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.

Can you believe your eyes?

Seeing something with your own eyes is proof. Right? At one time or another, most of us have said: “Seeing is believing.” or “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Drifts pile 20-30 feet high - ideal for sledding and snowboarding.

Drifts pile 20-30 feet high – ideal for sledding and snowboarding.

We’ve also said the opposite when reality goes against what we know or believe to be true – “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

I experienced a disconcerting disconnect between my eyes and brain when I visited White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Encompassing 275 acres of desert, White Sands is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.

Coming out of the snowy Midwest as I’d done, my brain was conditioned to to see white as snow. To expect cold. To be wary of ice.

Prefer to sled barefoot? Snowboard in shorts? Try White Sands.

Prefer to sled barefoot? Snowboard in shorts? Try White Sands.

As I drove further into the park, leaving vegetation behind, the 20-30-foot high drifts of white looked like snow. I grabbed a coat as I got out of my car only to remember it was 70 degrees out.

Graders cleared the roads, scraping away drifts of white, leaving packed white surfaces. I touched my brakes lightly lest I skid off the road at the next curve. I accelerated with great caution fearful my wheels would spin out.

White Sands National Monument - Silhouette

Reality is distorted in White Sands.

Visitors to the dunes did nothing to clarify. Barefoot kids in shorts played at winter sports, sledding and snowboarding off the steep dunes.

As a writer, I often draw on my own experiences for emotion and sense. My time at White Sands gave me a whole new well of disorientation from which to draw.

Even though I was in the park for five hours, I never did reconcile the reality of what was there with what my mind believed to be true.

I really could not believe my eyes.