June 30, 1998

My fears about excessive overnight heat appear to be unfounded. I awake wearly, at 5am, and find it cool and refreshing outside. I pack and head out fairly early, but circumstances prevent me from leaving Fort Stockton before 8am. The propane can I purchased last night from Walmart is leaking and I need to exchange it. I'm used to Walmarts being open 24 hours a day, but this one opens at 8, some 30 minutes away. In the parking lot an older woman asks me about my travels and relates to me how even after the store opens we won't get service until the employees have their morning pep rally ("give me a 'W', give me an 'A' "). I am amazed at the thought of this. However, this morning there is no pep rally.

Forty miles down the road and I'm in Pecos, Texas, Rodeo Capital of the World (so they claim). The town is gearing up for the massive July 4th rodeo, and I think a Pecos postcard with a fellow riding a bull would be a great tweek for the youngest child of a family my wife is friends with. I call him "Diablito" and the first time I saw him he was riding a seesaw as if it were a bucking bronco. I stop at the Pecos of the West Museum and fail to find such a postcard. The curator complains that "everyone wants a postcard with a bull rider" and fails to understand the concept of meeting market demand. I go next door to the Pecos Tourist Center and they have none either. They suggest the Walmart down the street. OK, at this point I have to digress. This country is rapidly becoming the Bill and Sam Show. If it's not Microsoft, it's Walmart. They both come into a new area, throw their weight around, and push everyone else out. I have been through at least a half dozen towns where there were no alternatives to Walmart, but plenty of empty buildings where there used to be. The Pecos Tourist Center tells me to go to Walmart to get a Pecos postcard. There is something wrong here.

Walmart comes up short regarding my choice for a postcard, and so does the rodeo itself. I think of another item, head back to the museum, purchase it, and head on to Carlsbad. While I am riding, I contemplate Pecos' claim of having the first rodeo. I figure it went something like this: Jonah and Jeb are leaning up against a cactus (men were tougher then) and Jonah looks at Jeb and says "I bet you two bits you can't ride that horse for five minutes" (it was harder to earn money then). I don't know how it turned out, and Jonah and Jeb probably had a falling out when Jeb built his house only two miles from Jonah, clearly not repsecting Jonah's "personal space". I'm sure land tracts out here are handled by the thousands of acres. I see driveways fading off over the horizon, but I never see any houses.

Outside of Pecos the desert is ominpresent. As I head further north the brush grows smaller. When it can't grow any smaller, it gets sparser. When it can't get any sparser, whole tracts of land are devoid of vegetation, as much as a mile at a stretch. The ground is a mottled grey, and the sky a deep blue, completely cloudless. It is still cool, but I know the heat is coming.

I need to stop for gas, and I do so in Orla, TX. I don't see any gas stations, but I can't go much farther. I stop at the Post Office, and the clerk directs me next door to the supply store. The town's grocery store has a gas station, but the town grocer has two other stores and rotates between the three, so the store won't be open for another two hours. I go next door and inquire, explaining I do not have enough gas to make it to the next town, some 48 miles away. They quite nicely provide me with free gas and send me on my way. Texas hospitality at its best.

I cross into New Mexico and the Mountain Time Zone. The desert is receding, giving way to taller shrubs and bushes. The ground has a pinkinsh hue to it. I leave Hwy 285 in Malago, NM., following the signs to Carlsbad Caverns. This is high desert country (I think). There is nothing out here, no people, no houses, no cars coming either way. Visibility is four or five miles, I estimate, and occasionally I pass signs pointing to towns but I don't see any roads, just a couple of ruts. This is a harsh, desoltae run and I am glad when I hit the main road into the Caverns.

The air is dry at the Caverns, the sun a natural microwave determined to turn me a crispy brown. The campground plateau is 3600 ft above sea level, the entrance to the caverns 4400 ft. There is no camping in the park proper, unless I want to hike one mile into the backcountry. I elect for a commercial campsite 6.5 miles outside of the entrance to the caverns. The site is well shaded, and I should be comfortable tonight. Soon I will head 800 ft. down through the cavern mouth and at sunset I will go watch the bats leaving. This is the heart of my trip out, and it is bringing a great deal of excitement to me.

The mouth to the caverns is a gaping hole in the ground, pretty much vertical and access is by a twisting and turning path. While Native Americans surely explored the initial entrance, full exploration didn't occur until the rich deposits of bat guano were discovered and mined. The path into the caverns reminds me of a trip down one's esophagus, cut along the side of the walls, a dark emptiness below. The path is paved and has hand rails, a necessity as the path is quite steep. At the mouth there are cave swallows, and the air resembles a scene from the Jetsons, aviary vehicles darting this way and that. I pass a family reunion and I can tell I need to put some distance between myself and them. Around me is the silence and stillness of this enormous cave, but I can't hear it over the cacophony of the group's antics, each person apparently trying to be louder than anyone else. The acoustics of the cavern alternatingly turn off and amplify the group's noise. Sometimes I don't hear them at all, sometimes it is actually painful in volume.

The texture of the rock formations varies greatly. Sometimes smooth but oily, somtimes appearing and feeling like the rocks are covered with barnacles. I can't grasp the distances to the other side of the wall and the roof above. I get vertigo from trying to absorb and assimilate the vast distances while ducking under overhangs and snaking back and forth along the path. There is an odd smell in the air, but this is soon adjusted to. As I go lower the air gets cooler, until I reach a marker indicating that the atmosphere has leveled out at 56F, some 50 degrees cooler than the current temperature at the surface. The humidity creates small clouds that hang near the ceiling, a localized weather system. The air does get exchanged over the course of the seasons, but the temperature never changes. Food and bodily excess do not decay normally here; no spitting, no gum, no eating. If left, these objects create smells that are unbearable and don't go away until someone removes the offending material.

Deeper into the cavern the calcium deposits form, long tendrils hanging from the ceiling, towering lances directly below that catch the dripping liquid calcium carbonate. Everywhere there is drip, drip, drip, pools of clear liquids and not a drop of drinkable water anywhere. Deeper and deeper I go, and I start to sweat. The family group is moving amazingly fast, and I can't gain any distance between us. I warn people stopped at rest areas the source of the noise that is approaching. The path is narrow, with room for two to walk side by side. To be trapped inside or behind the group would surely sour the enjoyment of the scenery around me. I press on, pausing at markers, but only for a few seconds.

At the bottom of the path is the lower floor and the ultimate tribute to capitalism: a rest stop replete with souvenir shops and a snack shop with lunches and Cokes. 880 feet below the surface, in a vast hall hundreds of feet long and a hundred feet wide, with a ceiling some 30 feet above that writhes in strange contortions, people come to work their 40 hours a week, slightly more than minimum wage, it's only until I can find something better, job.

How dismaying! I realize that I have made a mistake in leaving my PowerBook and accessories back in my tent, for I spot electrical outlets that I could have used to power my computer and written this directly in instead of first writing to paper and later typing it in, saving myself a significant amount of tediousness. I can only shake my head, chagrined that I, too, am a capitalist and softer than I'd like to be.

I take my time through the main attraction, known as "The Big Room". A mile and a quarter in perimeter, fourteen football fields could fit inside here (I think that's three Louisana Superdomes fitting in here, for all their talk of what can inside of it). The structures are extremely varied, the landscape sop alien it could provide inspiration for a movie. I am surpised no one has thought of using these caves for a massive production, where Kate Winslow and Leonardo DiCapri tema up again, this time to defeat the efforts of Kate's evil first husband Robert DeNiro (or Billy Zane if Bobby isn't available), who wants to bring bungie jumping into the Bottomless Pit. During the movie our defenders of nature find time to swim naked in a beautiful blue pool that, strangely enough, is lit from underneath. The interlude provides a soft, romantic moment that binds these two lovers forever, but completely destroys the chemistry of the pool, a fact overlooked in a typical disregard of reality by Hollywood. The chemistry of the caverns is very delicate, and touching the formations permanently waterproofs them because of our natural oils. Unaware of this at first, I have committed a cardinal sin in my tactile explorations. I touched two rocks, both on the way in from the Natural Entrance, and both times the rocks portruded into the pathway itself and I had to duck underneath them.

It is hard to fully describe the formations using any sort of technical terms, so I will avoid this. Amongst the stalagtites and stalagmites and soda straw and popcorn and dome formations (the proper names for these), I can see ordinary objects, like a monkey turned sideways looking away from me, and the Virgin Mary, and a horse's head, reared back and teeth bared. Some walls are adorned with hundreds of skulls, macabre visages screaming out as I walk by, other walls have smooth, billowing curtains of the finest materials decorating on them. Here is a gnome's head, with a pointy cap and a long flowing beard, and over there is a giant stalk of broccoli. The Tower of Pisa, sancastles after the ocean has reclaimed them and released them, collapsed ceilings that leave Jello chunks as if they were made from 50 foot ice cube trays. I pass a father and son who have found Buddha in these depths, a little over to the left, behind those melting ice cream cones.

The scale is almost unfathomable. The giant domes that grow skyward dwarf me; I am to sandcastles what the domes are to me. Occasionally the ceiling soars upward. The marker says is 240 feet above me but this is meaningless. I can not tell the size of the cavities and the abutments the form the surface of the ceilings. In other places the ceiling resembles a peanut butter sandwhich that has been pulled apart, fine brown tendrils reaching down from the ceiling.

Not all of the Carlsbad Caverns is revealed in my tour. There are portals in some of the walls, hints into the further tunnels of the caverns, partially lit for our viewing as they wind out of sight. An adjoining cavern, Luchilla Cavern, has been mapped out extensively, but it is quite dangerous in there. One explorer broke her leg in Luchilla and it took 175 people and four days to get her out. One area of Carlsbad is by guided tour only. Humans undo in only a few years what it took nature millions of years. The calcium deposits come especially close to the walkways, and between the people removing the deposits as momentos and individuals spray painting graffitti on the walls, the National Park Service had to make that area restricted.

While I am waiting for dusk to arrive (and with it the departure from the caverns of hundres of thousands of bats), I find five deer in a culvert not too far from my tent. Timid, yet comfortable so close to people, the deer watch me as much as I watch them.

The bats leave by the cave mouth of the Natural Entrance. The introductory talk begins a little after 7:30pm. Earlier, I had seen a chart plotting the bat flight times for the last five years. The trend seemed pretty clear that tonight's flight would be around 8:20pm. During the talk the ranger indicates that the crowd noise has a lot to do with how the bats react when they come out. We are also told that the high pitched whine of flash bulbs recharging interfere with the bats' echolocation and that there are no flash pictures alowed. The sun sets around 8:10pm and the first bats start coming out. The ranger sees this and after stating it takes a few minutes for the bats to become fuly organized, she turns off the microphone. the crowd is silent and a few more bats spiral out. Bats have difficulty going from the cave to the open air at the cave mouth and so must spiral repatedly in order to gain the necessary altitude. A couple more bats spiral out, but the numbers aren't increasing. The crowd grows restless after a few minutes, and the ranger starts talking into the mike again. Immediately, the few bats coming out veer off and exit the edge of the mouth farthest from the crowd. The exodus stays thin and sparse, and the bats no longer spiral overhead. It is clear that something is different tonight. The bats are not coming out. The population is down from a few million to 300,000, but there should still be an impressive display. There is none tonight, however. The crowd thins and I stay until it is too dark to see any bats at all. The ranger blames the heat (six straight days over 100F), but I find this strange because at the time the bats leave it isn't particularly warm.

I retire to my tent, and look out my back window while eating my nightly bowl of cereal. More local fauna, this time a skunk. It bounds across the grass the campers are on, and wanders over to my neighbor, who is eating dinner (the smell of which has attracted the skunk as it was quite curious about his grill sitting on the ground with chicken and vegetables simmering) and is oblivious to it. I call over, warning against sudden movement and pratically jumps out of his skin. Startled, the skunk takes off straight for my tent. Lucky for me, it darts off between the two tents. End of a long day.

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