“Majestic and shit”: in the depths of Carlsbad Caverns

The earth opens up to reveal a glimpse of its inner workings outside Carlsbad, New Mexico. Carlsbad Caverns is beyond description: a landscape of phantasms and dreams, drooling and piling itself into shapes drug from the depths of time and the mystic strains of memory.

The Mescaleros who inhabited the region (before the upstart American nation stole it from them) believe the ancestors of their people emerged from its depths in a time out of mind; native pictographs still adorn the entrance to this blind cradle, admonishing those who enter to show reverence for the secrets of the world below.

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Photo by J. Max Hunt

Carlsbad is both an inspiration and frustration to those who seek to bring some of its magic back to the surface. Ansel Adams, that great voyeur of America’s body electric, found the caverns incredible, imposing, and unyielding to his attempts to capture their good side:

“[Carlsbad Caverns are] something that should not exist in relation to human beings. Something that is as remote as the galaxy, incomprehensible as a nightmare, and beautiful in spite of everything.”
– Ansel Adams

 

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The pretty park ranger standing near the entrance ramp gives us a rundown of what to expect in the caverns: a cool, damp environment where the temperature seldom changes, where humidity hangs in the air without destination. Dark, quiet enough that whispers can carry nearly a quarter mile. Mostly devoid of what we commonly consider to be “life,” apart from a few hardy crickets and roosting bats.

No gum or smoking; visitors must bring water and watch their step in the dim light piped down through an extensive series of wires and cables, painstakingly positioned to highlight the features of the caves without disturbing their gloomy grandeur.

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The mouth of Carlsbad Caverns. Photo by J. Max Hunt

The elevator is broken today, so visitors are relegated to plunging more than a mile and a half into the earth’s innards on foot. As we follow the winding path down into the dark, the heavy breath and leaden footsteps of those coming up past us foretell a long journey.

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Beyond the yawning black entrance, the temperature drops to its lukewarm constant, as mist hangs in the last few rays of sunlight that feebly try to penetrate the caverns’ vast interior. The drip…drip…drip of unseen water echoes from everywhere, while voices come galloping in fragments from below, so that the caverns seem to speak back to you in garbled tongues, in a Tennessee twang here, a Michigan hoosier there.

Deeper and deeper, down and down — no one is quite sure how far these caves go. The remnants of a dead sea seeping back into the crust of creation, replaced by hollow pockets, carved by chemical reactions in the rock, crumbling and forming again into primordial pockets pulled from the troubled, restless dreams of the Brothers Grimm. Heads crane upwards towards stalactites dangling like bats from the ceilings; towers and mounds and holes like eyes watch each person pass, cautiously luring them further into the cavern jaws. Like Jonah of old, each body swallowed by this landlocked whale.

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Mineral growth along the walls of Carlsbad Caverns

A world beyond reckoning inside — the names affixed to different sections of the caverns sit on small informational panels, pulling from folklore and mythology in a desperate attempt to evoke a mote of the magic they stand in for: The Spirit World, the Boneyard, the Hall of the Giants and the Bottomless Pit — words do as little justice as Adams’ photos (or mine). The caverns defy any attempt to rein them in.

Soft lights illuminate the formations sprouting around and among us, hundreds of feet overhead and hundreds more beneath us, as we climb and fall, heads ducked between narrow passages from one room to the next. Pools of water collect into “lakes” that never flow or trickle; pathways and crevices taper off into oblivion without explanation –a universe of rabbit holes tempting the Alice within us all.

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Photo by J. Max Hunt

Finally hitting “flat” ground in the “Big Room,” a roughly 8.2 acre gaping chasm, we wander over to the visitors lounge and restroom area. Complete with a snack bar, merchandise for sale, bathrooms and a friendly cashier, it almost rivals the natural formations that abound around it for sheer strangeness.

A path guides one around the circumference of the Big Room, filled with stalactites, boulders and mineral formations fit for an opium daydream. One can’t help but think of Nietzsche’s cautionary aphorism about the void gazing back into you.

In the midst of so much space and silence, the caverns feel anything but empty; Perpetual creation abounds just beyond our efforts to see it.

More signs illustrate the complex series of chemical reactions shaping this world of soda straws, bat caves, demons and angels. Spires drizzle down from the roof high above, while stone mounds pile below in the shape of wizards and gargoyles, rising a little higher year upon year, until the endless, minute flow of minerals meet and melt into each other to form columns larger than tree trunks, yet so fragile that a single human fingerprint can mar them forever.

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Demons and angels within Carlsbad Caverns. Photo by J. Max Hunt

Charise and I discuss the inability to put a finger on what we’re witnessing. I wonder aloud whether we are not seeing the earth asserting its own creation story, showing how deftly myriad evolutions can be molded to form the body, how easily a shadow and a shape create the mind; the convulsions and twists that become body, face, arms, torso — each just another name offered in place of the miracle. Somewhere deep in this ghastly womb, new worlds are bing spawned, new creatures are baptized in the terrible cathedral of the underworld.

In the Old Testament, mortals cannot hear the unfiltered voice of God, nor gaze upon God’s visage directly, nor speak God’s true name. Here in the surreality of Carlsbad Caverns, senses failing and unable to relay the awful magnificence, I begin to understand….These caves, so unimaginably strange, are simultaneously all too human, a reflection caught in the Mirror Lake, below waking consciousness, below even dreams, lingering somewhere in the foundation of our souls brought into being.

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Column rising from the floor of Carlsbad Caverns. Photo by J. Max Hunt

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The ascent back up the serpentine path to the mouth of the caverns proceeds more quickly than imagined. As footstep follows footstep in interminable switchbacks, I recall the advice of gym teachers and coaches: regulate the breath; in through the nose, out through the mouth; take determined strides; pace yourself. Strewn at regular intervals, men, women and children of all ages puff and pant, lungs heaving as if caught in the throes of birth pangs. Pushing towards the top, towards the light in fits and bursts. We are all being born once more.

The first rays of mid-afternoon burst back upon us from above, chasing the damp chill back into shadow. Overhead, cave swallows are singing in raucous preparation for evening and night, flitting from crack to crevice, whirling in their graceful, ostentatious way.

A warm breeze and the arid New Mexico landscape greet the eye, blinding in the few moments before vision adjusts to surface surroundings once again. Nary an echo from where we’ve been — already, the caverns and their grotesque creations seem a memory….now a dream….now a vague impression of something beautiful that happened to you, long before you started regarding the world as something separate from yourself.

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Images from the void. Photo by J. Max Hunt

The start of something. A quiet place beyond reckoning, beyond telling. And try as you might, you can’t go home again.

Driving back through the roadside expanses of scrub brush and desert mesa rising, Charise grasps at words to express the formless, ambient feelings sitting deep in both our minds:

“This is all so beautiful. It’s, you know….majestic and shit.”

And so it is.

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