Into the Belly of the Whale


I'll admit, I'm not a morning person. I generally stagger around for the first few hours of my life, sipping coffee and speaking in short sentences. There are few things I'll get up before 6 am to see. But a cave makes the short list.


I signed up for a 9 am lantern tour of Carlsbad Caverns, not realizing that my motel room in Roswell was two hours from the cave entrance. But this was a tour by candlelight, and how often does a gal get a chance to see a massive cave in such a romantic setting?


It turns out I was lucky to see the cave at all. A massive fire had swept through the area just weeks before, forcing the park to close as it burned up to the pavement surrounding the visitors' center. But once I got there, I decided it was worth getting up before sunrise.


Our perky ranger guide told us the story of Jim White, who is credited with first exploring the cave. (Naturally the Native Americans in the area knew about the cave for centuries, if not longer, but White's exploration ultimately led to the subsequent awe and delight that enabled the cave to be preserved as a national park).


White, at the age of 16, was working as a wrangler on a nearby ranch when he saw what appeared to be an ominous plume of black smoke. Being a rancher in the desert, this alarmed him to a certain degree, and he rode out to investigate the fire. The smoke, as it turned out, was a gigantic swarm of bats. When he saw they were emerging from a hole in the ground, he was compelled to investigate. He explored on his own at first, taking only an oil lamp and a rope, and continued his spelunking for the next 17 years. In 1915 he began leading tours of the cave. Visitors were lowered 170 feet into the cave in a bucket that was once used to haul bat guano out. (While this sounds thrilling, I'm glad they've since built an elevator.)



In 1923 the cave was named a national monument, and was granted National Park status in 1930. In the 1940s, the park service began installing a lighting system that would illuminate the dramatic features of the cave. The lighting makes it possible to see the incredible stalactites and stalagmites, some of which are over 100 feet tall. The ranger, however, tells us that when the lighting was installed, Jim White was not shy about his discontent. He claimed the light deprived the visitor of using his imagination--and for him, the mystery was the heart of the experience.


By pure accident, my first glimpse of the cave was by the light of a candle in a glass lantern. Nine of us stumbled along behind the ranger in single file, holding lanterns out at arm's length as we tried to distinguish the depth of the chasms below us and calculate how high the stalagmites rose toward the ceiling. Without a doubt, this held a certain mystery that simply wasn't there in the big rooms, where the yellow-tinted light revealed how massive and complex the cave really is. The big rooms are spectacular, of course--I'd be lying if I said I wasn't entranced by the stalactites, hanging like giant teeth in a gaping mouth, the columns that look like an eerie kind of coral. But there's something to be said about seeing it lit by a tiny lantern, wondering just how deep the darkness is, and what you might do if the candle goes out. Whether it's for dramatic effect, or to preserve the memory of Jim White, the ranger takes a minute to turn off all of the lights in the cave, allowing us to experience total darkness. She then lights a tiny candle and holds it in front of her. "This is what Jim would have seen," she says, holding it by a feature that we know is a stalagmite…but in the light of her flame, it becomes one of Homer's mythical beasts, and it becomes clear that the park service and that adventurous rancher were struggling to preserve two very different things.