I tend to be slightly claustrophobic. I need to have a few feet of open space in front of my face, so small, tight spaces will usually produce minor panic attacks in me. I had no idea I was like this until I went spelunking. I was young and adventurous, on my back, inching my way into a cave in upstate New York, the cold granite roof of the cave entrance inches from my face. It’s not like I freaked out, just heart palpitations, a cold sweat and a mad desire to get out of there. Now. My companions had to back out so I could escape and I spent a pleasant few hours sitting in the sun while they went exploring without me. That was the last time I went anywhere near a cave. Until Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.
We were camped at the Van Horn, Texas KOA Campground. We were at a crossroads. We could go south to Big Bend National Park, east to San Antonio or north to see the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Cavern National Park. We opted for the caves. Carlsbad is one of the worlds largest caves, actually it is comprised of hundreds of limestone caves. The largest, The Big Room, is 4000 feet (1220m) long and 255 feet (78M) high. I didn’t think claustrophobia would be an issue. The drive itself was spectacular. West Texas is a vast tract of wide open ranch land split in half by long straight roads, one lane in each direction.The gently rolling landscape of scrub brush turned into larger buttes and high plateaus as we neared Guadalupe Mountains National Park and El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak loom in the distance.
You can take an elevator down into the caves of Carlsbad or you can take the natural entrance, a large hole in the rock cliff used by the original explorers. Of course now it has a paved, well lit, switchback trail. No ropes, ladders or lanterns required. The limestone cave was formed 500,000 years ago when the area was the edge of an inland sea. The rest of it, the glimmering rock formations, the stalactites and stalagmites, the columms where they merge, the undulating waves of rocks and mineral all happened much more slowly, drop by drop. Take some water, dripping, seeping, evaporating and billions of drops later you get the magical, mysterious beauty of Carlsbad. It’s dark, damp, cold and subtly lit. The photos can’t begin to do it justice. There are also about one million bats residing at Carlsbad. During the day they crowd together in, appropriately enough, the Bat Cave. At dusk you can sit in the amphitheater as the sun goes goes and watch them swarm out skyward for their nightly hunt.
We spent several hours wandering the depths of the Carlsbad, drifting from cave to cave. Totem Pole, Witches Finger, Bottomless Pit, Temple of the Sun, the names were as numerous as the types of rock formations. We left tired, chilled, eyes readjusting to the bright sunlight. It had been decades since my last venture into a cave, this one was much more enjoyable.