As a deep dusk settled across the Chihuahuan Desert east of the Guadalupe Mountains on Thursday, November 15, we moved from the second to the third (and final) phase of the trip to celebrate my fortieth birthday. Sean and I were about half an hour ahead of Phil, Adam, and Sylvan on the National Parks Highway between Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the city of Carlsbad, New Mexico. On the way, we passed the phosphorescent light from the filling station in Whites City, the tiny boom town gateway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Carlsbad Caverns would be the focus of the coming long weekend. Our ultimate destination was an AirB&B in a quiet neighborhood on the north side of Carlsbad, across the Pecos River from the hullabaloo of the main thoroughfare and its traffic jams of souped up pickups waiting to make a lefthand turn against the light into the Wallmart parking lot. As we entered Carlsbad from the south and slowed in five and ten degree increments as the speed limit signs instructed, we hung up with John and Catherine, who had just arrived at the AirB&B, maybe twenty minutes ahead of us.
John and Catherine, friends and colleagues in Chicago conservation, are both Michigan natives. In fact, the only person on the trip who wasn’t born in Michigan was their two-year-old daughter, Mariana, who was just over a month older than Sylvan.
Not to be outdone by those of us who had already been adventuring (for a week in Sean’s and my case), John, Catherine, and Mariana had had their own adventures that week. On Tuesday into Wednesday, the same night that Adam, Phil, and Sylvan were surviving a hit-and-run of a Best Western, Catherine and Mariana were home in Chicago when the back staircase of their building caught fire when their neighbor’s lights exploded. No one was hurt.
Meanwhile, John was getting hit by intense altitude sickness while he was driving outside Leadville, Colorado.
For ease and convenience with Mariana, John had decided to drive to New Mexico from Chicago. This way they’d have on hand Mariana’s carseat and other accoutrement. He left two days before Catherine and Mariana flew down to Albuquerque to join him. His first day, Tuesday, was an intense fifteen-hour solo drive from Chicago, Illinois to Longmont, Colorado, narrated by Michelle Obama. The former first lady’s blockbuster memoir, Becoming, had come out that day, and John listened to it as he drove across the United States.
From John’s journal:
I may have been the first American to read it. As I drove through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado on I-80, Michelle told her life story.
– On Lake Shore Drive, the Obamas moved out of the White House, the opening of the book.
– On the West Side and West Suburbs, I met Michelle’s family, the Robinsons, and learned about how they always helped her find “Middle C.”
– In DeKalb, her dad’s car got keyed while visiting a friend in an affluent suburb.
– In western Illinois, Michelle excelled at Whitney Young College Prep.
– Around Iowa City, Michelle excelled at Princeton, following in the footsteps of her older brother, Craig.
– In western Iowa, she became a lawyer, and around the border she met a guy, while working at Sidley Austin.
– Outside of Omaha, her best friend Suzanne (from Princeton) died of cancer.
– In Omaha, that guy proposed to her—in a generous way (and then left for the Philippines to write about his dad).
– In Nebraska, Michelle bounced around jobs—wanting to help people of color excel—and met Valerie Jarrett.
– In western Nebraska, her man (Barack Obama) climbed the political ladder of the Democratic Party, much to her chagrin, since he was always gone.
– At the border, he gave the DNC speech (‘must’ve been a good speech”).
– In eastern Colorado, their daughter Malia asked him if he would run for president.
– A few miles later, he did.
– On the approach to Longmont, they campaigned, in Iowa, and all over. Michelle was constantly under-resourced by Axelrod’s campaign.
– Outside of Longmont, Barack Obama became president.
The book was much more than “good enough” to keep me awake. It was riveting.
Next day, as John drove south through the Rocky Mountains, he was hit with waves of nausea and dizziness while he was driving along a mountain highway outside of Leadville. Happily, he was able to slow down, find a diner, and wait it out until he felt well enough to drive again. It wasn’t his only mishap. He’d been undone by a plastic bag caught under the car, which forced him to wait out some repairs at a coffee shop in Boulder overrun with literally too-cool-for-school teenagers.
John drove south past the Sawatch Range and the Sangre de Christos while the guys and I were hiking to and from Devil’s Hall. He spent his second night on the road in Alamosa, Colorado.
On Thursday morning, John continued south toward Albuquerque while Catherine and Mariana boarded an airplane in Chicago and Sean, Adam, Phil, Sylvan, and I struck camp at Pine Springs. John finished listening to Becoming as he arrived at Petroglyph National Monument. He had time for a hike before heading to the airport to collect his family.
We were on our hike to Smith Spring when Catherine and Mariana landed in Albuquerque. They were reunited with John and began the drive down to Carlsbad.
In the six-o-clock hour, all eight of us finally converged at the house in Carlsbad.
And to my surprise, there was the most wonderful birthday cake waiting for me!
I’ll let John tell it:
Back in Boulder at the coffee shop I had ordered a custom National Park Service birthday cake for Brandon. Carlsbad Caverns would be his 29th Park—a great way to start his 41st year. To commemorate both milestones, the cake was NPS themed, with the Park Service logo on the top, and trees growing up on the sides. We picked it up in Albuquerque and enjoyed it that night. Brandon said it was the best birthday cake he ever had.
Our AirB&B was pretty perfect for our needs. It was a four bedroom ranch-style single family home on a corner lot in a quiet neighborhood. Its large, fenced-in backyard had a nice fire pit too.
We unloaded and chose rooms. Sylvan slept with Adam and Phil, but with the extra bedroom, Mariana was able to have her own room, just like at home. So both families were able to be comfortable in their usual sleeping arrangements. Sean and I took a room on the other side of the house. The only problem with it was that the laundry room was just off of it, so there was a fair bit of in-and-out as we unloaded and Phil started laundry.
Sean ordered pizza, which was right next to the Albertson’s, so we were able to do a supply run (more kombucha!) as we picked it up. Pizza, singing, birthday cake, tales of our various adventures, settling in, and getting to know each other (although everyone (save the kids) had been at Sean’s and my wedding, John, Catherine, Phil, and Adam hadn’t truly met before) rounded out the evening. John had also brought the photo album from the trip to Carlsbad Caverns he had taken with his mom, brother, and then-not-yet stepdad when John was a teenager. It was delightful to share in John’s memories on the cusp of his revisiting some of the same locations with his wife and daughter.
As the evening wound down (we were all tired), Sean and I each finally showered after six days of camping. And I finally tended properly to the mess of a blister on my right heel.
Next morning, Friday, November 16, I emerged from our bedroom to a quiet house at 6:30am. I started some coffee and caught up on notes as shortly everyone else began to emerge. The next two hours were a flurry of choreographed chaos as we showered, dressed, packed up for the day, chomped on cold pizza for breakfast, and bundled two toddlers and six adults into two cars for the drive over to the Park. We were successfully out the door by 8:30am. Most of us had tickets for the 10am King’s Palace Tour.
Half an hour later, we pulled up to the entrance sign for Carlsbad Caverns National Park, right on the edge of Whites City.
Here in the far northeastern section of the range, the Guadalupe Mountains are considerably lower than they are in the dramatic southern edge across the border in Texas. The road from the park entrance to the visitor center wound up through gentle canyons and ridges until we arrived at the large parking area.
I went in and picked up our tickets for the cave tour at will call. Sean and I had had to disinfect our boots (to prevent against white nose syndrome, which was devastating North American bat populations) at Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park, so we checked with a ranger about the need to do so at Carlsbad Caverns. The ranger said that because none of the caves we’d visited had been in the East, we were fine and didn’t need to disinfect.
Children under four are not allowed on the ranger-led tours of the cave, so Sylvan and Mariana would not be able to join us. John had volunteered to stay aboveground and watch the kids while all the rest of us went on the tour. Phil’s impulse had initially been to stay with John, but Sylvan and Mariana were getting along well, and Sylvan was not shy around John, so happily Phil joined us on the tour.
We said goodbye to John and the kids and assembled with our tickets at the elevator that would take us 755 feet below the surface. In the elevator antechamber, a ranger gave us some initial dos and donts for being in the cave.
At ten to ten, we emerged from the elevator into an underground lunchroom and rest area where other visitors were milling about waiting for the 10am tour.
Meanwhile on the surface, John took the toddlers outside to have a look around the immediate environs of the visitor center.
The first order of business was to ensure that the recycle bins were securely locked.
Down below, Sean investigated the men’s room.
At 10am, Ranger Laurel gathered our group together and began her orientation talk for the tour. The chambers we’d be visiting were once part of the cave’s self-guided tour area, but because of vandalism and visitors not following the rules, the Park Service had switched the area to only being accessible on a guided tour.
Ranger Laurel chose a volunteer to take up the rear and make sure no one on the tour was lagging behind. With that, we set out toward the King’s Palace.
Up top, Sylvan was learning to use binoculars backwards.
Down below, our path led a short distance along the natural entrance route before Ranger Laurel unlocked a gate and ushered us down a paved path that descended another seventy-five feet.
When we arrived at the King’s Palace, 829 feet below the surface (and the deepest publicly accessible part of the cave), Ranger Laurel invited us to sit along a couple low brick walls near one end of the chamber. She gave us a few moments to take it all in.
The stalactite and stalagmite above are not actually touching, although they appear to be from this angle.
Ranger Laurel told us about the formation of Carlsbad Caverns, which is unusual. Most limestone caves are formed by carbonic acid, created when surface water combines with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and soil, slowly seeping into the limestone and dissolving it from above. Carlsbad Caverns, by contrast, formed from highly aggressive sulfuric acid rising from below into the water table.
The Permian Basin of western Texas and southeastern New Mexico contains some of the country’s most prolific oil fields. During the late Tertiary period (perhaps as late as 12 million years ago), hydrogen sulfide began migrating upward from these petroleum reservoirs deep under the Capitan Limestone. When the upwelling hydrogen sulfide rich water met with groundwater, it combined with oxygen in the water table to form sulfuric acid. Highly aggressive dissolution of limestone thus occurred at the water table. This unusual sulfuric acid mechanism is responsible for the very large chambers found in this region. One of the clues which led geologists to the development of the sulfuric acid theory is the presence in most caves here of the mineral gypsum. Gypsum here is produced as a chemical by-product of the reaction between the sulfuric acid and limestone during dissolution.“Cave Geology,” National Park Service Brochure (pdf)
The chamber we sat in got the name “King’s Palace” because of a distinctive stalagmite formation called “The Royal Family,”
But all is not tranquil in the kingdom. An imposing stalactite that looks like a huge blade hangs threateningly just above the royals.
Meanwhile at the surface, Mariana and Sylvan were in the visitor center busily practicing the spelunking techniques they’d need for their afternoon journey into the cave.
Down below, the tour continued on toward the “Papoose Room.”
Up above, the kids went for a walk.
In the “Papoose Room,” we saw an example of “cave bacon,” drapery that is thin enough to allow light to glow through, near a distinctive column that looked like a broom.
We continued into “The Queen’s Chamber.”
In “The Queen’s Chamber,” Ranger Laurel again had us sit on low walls while she talked about the early recorded history of the cave.
Our first credited cave exploration happened in the cave in 1898. Sixteen year-old cowboy, Jim White, was rounding up cattle one evening when he spotted smoke from a wildfire off in the distance. He went into high alert. Fires could be just as devastating then as they are now. He rode closer to gather information. How big was it? Was it moving quickly? What direction was it burning?These questions and more pushed Jim to ride to the fire so he could report back to camp with the most accurate information possible.
Lacey Thomas, “Jim White, Cave Explorer,” National Park Service Blog
As Jim approached the smoke, he noticed something strange: he couldn’t smell the smoke, hear the crackling of flames, or feel the heat of fire. Jim realized he wasn’t seeing smoke. He was watching bats. Thousands-upon-thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats. Jim finally stopped at the mouth of the cave completely mesmerized by the spectacle of flying mammals filling the air above him. He once said he watched the bats for nearly half an hour before the darkness fell so completely he had to return to camp.
Eventually Jim returned to the cave and with a makeshift ladder began exploring it, ultimately naming many of the formations, including “The Royal Family.”
This was also the point in the tour when Ranger Laurel turned the lights off so that we could be completely immersed in darkness. The time with no light whatsoever was longer than it usually was on cave tours. I think this was probably because we were sitting down rather than standing.
Meanwhile, two other young explorers had discovered a game of throwing rocks in the parking lot.
On we went, rising toward the Green Lake Room.
We passed the almost-column I’d photographed from the other side of “The King’s Palace” where it looked like the stalactite and stalagmite were touching.
We passed a small bit of flowstone whimsically named “The Bashful Elephant.”
Ranger Laurel asked us to guess the depth of Green Lake, which is eight feet. Green Lake is one of a number of cave pools that the Park monitors for water quality due to surface pollutants seeping into the cave. Unfortunately, the surface above the cave now boasts a large parking lot with its attendant pollution.
The tour concluded beneath a large, extravagantly decorated column named “The Veiled Statue.” Ranger Laurel concluded with a brief exhortation to protect the National Parks and other public lands, which was unusual in our experience to be articulated so directly by a member of NPS staff to the general public. Good on Ranger Laurel!
After fielding a few questions, particularly about the affects of proposed oil wells near the Park and the general effects of the nearby oil boom on the caves (short answer: no one knows for sure), Ranger Laurel led us up to the gate and released us back onto the main natural entrance trail. We five headed directly back to the elevators and rose to the surface to relieve John some two hours after we’d left him with the kids.
When we reached the corner of the visitor center where we’d last seen them, though, the three had vanished. Their stuff was still there, but they weren’t.
We split up looking for them outside, in the cafeteria, and among the exhibitions.
After maybe ten minutes, Adam and I finally found them in the auditorium. We walked in to discover John delivering a lecture about bats to his captive audience, Sylvan and Mariana sitting in the front row.
Teacher John cut his lecture short, and we walked off to join the others in the cafeteria for lunch. We needed to fuel up before all eight of us descended into the cave in the afternoon.