On my recent trip to New Mexico, I had a free day, so I decided to do some exploring. I decided to head over to the Carlsbad Caverns, all alone. I had relished the thought of the coolness of the caves, after long days in the desert heat.
The drive there was beautiful, scenic and isolated. The road had many twists and turns through some large desert hills. The entrance to the caverns was a building set high on one of those hills, overlooking a vast nothingness of the Chihuahuan Desert.
I paid my $15 and was asked if I wanted to take the elevator down or go in through the natural entrance. Ignorantly, I decided to take the natural entrance. The park ranger directed me to an exit out of the building and told me to go down the path where another ranger would direct me to the way inside the cave.
I stepped outside, back into the sweltering heat and walked the path towards the natural entrance. I came to a shelter where a park ranger waited, and he took my ticket. He warned me that I should only take the natural entrance if I was in reasonably good physical shape. Me, not knowing anything about the trek down, asked him, “Well, how hard is it?” He replied, “Well, if you can handle the switchbacks at the beginning of the cave, it’s like that the whole way down. You can always come back and take the elevator if they’re too steep for you.”
Simple enough, I thought. So onward I went. I wish I had done my research beforehand.
I began my decent at the natural entrance. It was impressive! Photos can not do justice to the enormity of the size of this hole. I peered inside the cave. It was kind of scary, but I really wanted to go this way. It seemed exciting! I started to zig-zag my way down the switchbacks, and it didn’t seem all that bad. I decided I was going go all the way down to the bottom.
I started getting nervous as I descended. The cave was deep and dark. The hot desert sun gave way to the dim glow of the soft artificial lighting in the cave. It immediately got much cooler, a relief to my sun-parched skin. The paths were paved and thankfully had handrails because the drop over the side was seriously, even deadly, steep.
I continued down, down, down in zig-zag fashion. The sound of my shuffling feet echoed softly in the empty cave. I only stopped to take photos of the unique formations from time to time. I started to feel scared and alone. I was the only one in this cave, and it was spooky. What if I slipped and fell? What if some nefarious creature was stalking me? But I also felt adventurous and bold! A conqueror! But who in their right mind ventures into a deep cave in the middle of the desert, alone?
After 45 minutes of downward trekking my ankles and knees were hurting from the steep downward travel. My cancer meds make my legs hurt on level ground, so they were really aggravated by this point. The constant “putting on the brakes” was starting to wear on me. I was taking it easy and by now I could see the bottom of the cave come into view at a distance.
Suddenly, I heard some noise above me. I squinted in the dim light and could see a woman coming down the path far above me, quite rapidly. I marveled at how quickly she ventured to come down the path, given the steepness.
Eventually, she caught up to me and stopped to ask if I was okay, since she must have noticed how slowly I tread. I mentioned to her my condition was the reason for my slowness and then I told her I was impressed by how quickly she had come down the path. She laughed, “Oh, I used to work here.” And then she encouragingly offered me this advice: “You see that opening at the bottom of the cave down there?” I nodded and smiled. “When you reach that, you’ve made it halfway down.” “WHAT?!” I screamed internally. “Halfway???” Oh, my Lord, what did I get myself into? She wished me a good day and continued her rapid decent and disappeared into the darkness.
I figured there was no possible way I could make the climb back up, so I grit my teeth and resumed my sluggish downward pace. I had several hours to kill anyway, and just decided to enjoy my own company and the scenery. The silence of the gloomy cave, by now had become familiar and comforting.
At last I made it to the bottom of the current section I was in, aptly named the Devil’s Den, and the new section’s decent changed from a steep zigzag, to gently winding paths through caves with lower ceilings. Finally, after an hour and a half of total downward march, I made it to the bottom and into the main cave.
My knees and ankles ached brutally. I had almost decided to just stop and take the elevator back to the surface, but I chastised myself. “You didn’t just go through that incredible hike to quit here, did you?” I figured I could handle the additional walking, especially since I may never pass this way again. Seize the moment!
There were people everywhere in this part of the cave, all of whom had wisely chose the elevator down. This part was called the Big Room and was the main attraction, the grand finale. I’m glad I decided not to give up, because this section was beyond words. Immense, vast, hushed. A geological cathedral over 250’ high.
Thankfully, the Big Room had mostly level paths, and the cave was adorned with high, formation-laden ceilings. I meandered down the path, which ran around the cave in a giant circle. The majesty and enormity of the cave structures could not be captured by mere photos.
Exhausted, I finally completed the loop!
I am amazed at what I can achieve when I push myself, and I try to do so, often. When I finally took the elevator back up into the visitor center, and wandered through the displays, I discovered exactly what I had just achieved. I discovered that the natural opening route is equivalent to walking down a 75-story building! Had I known beforehand; I’d probably never have attempted it.
You know what? I’m glad I did it, and if I had to do it over, I would take the natural cave entrance again, for what an invigorating experience it was! An old friend once told me, and I would share this with you, you can do more than you think you can. Sometimes the long, hard road is the most rewarding one.