There’s a radical transformation that takes place in the minds of those who descend into the caves of southeast New Mexico’s Guadalupe Mountains. And while this transformation must be an internal one, it feels external somehow anyway — as if the landscape were changing before your very eyes.
Beneath The Surface
Once upon a time, the surface was all that mattered. Lechuguilla and yucca. Juniper, wild grasses and sage. Rolling hills up high giving way to deep-cut valleys, cliffs and broad washes lower down. Beneath, we assume the crust to be solid and uniform. A hulking blankness that almost never encroaches upon our conscious thought.
But then the Earth everts. It turns inside out, swapping foreground for background. All it takes to induce this Gestalt shift are a couple trips underground and a little bit of reading on the history of the Capitán Reef — the 270 million-year-old mass of defunct sea creatures that caving fanatics call the High Guads.
In early spring, I got my first glimpse of the permit caves in Slaughter Canyon, whose gaping mouth opens to the great and petroleum-rich Permian Basin to the south. On several occasions, I was reduced to hysterics by the size of the voids we traversed and by the ungodly forms exploding from the floors, walls and ceilings.
Impossible as it may seem, however, this was merely a foretaste of the geological ecstasy that would come upon me in early June, when a few members of the Sandia Grotto were kind enough to have me along for excursions deeper into the mountains, into Virgin and Pink Panther caves.*
As with other religious or otherwise mystical experiences, words slide off the majesty of my first forays into these places. Even memory is like tarnish on the pure gold of the being down there. Nevertheless, like San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa de Ávila, I can’t help but try to convey something of the sublimity I encountered.
The closest analogs I can think of are certain edifices I visited in Spain several years ago as a college student. Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia cathedral and Granada’s La Alhambra palace complex spring most readily to mind. The former for its organic morphologies and voluminous interior; the latter for the ornate plaster tiles tessellated over every surface. Yet even these architectural masterpieces didn’t touch me in the way the buried naves, transepts and apses of the High Guads have.
Sure, La Sagrada Familia and La Alhambra are impressive feats of our species’ will and ingenuity. But they are localized cultural anomalies, and their origins and meaning are hardly mysterious.
Pink Panther and Virgin, on the other hand, are just two of hundreds of similar caverns lurking darkly in the mountains outside of Carlsbad. Now when I’m hiking around up top, I feel the hollowness beneath my feet, and each footfall seems to ring.
Furthermore, these caves have left me with far more questions than answers. When did the bear curl up and die down in the belly of Pink Panther? How long have its bones slumbered there? What conditions could have given rise to the jungle of helictites and soda straws found in the Speleogasm Chamber**? How long did the gnarl of flowing draperies in Virgin take to form?
A Kick In The Head
This is the crux of the internal/external transformation I mentioned at the outset — the reason why the ground in the Guads has transfigured, becoming nothing short of hallowed ground: Like a kick in the head, caving here has shown me that at any given point in spacetime, a great deal more is hidden than revealed. You cannot see the caves of the Guads from the surface, but they are there, and this stirs something within me that’s deeper than even the crevices between the cells of which I am made.
You’d think seeing more and doing more would make you feel like you’d expanded the event horizon of your knowledge. Instead, quite the opposite happens. Rather than feeling the galaxy shrink after venturing into Virgin and Pink Panther, I felt it sprout yet another dimension. The texture of reality has become rougher. The surface area of reality has erupted and expanded a billion trillion-fold.
It seems the lotus will unfurl ad infinitum. So too the blossoming of my ignorance.
- Caving In The Guadalupes, Part 1: Wen, Christmas Tree And Lake Caves (Farther Still)
- Piles Of Dead Bodies (Farther Still)
- Exploring The Grand Canyon’s Fractal Dimensions (Farther Still)
*Apparently cavers are as awful as climbers are at choosing names.
(Today’s images are courtesy of Mag Kim.)