We finished up our time in Fort Davis with two activities – an afternoon drive in The Beast through the nearest other towns, and an evening at the McDonald Observatory – before turning our sights north to Carlsbad Caverns.
Not that you would immediately think of it as being noteworthy, but our drive time on the last day gave us a chance to listen to the local radio station in the area – NPR – which actually had a really interesting selection of interviews, including one of Lyme Disease, which Loops and I particularly enjoyed given the fact this was prevalent when we hiked the AT. The radio kept us entertained as we drove through the nothingness of the desert to reach the two nearest towns – Marfa and Alpine.
Marfa has found particular fame for the mysterious lights which appear outside of the town on random occasions in the desert. There is a pull-off with a rather nice podium overlook where you can come in the evening and watch for the moving coloured lights and try and work out what on earth they may be. Loops and I opt not to do this, primarily because you never when the lights will turn up, resulting in a pretty expensive detour for us in the bus. However, we popped in to the overlook just to check it out and I was particularly impressed to find that they had a number of informational signs telling you not only about the lights, but about the local history of the area, desert type and plants found there.
The town of Marfa itself warranted a simple drive through and out the other side. From what we could see, there really wasn’t anything worth stopping The Beast for at all. However, the town of Alpine is a different story entirely.
Alpine has a rather nice main street in the town which has numerous artisan and craft stores that really are worth a wander through. I spent a happy couple of hours just looking at all of the local art, jewellery and craft items and wishing I had a house and not a bus to live in.
The two best parts of the town though are Front Street Bookstore and The Saddle Club.
For a tiny town pretty much in the middle of nowhere, they are blessed to have one of the best small independent bookstores I have ever been in. There is an excellent selection of both up-to-date brand new titles and used books, as well as a selection of things like cards and blank journals etc. I was super excited to give them my business when I stumbled upon a used copy of a much searched for, second book of a series that I started back in December, when we were in Florida. I was both surprised and incredibly happy with my find, here in the middle of the Texas desert of all places! If you find that you have a particular itch to buy a book, and in particular if you want to find out about Texas history, desert ecology or local area stories, please do consider popping over to their website to browse and buy – http://www.fsbooks.com/index.php
We asked for a lunch recommendation from the lady in the shop and she pointed us over to The Saddle Club, and with a knowing nod advised us to try the ‘Epic Fries’ for which the club is known for. Well, we are all about trying the local delicacies, and I can vouch that the fries were indeed Epic, and then some. You may very well baulk at the $14 price tag (I mean they are fries for goodness sake), but a single portion was enough for Loops and I to both feel full for lunch and a good few hours afterwards. The beer battered fries come smothered in cheese, with pieces of mouth-watering BBQ brisket, bacon, house made queso, roasted red pepper aioli and green chili sauce.
It’s almost worth the drive into Texas and over to Alpine just for these fries.
For our final evening Loops has booked us tickets to the ‘Star Party’ taking place at the McDonald Observatory, a research unit of the University of Texas, located up a very long and twisty road high above Fort Davis; you can actually see the dome of the observatory from several miles away. They have 3 large telescopes housed in little domes and then a couple smaller portable ones.
I’m excited about the event because at home we have a local planetarium, where on Saturday evenings you can often find me and my best buddy AJ sitting in the main dome listening to the to the excellent commentary by our very own astrophysicist, Alex, and learning about the constellations, planets and discovering what our galaxy looks like from the very edge of space. I miss our talks there very much and so this gives me a little feeling of home and my best friend.
What I didn’t expect, probably because I didn’t book it and therefore read the information about it, was for the star gazing to be outside (I know that makes me sound like a complete moron, but I was actually thinking it would be an indoor planetarium like ours at home). Therefore I dressed a little on the light side with just my hoodie and felt a bit worried when people started turning up with blankets and pillows to sit on – these were obviously seasoned visitors!
You are led outside to an amphitheater where a chap, who sounds just like the actor Owen Wilson by the way, points out constellations in the sky with his green laser pointer. While this is an out-of-the-ordinary experience in general and therefore pretty neat, the best bit is at the end when you get to go off to the five or six telescopes they have set up in the grounds to look close-up at cool things in the sky. We viewed several zoomed-in shots of the moon (and the man there did confirm to me that the moon landings are real and that technically the stuff left behind on the moon can be seen by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter), we saw a nebula, a star cluster and Jupiter and four of its satellites (moons). The observatory is certainly a good experience if you are staying locally and want a unique evening out.
The following day we pack up and on our way out of Texas and into New Mexico; heading to Carlsbad, nearest town to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Loops has set our travel route to take us up Highway 17 and past the Balmorhea State Park, mostly because my whinging this time has had some effect – I want to go and swim in the San Solomon Spring they have on site, around which they have constructed a type of natural swimming pool. Part of the pool is shallow enough to walk in, where they have provided a concrete floor, but very quickly tails off into natural rock and water that drops to a depth of 25 feet, where scuba divers come to practice their skills.
We pull the bus in and I go and take a dip in the pool, which seems cold when you get in (apparently a constant temperature of 72-76oF) and then warm when you get out. The sun is scorching, so it is pleasant experience paddling about in the water. Plenty of families are out and enjoying the pool, with some adventurous kids swimming the full length of the pool over the deeper darker depths, and then some even scared to get in the water. Loops and I watch one father try to coax his crying son of about 4 years into the shallows, but the boy is scared witless of the small fish swimming in the natural spring, he thinks they are going to bite him! His younger sister though seems to require no such convincing and keeps trying to leap into the water. The father seem to have much more success getting her to swim and even tries showing her how to wear a snorkel and mask to see the fish; she’s a little too young though to grasp the concept and just keeps dunking her head without the breathing tube and then emerges spluttering.
This is to be the last pretty thing we see all day.
I will tell you now, if you have the choice of leaving Texas via a route other than Highway 285, take it. Saying that, we did finally locate some Texan oil fields!
The whole road and its landscape was downright ugly, nothing endearing about them at all. This here is practical working oilfield country. We’re talking a dry, dusty, barren wasteland. Well, except for the trucks, cranes and see-sawing derricks along the way. In some cases you can hardly see what is on or off the road, for all of the little dust devil swirling tornados that sweep up into the air. This is also quite simply a shitty piece of road to drive along, with pot holes and juddering tarmac all along its length until you hit the New Mexico border.
We’ve been granted a couple days stay at the Elks lodge in Carlsbad, and for some reason I’m quite tickled to find the Exalted Ruler (yes, that’s his real title) is a stocky, rough, tough looking gentleman with a ponytail. For some reason I always have in my imagination these head of the clubs are going to be really stiff upper lip types in suits, but this chap is as salt of the earth as you get, very helpful and friendly to boot, welcoming us to ‘our patch of dirt’, as he affectionately calls Carlsbad.
On his recommendation we check out the Dragon China Buffet for dinner, Loops always being skeptical about anything ‘buffet style’, but I thought the food was excellent. They had a huge range of items to try; personally I thought the Sesame Chicken and Peanut Butter Chicken were top notch. The only thing I didn’t enjoy was the very dry Teriyaki Chicken which was a shame, but everything else made up for it.
So, on to the main event – Carlsbad Caverns!
My desire to visit the caverns, I have to admit, mostly stems from a book series I’ve read several times by the author Justin Cronin. The books (starting with The Passage) are a post-apocalyptic tale of the human race being infected with a deadly virus and the small bands of people who survive. A large part of the series is based around Texas, with a few particular scenes within Carlsbad Caverns itself, so I felt I had to get a real-life glimpse of the caves so that the next time I read the books, I can really visualise the action!
The caverns, as with everything in the desert (yes, we still haven’t left the desert), is out in the middle of nowhere. On the drive into the park I suddenly realise that we are probably driving over what is effectively a large sink hole beneath us where people are at that moment walking.
I like to think about these things.
I will tell you that the first thing that impresses me about Carlsbad Caverns is the fact that you don’t require a guide to enter the caves. The two other sites Loops and I have visited underground – Luray Caverns and Mammoth Caves – both require you to pay for a guided tour, without this, you stay above ground. While guided paying tours are an option here at Carlsbad to visit certain extra caves, you by no means have to and can still have an excellent experience going into the Big Room chamber on your own for $10.
Loops and I did opt for the $5 handheld audio guide; it gives you additional information about the history of the cavern and extra details about the formations you are looking at, which I believe enhances the experience and I’m glad we had it.
So after signing up and getting our walkie-talkie thing, we head over towards the caves. Well, first, we had to get past the small and slight, but very determined NPS staff member giving her spiel about the rules in the cavern (no loud noises, no food, pee before you go in). No lie, she almost tackled this big and brawny chap to the ground when he tried to elbow past her to the door, not realizing he had to listen to her talk first. He was rather embarrassed and she, rather flustered.
You enter the cavern via the imaginatively named ‘Natural Entrance’, which is basically a massive hole. That might sound silly and obvious, but the other entrances to caves we’ve seen have always been fairly small and well hidden.
This entrance is not.
It’s a gargantuan, gaping hole in the earth, pitch black and ready to swallow you whole. Not that you really consider that until about half way down the path, when you start to feel the chill of the cave creep up your trousers and needle its way inside your coat, and suddenly the air around you becomes condensed and you notice the light fading slowly, but perceptively away. Then poof! You’re in total darkness in a cave.
While the caverns are lit, in some areas the light is barely enough to stumble along by, which in my opinion adds to the excitement and thrill of the experience; but if you are unsteady on your feet, I’d suggest maybe a small torch (those are allowed as long as you are sensible with them). Loops occasionally used the light on his phone to illuminate areas that were pitch black, which was an excellent idea because you actually end up walking past things in the dark that you have no idea are there until voila! The light hits them and you are suddenly amazed by how much you have missed.
The caverns are busy with people, but you will find that the crowds have a tendency to appear in bubbles. This means that if you have annoying, loud people coming up behind you, you can step aside, wait for them to disappear and carry on. This is the advantage of not having to be in a guided group. You don’t have to be around other people and you can move along as fast or as slow as you wish – Loops and I spent a total of four hours in the caverns.
I am now going to proclaim Carlsbad Caverns to be the best of the 3 underground cave experiences we’ve had so far. For not only do you get to move at your own pace, have a nice walkie-talkie thing and enter through a really impressive hole, but the actual size and scope of the site is amazing.
In total there are apparently 119 limestone caves that make up the caverns, but the section the self-guided tour covers is called the Big Room. The room is a 1.25 mile circular walk but in reality covers over 8 acres in space making it, by volume, the largest single cave chamber in North America. As you explore, each ach area within the Big Room is different, there are a wide variety of formations and this prevents the experience getting stale quickly. There are not only the usual stalagmites and stalactites but tiny, thin popsicle straws, draperies that look like the baleen in a whale’s mouth, formations that look like willow trees and whole forests and others that are reminiscent of waterfalls.
At the end of our excursion, we don’t have to face the climb back out of the cavern, the park have handily installed a lift; it runs up through the rock and back into the visitor centre, delivering you right next to the gift shop.
I feel invigorated by our underground trip. It really felt like an exploration beneath the earth. And really I’m very happy to think that actually, I have enjoyed and experienced everything that I would want to from a cavern adventure. I don’t really feel that I need to visit any more, others might just now be a letdown and I wouldn’t want that.
Best of all though, I now have a perfect picture in my mind for the next time I read my book!