by wjw on December 4, 2016

img_0711I seem unable to stay away from coral reefs these days.  Never mind that the Capitan Reef hasn’t been an actual reef for 125,000,000 years, and that the Delaware Sea dried up at the end of the Permian, Capitan still has that reef magic.

And, like coral reefs throughout the world, it has caves and tunnels, some of which now make up Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  Which is where I find myself this weekend.

In part I’m here because I haven’t visited the caverns since I was in high school.  In part I’m here because Kathy is becoming a cyborg.

Three years ago Kathy had knee replacement surgery.  Back in May the second knee was replaced, the first hip replacement was in September, and the second hip replacement will be next week.  By the middle of next year, she should be doing all the typical cyborg stuff (fighting crime, capturing spies, leaping tall buildings in a single bound).  But during the period immediately after the surgery, I’m going to have to devote much of my time to looking after her.  I thought that if I ever wanted some time to myself to meditate, muse on existential questions, or maybe get some writing done, I should do it now.  So here I am, writing from my room in a Carlsbad hotel.

A lot more cave is open to the public than when I was in high school.  Today I saw the King’s Palace, plus the Big Room, which used to be the only bit you could see.  Tomorrow I’ll be on the Left-Hand Tunnel, which is a tour conducted by lantern-light, as in the park’s early days.  Monday I’ll be in the Lower Cave, a tour which involves ladders and knotted ropes.

The hours I spent underground were filled with retina-croggling sights: domes, columns, ‘tites, ‘mites, soda-straws, popcorn, frozen mineral waterfalls, translucent curtains of stone . . . after a few hours I began to develop what I can only describe as “wonder fatigue.”  “Oh,” I’d say to myself, “another huge column thirty or forty feet tall covered with cascades of stone rivulets, or icicles, or tentacles, all flooding in geologic time toward the floor below.  Guess I might as well look at it and maybe take a picture.”

img_0619Often the pictures were frustrating.  On a mechanical level, because the focus was automatic, and unable to focus properly about 25% of the time.  On another level, because when reduced to the two dimensions of a photograph, the subjects lose the third dimension, along with mass and presence.  These things fill space.  They loom.  Sometimes they threaten.  Photography, even very good photography, loses the massiveness of some of these features.

At one point the ranger had us all sit down, and then he turned off the lights to show us how the cavern existed for all but the last century of its existence.  I never felt the weight of the reef till then.  I hadn’t been bothered by the fact that I was 75 storeys underground.  Once the lights went off, I felt genuinely oppressed.  I felt all that weight piling on my shoulders.  In the silence, all I could hear was the drip of water into the puddle behind me.

Imagine that drip going on for 125,000,000 years.

Tomorrow the lantern tour, at a horribly early hour of the morning.  Really, they should do it at midnight.

Ralf T. Dog December 4, 2016 at 9:03 pm

Most of my time underground was spent with music (some of it good, some of it bad), poetry (some of it bad, some of it very bad) and women with whom I had less than zero chance.

Susan Beaty December 4, 2016 at 9:36 pm

I haven’t been to Carlsbad since 1960, though I did do some caving nearby in the National Forest back in the ’70s, mostly in the McKittrick Hill area. We recently took a tour of Mammoth Cave, and I was surprised that the passages weren’t as large as I thought they’d be. (Although the passage length is quite long when you factor in the Flint Ridge system that connects to it.) Seeing your pictures inspires me to try and get back to Carlsbad someday. And yes, cave photography is tricky; I used to cave with a guy who was quite good at it. He used to use people for scale, and also multiple flashes.

wjw December 4, 2016 at 10:35 pm

The Big Room at Carlsbad is amaaaazingly big, and takes 90 minutes to walk around it. My pictures make it look like the size of a high school gym.

James R. Strickland December 6, 2016 at 2:32 am

Best wishes for Kathy for a speedy recovery from all of us here.


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.