I was excited to learn a few months ago that my friend Morgan from college was working as a ranger at Carlsbad Caverns for the summer. I was equally disappointed to hear the the two nights I would be there were during her weekend, and she was planning on going camping in the mountains (she’s not used to the desert, so she needs to escape towards trees and/or water whenever she can). I was bummed about missing her, but Morgan confirmed with her roommate that it was alright for me to sleep on their couch anyway. As summer rangers they get to stay in the park itself, right across from the Visitor’s Center in tiny, old, stone houses.
I followed Morgan’s directions to get to the staff parking lot, and wandered around the tiny houses and apartments until I found her house. I knocked on the door but no one answered. I wasn’t sure what I would do if her roommate wasn’t home, since I had no way to contact her and Morgan was probably out of cell range by now. I knocked again and looked around. Eventually a woman came to the door, and I began to explain myself. Her name was Mary Ann, and she seemed completely unconcerned with me or my presence there. Mary Ann left to visit some friends in a neighboring house, and I went over to the Visitor’s Center to watch the Bat Flight.
During the summer months the Mexican free-tailed bats migrate up to Carlsbad to live in the caves. The section where they nest is closed off to visitors, but you can catch a peek at them every night as they exit the cave for their feeding session. The start time is approximate of course. If the bats come out early you’ll see a lot of them. If they come out late it may be too dark to see anything. An open amphitheater is situated above the natural cave entrance, and while you wait a park ranger gives a talk about bats. I got a good seat near the front and waited for the talk to begin. I saw a young boy walk by wearing a Batman cape. There was a family behind me with a 4-year-old boy who was simply not understanding the concept. “Where are the bats?” he would ask.
“They’ll come out once the sun sets,” his mother told him.
“Where will they be?”
“Right there in front of us.”
“Why aren’t there any bats?”
“The sun hasn’t set yet, honey.”
“I don’t see any.”
“They’ll come out once it’s dark.”
“But…where are the bats?”
On and on like this, until the ranger came forward to give the presentation. No cameras are allowed during the bat flight because the flash and electronic noise interferes with the flight. An enforcement ranger stands near the front, scanning the crowd to make sure no one is trying to sneak a photo. We learn about the bats, their migration, their diet, and a fungus that has been destroying bat colonies out east but fortunately hasn’t reached Carlsbad. A sensor is set up deep in the caverns near the entrance to the bat cave itself. When the bats begin to move, a scratching, clicking sound can be heard over the speakers. After a few clicks the ranger declares that it’s time, and he turns off his radio and speaker system to ensure they won’t bother the bats.
The first few minutes are awkward. We are told to be very quiet and move as little as possible. But the bats aren’t there yet. So we sit in still silence, staring up of the New Mexico sky waiting for them to appear. No one in the crowd knows how long we’ll have to wait. There are lots of kids, and kids are hard to keep quiet, especially without payoff. Parents keep shushing them and getting them to sit back down. The kids keep spotting cave swallows and asking if they are bats. They’re not. There are no bats.
Eventually, I see the ranger point up to the sky. It’s dusk now and it’s hard to tell the difference between a bat and a bird in such low light. He points again, and I see it this time. Gradually, more and more appear from the cave, and I’m getting better at recognizing them. They fly up, filling the sky. Like all exciting things, after a while the wonder begins to wear off. The younger children become restless, and the families leave. It’s getting darker, and it’s harder to see. I keep watching the bats until I am the last person in the amphitheater. I decide it’s time to go, not wanting to hold up the rangers since I’m sure their shift only ends once all the tourists leave. As I walk out I overhear the ranger who gave the talk telling the others that it was the best bat flight he’d seen in weeks. He said at one point he was counting about 40 bats per second. How he could count them I’ll never know.
I walk back to my car, and a giant yellow moon is rising above the horizon. It’s the supermoon, appearing especially big and especially yellow. It’s gorgeous, but disappointing. I love looking up at the stars, and the desert is the perfect place to see them. But with a moon this big and bright, there are no stars. I’ll have to check the lunar schedule next time I come to visit.
I sneak back into the dark house as quietly as I can, trying not to wake Mary Ann. I slowly get ready for bed, and after about 15 minutes Mary Ann walks in the door, having only just returned from her friend’s house. Once again, she is generally unconcerned with me.
The next morning I wake up early so I can get to the cave entrance right as it opens. Since very early on in the cave’s explorative history people have reached it vertically. Originally it was by a large guano bucket lowered down by ropes. In 1932 an elevator shaft was constructed, and people have been going in and out by elevator ever since. There is still a large, natural entrance, however, and tourists can walk all the way down themselves if they so desire. Morgan left me a note suggesting that I walk down the natural entrance rather than take the elevator, so that was the plan. There are many warnings about the difficult climb, and how it’s not for everyone. After looking at the specs for temperature, distance, and depth I felt pretty confident. Compared to the Grand Canyon, this would be easy.
I set off down the trail, audio guide in hand. I love audio guides. It’s hard for me to stay focused on nature and beauty alone – I want to learn things. I want to know things I can’t know just by looking. Millions of years ago, the entire region was a sea reef. The sea dried up, the tectonic plates shifted, and the reef was pushed below the surface. Water dripped down from above, and huge cave formations were created over thousands of years. And then one day around 1898, an ambitious young man decided he wanted to become a bat guano farmer, and the beauties of the cave became known to the modern world. Sometimes it’s hard to wrap your head around the timeline. This place is more than ancient, it’s prehistoric. And there were many hundreds of thousands of years in between when it was a reef and when the first formations began. Later on the audio guide would point out some huge piles of bat guano, leftover from a time when bats nested in a different part of the cave. “These piles are approximately 45,000 years old,” said the narrator. “They are probably the youngest thing you’ll see in the cave.”
The cavern system is separated out into different areas. The natural entrance and the Big Room can be seen by anyone via self-guided tour. Other areas are only available in small, ranger-guided tours. Some require special equipment and physical ability. Those tours also require reservations months in advance, so I opted for the only guided tour available, the King’s Palace.
The cavern is a cool 68 degrees at all time. It’s lit by specially placed lights, designed by a broadway lighting designer. The King’s Palace is a series of rooms near the base of the natural entrance, and the ranger took us through, pointing out the various features and telling us more about the cave’s human history. After guano mining proved less profitable than originally hoped, the caverns become an attractive tourist location. People would be lowered down in the guano bucket and led through by torchlight. The caves are massive and complicated, and it’s hard to imagine navigating them by nothing but memory and the occasional marker.
Back in the 1940s, the most well-known and well-liked of the guides used to lead what he called the Rock of Ages Tour. He would take huge groups into the Big Room, sit them down in front of a formation called the Rock of Ages, turn off all the lights, and give a lengthy speech in the pitch black. As his speech was ending, a quartet of rangers would start singing the hymn “Rock of Ages” in harmony. Much to the disappointment of many visitors, they stopped doing those tours long ago. It was no longer practical to turn off all the lights at once, and I get the feeling the Park Service wasn’t thrilled about singing a church hymn during an official tour.
However, during the King’s Palace tour your group is in an area isolated from the main part of the cave. After going through most of the rooms, the ranger had us all sit down on the long bench lining the pathway. She went over to the switches and turned out the lights. I have never experienced that level of black. It’s hard to think about even now, because a total lack of light is so foreign to my general life experience. But in that room you are under several stories of solid rock, and without the electric lights there is absolutely nothing. I waved my hand in front of my face. Nothing. Sometimes I thought I could see it, but it was just my brain trying to make an image of something it was sure was there. In the darkness, the ranger told us about the speeches that were made during the old Rock of Ages tour. How he would explain to the dark crowd that, “for hundreds of thousands of years the cave sat in total darkness, her beauty completely hidden from the outside world. That beauty was first revealed when man brought in a single spark of light.” With that, the ranger clicked on a lighter in front of her face. Behind her you could barely make out a few of the formations – the same formations that were so clear a minute earlier under the electric lights. It’s amazing to think of climbing through this place, only able to see a few feet in front of you at any time. How absolutely terrifying and wondrous. It must have felt impossible.
After the King’s Palace I walked through the Big Room, which is aptly named. I listened as the audio guide explained the various formations and the difficult preservation efforts (preserving the cave from thousands of annual tourists, since left to it’s own devices the cave would be just fine). The narrator explained that many features were named by whatever feature they seemed to look like, be it a lion or a fairy. The audio guide encouraged me to look for shapes myself and see if I could come up with my own names. Around the next corner was, of course, a stalagmite that was unmistakably breast-shaped. It was hard not to giggle.
The lighting in the cave can make for some dark and blurry photos, but I did my best. After I walked the length of the Big Boom I took the elevator up for lunch. I saw that there was a ranger talked scheduled for 4PM down in the Big Room, and rushed back down in time to catch it. Between the ranger talk the day before, the bat flight, the audio guide, and the info panels, I had already heard most of the information in this talk. He did relate the wonderful story of how they used a balloon to hook a rope to the ceiling to explore what turned out to be a large room directly above the center of the Big Room. When trying to imagine this event, remember that the ceiling in the Big Room is 255 feet (78 meters) high.
The cave was closing for the day, and I caught one more talk about Mountain Lions before I headed back to the little stone house. I walked in the door to find my friend Morgan sitting in the living room with about seven other people, all eating German chocolate cake. We hugged and she explained that after the first night, she’d seen enough trees and was frankly a little bored. So she came back early, knowing I would be there. And she made a cake, because it’s Morgan.
The crowd in the living room was composed of other rangers, and after a while everyone left but Morgan, Mary Ann, and myself. Morgan explained that she’d made a homemade face mask that her and Mary Ann were going to use, and asked if I wanted to try it. We slathered it on our faces and went to sit on the stone porch wall to let it dry. I asked what the mask was made of, and Morgan said it was yogurt and turmeric. Knowing the effect turmeric has had on some of my other possessions I asked, “Doesn’t that turn your skin yellow?” Morgan shrugged, “I don’t know, mine doesn’t turn yellow.” Mary Ann’s eyes got wide and she ran back inside to wash it off. I figured it was too late for me, and Morgan and I turned back to face the visitor’s center. From her house you can see the path tourists take to get to the amphitheater for the bat flight, and we watched as the nightly procession began.
After the mask (which did not turn my face yellow), we walked over to their friend Tess’s house for a party. I get the impression this is an almost nightly occurrence, and probably where Mary Ann had been the night before. This explained a lot about her previous lack of acknowledgment, since she was a normally fun and friendly person. When the party calls, nothing else matters.
Tess made Mac & Cheese, and much alcohol was consumed. The rangers are fun and sometimes wild people, and I felt at home with them instantly. I mentioned that the audio guide told me to think up names right before I saw a rock shaped like a breast, and the others explained that formation was called the Breast of Venus. This was immediately followed by the question, “But did you see the Rest of Venus?” Apparently there was a vaginally-shapped formation near the end of the Big Room, and Morgan promised to take me to see it the next morning before I left.
We stayed late into the evening before heading back to our own tiny house for the night. You have to carry flashlights when walking at night because of the presence of snakes and spiders. It was clear that someone had not taken that precaution the night before, as evidenced by a large, squashed tarantula on the path. The spider was named Dead Tom and Mary Ann worried she was the culprit.
In the morning we got up early for what became known as Genital Tour 2013, where Morgan took me on a quick tour of her favorite formations shaped like private parts, starting with the Rest of Venus. Morgan was off-duty but she still had her keys, so the two of us went back into the King’s Palace area for a few extra special phalluses. On our way out we heard some tourists coming down the natural entrance path and ducked behind a rock to avoid the awkward question of why two women in plain clothes were coming out of a gated area of the cave. Once we were done with Genital Tour 2013, we got in line to take the elevator back up. Of course all the other employees know Morgan, and as a result one of the elevator operator rangers offered to show us a few things even Morgan hadn’t seen yet.
The elevators have large, glass windows to allows visitors to see the decades-old elevator shaft, cut from the stone. After letting out the other tourists that rode up with us, the operator closed the doors and took us back down several floors. He slowed the elevator to a stop and gradually raised it up again, until a bit of red paint caught his eye. He stopped the elevator and we looked out to see the image of Kilroy painted on the wall. He wasn’t sure how long it had been there, but since Kilroy’s heyday was World War II, it had probably been a while. He raised it up a bit more to show the way they cut small channels in the rock to drain water out, and a bit further to see some tiny stalactites forming on some of the support beams. It was funny to think about the thousands of people that look out these windows everyday, but are moving too fast to really see anything.
I had been told by many people to visit Carlsbad, and I can understand why. It is absolutely incredible, and I couldn’t begin to think of the words to describe it. Fortunately for me, famed photographer Ansel Adams already found the perfect words, and the park service, in their wisdom, put them on display: