Going deep inside – Perspective 3

Carlsbad Caverns - "Curtains"

These “drapery” formations evoke a whale’s mouth.

Recently, I’ve considered perspective from high up in a hot air balloon and up close at Cadillac Ranch. I also had a chance to go deep with a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

I’ve been in caves before, but always in the company of others. I toured the massive spaces of Carlsbad Caverns on my own.

I walked to the Big Room (rather than take the elevator) via the Natural Entrance Trail, a steep descent of 1 1/4 mile that takes approximately an hour. I’d never been so deep under the earth’s surface. What would it smell like? Feel like? Sound like? Would I be afraid to be nearly 800 feet under the earth’s surface?

Carlsbad Caverns - Stelagtites

Stalactites connect to stalagmites and eventually form pillars.

With conscious dawdling, I let other visitors overtake and pass me on the trail, leaving me to soak in the experience alone.

The trail was dimly lit and impressive formations enjoyed greater lighting, but there were points where the space was darker. I found those places, stood still, closed my eyes and waited, exploring sensory input as it reached me.

Underground, no traffic, wind, or animal sounds penetrate. Would I be able to hear anything? I stilled the noise in my head and waited. Eventually, there it was, the sound of a water drop plinking into a pool. Not often, not regularly, but there.

Eyes closed, I soaked in total blackness. No street lights, no car lights, no sun, no moon. Impenetrable black. After a few minutes, still turned toward the darkest place in the cave, I opened my eyes. I could barely make out the black pool where the water drops fell. That was with the faintest trail light bleeding in. I wonder what else there was in the darkest places my eyes could not reach?

"Popcorn" created fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

“Popcorn” forms fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

Temperatures in the cave are a constant 56 degrees year around. At one point, I turned to look back up the trail and felt a breeze against my face. As I considered why they might be ventilating the cave, I happened upon a trail sign. As it turns out I’d come upon the one spot in the cave where a natural draft from the surface finds its way deep underground. I chuckled.

After an hour and a quarter on the trail, when I finally reached the Big Room, I had a passing thought that I’d seen all I needed to see. Could there really be enough to hold my interest? Oh, my, yes. The name ‘Big Room’ understates the treasures of a cavern the size of six football fields – a cavern large enough to house Notre Dame Cathedral.

Carlsbad Caverns - Pillars

Pillars as tall as Notre Dame Cathedral reached the top of the Big Room.

Walking the trails that wound through the Big Room took another hour. Along the way, I saw formations that were whimsical, naughty, majestic. reminiscent of Broadway shows and Biblical stories.

Rather than fear, I felt awe. These caves have been forming for hundreds of thousands of years. Some of the formations are still growing. Long before people existed. Long after people are gone. These caverns were, are, and will be.

Touring Carlsbad Caverns reminded me of the work memoir writers do as we dig deep in the experiences of our lives and try to make sense of it all. Memoir writers who do the hard work go into the dark places and discover unexpected treasures. The experience may make them laugh or cry. It may be irreverent or holy. But in doing so, the writer learns some of the truth of her life. With luck, she then writes a story that conveys that truth to the reader.

Comments

  1. I find caves to be unusual, slightly uncomfortable environments… the dank stillness unsettles me a little. I remember going to the Ailwee Caves in the Burren, in Co Clare. The guide told us how to remember the difference between stalagmites and stalactites. ‘The tights come down,’ he said. It worked, I’ve never forgotten. Words of wisdom indeed…

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      That’s funny, David. Who knows where we’ll find wisdom? Your point about caves being slightly uncomfortable often applies to memoir writing as well.

  2. Carol, this was beautiful. I love the metaphor you have created with your exploration. Diane

  3. Elfrieda Schroeder says:

    For too long I have been fearful of entering that cave of memoir writing. I’m not sure why. One has to go alone and one has to be willing to meet unexpected things. I need to enter into the darkness and find the treasures! Thanks for this reminder.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      Delving into the unknown can be scary, Elfrieda, for lots of reasons. I will share the advice author Barbara Robinette Moss (Change me into Zeus’s Daughter) gave me when I was starting the memoir journey: “Be brave and mighty forces will come to your aid.” I found the mighty forces on my journey included my writing partners, workshop instructors, and family. I trust you will find such mighty forces ready to help as you enter the memoir cave.

  4. Thank you a pleasant read on Carlsbad Canyon. Six football field room! I now have to visit them on vacation.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      In a world where the word ‘amazing’ is overused, these caves deserve the designation. And they haven’t even explored all of them yet.

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