YUKON NEWS COLUMN — CARLSBAD
The life of desire is the only life we live.
The deepening blue of the New Mexico dusk enveloped the desert’s rolling hills and arroyos with their prickly pears and honey mesquite. The evening star glimmered just above the horizon.
The cavern opened below us like the maw of a huge fish — black and very big.
At first there was only a flicker, a “did-you-see-it” moment. Then there was another. They came floating upwards like brown leaves, before erupting from the maw in waves, circling, catching the updraft, and once they were a few feet above the earth, rushing into the gathering dusk towards the Pecos and Black River valleys.
It was the spectacular night flight of the Mexican Freetail bats at Carlsbad Cavern. Soon, the air was filled with a million bats swirling out of the cave like a tornado.
While the great river of them flowed over the hillside, many bats also whizzed past our heads.
These tiny creatures catch hundreds of insects on the wing. If you ate, body weight for body weight, as much as a bat, you’d consume 50 pizzas every night.
In 1898 a 16-year-old ranch hand who’d worked the range since he was 10, was riding nearby when the flight erupted. Seeing that many bats, he speculated the cave where they lived must have been really big.
He had no idea. Carlsbad Cavern is part of what might be the largest, most complicated cave region in the world.
Enthused, he rode back to camp and told the other ranch hands, yet no-one was interested in exploring it. Cattle punching was a brutal task, and scary enough.
So he gathered up a coal-oil lamp, a rope, and an axe. Returning some time later, he made a rope ladder and descended into the cave. His ladder was too short, and he had to ‘human-fly’ the last twenty feet of rock face.
Not only did he find the enormous bat cave, but a rocky route that led into North America’s great geological miracle. Here, he encountered stalagmites squat and fat like enormous seated giants, fairy lands of rock, enormous liquid-looking tapestries, stone lilly pads, ‘bottomless’ pits. There were chambers bigger than football fields dripping with stalactites.
He broke off chunks of stalactites and set them on the ground like spent arrows pointing the way back, before clambering further down into wonderland.
Then his lamp ran out of fuel.
He panicked, smashing his head in the blackness before spilling his backup container of oil into the lamp, splashing most into the ground. The enormity of what he had encountered suddenly terrified him, and he scrambled back to the surface.
If he had overrun one of his markers he’d probably never have seen the sun again.
When he described the cave to his fellow ranch hands they still weren’t interested. But he became obsessed. He met a Mexican kid back at the ranch and this nameless boy, known only today as ‘The Kid’ was the only one with the interest and guts to explore the cave.
Together, more prepared, they began mapping it out. They had many adventures, including his catching himself on fire with lantern oil deep in the cavern, a fire the quick-witted Kid snuffed out.
Over the years, Jim White never lost his obsession with the caverns. He was not the first to discover them. He encountered the bones of a few Native men who’d never made their way out. He even discovered what he claimed was a giant — bones so ancient they’d crusted with calcium and become enormous, though these bones have never been rediscovered.
His bond with the cave was a lifelong project. When it was mined for bat guano fertilizer, he became the foreman. He used the guano bucket for tours, guiding fearless women and hundreds of others into the depths. He built stairs and ramps. He brought in photographers. He wrote to government officials.
Finally, the world grew aware of White’s obsession and the land was declared a park in 1930. He became its Ranger.
Now there are elevators and paved paths with guard rails to keep visitors away from the delicate formations. These were installed because it’s been estimated over 18,000 stalactites had been broken off by souvenir seekers during an 8 year period alone.
.The bats are also protected and access to their cave is forbidden. No-one is allowed to disturb their night flight and astonishing return at dawn,when they fold up their wings and plummet 100s of feet into the bat-cave like guided missiles.
You can still wander alone through miles of marked pathway. The more delicate or dangerous caverns have guides.
Unfortunately, the guided tour we took was an embarrassment, the Ranger offering an infantile ‘junior scientist’ approach that treated everyone as if they were kindergarten students. We had to sit and listen interminably to her telling us what was in the brochure we had in our hands; then were rushed through the interesting parts of the cavern before having to stop and endure more silly lectures.
While tours should interest children, it seems to be the policy of the American National Park Service to treat everyone like children.
It was embarrassing stuff, and a far cry from Jim White’s tall tales and far-fetched adventures that mostly proved to be true.
Out of necessity, because of the number of visitors (750,000 a year), the cave has been tamed. Still, the experience is marvellous. I waited all my life to see it and was not disappointed until I encountered the guide.
So the world changes. Everything is always different That’s also part of life’s magic.
Jim White is long dead now, but I suspect there’s more than a few like him walking among us today, gazing into scary holes and wondering what’s down there — filled with some strange wanting.
Human history is merely a history of the outcome of human desire.