Going Underground

Flight gave a great description of our departure from Phoenix under the cover of darkness.  After I rejoined the land of the living, I took the opportunity to do some writing and gather my thoughts on our way out to Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  For a large stretch of our drive, there wasn’t much scenery to keep my attention (save the cute boy I married) and I escaped into the memories of Phase One of our travels.

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We arrived at this National Park in the nick of time and pulled into the second to last first-come, first-served parking slips for us to stay for two nights.  Two other RVs pulled in shortly after we.  Although initially this campground served as a base from which we could explore Carlsbad Caverns, I’m glad we took the opportunity to learn about this particular corner of the country while the girls completed another Junior Ranger Badge program.

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A little snapshot of what I learned…  Some eleventy billion years ago, this stretch of the desert was actually in the middle of a shallow three-basin sea.  The Delaware Basin served to form Capitan Reef at its edge, the remnants of which formed the foundation of the Guadalupe Mountains.  Although you’d never know it, apparently this park is riddled with sea creature fossils and shares its creation with its neighboring National Park, Carlsbad Caverns.  Unfortunately, we did not budget any hiking time into our brief stay, but some of the trails look to be pretty spectacular.  Next time.

As soon as the GMNP Visitor Center was open the following morning, we popped over so the girls could finish the requisite booklets to earn their badges.

Their favorite activity was a scavenger hunt through the exhibits.  In addition to the expected specimens of fox, skunk, skink, and desert rat, there was also a tarantula hawk on display.  The name might call to mind a shrewd bird of prey, but you’d be wrong.

Tarantula hawk

The tarantula hawk is instead a giant wasp that hunts these sizable arachnids, delivering a sting to paralyze them, after which they lay their eggs inside the immobilized spider who is then devoured alive from the inside out by the growing larvae.  Gross is the first word that comes to mind, yet falls so short of the gruesome reality.  Now, I am no fan of arachnids, especially big hairy ones, but even this seems over the top on the fiendish scale.  The tarantula hawk is especially nasty to its prey, but, should a human be stung by one, the peer-reviewed scientific advice is to lie down and start screaming.

I’m not making this up.

(And I am very thankful that I waited to further my knowledge of this species until I was very far from its natural habitat.)

Carlsbad Caverns boasted no such ghastly beasties.  Only bats. Lots of them.  Somewhere around 400,000 colony residents, in fact, comprised of 17 different species.  These numbers can surge to nearly double that during spring and fall migration seasons.  We did learn quite a bit about White Nose Syndrome, the fungus that is decimating the global bat population that has been referenced as part of the Sixth Extinction.  !!!  We saw neither hide nor free-tail of the legendary colony, likely because 1) during the day most of the colony sleeps in a cavern closed off to the public and b) we didn’t stay to see the daily mass exodus at dusk.  This picture from the National Park Service website makes that evolution look pretty cool.

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We arrived at the topside Visitor Center in the early afternoon and, at the recommendation of the Rangers at the front desk, ate lunch before we started the hike. Although there is a little café down below at the far end of The Big Room, we were informed that there would be slim pickings as the elevators down were out of service and, as the full assortment of nourishment could not be humped down the winding cavern switchbacks, they were offering little more than bottled water and Clif bars.  After filling our bellies, we made our way to the underworld entrance, pausing for a photo of the girls somewhere only they could get into, before we began our descent.

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And here’s a view looking back up.

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The going down was fairly easy despite the hairpin switchbacks.  I thought the return to the surface would be a little trickier, but hopefully not quite so laborious as the general population of earlier visitors made it seem.  Although some of them appeared to be on the other end of the fitness spectrum from American Ninja hopefuls, I realized that, despite our descent, we did start out about 4400′ above sea level. !!!  Because I was not yet focused on puffing my way back up, my thoughts were allowed to wander and I recalled the last time I had so gone underground.  I took the kids down to Luray Caverns in Virginia on the day of the last Presidential Election, and wondered again how symbolic the timing was of that excursion to the earth’s bowls.

As we descended lower, my ambling train of thought was rerouted to take in the immediate sites.  Pictured below are a collection of “soda straws,” hollow stalactites that break really easily when you try to pull them from the ceiling.

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Kidding!  I have no first-hand knowledge of this (and our Junior Rangers would have reported me if I did), but that sure looked to be the case. Our next pause in the descent was at the Whale’s Mouth, made up of smooth drapery formations.

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And this stalagmite is just plain ugly.

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No idea why it has been showcased by illumination, but there you have it.

We next found ourselves in the Hall of Giants where three massive speleothems grew from separate stalactites and stalagmites into columns eons ago.

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If you patiently wait a few millennia, you might see a few other such columns form.

What struck me most during our visit to the netherworld was the fact that everything we were seeing had been made (only a few formations remained active) in the absence of any light at all.  During our hike more than a million light bulbs were illuminating our path around the Big Room, drawing attention to the below formations, and it was a little trippy to consider that with the flick of a switch (and the failure of numerous generators), the caverns would again be in total darkness.  Everything we’d seen on our way to, from, and in the Big Room would then sit here entirely unobserved, as it had for innumerable years, slowly growing under no one’s watchful eyes.

When we stopped briefly to get some water at the subterranean café, I told Flight that you couldn’t pay me a million, trillion dollars to work there, especially if it meant I had to take the elevator up and down every day to get there.  A little aside, a friend recently told me that only the week prior to our visit, one of the two elevators still in service came to a halt mid-transit, stranding three people inside due to a mechanical failure.  Fortunately, all three were safely recovered and lifted by harness to safety.  To that I say, “Nopety, nope, nope, nope.”  If necessary, I’d hike in and out every dang time.

I recognized that it was time to climb back out of this enormous hole in the ground when I started imagining what would happen if the aforementioned magical switch were indeed flicked to OFF and/or backup generators failed, and suddenly there were no lights at all, for I knew I would have died a frightfully slow and slowly frightful death trying desperately to feel my way out of the cavern.

While regrouping over water, Flight briefed the kids on the basic rule of our ascent:  the kid who complains the least on the hike back up wins.  Detail-oriented WoodSprite asked, “Wins what?”  “Bragging rights,” was Flight’s response and we trudged our way upwards, weighing whether borderline innocuous comments such as “Wow, are my legs tired…” constituted a whiny point against the speaker or if it was simply stated as a point of information.

At last the lighting seemed even more otherworldly to me and I belatedly realized it was because we had made it to the “twilight zone,” where the natural light coming in from the entrance casts an eerie pall for a short distance (see below), beyond which it would become pitch black without mankind’s intervention.

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Most creatures have far greater sense than to wander in beyond the twilight zone (not so we) and I joyfully celebrated our return to broad daylight.

One last stop in the Visitor Center to swear in our Junior Rangers.

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And so that I might learn about my newest least favorite profession (I’m collecting them along this journey), Bat Guano Mining.  Considering the Caverns were discovered in 1898, local entrepreneurs wasted no time in capitalizing on the caves’ seemingly endless supply of bat guano, and mined the pungently rich fertilizer by lantern light from 1902 to 1958.  Um, no.  No, thank you.  The underworld gift shop/café position suddenly seemed far more desirable.

IMG_0659Overall, our time walking on the bottom of the former Delaware Basin (and well below!) was rich with sights we’d never before seen, learning about occupations I have zero interest in pursuing, and studying up on creatures I have no desire to meet.  Our brief exploration was absolutely time well spent, yet I find myself eager to move on to the Hill Country, putting a healthy distance between potential underground grid failures, tarantula hawks, and me.

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