Towering monoliths spilled over themselves like frozen fountains, glittering white as with frost. Delicate icicles of calcite dripped from backlit alcoves. Fingers of ancient stone stretched downward from the immeasurable heights above our heads, hiding secret attics and clues to the nature of creation.
Carlsbad Caverns, one of the largest explored caves in North America, was an experience defying description.
It turned out that Roswell, NM wasn’t far from Carlsbad, so we took the short detour and turned it into an alien scavenger hunt! The kids got such a kick out of finding all the little green faces and UFOs hiding everywhere. We jumped out real quick at a museum so I could visit the gift shop for a pressed penny (I collect them). My daughter and I took a selfie with a Martian.
My husband and I talked and prayed a lot on our way to the national park the next morning. See, I’ve always had this inexplicable phobia of caves… the last time I tried to explore one, I had such an outright panic attack that my group was forced to come right back out of the cave again, only minutes in. I remember clinging to my younger brother’s hand, my entire face wet with uncontrollable tears, hyperventilating through asthma.
It had been more than a decade since then, but entering Carlsbad Caverns… well, let’s just say I was nervous to try it.
As we descended the path into the natural entrance, misty darkness looming ahead, my husband kept checking on me. I assured him I was alright so far as I kept saying prayers in my head, but I still felt the need to warn my children that if I started crying, don’t worry. “Mommy just does that sometimes.”
Armed with my prayers, bottled water, and an inhaler, I let the humid shadows enfold me and left the light of day behind.
One thing that surprised me about Carlsbad Caverns was that the entire path was paved in asphalt. I would have thought a conservation project like the National Parks system would have erred against leveling a ramp into the delicate ecosystem and layering on with a material that produces chemical fumes. It turned out that this was a lesser evil, though: at one point, the powers that be considered making these caves a drive-through tour!
I can only be grateful that never came to fruition, because even my untrained eyes noted the damage that has been done by so much human traffic. They do take a lot of precautions—you can’t bring anything consumable besides water inside, you’re not allowed to speak above a whisper, and there are special shoe-scrubbing mats as you exit—but we still bring the drier air from above in with us, we still breathe out. They’ve wired artificial lighting behind the more stunning formations, creating scenic displays but also inhospitable zones for natural cave dwellers. We saw several signs with pictures of creatures that supposedly call this place home, but not one of them in real life.
Still, what we did see was awe inspiring. An array of stalactites jutted horizontally from a slab that had fallen when a multi-ton rock came loose a level above and struck the roof of one cavern hard enough that the ceiling below was partly demolished. Thin sheets of rock flowed over empty basins, where they had once floated upon secret pools until petrifying on top of them. Scalloped towers looked like a finger of waves crashing, one on top of another.
We grabbed Junior Ranger activity books before we went down. Helping the kids complete them, we learned the names of many cave formations, such as cave popcorn and soda straws. Whoever names these things does it hungry, I guess!
Unfortunately, all of the guided tours were shut down due to covid, which left only two main sections of the sprawling caves open for hiking. It worked out, though. After hiking in from the natural entrance and touring the Big Room, we were exhausted, and park hours were nearly over.
There was so much to see. We wound up taking our time and drinking it in. There was a bulbous formation reminiscent of a shy baby elephant, hiding its face, that signs made sure we didn’t miss. One jutting monstrosity reminded me of baleen in the open jaw of a blind whale. One creepy gallery, aptly named The Boneyard, looked to be made all of pockmarked bone.
My son was fascinated by a trio of massive stalagmites known as the Three Tigers; my daughter was thrilled to point out all of the structures she could name from her Junior Ranger guidebook. My personal favorite was the Lions’ Tails; it absolutely boggles my mind to think how such a thing could just naturally sprout from the stone.
Now my daughter wants to be a park ranger somewhere when she grows up.
The human being is drawn to simple vastness. We are awed by it. We find indescribable beauty in simple wonders like the span of the ocean, a riotous sunset, and the circle of the horizon viewed from a mountain ledge.
Who’d have guessed, before such places were uncovered, that we could find such thrilling vastness under our feet.
Oh, and before you ask—No, I didn’t cry. I didn’t have any panic attacks or asthma at all—which I was especially relieved about once I realized, back in the car and ready to head back to the campsite, that my inhaler had somehow fallen out of my pocket.
Now I’m off to write the cave scenes in CROSSED LINES…