Admittedly, I am claustrophobic. Riding in the backseat of a Volkswagon bug, using an airplane bathroom, or crawling under a bed are just too close to my face for comfort. Even getting tangled in my sheets at night unnerves me. Caves? I have entered a few, crawling into one west of Flagstaff during my summer as a camp counselor, but the perceived lack of oxygen and actual lack of open space in my personal bubble make exploring significantly challenging. Carlsbad Caverns, however, allows me the opportunity to climb deep below the earth’s surface without even the tiniest fraction of angst.
The New Mexican landmark, in the portions open to the public, reaches depths of more than 800 feet (244 meters) in which I comfortably stroll through the expansive, humid chambers. The gently folding path at the main entrance eliminates unnecessary hiking and trekking from my cave exploration, although those opportunities exist for more adventurous spelunkers, but like most tourists I enjoy the ease and openness of the massive underground system. On my most recent expedition to the national park I get to witness history unseen by most visitors and despite my lack of fear from enclosure, I benefit from the best vantage point possible for a claustrophobe like me: I never descend into the caves.
Filing Cabinets of Wonder
My college degree hinges on one final class: History 309: Introduction to Historical Writing. Knowing this class will require an inordinate amount of research, I begin preparing five semesters earlier, including planning two trips to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. That’s not a challenge, but rather a bonus for a travel junkie like me because in-depth research merely provides an additional excuse to return to New Mexico. Just like Mammoth Cave and Wind Cave, visitors at Carlsbad Caverns National Park can enjoy nature’s above-ground creations since the forces that created the wonders underground contributed to the visible landscape too. But for me, I discover a different kind of beauty at ground level.
For two days, I gently turn page after page of historical records, 80-year-old monthly reports, and photographs printed on paper handled decades ago by the park rangers who toured the caves years before the installation of elevators. Handwritten notes and carbon-imprinted triplicates interspersed with pictures taken with or by Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s first superintendent, Thomas Boles, unfold into a treasure trove of history. Tucked inside a plain row of filing cabinets, I uncover these historic treasures the same way the Guadalupe Mountains hide the subterranean geologic gems of the Southwest’s caverns. The fastidious compilation of words and images gathered and saved by the guardians of the national park service over the past century mirrors the laborious drip, drip, drip of water depositing and sculpting the stalagmites over hundreds of thousands of years. I see beauty in both.