Like the Grand Canyon, the Guadalupe Mountain range (a.k.a. “The Guads”) of southwestern New Mexico and West Texas is a land of extremely complex fractal dimensionality. Not only are there canyons and side canyons slicing and branching through the thick limestone of the ancient Capitán Reef, there are also caves galore. Huge and labyrinthian caves. Caves whose yawning channels wend and bifurcate and plunge and then climb again for hundreds of hidden miles.
Acid From Hell
Indeed, nothing I’d encountered during my short caving career could prepare me for the scale of the caverns I would see in The Guads last weekend. Up to this point, I’d only laid eyes on relatively tight chambers carved out by molten lava, carbonic acid or just plain water.
But things are different in these parts. where many caves (including the renowned Lechuguilla and Carlsbad Caverns) are hewn out by the hideous dissolving power of sulferic acid — a digestive byproduct of oil-munching microbes flourishing deep below the Earth’s surface in what would to us constitute the very pits of hell.
As you might expect, a stronger acid is able to eat away greater quantities of stone, thereby leaving much larger passages behind. There is a room in the National Park show cave — aptly titled “The Big Room” — that boasts over eight acres of floor space. It’s the most voluminous such room in North America. While not quite this huge, the permit-only caves we entered were still positively gargantuan.
Nature Outdoes Itself Again
It’s funny, in the days leading up to a trip to a new outdoorsy destination, I often have a fleeting anxiety that I’ll somehow be disappointed. The more hype swirling around a given locale, the worse the feeling is too. Yosemite, Zion — you name it — I’ve worried I’d be let down by all of them.
Without fail, though, nature prevails over such pessimistic inklings. I always end up getting bowled over by the grandeur of these places. I always end up walking away wiser in some way — more aware of my position and status in the cosmos. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is certainly no exception.
As I’ve said before, there are infinite things you could say about a cave. There are probably infinite revelations that could be induced by a cave as well. Here are three of the latter for now — one revelation for each one we went into.
Three Caves, Three Revelations
1.) Lake Cave: This was the only horizontal cave we entered, meaning we didn’t need ropes and ascending/descending gear for access — just strong legs for hiking over rather formidable terrain. Here it was the acoustic resonance that really left an impression on me. Each footfall and each word spoken echoed for a good eight seconds in there, and thinking of the silence reverberating antiphonally against itself in our absence was like puzzling over a Zen koan. What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is the sound of an empty hole in the ground? What is the view from inside a mirror sphere?
2.) Wen Cave: Once you complete a fun fifty-foot drop through a narrow fissure, you’re in a forest of cave columns. After Lake, this is the second cave we went into; somehow the feel of it was totally different — more compact, zero reverb. My revelation in Wen was the mystery of how the same basic materials — space, water and stone — can assemble in such different ways? How is it that simplicity leads to complexity?
3.) Christmas Tree Cave: This one kicks off with a shorter drop than Wen, but once you’re down, you can go for a quite a ways. Maybe a little over halfway, we were stopped in our tracks by the multitude of towering speleothems leaping from the cave floor like petrified splashes. We gasped in unison, then burst into uncontrollable (though quiet!) laughter. Subaqueous cave clouds a little further in evince a bygone era when a lake filled much of Christmas Tree’s volume. “We are watching it happen,” Mag reminded me. It’s tempting to think the work’s all been done for a long, long time. The reality is, however, that the labor construction and deconstruction is never done.