Death in the Desert: Dispatches from Carlsbad Cavern

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Editor’s Note: Recently we teamed up with Precipitate to find new ways to share our journals’ unique take on place-based writing. Below you’ll find our first effort: blog swapping. Visit the Precipitate blog for a piece by Terrain.org contributor Megan Kimble. You’ll find more provocative writing and art there, too.

by Fred MacVaugh

It’s black, so black, in fact, you think of tar and oil. You see nothing, neither people nor light, for there is no light, not anywhere. Maybe you think of nights without moon and stars and luminous watches. Maybe you think of nothing at all. You can’t even see your hand waving mere millimeters in front of your face; if anything, you think you see a ghost-colored shadow. Even your breathing is indistinct, shallow and drowned out by a remnant static ringing in your ears. Is this the sound of deafness? you wonder. The residual roar of the Big Bang reverberating through eighty stories of limestone? What you’re hearing is blood sluicing through cave-dark capillaries. Ears hear everything. Every unexpected calcite-heavy plop and splatter of water on surrounding rock. You know what you can’t see: this rubble fell from high above your head.

That’s what it’s like when the lights are off on the King’s Palace tour at Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico. You see what this cave was like before visitors, paths, and lights. Walk into Carlsbad Cavern by way of the Natural Entrance, the same route visitors since the 1920s have descended, and you too may sense a cave-kindled fear like cowhand James Larkin White. He first neared and peered into the pit-like entrance in 1901. The bats funneling by the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, into New Mexico’s cloud-spackled sky appeared from a distance like smoke. And he chose to check.

Much has changed since then. In October 1923, President Calvin Coolidge set aside 719.22 acres of cactus-covered sea-reef remnant above the Bat Cave, as it was locally known. The next year, geologist Willis T. Lee changed the name of King’s Palace to Shinav’s Wigwam and proposed blasting a tunnel into the cavern to allow tourists to drive their Model-T Fords, headlights blazing, around the Big Room. In size and extent, Lee compared it to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station.

In human terms, such was the beginning of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Boosters foresaw tourists and business opportunity. Publicity surged and photographs circulated: Groups of twenty or a hundred tourists stilled in black-and-white and dwarfed in space and stalagmites. Word spread worldwide and visitors arrived by the thousands and marked their passage on cavern walls. They drank water from cave pools and trampled fragile rimstone. They scrambled over speleothems and pocketed cave pearls. What water, limestone, and age built a single plop at a time over thousands of years they shattered to smuggle home small samples. They left their money behind.

The consequences haven’t changed in eighty years despite lights and trails and handrails. Little, if any, rock has fallen and superlatives still fall flat as clichés. Stalactites, fewer now in number, cling to the ceiling like caramel-colored icicles. Some are thick as tree trunks. On the floor stand thirty-, forty-, and fifty-foot-tall stalagmites as ribbed as tree bark and wide around as hundred-year-old cottonwoods or young sequoia. There are columns, too, and draperies, helictites, and popcorn formations adorning the cavern walls. Paper-thin, hollow formations called soda straws, meanwhile, drip rainwater trickled down from the desert onto stalagmites, visitors, the cavern floor.

Lee wanted to name King’s Palace Shinav’s Wigwam (after a mythical Navajo deity) to commemorate the Southwest’s native inhabitants. Locals and visitors favored King’s Palace. The chamber was that elaborate, the image common enough and well understood. King’s Palace was a place people could imagine. Shinav’s sounded Chinese, one 1920s tourist said, and conveyed no meaning, no wonder.

Join the crowds on the trail into and through the cave today, and you hear Carlsbad Cavern is dying. Formations have ceased to grow. Park Service houses and cars parked in the desert above pollute the groundwater. Parking lots channel rainwater elsewhere. Except for moments of pitch-pure blackness in King’s Palace, people complain they can’t even hear their own hearts, the silence.


Fred MacVaugh has worked in national parks, studied English and history, and published a poem or two. Currently, he writes a weekly blog, “Dispatches from a Wild Mind,” for Precipitate: Journal of the New Environmental Imagination

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