Monday, November 5, 2012

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

By Chuck

The highlight of Carlsbad Caverns is the Big Room, estimated at 600,000 square feet--seven football fields--it is the largest natural limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere.  In here, you can view the entire range of speleothems--from stalactites to stalagmites to columns.  The ranger gave us a handy mnemonic for distinguishing the two:  the 'c' is for ceiling and the 'g' is for ground.

An inscription reading "J White 1898" was discovered deep within Carlsbad Caverns in the 1980s.  It provides witness to the presence of a 16 year old Jim White, the first documented discoverer of the caves.

While riding his horse through the Chihuahuan Desert looking for stray cattle with a fence mending crew for the Lucas brothers, Jim saw a plume of bats rising from the desert hills.  It appeared to be a volcano, or a whirlwind but did not behave quite like either.  He tied his horse to a nearby tree and worked his way through the brush to the edge of a large opening in the ground.  Jim described the moment by saying, "I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which the bats seemed literally to boil."  He thought that any hole in the ground which could house such a gigantic army of bats must be a whale of a big cave.

A few days later, he returned to the cave with some rope, fence wire and a hatchet.  He cut wood from some nearby shrubs and assembled a makeshift ladder.  He lowered the ladder into the opening and using a homemade kerosene lantern, descended approximately 50 feet to the first serviceable ledge.  He climbed down an additional 20 feet to a floor.  Using the "sickly glow" of his lantern, he made his way into the cave. He felt as if he "... was wandering into the very core of the Guadalupe Mountains."

After reaching a chamber, he noted two tunnels leading off in opposite directions, one downward and to the right and one, more level, to the left.  He decided to go left first and discovered the Bat Cave. He explored it for a while then proceeded down the other tunnel.  “I followed on until I found myself in a wilderness of mighty stalagmites. It was the first cave I was ever in, and the first stalagmites I had ever seen, but instinctively I knew, for some intuitive reason, that there was no other scene in the world which could be justly compared with my surroundings."

By the time he reached the first formations, he had "... crept cat-like across a dozen dangerous ledges and past many tremendous openings."   He saw more stalagmites, "... each seemingly larger and more beautifully formed than the ones I'd passed."   He encountered chandeliers, stalactites, soda straws, flowstone, pools of water, rimstone dams and other formations.  He dropped rocks into pits to determine their depth.  He rolled one boulder into a pit and it fell for a couple of seconds and then "... kept rolling and rolling until its sound became an echo."

Then the light from his homemade kerosene lantern went out.  The darkness seemed to smother him.  Jim described the incident by saying, "It seemed as though a million tons of black wool descended upon me."
   We knew exactly how he felt when the ranger turned off the lights at one point during our tour.

The first thing that struck me was the awesome size of the open spaces.  The second thing was how dry most of the cavern seemed to be.  In between, the white calcite always had a liquid appearance, regardless of the wet/dry reality.

They have carefully implemented the lighting to great effect, in my opinion.  But, it left us in dim lighting the entire time, playing havoc with our poor little camera, trying so hard to produce acceptable results.  They are currently in the process of converting to all LED lighting, to save on their electrical bill.

A couple of pillars (columns) alongside stalagmites

These draperies were unique and interesting.  Sometimes they were translucent, with the artificial light shining through.

The Hidden Elephant--Does this cave make my butt look big?

Unbelievably clear water--they try hard to keep it this way.  People keep dropping coins and food.

No Comment...

"History was made on August 19, 1952, 750 feet below the surface of the earth, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Tex Helm fired off 2,400 number 2 Super Flashbulbs, lighting 55 million square feet of surface in the Big Room, to capture the beauty of this view. Never attempted again, this magnificant 'Big Shot' is a result of Mr Helm's technical know-how gained through 30 years of photographic experience throughout the world."  I hope you enjoy this vintage photo.


Rock of Ages

As we exited from the elevator, we noticed a group with protective headgear and headlamps emerging from one of the longer, 5 hour tours of the caves.  I envied them, but felt we had done enough for one day: a formal tour of  the King's Chamber and a self-guided tour of the Big Room.  Time to relax.

Once again we were grateful for our choice of timing in taking this Road Trip--almost no crowding at tourist sites.

At the end of the tour and our self-guided tour of the Big Room, we had the senior special lunch: half a turkey and cheese sandwich, pickle and green chili with pork soup--spicy, but delicious.

Lunch with the Jetsons 800 feet underground

We are in the only motel in the area.  Its great virtue is that you turn right, drive down Carlsbad Caverns Road for 5 miles and you are there.  We should have been suspicious when we discovered only one bar of soap.  The only restaurant here gets mostly very bad reviews but we decided to give it a try anyway rather than drive 20 miles to the next town.  The reviews were correct.  We shared a Mexican combo plate and Claire gave me most of it and then after trying it, pushed more onto my plate.  The Continental Breakfast at the motel consists of bad coffee, packaged muffins and a carton of low quality OJ.  The "town" is about as dead as any we've seen and consists of about 8 buildings.  The woman in the grocery store, if you can call it that, said she can't wait to get out of here and is just waiting for her son to graduate from high school.  The only activity is the guy doing construction work on our motel.  We're getting used to the hammering, sawing and dumpster dumping. Well, they never promised us a rose garden.  However, there is a lovely pool with a tempting water slide, outside; but it is too cool to try.  We are anxious to move on, edging ever closer to California, Yosemite and then home.

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land. ~ G.K. Chesterson