There is a world below our feet, rarely thought of or visited.
Few have the natural makeup to be comfortable in dark, tight spaces. Caves provide environments that are not well suited for long term human habitation. But since caves exist, the human instinct to dominate every place on earth, leads us down the proverbial rabbit hole to these dark subterranean caverns.
The desire to visit the dark and mysterious underworld brought us to southern New Mexico. We didn’t know if we had what it took to calmly reach the deep innards of the earth’s underbelly but we wanted to find out. We had first thought to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park and step down with the knowing eye of a seasoned guide. Since we visited during the off season we were forced to wait for the scheduled tour we wanted. As such, impatience took over and we decided to find one on our own. With very little research we found that caves are nearly everywhere in southern New Mexico due to the karst topography which is formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone and gypsum (nerd alert!).
We took a trip into the Carlsbad BLM office to talk to Jim Goodbar, a local and national expert on caves. It’s weird how you forget how meaningful it can be to talk to a real person to get information verses channeling the internet gods. He was able to size us up and send us in the right direction for youngish exuberant first timers. He also enlightened us on the mysterious fungus plaguing bat colonies around the country called White Nose Syndrome. It is thought that humans may be responsible for helping spread the disease since we can easily travel from one cave to another. So clean your boots people! Your stinky feet don’t only affect other humans.
Equipped with a nice safety talk, we headed out to our first solo cave experience. We had hand written directions as there would be no sign to mark our arrival. The landmark we were looking for was a square chain link fenced area off the highway which prevents the nearby grazing cows from falling in, breaking a limb and getting eaten by the vicious cave monsters.
We snooped around for a bit, seeing a half dozen potential entry ways and chose the only one without standing water. Wimps. I don’t know what it is, it’s not like a sea monster or alligator could be lurking in the dark water, it’s just the unknown.
The cave was big enough to fit us comfortably single file and by that, I mean Matt went first. Our headlamps lit up the white cave walls so we could see for several feet ahead. Once we were out of sight of the entry light we took our first darkness test. This meant all lights off to feel the earth around us and get that rare “holy cow it’s dark” moment. In the dark, you acutely notice your remaining senses. The musky earth smell feels heavy as you breath in and then there’s the all-around blanket of the temperate air around you. And the silence… or rather the quiet stillness that has a presence all its own. It is in this space that the feeling of dread began to slowly build in me. What could be in here?
We turned our head lamps back on and pressed onward down the narrow hall like cave. We noticed a few white crickets which was an answer to my first question. Then Matt began asking his own questions like, “do you want to crawl up in that tight hole so I can take your picture,” or “will you put your feet in that water and see what that black stuff is?” We must have been moving downhill for the puddles of water soon became standing water on the floor of the cave which we maneuvered around by climbing on the sidewalls. The water was definitely suspect. It was clear other than a thick black liquid that settled on the bottom. My rational mind told me it was clearly deadly and the further in we went the more rational I became. We were going to die and no one would find us. I’m a relatively brave girl but my brain is mischievous and can be foolhardy and tenuous at the same time. I was losing my mind while simultaneously realizing I was perfectly safe and just a few minutes from the light of the day. A quarter of mile in I decided we needed to turn around, not in a frantic huff and puff, but in a “ok in a few moments I am going to react in a way I can’t predict so we need to go back.”
In the fresh air and sunlight, it all seemed so banal. I could no longer feel that irrational fear I had in the darkness. It was gone and we were alright. I’m glad we took the trip in but next time, and there will be a next time, I will be more prepared. By that I mean I will have a plan more than a day old, perhaps we will go with someone who has been and I will wear that outfit, ya know the overalls with the feet that are waterproof. That black liquid won the day and should not have. None the less, I was amped for the next day which would take us, guide and all into Carlsbad Cavern National Park.
This day reignited the fire to search the untouched depths of the earths caves. We took a 3-hour tour to the Lower Cave of the Carlsbad Caverns and had a completely dichotomous experience from our solo cave exploration. This cave was expansive and perhaps because it had seen more human traffic was far less unnerving. Don’t get me wrong, it is an overwhelming experience as this system of caves might as well be the Grand Canyon of caves in the United States. The caves are stunning and the “Big Room,” which has been lit to a point of true artistry, could be considered the most unique national park experience you can have. After our tour of the lower cave, we stayed in the big room until the park closed. Rising several stories high this space has a cathedral like feel, as such you only break the silence with whispers. The stalactites and stalagmites are showcased in an artificial yellow glow which deceptively feels like it has been illuminated by firelight. You walk through, quietly, as if you are the first humans there, and it’s easy to imagine that one day you too might make a discovery like this.