Below the Earth: Carlsbad Caverns
It didn't take us long to drive across the Chihuahuan Desert from Pecos to Carlsbad Caverns, but by the time we got there at 9:15 the temperature was already in the 90s. Above ground, that is. The cave is a constant 57 degrees all year long. We couldn't wait to get inside.
There are two ways to get to the Big Room, as they call the 82-acre main chamber of the cave—walk for about an hour and a half down a twisty path that descends 750 feet through the cavern, or take a two minute elevator ride that drops you off right at the Big Room entrance. Of course, we opted to walk. Armed with acoustiguides to provide us with information about what we would see at numbered stations along the way, we grabbed our jackets and headed for the cave entrance.
Even before we walked into the cave, we were enthralled. As we neared the wide black mouth of the cave, we were surrounded by at least a hundred chittering swooping cave swallows. As we entered the cave, the smell of their guano and the sound of their calls were both nearly overwhelming, but as we descended,
we left them behind, and entered a very dark, quiet, cool and peaceful world. The lighting was purposely dim along the path, and visitors were asked to whisper to each other if they wanted to talk, in order to preserve the quality of the experience for others.
The formations along the path were spectacular—massive forests of stalagmites, stalactites hanging five stories long, delicate soda straws and draperies that were translucent in the light. We were glad we hadn't gone the easy way and missed the experience of the cave's beauty unfolding slowly.
We entered the Big Room from a corridor that was just a couple stories high. Suddenly, the space opened before us several hundred feet in height with formations dripping from the ceiling and rising from the floor and flowering and flowing and frosting the walls in every direction as far as we could see. The feeling of transcendent grandeur was beyond explanation. A better writer, a poet perhaps, could take a stab at it, but I am not up to the task. All I can say is, I saw it and I gasped—it was literally breath-taking.
We followed a circuitous route with new wonders at every turn
as we explored the Big Room. By the end of our tour we knew a lot of facts about how Carlsbad Caverns were discovered, how the cave and the natural wonders within it were formed over eons of geologic time, the life forms in the cave, and survey and research work being conducted there. But, what we will remember most is its beautiful grandeur.
When we emerged from the cave, the temperature outside was 100 degrees, and the sun was ruthlessly brutal. All hopes we had of a bit of hiking were dashed. We drove slowly out of the park, stopping at all the roadside exhibits along the way, and only venturing out of the car for a couple of ten minute hikes – one on a trail to an overlook with indigenous plants labeled along the way; and another to rock overhangs used for shelter by Indians, with plants they used for food and medicine labeled along the way.
Enough of this heat—we are heading north! We had planned to continue across Arizona to Southern California to see the Nixon and Reagan Presidential Museums, and then head up the coast. But, we can't take the heat, so we are changing the plan. On to Roswell, New Mexico we go.
Beyond the Earth: Roswell, New Mexico (mile 4,000)
Roswell is desperately trying to keep alive the memory of a UFO crash which may or may not have happened here in 1947. The townspeople are wishing hard for a return visit from those little guys—the Best Western sign says "Welcome Aliens," the McDonald's is shaped like a flying saucer, half the businesses on Main Street have names or window displays that carry out the UFO theme, and all the street light globes have alien eyes painted on them.
In our ceaseless quest for knowledge about this historical (or hysterical) phenomenon, we visited Roswell's International UFO Museum and Research Center. The Museum has tons of first person accounts from people involved in some way with the 1947 UFO crash—witnesses who saw or heard it, people who saw the wreckage afterward, police and other investigators. The museum also presents lots of speculation and conspiracy theorizing, as well. There seems to be little question that something crashed, and that a lot of effort was made by government personnel to keep whatever it was secret or cover it up.
The four little creatures inside the wreckage, one of them still alive when it was found? Hmmm, the evidence on that one is a little thin. The museum hypothesizes that government agents intercepted the witnesses who saw the little aliens, paid them a lot of money and/or threatened death to them and family members, causing them to change their stories after their first sworn affidavits. Without the little men, it is pretty easy to write off the UFO as some kind of spy satellite or other airborne intelligence device gone awry that the government wanted to recover and keep quiet.
Lest anyone think the Roswell event was an anomaly, the Museum has photos and videos and sworn affidavits from lots of people, including military and airline pilots, documenting hundreds of sightings of UFOs. They also have evidence of aliens coming in contact with humans and implanting things in them.
Based on conversations overheard in the museum, we think we may have been the most skeptical people, or the only skeptical people, there that day. Dick was wondering if it was appropriate for parents to be bringing young children, because it might scare them. Based on what I overheard, the people with young kids were bringing them to the museum to supplement their education, because this is the kind of stuff they don't cover adequately in schools.
We found a room at the Western Inn, a vintage hotel with frontier adobe ranch architecture on the outskirts of town, and passed a quiet night with no alien visitations or nightmares inspired by our UFO research.