saw wooden stairs leading to routes used on cave tours in the 1920’s and leftover equipment from past expeditions.
The temptation to slip away down a side cave was so great I could tell that even Garrick, who would normally just shake his head at such a notion, was tempted.
It is marvelous, to stand beneath the earth and think about sunrises and seasons and plants and animals and human culture and history, to imagine it all on fast forward above, as the cave remains silent below. No day or night, no hot or cold. It is stirring to visit a place not meant for creatures as fickle and passing as humans.
The name “The Big Room” is delightfully modest. That area of the caverns felt more like a cave-forest than a “room.” The main trail that loops it is about one mile.
The Big Room was considerably more crowded. Though there are always the snot-nosed, souvenir-penny-smashing, cheeseburger-loving exceptions that are primarily responsible for the bad rep American travelers tend to get abroad, most of the people in the most popular section moved about quietly and respectfully.
Next I would berate on the gift shop INSIDE the cave, next to the Big Room, but my friend Charlotte recently told me a story. As a youth, Charlotte visited Carlsbad Caverns with her grandparents (love you, MomMom and PopPop). It was summertime, so she was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. It is always about 50 degrees in the caverns, so when she strode into the Big Room Charlotte became cold and probably would have died of exposure down there if it wasn’t for that gift shop and their hoodies.
She now keeps the hoodie in her car for emergencies. Basically, that gift shop can save lives, so I will be leaving it alone today. Also, it’s kind of cool to say you purchased something underground.
We emerged from the cave, reluctant and blinking in the light, then headed on to Bottomless Lakes State Park, two hours north. It was dark for most of the drive, but we were in a grand mood, singing along to the radio and peering up at the stars, bright in the black desert. Does it get any more road-trip-classic than windows down and music up? Sometimes cliches are alright.
We assembled our tent by the beams of the car headlights and scrambled into our sleeping bags – the temperature was in the teens.
“How did so much happen today?” Garrick mused. “The, uh, gas incident and Dell City all happened before noon … it’s hard to process it all.”
I was shivering and my voice took a few minutes to reach him because I was buried under so many sweaters, coats, sleeping bag liners, sleeping bags, covers and more coats.
“This is why traveling is amazing,” I said, teeth chattering violently. “We saw and learned and experienced so much in one day. After all, we could be at home like usual, sitting on the couch in sweatpants, drinking beer and watching How I Met Your Mother. Boring.”
We both became silent, because we were cold and tired and in that moment, the above didn’t actually sound so bad.