lost, for a little while

destination: carlsbad caverns
May 29, 2011, 3:13 pm
Filed under: trips

Uptown, midtown, downtown White's City

The senior citizens were getting restless.

It was 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I was sitting at a picnic table in front of the gift shop in White’s City, New Mexico, flipping through my guide to the National Parks and keeping a close eye on my laptop. I’d stashed it behind one of the horses on the kiddie’s merry-go-round (quarters required) as I illicitly charged it up using one of the open outlets on the outside of the building. For the third time in an hour, an elderly couple approached me and asked if the shop was open, and I had to tell them that, like everything else in White’s City, it was closed for the day.

“We’re here with a tour group, and the restaurant isn’t ready for us,” the woman told me.

The ‘restaurant’ was one of the few things on the street — other than the two hotels — that didn’t lock its doors the second the clock hit 5. I chatted with them about their tour; they’d stopped in Nashville and were going on to Las Vegas from here. As we talked, I saw other white-haired couples shuffling around the street, peering into darkened shop windows and stopping to comment on the parked car with the Michigan license plate.

The fact that the retirees were bored confirmed my suspicion that White’s City, the strip of land outside the entrance to New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns, was a less-than-ideal place to spend your vacation.

Sundown above ground

The afternoon before, I’d pulled into town after a panicked twenty-minutes driving through the desert with the gas gauge on zero and no sign of life for miles. The gift shop not only provided park brochures and sold tickets for ranger-led tours, but it was also the place to go for camping reservations. The man behind the counter told me that the campgrounds were not too far down the street (just like everything else in White’s City), had hot showers and free wi-fi, and cost $20 a night. I inwardly scoffed at the idea of shelling out a twenty for the honor of setting up my tent on a gravelly patch of dirt amongst gigantor RVs and trailers, and politely told him I’d think about it.

After a disappointing turn-out at the nightly Bat Flight (it was still early in the season), but a lovely sunset, I drove my car out of the park and back down to the strip. It was dark now, and I decided to try covertly parking the Blueberry next to one of the other cars at the campground and grabbing some sleep in the backseat.

Here’s the thing about driving a bright-blue SUV: it’s hard to go unnoticed, even at night.

Less than ten minutes after I’d finished an elaborate setup to block the windows, which involved a picnic blanket and my towel, I heard a knocking on the outside of my car. I froze, hoping they would just go away. More knocking, harder this time. I crouched down behind my luggage as a grumpy-looking man walked around my car, trying to peer in through the windows. I heard the sound of the car behind me unlocking and a door opening. I snuck a peak out the back window and saw him rummaging in his car for something. A phone to call the camp registration people? A gun to kill me for encroaching on his idyllic patch of paradise?

I didn’t want to wait and find out. I tumbled into the front seat, shoved the key into the ignition, and drove toward the exit, keeping my headlights off and going faster over the gravel than was good for the undercarriage of the car. I wasn’t afraid of getting in trouble, just getting caught. What would I say? “Hi, I’m too cheap to camp, mind sharing?”

I made it to the restaurant parking lot, and sat there for a few minutes, waiting for my heartbeat to slow down. Since a few cabins for rent surrounded the lot, there were half a dozen cars still parked there, and I once again set up my ‘camp.’ This time, I fell asleep, undisturbed.

Candlelit lantern tour

The Asian couple in my tour group the next morning didn’t seem to grasp the concept of “no photos,” and the man’s flash punctuated each point the ranger made as we walked down the path of the Lefthand Tunnel. Pictures were meant to be saved for the walk back so we could experience the full effect of the candle lanterns we each held, but I think something got lost in translation.

Our guide, Ranger Mike, talked about early exploration of the caves as we walked along the narrow path, which was lit solely by the glow of the lanterns — an attempt to recreate how it would have been for the historic cavers. Though not as strenuous or technical as some of the other ranger-lead tours offered, I loved the two-hour walk out and back through the tunnel. Information about the geology of the area, as well as the creatures that live in the caves, was included along with stories about Jim White, the man credited as the first explorer of the caves. At only $7, it’s a great way to see more of the caves that would otherwise be off-limits to the public.

In the Big Room

The Big Room is the area open to the public for wandering without the guide of a park ranger. “Big” is an understatement; it takes well over an hour to explore the whole thing — even longer if you take your time and stop for pictures. I found myself stopping frequently just to arch my head back as far as possible in an attempt to see everything.

Visitors can access the Big Room purchasing a general admission ticket ($6 for adults, free for America the Beautiful passholders — a.k.a. me!) and then taking the elevators down the 79-story descent from the surface, or by walking down the switchback path at the Bat Cave, which leads you through other areas you might miss by only taking the elevator. I did both, and by the end of the day, I think the rangers in the elevators recognized me on sight.

Unless you do several of the ranger-led tours (some can last up to four hours), you can experience most of Carlsbad Caverns in a day. I spread it out over a day in a half because I needed to take my time getting to the next destination, but any more nights sleeping in my car and sitting around White’s City would have driven me crazy from boredom.

When I talked with friends living in New Mexico and Colorado, a surprising number had never visited the caves. Whether it’s because caves are less glamorous than topside natural attractions or because no one wants to get stuck staying in White’s City, I’m not sure, but I’m glad I included it on my route. It’s easy to forget that there’s sometimes a whole different world going on beneath our feet, one that is much cooler than what we can see.

Let’s compare.


White's City


Carlsbad Caverns

Close, but I’m gonna give this one to the caves.


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