Part 3 of 6. Read Part 2 here:
Our next stop was Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and I sat in the passenger seat with Figgins’ road atlas closed and in my lap; my finger marked the page for New Mexico.
Highway 285 South to Highway 62 West. I mouthed the words, and flipped the atlas open to retrace the route, checking our direction and reminding Kate what signs to look for. Southeastern New Mexico can be disorienting to a trio of Coloradans from the Front Range. Half of Colorado is flat like Kansas, but the other half features the Rocky Mountains. The Front Range is the Easternmost line of blue snowcapped peaks which run from the north and south of the state and serve as a picturesque backdrop to all of the major cities. As a result, the majority of the population orients themselves based on where the mountains are. If the mountains are on your left, then you are headed north. If they lay behind you, then you are headed east, and so on. When there are no mountains, most Coloradans still use landmarks for direction. Later, when I would live in St. Louis, I would base my location off of the Gateway Arch, but my parents’ new home outside of Washington DC left me directionless. Thick forests stifle the roads and hide all landmarks and all of the interstates run in circles leaving me confused and hopelessly turned around.
Southwestern New Mexico has the opposite problem. There is nothing to obscure the view, but the land is flat, dry, rocky, and god forsaken until you reach the Guadalupe Mountains.
But beneath this arid tedium is one of the wonders of the natural world.
Between 4 and 6 million years ago hydrogen-sulfide-rich waters began to migrate through fractures and faults in the limestone bedrock of the Chihuahuan Desert. Sulfuric acid dissolved the limestone along fractures and folds in the rock to form Carlsbad Cavern. Over time, the Guadalupe Mountains uplifted and busted open the cavern, exposing it to the elements for the first time in its geologic history. As a result, airflow and snow melt allowed for what geologists festively call “cave decorations.” Among these decorations are limestone lily pads, robust totem poles, delicate soda straws, and, of course, stalactites.
The cavern is the seventh largest in the world and plunges more than 750 feet underground, which is 120 feet deeper than the St. Louis Arch is tall. The cave itself is made up of a number of chambers with such fantastic titles as the “Hall of the White Giant,” the “King’s Palace,” and the haunting “Spirit World.” By the time we visited, I was already confident in my own Atheism, but I was willing to concede a point to those who would label the cavern God’s natural cathedral. There is something undeniably spiritual about the place. The lights illuminating the cave cast a golden glow, like candles on an altar. White stalactites cling to the ceiling like angels, and even the cave itself forms a cross. As I stood by the “Lake of the Clouds” the lowest point in the cave, fighting with my camera to take a decent picture without using the prohibited flash, I found myself overwhelmed and shivering. In the car I would begin to write about the experience, but give up after only a few minutes, writing simply that the cave was inspiring and that I promised to write more on the subject later. Four years have passed and I am still at a loss for what to write.
Note: Figgins uses they/them pronouns now, but chose to keep their previous pronouns in this piece to honor and acknowledge who they were then.