Carlsbad Caverns: Area 51; Cool Caves; West Texas Thanksgiving

In the morning, Jean and I hiked with Ben and Alex on a four mile trial up Guadalope Peak, Texas’ highest point at 8,749 ft. I walked with Ben, an Eagle Scout who took hiking as serious business, and Jean paired off with Alex, a talkative, limber-limbed dancer who didn’t so much hike as sashay up the mountain.

The climb brought amazing views, a brown sweep of land covered in morning fog. The ridgelines and hills shaped the fog’s sheet into rounded shapes like a body in bed. We passed a herd of desert mountain sheep scrambling up shear rock.

At the top, Ben scaled a commemorative, metal pyramid, stretching one hand into the air, making him, for a moment, the highest person in Texas.

When we got back down, we fried up some leftover venison then packed up our things and parted ways heading for our respective roads with the minstrels journeying south to Marfa, TX and Jeana and I going east to White’s City, NM and Carlsbad Caverns.

The road blessed us with a downhill.  For the last few miles into White’s City, I could see a black cloud mass gathering behind us. We managed to keep pace with the storm, biking just on the edge of the advancing rain. By the time we made it to White’s City, though, the storm had caught us. Huge gusts of wind tore through the tiny town, putting the trees on a slant and making biking impossible.

Jeana and I had wanted to camp at Carlsbad for the night but instead decided to get a room at the Roadway Inn and eat at a restaurant. During the opening weeks of the trip, I would have considered such  profligate behavior inexcusable, but this far down the road, all frugality had gone out the window. The occasional creature comfort improves a bike tour tenfold, and I’d come to appreciate any excuse for an indulgence, even rain.

Jeana and I were the only two people in the restaurant that afternoon. Over chicken fried steaks, we talked about childhood. Imaging Jeana as a kid, this grinning whirl of energy and affection, brought me endless amusement.

She talked about one Christmas were she had wanted a Hurly bike more than anything. When the day arrived, though, she didn’t see any bike-shaped package under the tree. After sulking her way through each gift until none were left, Jeana went off by herself to pout some more only to discover the bike of her dreams in the garage.

–I was such a brat!

All the childhood reminiscing put us in a playful mood. The restaurant lobby had an arcade with one of my old favorites, Area 51. We put five dollars in quarters into the machine and spent the whole afternoon killing aliens and saving the world. We beat the game, a first for me, and even got to put down our initials on the high score list.

Before calling it a day, we watched Their Will Be Blood on the motel room TV. The movie had been shot on location in Western Texas and featured the same landscape of mesquite and sage brush plains that we now biked through.

The next day, we got a ride from White’s City to the Carlsbad vistor center with a young family, sitting in the backseat with their months old baby. Jeana and I entered the caverns through the natural entrance on a steep trail.

As we dropped further into the cavern’s maw, the light dimmed, the temperature dropped and the air became earthy and heavy with moisture.

Caves are so cool! We’d seen a fair cross-section of above-ground natural wonders, but found the caverns a completely different experience. Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon all impress with their jaw-dropping scale, whereas the caverns’ awe comes from its intricacy and detail.

The cavern’s wide, ornate rooms looked like a subterranean Versailles complete with mineral installations, stalactite draperies, and reflecting pools that turned the cavern floor into a mirror world.

We saw many stalactites, stalagmites. Even though there is a whole subclass of pneumonic devices for remembering which ones grow from the ceiling and which ones originate from the floor, I will never be able to keep them straight. One thing’s for sure, though, they all take a long, long time to form. A ranger showed us a stalactite 65 years in the making; it was the size of his fingernail.

This slow growth makes the height and size of the big ones really impressive. We spent the morning walking around the Big Room, Carlsbad’s centerpiece attraction, taking in all of the columns and wedding cake features. One stalagmite looked like a cavemen, another a watchtower.

On our walk, we took note of how quiet the visitors were. Other natural parks make patrons loud and gushing as if they’re trying to match the grandeur of what they see with the volume of their voice. Carlsbad, though, made people very still, almost reverent, like they didn’t want to disturb the secrets of this Stygian palace. Such a complete silence allowed the senses to heighten to a degree that made every detail of the caverns a wonder. All around us, we could hear the trickling resonance of water, see the shadow play of dim light hitting the mineral towers- the whole time amazed at the artwork time and earth form in the dark.

After our morning stroll through the underworld, we got another ride back into town then resumed the occupation a good 40 miles into the town of Carlsbad. We thought about camping by a river but thought better of it and instead settled for the safety and luxury of another motel room.

Over the next week or so, Jeana and I marched on through West Texas. Not much to report from that time, just uneventful days with unremarkable scenery. The whole landscape was one flat pan of squat shrubs and nothing.

We passed fields of land oil rigs bobbing up and down in a sleepy nod and evangelical billboards with fire and brimstone warnings.

On the 24th in the one street town of Seminole, TX,  Jeana and I celebrated Thanksgiving. Because of Seminole’s remoteness, our meal preparations required some forethought. That morning in the town of Hobbs, we’d done some shopping at the regional Walmart superstore, picking up add-water versions of all the holiday staples: stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and of course, the centerpiece of every Turkey Day cornucopia, a rotisserie baked chicken. We loaded the victuals into our packs and then biked 30 miles to Seminole where we found lodging at the Raymond Inn.

Along the way, we stopped at St. James Catholic Church to mark the day with a prayer. After living a hectic and heathen lifestyle, I was glad for the opportunity to express some gratitude for the bike trip.

Though I’d had my share of low, faithless moments, I biked most days in blissed appreciation for this opportunity to travel and see. A few days before, my Grandpa had told me over the phone that he thought this bike trip was exactly what I needed to be doing. Sitting in the still, empty church with a patina of stain glass light resting on the pew rows, I knew he was right. I had never before felt such an alignment of desire and action as I had on this trip, a continuous feeling of movement and worthy progress, and for this I was very grateful.

In the motel, we spruced up and changed into whatever clean, presentable clothes we still owned. On a writing desk, we set up a makeshift kitchen and prepared the food with portable stoves and a microwave. After cooking, we put a spare bed sheet over the writing desk and set the table with plastic utensils and paper plates. We pushed the cork in on a bottle of value wine and feasted.

Once we’d stuffed ourselves beyond reason, we changed into loose fitting clothes and watched A Very Gaga Thanksgiving, possibly the weirdest holiday special ever aired.

I called my grandparent’s house back in Virginia, where the whole family had gathered. Because of my traveling ways, I’d missed a fair amount of the high American holidays and caught some expected grief for my third straight Thanksgiving away. For this one, I was missing out on two deep fried turkeys, a culinary wonder I had never dreamed possible. I promised to be home for Christmas.

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