The Otherworldly Carlsbad Caverns
A memorable trip below ground
This week, I’m taking some liberties with The Field Trip. Rather than going some place local and recounting the visit as usual, I’m revisiting my memory of a trip I took more than 40 years ago. I’ll also give you the opportunity to virtually visit the same place: Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Read on!
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Back when Ronald Reagan was enjoying his first summer as president, my family drove from Washington to Texas and back. Most of that long trip remains in mostly unreachable corners of my memory, a glimpse made more permanent only when a photo was captured and viewed in the photo albums my mom kept. But the brief stop at Carlsbad Caverns made a more lasting impression.
I recall walking down a long pathway from a parking lot to get to the visitor center. Cacti or other desert plants rested alongside the route, and some insects made loud ticking-buzzing noises. I was convinced the sound was a rattlesnake, something that I feared perhaps most of all creatures—with scorpions close behind. By the time we reached the visitor center, I was a bundle of nerves and resistance. I remember telling my parents I would just stay there. I was not going further. Tears may have fallen. Voices may have been raised. I knew I was doomed if I had to leave the safe confines of the building. A kid just out of 2nd grade, though, holds little power, and off I was marched, down into the cave.
Caves like this are not obvious above ground, so finding them always makes for interesting stories. The story I recall is a cowboy was riding home in southeastern New Mexico when he saw smoke in the distance. When he investigated, he discovered the dark smoke actually was a huge number of bats flying out of the cave entrance. (My memory is roughly accurate.) His name was James Larkin White and was only a teenager. He returned to explore.
White and other locals proved to be enterprising. They sold the guano as fertilizer but also used the guano bucket to lower tourists into the cave. Tourism was more the promising and enduring enterprise.
By the 1920s, tourism rapidly increased with the affordability of automobile travel helping to democratize what had once been reserved only for the wealthiest Americans. Western natural places, unusual and spectacular, received federal protection as national parks and monuments. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge, who took quite an interest in outdoor recreation, made the cavern into a national monument under the power granted presidents with the Antiquities Act. In 1930, it was elevated to a national park.
National monuments are easier to create than national parks, because power rests in the president rather than a majority of Congress. Historian Hal Rothman argued decades ago that the Antiquities Act was “the most important piece of preservation legislation ever enacted by the United States government.”1 Many saw national monuments as second-class sites, and when advocates considered upgrading monuments to parks, critics worried about weakening standards.
Carlsbad Caverns might have exemplified that story, but its popularity grew rapidly. Local support and publicity drove interest in the place. In its first year, 1,280 visitors came; five years later, that number had grown to 76,822 (not counting children who entered without paying). That single year generated more revenue than all the other monuments brought in during a decade! Given the popularity and revenue, the transition to park proved easy at a time when that was no guarantee.
As you dip into a cave, the first thing you notice is the change of air. Temperatures drop. Dampness hangs. Maybe I remember that based on the experience; maybe I remember that because the constant temperature there was something emphasized on signs; maybe I’m drawing on experiences in others caves as an adult. Regardless, soon, I relaxed in the coolness and forgot the “snakes” above ground laying in wait.
We walked deeper, soon only artificial light accompanied us. Later, deep in the cavern complex, I remember stopping and talking to a National Park Service ranger. He told us of some cave not far away that was not yet developed for visitors. “Close your eyes,” he said. I complied. “That’s how dark it is in there.”
Underground, the Carlsbad Caverns are like a magical land unlike anything I’d seen above ground. Dirty white stalactites and stalagmites clung to chambers’ ceilings and floors. Stalactites were the ones hanging down, holding “tight” to the ceiling, I still remember learning that day. They seemed like they would be slippery, and I wanted to touch them.
Every twist in the path revealed a new room and more unusual formations. Occasionally, a tempting view heightened my imagination. I recall a hole with a rope ladder descending into darkness. I wanted to scramble between the bars that kept tourists on the path and climb below. The boy afraid of ticking insects was ready to dive into the underworld!
A Bat’s Liftoff
Eventually, we returned to the earth’s surface. A large amphitheater formed around a main entrance. We settled in for the show near dusk. What I recall is that we sat at the very top, which meant our benches were ground level and abutted some sort of desert plant bed. I was reasonably sure tarantulas were crawling there. (This may have been the result of Brady Bunch reruns, or my brother who no doubt thought he was preparing me for potential danger but mostly just succeeded in preparing me to be scared!)
The ranger told the story of Jim White seeing the clouds of bats. Probably, natural history lessons also were shared, but after a long day, I did not pay attention. Or, perhaps, I’ve always been more attuned to human stories than science stories. Somehow, rangers knew the precise minute when hundreds of thousands of small bats would fly out of the hole in the ground. We waited, and then the cloud burst forth and kept their swirling formations for minutes. Off they flew to the horizon at sunset.
I’ve never returned to Carlsbad Caverns, although I hope to someday. I’ve seen other caves in Texas, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania. None has ever lived up to the memory of this first experience.
(Besides the YouTube video above, you can experience another immersive trip underground here.)
One of my earliest newsletters recalled an earlier field trip in the Southwest. The Antiquities Act is one of those critical and controversial conservation laws that I’ve written about before. Besides parts of my last book, I wrote this article about it at a time when the law was grabbing attention.
No new writing this week. I better get back to work!
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Taking Bearings Next Week
Next week, I take the monthly trip to The Library. I’m partway through a book advocating for a radical transformation in agriculture—from 1943. Stay tuned!
Hal Rothman, America’s National Monuments: The Politics of Preservation (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989), xi.