Travel

Awed, one and all, deep below ground

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My family and I were 750 feet beneath the surface of the Earth in an isolated corner of southern New Mexico, thanks to Lou Potter, a colleague of my retired father.

In the 1960s, Potter fired my dad's imagination with stories of amazing sights deep inside Carlsbad Caverns National Park. "It really boggled my mind," Dad said.

The park is best known for its caverns, including 1,567-feet-deep Lechuguilla, the deepest limestone cave in the country, and the Mexican free-tail bats that inhabit some of them.

More than 40 years later, Dad realized his dream, strong-arming his wife, Padma, granddaughter Meera and me into going with him. Who among us would deny the long-held wishes of their 74-year-old father?

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is not an easy place to reach. El Paso is the nearest city with a sizable airport — about 150 miles southwest of the park — and that's where our three bicoastal generations met. My parents flew in from New Jersey, and my 21-year-old daughter and I from Los Angeles, all arriving late on a Friday night last month. We stayed overnight at a Best Western outside the airport, and by midmorning Saturday we were driving northeast in a rented minivan through oil-rich flatlands.

U.S. 62 climbs steadily until a driver comes smack up against 8,085-foot-high El Capitan. The rock edifice was wreathed in clouds, a warning of blustery weather. We would not see the sun again that weekend.

Fighting a fiercely cold wind, we pulled into White's City, a tiny settlement just outside the park's boundaries that caters to park visitors. We hurriedly ate a lunch of sandwiches, chicken strips and nachos at Jack's diner, one of two restaurants in town, then followed the paved road until it dead-ended at Carlsbad Caverns National Park visitors center.

Above ground, the park is unremarkable. Its Chihuahuan Desert landscape is harsh and rocky, a monochromatic palette carved into gullies and canyons by the elements. Scattered plants — purple Texas mountain laurel, yellow cholla and flame-tipped ocotillo — struggled to keep their blooms against the wind and temperatures in the 40s.

But where we were headed, weather did not matter: The caverns were dry and warm compared with outside, with the temperature an almost constant 56 degrees year-round.

They are an ideal roost for migratory Mexican free-tailed bats. Almost 350,000 live and breed inside the caverns from spring to fall. In summer, the park service celebrates the bats' diurnal flights with a nightly lecture; once a year there's a bat flight breakfast (Aug. 12 this year). On our weekend, we saw plenty of bats in various inanimate forms in the gift shop but no live ones.

The park offers two self-guided tours and six ranger-led excursions into several of its 105 caverns. The week before our trip, I signed us up and paid online for two, Kings Palace and Left Hand Tunnel. Other tours promised "twisting belly-crawls," which did not appeal. We started with Kings Palace, a one-miler that descends into several cavern chambers. Along the way, the ranger regaled us with the caves' history.

Although Indians in the area had known about Carlsbad Caverns for centuries, they were first explored in depth by settlers when cowboy Jim White ventured inside in 1898. It took White more than a quarter of a century to persuade the federal government to declare the caves a national park in 1930.

It wasn't until the 1970s that scientists found out just how rare Carlsbad Caverns are. They were carved by sulfuric acid, created by the combination of oxygen in water with hydrogen sulfide gas from the oil deposits far below the surface. As the mountains rose, the highly caustic water table dropped, dissolving the limestone and leaving behind immense underground chambers such as the Big Room, which is large enough to hold six football fields.

A one-mile paved path winds through the Big Room. After the Kings Palace tour, we spent the afternoon walking through it. My mom and daughter saw fanciful shapes — one resembled a statue of the Buddha; others were as delicate as Belgian lace — among softy lighted flowstones, stalactites and stalagmites. Dad marveled at their structure and seductive beauty and at the geology that created this underground wonderland.

So enchanted were we that we lost all sense of time, and we were finally forced to leave 1 1/2 hours later by rangers who tailed us, shutting lights off as they herded us toward the elevators.

After the caves, there was little to do but check in to one of the two Best Westerns in White's City. Dad and Meera rested in our room, which held two queen-sized beds, and Mom gamely accompanied me across the street to the Million Dollar Museum.

As bells, beeps and buzzes emanated from the video arcade upstairs, we toured the eclectic basement collection of Western artifacts and kitsch from the late 1800s and early 1900s. I was fascinated by the breadth of the displays: a stuffed panther, a wall of long horns, rooms with clocks, rifles, swords, china, kitchenware, tools, hardware and toy miniatures, not to mention the jaw of a mammoth.

"Did you see the snake?" Mom asked as I was perusing a display of an "alien body."

"No," I answered, "but I saw the two-headed turtle."

Both were in a room containing almost 200 dolls; I had overlooked the fake-looking snake and she the embalmed turtle that "ate with both mouths," its display note said.

We followed the memorable museum with a forgettable meal at the Velvet Garter Saloon, the only dinner place in town. For more choices we could have driven 20 miles north to Carlsbad. But it was pouring, so we made do with pasta, steaks and the salad bar.

The bad weather continued into the next morning, turning into snow at times, but we were headed underground for a two-hour lantern tour of Left-Hand Tunnel. It was a chance to see the caves as Jim White might have. Fourteen of us, most carrying lanterns with candles, accompanied rangers Jean Novicki and Amy Dozier into a darkened dirt passage. The lanterns cast a faint light, and we had to concentrate on where we placed our hands and feet, not only to avoid touching and despoiling delicate cave formations that were only a breath away but because the unpaved path was rough in spots.

"Without the lights, the beauty is gone," Dad muttered at one point. And he was right.

But I relished the intimacy of the cave — being able to peer closely at a fossil of a mollusk from a Permian Age reef or a shriveled bat corpse in a pile of guano. Then, too, there was the sense of the eerie, particularly when the rangers blew out all the candles and we were plunged into a Stygian darkness with only the drip of water to break the silence.

As we left the park that Sunday afternoon, it became clear that two days here had only whetted our appetites.

"I must come back to see the bats," Dad said as we drove away.

We can thank Lou Potter for that, for rekindling our disparate family's joy of discovery and bringing us together, if only for a couple of precious days.


Vani Rangachar is deputy Travel editor.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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