Lions, Tigers, and Tumbleweeds

— Oh, my!

Over the past several days, Katelyn and I have driven past many things. Included in the menagerie of roadside attractions that we have had the pleasure of witnessing are a great many dry creek beds, historical markers in the middle of the Texan desert accompanied by no other indication that anything of consequence ever occurred there, billboards advertising a gas station in possession of a tiger- or better yet, two white lions- and even a tumbleweed or two.

After San Antonio, we drove through the rest of Texas to Carlsbad, New Mexico for the purpose of exploring Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We arrived in Carlsbad the evening of June 3, planning to visit the park early the next morning. Carlsbad is a small western town that seems to be kept afloat by the tourism industry brought in by the caverns, which are about a forty-five minute drive from town. The only town closer to the caverns is Whites City, which is more like a rest area than a town. I’m almost certain that a standard Buc-ee’s covers more square footage than Whites City, New Mexico. That’s not to say that Whites City lacks exotic attractions. Indeed, Whites City has an abundance of wooden totem-pole style carved animals and aliens (neon green with ovular eyes) guarding the tourist center and trading post, which is directly across the road from the water park. It is entirely possible to miss this town if you happen to blink while turning on to the access road for the national park, but that would honestly be a shame.

Considering that we wanted to go underground, we had to do a lot of uphill driving to get to the caves. The visitor center and entrance to the caverns are at the top of a mountain, so the drive into the park serves as a beautiful prelude to a subterranean expedition. There are two methods of descent into and ascent out of the caverns. The first is an elevator that indicates not which floor you are on, but how many hundreds of feet of earth lie above you. The second is a paved pathway with a slope of varying degrees depending on the topography of the cave. As we hiked down into the cave, more and more speleothems (rock structures like stalactites and stalagmites) poked their noses out of the shadows, and educational signs informed us that were it not for the artificial lighting installed, it would be too dark to even see our hands in front of our faces.

The path winds around, between, and under huge monoliths, gradually opening up into the Big Room, which boasts the most surface area of any limestone cave in North America. The circuit through the caves takes you on a tour of the celebrities of Carlsbad Caverns. This includes the Hall of Giants (four huge stalagmite columns easily standing two stories tall with diameters of at least six feet), Bottomless Pit (a large hole in the cave floor similar to the cave opening we began our journey by entering- it’s only 140 feet deep, but early cave explorers were not equipped to see or reach the bottom, so they assumed it had no reachable end), and the Chandelier (a cluster of stalactite draperies that uncannily resembles its namesake).

No thousand adjectives would be able to describe the caverns completely. They are wondrous. Walking around in them, 750 feet below the surface of the earth, is an otherworldly experience. I felt I must have been either on a distant planet or at the bottom of the ocean in an abandoned mermaid metropolis. It is difficult to reconcile the existence of such things with the fact of everything else in our modern world. I left the caves wishing that they grew at a rate perceivable to the human eye, so that I could personally witness the growth of such spellbinding structures.

I could use every superlative in the dictionary and never be able to truly characterize the caverns and the experience of being within them. The caves leave you dumbstruck, curious, enamored, and maddened. Being inside them is flabbergasting, tantalizing, and humbling. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a cathedral hewn from the earth by the hand of the Almighty Himself.

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