Carlsbad Caverns: Where Awe and Terror Meet

I’m claustrophobic. So when I was younger and considering careers, rejected options included astronaut, deep-sea diver, Houdini-like escape artist, coal miner, and competitive spelunker.

Carlsbad Caverns: Where Awe and Terror Meet  In college I had an experience with caves involving a punctured gas tank and a fire that missed blowing up the car by just a few inches. Then there was coasting down a mountain, one dazed but uninjured cow, and five massive freshmen hangovers. I don’t have any joyous cave memories, and really, if I never had to visit one again, it would be fine.

In other words, visiting Carlsbad Caverns and hanging out 900 feet below the earth’s surface wasn’t on my Fun Things To Do list. That list includes things like Have a James Bond Marathon and Hot Tub When It’s Snowing. But it was on the list of 392 National Park areas I’m intent on visiting. So I had to go.

I got there late, just in time to take the King’s Palace tour. I was late because I was thinking, how much can there be to see? I thought maybe a few caves, some stalactites and stalagmites, a pool.

Hint: They’re called Caverns. Meaning, they’re CAVERNOUS.

And despite my anxiety about dark places that could run-out-of-air-at-any-minute, ohmygod, this one is spectacular. (But don’t get me started on when the guide turned the lights off. Complete darkness, your eyes don’t adjust, nothing, which was great for about ten seconds. Then, it was basically the opposite of great. As in, I Am About To Die.) The caverns feel like a land outside of time, and the stillness is both eerie and beautiful.

Here’s some of what I saw, but first, I’d like to point out it’s hard to take good photos in the dark. Unless I were Stretch Armstrong and could extend my rubbery arm waaaay out in front of me to hold a flash and better light up the caves. Which, sadly, I cannot.

Carlsbad Caverns: Where Awe and Terror Meet

There’s nothing funny about rocks.

Carlsbad Caverns: Where Awe and Terror Meet

There’s also nothing funny about caves.

Carlsbad Caverns: Where Awe and Terror Meet

I mean, I’m not laughing, are you?

So picture me, walking around with my mouth hanging open, which really isn’t my most attractive look. The landscape almost made me forget how much caves scare the hell out of me.

But not quite. Have you seen the movie The Descent? The plot is totally unbelievable, except for the part about a group of women getting lost down in a cave and no one knows where they are and then chaos and murder ensue. Fun! Here’s a screen shot to give you the general tone.

I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying the movie also features horrible, terrifying, spelunker-eating monsters. (That would be the unbelievable part, right? Right!?) And I’d be lying if I said that when I descended (sorry) alone into the caverns I did not fully expect one of those monsters to jump out and eat my intestines. And that as I lay there dying, just a limp, discarded monster-snack, the walls wouldn’t magically close in and crush me to even more of a post-disembowelment pulp. That all seemed like a reasonable scenario. But in the name of science, or at least this blog, I kept descending. And then I saw the incredible landscape, and forgot my fears for a bit.

Until the King’s Palace tour, when a woman behind me got the hiccups. When you’re that far below the earth’s surface inside a cave, walking right behind each other single file, hiccups are LOUD. And Internet, I have to admit that after five minutes of that loud, frequent, jarring noise, I hoped one of the monsters from The Descent would appear and eat her intestines. Because that would surely have scared the hiccups right out of her.

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