Sunday, July 20, 2008
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
On Sunday morning we set out on a three hour drive, eastboud into the Chihuahuan desert of New Mexico and West Texas to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The caverns are one of the "Enchantments" in this "Land of Enchantment", and well worth a visit.
The drive looked a lot like this, especially the portion in West Texas. (If you've heard things about West Texas....
But there were views like this, too... (This is the part of the road that passes through Guadalupe Mountains National Park -- one of the ones you don't hear so much about. It's pretty, in a desert-y kind of way, but that's about all we can say, since we just drove right through.)
And we also passed two w---i----d----e loads that Case guessed might be scoops or dump-truck beds for the copper mines of Silver City, NM. (Note: When driving in West Texas, you have to take interest where you can find it.)
Carlsbad Caverns National Park sits atop, oh, probably the last high ground going east until you hit the Appalachians! (Eastern New Mexico runs to plains.) As we drove the winding road onto the plateau, we wondered how anyone ever found the cave entrance way up there. Apparently, there was much to learn...
For example, it turns out that the "plateau" was really the remains of an ancient reef, from back when this area was all sea-bed. The reef animals deposited all the calcium carbonate that formed the limestone later etched away over eons to make the cave system. And, although locals had probably known about the "Mystery Hole" up on those hills since pre-historic times, it wasn't until a curious and intrepid cowboy named Jim White took to exploring further that the caverns were discovered.
We opted for the Jim White entrance to the cave -- the elevator ride sounding too easy and un-adventurous. Of course, we got the National Parks version of the Jim White entrance; it was much more treacherous before the government took it over and made it almost (not quite) handicapped accessible. We also took along these guided tour recordings, which told us many of the jaw-dropping facts we pass on here...
Of course, in fine NPS form, they started off with the rules. It seems, for example, that taking food into the cave system is not allowed, though you can buy it in the NPS-run snack bar on the negative 75th floor. Their excuse was that, if you took food in, animals would follow, and they would die in the cave and stink it up. Well, what I want to know is, how about me dying in the cave if I don't find the snack bar?
I guess Jim White didn't find this nice switchback path to ease his entrance. In some areas, they had left the old wooden stairways that Jim White used to help folks he guided through the cave get around the rough spots. It didn't look very safe. Apparently, those folks would spend all day on their tour and see less of the cave than we did. (Your tax dollars at work, this time in a useful enough way. I rapidly found myself feeling pretty proud of what those CCC workers accomplished to make the cave accessible, yet still keep it relatively pristine, back in the 1930s.)
The cave stays a consistent 56 degrees with 90% humidity throughout the year. Unfortunately, our camera didn't like the temperature or the humidity -- or maybe it's just coming to the end of its long and adventurous service. In any case, we got few pictures from within the cave that didn't look like something taken during a sub-optimal colonoscopy.
Looking back toward the entrance, this was our last glimpse of sunlight...
The camera did give us one picture that's a barely adequate representation of the cave's wonders. Our 2.5 mile walk along dimly lit paths and through huge rooms (think 14 football fields huge) revealed a seemingly endless panoply of fantastic shapes and structures like this.
Before taking the elevator ride 75 stories back to the surface, we sampled the fare at the snack shop, ate a little of the food we'd snuck in, checked to make sure all animals who might have followed our food in would follow us out (!), and (of course) used the subterranean potties. (After all, how often do you get to go to the loo that deep underground?)
It wasn't along walk, but we felt tired and ready for some above-ground refreshment. So we headed out across the prairie to the thriving metropolis (ok, small farm town) of Carlsbad. Taco Bell came through again -- an outpost even in this frontier town!
Satiated and a little curious about the town (Case had heard of a job available there), we wandered around town for a while. Though perhaps a little small for us, it is actually a rather nice burgh, especially for its size. Back in the "boom days", a wealthy oilman created an amusement park along the Pecos River that runs through the town center. Eventually, this was ceded to the city as a park, and it is now a lovely expanse of trees, paths, and waterfront. We wandered along, people-watching as swimmers, kayakers, paddle-boaters, and power-boaters enjoyed the hot Sunday afternoon.
Somehow, this all seemed too calm and civilized for the Wild West frontier; some vague intuition kept us seeking lingering signs that the Old West still lives. Of course, an afternoon in town does not suffice to delve deeply into the matter, but we did find this:
Carlsbad is a cruise ship port! Yes, indeedy, folks! Centrally located along the waterfront, Carlsbad Cruise Lines offers the discriminating connoisseur of leisure travel 40 minutes of untrammeled historic luxury aboard the George Washington, an authentic paddlewheel riverboat! If the proud smokestack, the regal prow, & the flowing lines do not give you a sense of the historical pedigree of this fine ship, then... well... then you'll just have to read her history. Though we were not able to stay late enough to cruise on this mighty vessel, her history (carefully printed on a signboard at the concession) reassured us that Small Towns and Old West still combine to preserve a unique slice of Americana. Read on...
1969 - George Washington was purchased in Kalamazoo, MI. Exact origin and age is unknown. Estimated to have been built between1858-1900. Engine was a coal fired 1858 steam motor. Took 3 workers to operate, driver, stoker, fireman. The George Washington was the first ride in the new amusement park called President's Park, an amusement park built by an oilman from Roswell by the name of Anderson.
1970 - Port Jefferson was just opened and was severely damaged by the Pecos River flooding. The George Washington would ride the flood out securely anchored to the dock. [Ed: That's Port Jefferson of Carlsbad, NM, not Port Jefferson, NY. In fact, that's Port Jefferson in the photo above.]
1971 - The George sinks for the 1st time. Angry employees shot several holes in the boat with a rifle sinking it into the dock. Holes remain in the divers area. [Ed: Way to go, cowboys!]
1972 - The George sinks for the 2nd time. Hose was placed in the hull. [Ed: Hose was placed in the hull??? Maybe to let the water out...]
1973 - George Washington experiences a terrible accident. The steam boiler blew up injuring one of the workers at the time. The boiler was replaced with a diesel motor and a new hydro-drive system.
1975 - George experiences another accident. A family on a speed boat on Lake Carlsbad accidentally runs into the paddle wheel at over 30 miles per hour. This almost destroys the paddle wheel. No one was injured in the wreck. The paddle wheel was replaced but never would turn perfectly straight again. [Ed: This alone made us want to stay and take the ride!]
1978 - George sinks for the third time, over 20 people rescued by wading to shore. The river was very shallow. [Ed: "rescued by wading to shore"? Guess in the West we believe in "self-rescue".]
1983 - Workers forget to add water to diesel motor. [Ed: Too busy cleaning their rifles, no doubt.] It overheats and must be replaced. A Ford four cylinder motor from a retired tractor is used.
1987 - President's park is sold to the City of Carlsbad. The George Washington continues to operate.
Maybe it's just as well that we couldn't stay for a ride. The George Washington looks to be way overdue for another epic/disastrous addition to its history!