Yes, it’s been a while yet again. I’m still working on rebuilding those healthy habits and re-eliminating the bad ones. But being better doesn’t only apply to physical wellness. Mental and emotional wellness are also large parts of it – and parts that I tend to ignore.
I recently did some math and discovered that I had 17.5 days of surplus vacation time that I’ll need to use by the end of the year or I’ll lose them. So I scheduled a week off and took a road trip to finally realize a dream that I’ve had for 30 years – to visit Carlsbad Caverns. I’ve wanted to go there ever since I first learned about the park in my 4th grade science class, and the trip did not disappoint. Fair warning, I’m using this post as a sort of travelogue for this trip. It is likely to be rather lengthy.
I hit the road Sunday afternoon, making it to Carlsbad, NM that evening. Somewhere around Benson I realized that I had failed to pack one of my flannels. While the outside temperatures of the locations I was planning to visit are similar to Tucson’s, the Carlsbad Caverns website suggested bringing a light jacket as the temperature inside the cave system is rather cool year-round. So I stopped at The Thing tourist trap outside Willcox and picked up one of those woven Mexican “ponchos” (they call them ponchos but they’re really just hoodies) that were so popular back in the mid to late 1990s for $10. Teenage Me had always wanted one and now Middle-aged M
e has one. Any way. I checked into the hotel and had a rather uneventful night.
Got up early Monday morning, had a cup of coffee and apastry from the hotel lobby, and drove out to the Caverns.
My initial plan as I devised this trip was to just go and stick to the two self-guided areas (the Natural Entrance route and the Big Room loop). Before I left town, however, I decided I should go ahead and buy tickets to at least one of the guided tours since there’s no telling how long it’ll be before I get back again. Or if I ever will. So I got online to see what was available for the one day I was planning to be in the park. There was one ticket (out of 12) remaining for the Lower Cave tour ($20) first thing in the morning, and multiple options for the King’s Palace tours ($8) which take place throughout the day. So I bought tickets for both of those tours before leaving home, and boy am I glad I did.
I got to the park a a few minutes before the visitor center doors opened so I had a little time to enjoy the view from the top of the hill on which the visitor center is situated. When the doors opened I bought my general admission ticket ($10) and picked up the tickets for both of my tours, then had a little more time to wander through the museum before they announced that it was time for the Lower Cave tour group to meet up. According to the website this tour is limited to 12 people, and I got the last available ticket. At the time of, there were only six of us. (Well, eight if you count Rangers Christina and Landis. Which I do.) I have no idea what happened to the other six people, but they didn’t show. We sat through a short orientation, were given gloves, hardhats, and headlamps, and took the elevator down into the cave.
Apparently that was also a big deal. It seems the elevators had been out of service since November and had only just re-opened. We were one of the first Lower Cave tours that got to take the elevator down rather than having to hike the Natural Entrance trail before actually starting our tour.
I’m not going to lie to you, Marge. I was pretty nervous about this one. You see, this tour starts with using a knotted rope to descend a slick roughly 45° angle rock slope. And then there are three ladders you have to climb down. Of course, just as I got to the bottom of that last ladder I realized that I left my “poncho” in my car which was parked 800 and something feet above my head. That turned out not to be a big deal at all as between the humidity level and our activity level, I was soon dripping sweat like nobody’s business.
So, back to the tour. There are no paved paths, no hand rails, just strips of orange tape outlining where you’re allowed to walk. And strips of red and white striped tape indicating exceptionally fragile places where you’re especially not allowed to walk. One of the first things we saw was a lovely drip-pond. I tried to get some photos of it but my phone’s camera just didn’t do it justice with our meager headlamps. We got to see some great deposits of cave pearls real up close and personal-like, and were passing within inches of stalagmites and stalactites. I can’t tell you how tempting it was to reach out and touch them, but self-control prevailed. (Touching cave formations can damage them. General rule is HANDS OFF.)
It was amazing to be so close to such gorgeous formations, and with such a small group of people. And the cave was incredibly active. We were dripped on pretty regularly for much of the tour. The rangers even said that the Lower Cave hadn’t been this active in quite some time. I know it’s silly, but I kind of like to think the cavern was putting on a special show just for me. It was a much more intimate experience with the cave than I could have ever imagined.
Because our group was able to move so quickly due to being half the size of most groups on this tour, the rangers were able to take us down a couple of different side-paths where most tours only get to go to one place or the other. And then they told us about another path that they don’t get to take very often because they can only take 10 people – including both of the rangers – through at a time, and wanted to know if we wanted to try it even though it would be a little more challenging with some climbing and crawling, and would add a bit more time to our planned 3-hour journey. Of course, we were all game. The rangers weren’t wrong – it was quite the challenge. And totally worth it.
In one of the larger areas, we all sat down on the floor of the cave and switched off our lights. I’ve been in some dark spaces before but I can’t say I remember ever experiencing a darkness so total. And then we sat in silence for a couple of minutes. You don’t realize how much sound we’re surrounded by until you’re in a place where there isn’t any. I found myself closing my eyes to better experience the silence then realizing that I didn’t need to block any visual stimuli as the darkness was so complete.
Eventually we made it back to the ladders and climbed up to the rest area level before taking the elevator back topside. I took advantage of the lack of humidity above-ground to dry off and go grab my water bottle from the car as I was rather thirsty. I then had just enough time to get back down to the underground rest area to meet the group for my King’s Palace tour. Ranger Christina did tell me I might want the “poncho” for the King’s Palace tour as there’s a lot of sitting on that one and people do get chilly.
This time I chose to hike the Natural Entrance path back down into the cave. I didn’t stop to stare at as much as I really would have liked, as I did not want to be late for my tour group. Compared to the morning tour, however, this was a cakewalk. And while the Natural Entrance provided a much more impressive sense of scale, it also felt much less personal. And about half way down, I realized I’d once again forgotten my “poncho” in the car. And once again, I really didn’t need it after all.
I made it to the rest area with about 20 minutes to spare so I got in line for some food, as I suddenly realized I was famished. An overpriced ham and cheese sandwich never tasted so good. I finished my lunch just in time to meet the King’s Palace tour group and our Ranger guide. (I’m sorry, I do not remember his name.) There were probably around 40 people on this tour. So, yeah. A much larger group. And just the one ranger, as this tour is all along clearly marked, paved, lit paths, often with handrails.
The rooms we visited on this tour were stunning both in the sheer volume of the space and the number and styles of formations present. They did seem to be having some electrical issues in this section as some banks of lights were not on. Also, we passed a few electricians trying to figure out whatever the problem was. So I will likely take this tour again if I make it back so I can see what I may have missed.
Once again, in one of the rooms the Ranger had us all sit down while he switched off the lights in the chamber. He tried to get the group to observe a moment of silence but as I’m sure you can imagine, getting a group of 40 tourists to STFU can be a challenge. He then invited us to fire up our own light sources to see what we could see. I tried to imagine how different this moment would have been had I been there at a time when everyone smoked and therefore had sources of fire instead of cell phones with LEDs flashes and bright screens.
After the King’s Palace tour finished, I took my time wandering the Big Room loop. Without the distractions of needing to be careful about where I was stepping or placing my hands, or needing to listen to a guide, I was able to just walk and take it all in. I got rather misty more than a couple of times as the immensity of where I was really began to sink in. At least, when I wasn’t surrounded by large families full of whining children.
I’m really glad I decided to purchase those tour tickets, as the Natural Entrance and Big Room self-guided tours would not have filled my day. I’m also beyond thankful that the day went from a small, intimate tour group to a larger group, to free-range wandering with the unwashed masses. It kind of made it feel like these were *my* caves, not just some place I decided to go see on a whim.
Eventually, I made my way back up to ground level and the visitor’s center. I still had a couple of hours before the Bat Flight – which there was no way in Hell I was going to miss – so I went to the restaurant where I ordered a panino (which was still cold in the middle, but I was too tired to do anything about it), enjoyed sitting still for a while, read a book, and tooled around the gift shop where I purchased a nice Carlsbad Caverns hat before making my way to the Bat Amphitheater where another Ranger (again, I’m sorry, I do not recall his name) talked about the bats, the cave sparrows, and the story of how Jim White discovered the site while we waited for the bats to make their appearance. When they did appear, it was absolutely mesmerizing watching them swirl at break-neck speeds around the mouth of the cave before swarming off in search of whatever the night would bring them. Most likely water and bugs.
In all, this was one of the most fulfilling days I’ve had in a very long time. I can’t remember the last time I felt so satisfied.
I made my way back to my car as night began to fall in full and headed for Roswell. (Another place that I’ve been wanting to get to for years.) In retrospect, this was not one of my better ideas. I was really too exhausted to be making that drive. But I’d already checked out of my room in Carlsbad and had a reservation on another room waiting for me in Roswell, so drive I did. It was after 11pm by the time I got to the hotel. The clerk was very kind and upgraded me to a double room at no extra charge because the beds had memory-foam mattresses. I’d never slept on one before. It was interesting, but I don’t think I’d like that as my usual bed.
A friend had recommended the Cowboy Cafe in Roswell so my plan was to hit that for breakfast Tuesday morning, spend a couple of hours checking out the cheesy alien tourist trap places, then head home with a stop at White Sands.
The Cowboy Cafe was quite good. Large portions of pretty standard diner fare at decent prices. After breakfast, I found some on-street parking near Main & 2nd around 8am. All three main attractions are about a half a block away from that intersection.
Now, all the research I did online said the International UFO Museum opened at 8am and the Spacewalk and Area 51 “attractions” opened at 9. The internet was wrong. The museum doesn’t open until 9 and the other two places not until 10. So I wandered around the area looking for open gift shops, as I needed a new shirt. I didn’t notice until I put it on in the hotel that one of the shirts I’d packed had been eaten full of holes by something. So I tossed it in the trash and had put on my travel shirt from Sunday. I needed something clean, but not too pricey. Eventually found a shirt I liked for about $16. I also picked up a little green bendy alien toy who is now stuck to one of the A/C vents in my car.
The International UFO Museum ($5 admission) was pretty interesting. It is largely devoted to the whole Roswell UFO crash of 1947. There are lots of newspaper articles and redacted government documents all over the walls along one half of the museum. The other half is more devoted to UFO lore in general. I spent about an hour there, and I didn’t read absolutely every piece of information on every wall. They also were showing a film at 10am, so I decided to sit in on that. Except it turned out it was the 1994 Kyle MacLachlan movie Roswell. I really wasn’t interested in sitting in a less-than-comfortable chair for 90 minutes so I bailed on that. I’ll find it on Amazon Prime or something and watch it from the comfort of my recliner.
From there, I made my way to the Spacewalk. It’s a cordoned-off area in the back of one of the alien-themed gift shops. It’ll cost you $2 to get into the blacklight art installation, and maybe a minute or so to walk through it. I did snap a nifty photo that I think will make interesting wallpaper on my phone. I just haven’t tried it yet. After that, it was off to Area 51 Museum in the Alien Zone. Again, a cheesy set of photo ops in the back of another alien-themed gift shop. I believe this one costs $3 to get in. It was in pretty poor condition and I was rather limited as to what kind of photos I could take by myself, but I was in town so I’m glad I stopped in.
Next, I stopped at White Sands National Monument on my way back to Tucson. $5 got me into the park. While I could have purchased a plastic saucer from the gift shop for sledding down the dunes, I just wasn’t interested in spending the $17 (okay, $12 after the $5 buy-back when you’re done). And I was very much a lot not interested in driving the rest of the way home with shorts full of sand. So I satisfied myself with driving the park loop and stopping a couple of times to go wandering in the dunes. It’s really quite the surreal environment. The picnic areas felt like something out of a Kubrick film. And getting out into the middle of the dunes, away from the road and out of view of the mountains, I could have very easily convinced myself that I had entered a whole other world. I’m not entirely sure how long I spent there – maybe an hour or so. There was definitely a sparse beauty to the place.
Then I got back in the car and headed home, getting here around 8:30 Tuesday night. I’ve spent the rest of the week binging shows on Amazon Prime and being a bed for the cats. All in all, this vacation has been exactly what I needed. A little adventure, a healthy dose of something new, and a fair amount of Hermit Mode.
I think Carlsbad Caverns has gotten into my blood. I can’t stop thinking about getting to go back again some time. And since it’s only a six hour drive away, there’s really no reason I shouldn’t get back. I think I’d like to set the goal of eventually getting through all of the guided tours. There are a few that – according to their descriptions, at least – are even more intense than the Lower Cave tour. And I want to experience them.
Roswell was fun, but definitely not a destination spot. Now that I’ve been, I don’t feel the need to go again unless I’m with friends or family who haven’t been.
White Sands was added to the itinerary at the last minute and was kind of an afterthought. I saw it mentioned somewhere online recently and thought, “That’s kind of near where I’ll be, isn’t it?” Pulled up Google (all hail our dear and glorious leader) Maps and saw that it was, in fact, on my way back home from Roswell and decided I might as well check it out. Again, I wouldn’t call it a destination spot but it’s definitely worth seeing if you’re in the area.
And you know what else? That “poncho” is still in my car.
Here’s the full photo album from the trip.
As always, thanks for reading.