As the elevator doors shut, I had a kind of flashback to being at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida.
The “rides” are interactive experiences with smoke and mirror effects in order to warp your perception. They want you to believe you’re really in Jurassic Park or in a submarine under hundreds of leagues of ocean. The rattle of the elevator, the numbers slowly descending on the digital pad, the chilled air, the brown drip stains along the metallic walls—all of it an illusion to make me believe I was really dropping hundreds of feet below the surface when in actuality I hadn’t gone anywhere at all. The doors jangled open to reveal the inside of a cave.
With what you would expect from a Disney attraction, the chiseled realness of the cavern was marred by the UFO glow of a restaurant. It still hadn’t set in, really. Beneath sand, stone, bedrock, earth—750 feet below the surface—I was in a huge network of caves. I really was. It wasn’t a mirage fabricated by a production company in a theme park—it was real, a real cave with cool, damp air and… a kiosk selling pre-made refrigerated sandwiches.
I knew beforehand that my trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in Carlsbad, New Mexico would be slightly contrived. Whereas the neighboring Guadalupe Mountains National Park is considered rugged, isolated, and impenetrable, Carlsbad Caverns is considered touristy, piece of cake—and, well, Disney-y.
But there I was, standing in line with about 20 other chumps and a little boy with flashlight mounted on a cheap plastic hardhat, waiting for a tour of the King’s Palace, a series of rooms connected with natural halls.
We walked like a group of cattle along a path as labyrinthine as it was manageable with a uniformed ranger at the helm.
We walked a leisurely pace through the catacombs of a forgotten earth, a place formed by sulphuric gasses, thousands of years of erosion and sediment deposits, stalagmite formations like melting candles, and tiny stalactites curling like cuneiform lettering on a bas-relief. Huge portions of the cave had fallen, collapsed beneath the weight of itself, folded like a stage’s red curtain, and pools of crystalline water glowed green in the dim artificial lighting along the path.
The unseen water plopping in yawning echoes began its journey some 6 months prior somewhere on the surface, and with a kind of self-affirming serendipity, found its way through the many layers of limestone just in time for me to hear its bloooop-p-p-p-p.
Certain cave tours at Carlsbad Caverns are not so predictable and manicured. Some require passing a “squeeze test” before beginning to journey into the tiny cave opening. To assure staff you won’t get stuck, you have to slide yourself through an impossibly small opening in a cement tube. Those tours involve hooking on to ropes, wriggling through rocky tunnels, wearing headlamps, and the ability to stay calm in tight, dark, and forebodingly small spaces.
The closest I came to that experience was when the ranger flipped off the King Palace lights and the group of us sat in overwhelming blackness. It was an impenetrable blackness, so thick I could almost taste it—a kind of engulfing residue. The group was forced to ponder the difficulties experienced by the first explorers tiptoeing into the blackness of the cave.
With little more than candles and lanterns, they bravely probed the depths, uncertain of what lie in wait, lurking in the darkness. We confronted the Hollywood-esque moment of finding ourselves hopelessly lost with the last of our flame slowly… burning.. out…
By the end of the trip, back in that rickety elevator, I had to admire the tenacity of the human spirit. While in those depths, staring up at a 14 foot rock formation which took eons to develop, I had to consider the infinitesimal and glaring insignificance of myself as an individual.
Just as I was on the edge of an epiphany, the elevator doors popped open, the light of day slammed me like a cinderblock, and I remembered that they sold coffee and knickknacks in the gift shop!