Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The New Mexico Story - Part 1

I'm back. It's been a whirlwind four days, packed with caves and ruins and dunes and car chases and rainbows and interminable waits at airports - in short everything that a long, glorious weekend should be. And since the whole point of all this travel is to blog about it afterwards, here goes:

Day 0

It's a five and a half hour flight from Newark to Albuquerque, an hour and a half of which is spent on the runway at Newark waiting for the 378 planes in line ahead of us to take off. I spend my time napping, reading Tacitus, and eavesdropping on the conversation of the people sitting in front of me, who are debating the relative merits of various European cities in matters of fashion (apparently, it's ok to buy a coat in Amsterdam, but only if you're a man; and of course, you absolutely have to go to Italy for shoes). The man on the right seems a little reluctant to add Albuquerque to the list of important centers of Western Fashion, but gives in when the woman in the middle points out that the city is a great place to get cowboy hats (old-style Stetsons being, for some reason, hard to get hold of in Dusseldorf), which, one infers, is the reason she chooses to reside in Albuquerque instead of in, say, Milan. The man on the left says he's always wanted to own a belt made out of rattlesnake skin. The woman launches into a story about how a friend of hers used to have one. I put in my earplugs. It's going to be a long flight.

Day 1

We (Z. and I) leave Albuquerque bright and early, our destination for the day being the Carlsbad Cavern National Park located in the extreme South-East of the state. It isn't long before we've left civilization (read: cities) behind and are driving through lonely desert country, arid plains of scrub and scraggly grass stretching out to the horizon on both sides of us, grazed by the occasional cow. There are supposedly some 35 million people on the road this weekend, but none of them are on the NM 285. Instead, all we get is an assortment of local fauna, most of it in the form of roadkill (a motley collection that Z. enthusiastically adds to by managing to run over a low flying swift).

But on lonely roads like this unseen dangers lurk, as we are soon to learn. It turns out that the state of New Mexico has two chief industries - issuing speeding tickets and putting up road signs. The former, it would appear, is the state's chief source of income, which is why the entire road system of the area has been designed around it. The technique is simplicity itself. Build a lot of random towns in the middle of nowhere. Connect them with highways so straight, so beautiful, as to make any speed enthusiast's heart sing with excitement. Make sure these highways have absolutely no cars on them, except those of people from outside the state. Then set an absurdly low speed limit and watch hapless tourists run smack into a speeding violation like birds flying into a window of clear glass. Z was to fall victim to this conspiracy twice on our first day - the first time for driving at a (to my mind) remarkably restrained 85 on a magnificent airstrip of a highway with a designated speed limit of (alas!) 70, the second time for doing 70 in a 65 mile zone (horrors!) - said 65 mile zone being a major interstate, which, at half past midnight, was completely empty.

But I get ahead of myself. The other major industry in New Mexico is putting up idiotic road signs. I don't have any figures on this, but I'm pretty sure that the state must have the highest concentration of road signs per inhabitant of any place where cars are driven. The general idea seems to be that drivers are mindless zombies who need to be given precise instructions on everything, presumably so as to give them no excuse for wriggling out of a ticket (see above). So, for instance, when you come out of an urban area and the speed limit goes back up, NM won't, like every other state, simply announce what the raised speed limit will be - instead it will walk you through a series of gradually increasing speed limits in 5 mph increments (45 mph, 50 mph, 55 mph, etc.), until, some ten miles later, you finally reach the top speed permitted on the road, by which time of course you need to start slowing down for the next sign of habitation. New Mexico is also the only state I've seen where the road authorities don't think it sufficient to simply mark the highway with a solid or dashed yellow line to indicate whether it is legal to pass or not. In New Mexico, they don't just give you the dashed line, they also add a helpful sign saying 'Pass With Care' every time a solid line becomes a dashed line. To add to the fun, 'Pass with Care' and 'Do Not Pass' signs are frequently located about 50-100 metres apart, so that the only way you could successfully pass the car in front of you in the intervening space would be if you happened to be doing about 120 mph at the point when the passing zone started, though even that wouldn't really help you because it would only be a matter of minutes before a cop emerged from the burrows in the ground they typically hide in and ticketed you for speeding.

So anyway, there we are, stifling in the heat of a desert afternoon, a speeding violation tucked away in our glove compartment, our crest-fallen state leaving us in that most dangerous of human conditions - susceptibility to advertising. I can think of no other reason that would have made us stop for lunch at the Velvet Garter Family Restaurant in White's City (a tiny collection of shops located at the entrance to Carlsbad Cavern, whose other delights include the Million Dollar Museum, a gift shop that sells "Guns and Dolls", and "Melodrama at Granny's Opera House" - I kid you not) [1]. The Velvet Garter is closed for lunch, but the diner it shares a kitchen with is open. It's not a bad diner, really. In fact, you could almost say it's an ur-diner, a kind of pure distillation of the ubiquity of diners everywhere - the plastic seats, the ketchup on the table, the waitress who calls you 'honey' - and it allows me to appreciate once again the great secret of Authentic American cuisine, which is that no matter how hard you try, you cannot really mess up a basic grilled chicken sandwich with fries.

From this point onward, our day picks up dramatically. We arrive at the National Park to find it crawling with people, but still manage to get tickets to the tour of the restricted areas of the cavern that we want to take - the last two people to do so. The tour doesn't start for another two and a half hours though, so we decide to take one of the self-guided tours into the cavern first. An elevator from the parking lot takes us to a cafeteria some 750 feet underground, from where we start out on the paved 1-mile Big Room Trail.

It's almost impossible to describe the sheer magnitude of Carlsbad. The guide book says the Big Room cave alone covers some 8.2 acres, but the words mean little. What you find yourself in the center of is an immensity of space that opens out in every direction, swallowing the light. Yet what remains is not emptiness but an overwhelming infinity of shape and stone - stalagmites hundreds of feet high rising into the domed air like majestic phalli, great clusters of stalactites hanging like swords from the ceiling, palatial columns of gnarled rock towering above you until you can almost feel the weight and lift of the great stone roof, pits of bottomless void where the very concept of depth loses its meaning - the mind struggles to come to terms with the dimensions of what it is seeing, struggles to reconcile this echoing vastness with the confined associations of the word 'cave', and lapses into awe-struck surrender.

Yet it is not only the brute majesty of the stone that astounds: there is much here that is small and delicate. Every nook, every corner of this great cavern is filled with a multiplicity of form and pattern, a wilderness of impromptu sculpture. The stalactites alone come in dozens of shapes - ranging from exploding popcorn to fine drapery. Tiny rock pools create symmetries of reflection in which the cavern is endlessly rediscovered, endlessly new. Here an assortment of needle-thin structures converts a small niche of rock into a doll-sized theater. There the sight of a stalagmite and a stalactite trembling towards each other, their two points divided by a finger-width of air, makes one think of the shyness of lovers, or of paintings by Michelangelo. It's as though you had stumbled into a vast treasure house of abstract statuary, the work of centuries of empire all stored in some great underground vault, awaiting the day when it shall return to the light to populate the earth with its obscure, instinctive beauty.

Much of this has to do, of course, with the lighting. Set up by consultants brought to Carlsbad from Broadway, the lighting inside the cavern is a work of art in itself, perfectly accentuating the earthy reds and shadowy greens of the cavern without depriving the place of its fundamental gloom. As though someone had polished a rough diamond just enough to make the odd facet shine through. And indeed the overall effect of the Big Room is of something jeweled but unpolished, a raw gathering of forms large and small, held together by a conspiracy of darkness.

There is much to gape at in the Big Room (the 1 mile trail took us almost two hours, though a good part of that was spent trying to find the right camera setting to capture some of this beauty), but my favorite bits were the Temple of the Sun (a great burning monolith of flame around which the shadowy shapes of tourists dance like votaries at a sacrifice), the breath-taking view of the lower cave, the Crystal Spring Dome with luminous, mushroom-shaped underside, and the towering Rock of Ages, its tiny columns rising in layers like candles or bones [2].

Our walk through the Big Room completed, Z and I then returned to the cafeteria, from where our guided tour through the area called the King's Palace was due to start. Here a fresh set of wonders awaited us, as the hectic geometry of the Big Room gave way to a more stately grandeur - a wide hall of a cave decorated from floor to dome with a baroque pageantry of rock that no human sculptor could ever hope to match. Time seems suspended here, frozen in place like the water that drips in slow tentative drops from the high ceilings of the cave. It is a humbling thought to know that all this intricate splendor existed long before the adventure of man began, as though by breathing the air of these caves, by sharing in their silence, one caught a glimpse of the very eternity of stone.

Unfortunately, these areas of the cavern are only accessible as part of a ranger-guided tour. This means that even as you admire the majesty of these natural formations you're forced to listen to the unending prattle of a ranger whose talk seems to have been written with five-year olds in mind. So you get a lot of faux-philosophical stuff about how everything in nature is connected to everything else, and a lot of fatuous stories and silly jokes about Jim White, the 16-year old who first discovered the cave (which means, of course, that he was the first white man to discover the cave and get out of it alive). And if you try to avoid all this blather by adopting the time honored back-bencher technique of staying as far in the rear as possible, you find yourself harried along by a ranger on the other end, whose job it is to make sure that everyone stays together. Add to this that you're accompanied by the inevitable collection of half-wits who make up every guided tour group I've ever seen, and who insist on asking the most inane questions, and the tour can be a little trying, but the beauty of the place effortlessly makes up for it.

To be fair, the guided tour has one redeeming feature. At one point on the tour, the rangers make everyone sit down and then switch off all the lights in the cave. The darkness that follows has to be not seen to be believed. It's an absolute blackness, with no concession to shade or hue, not the slightest intimation of even the possibility of sight. "Put out the light and then put out the light" Shakespeare writes, and what you experience in that moment or two of unremitting darkness is not simply blindness, but a snuffing out of the self, the sense of the mind as a sightless creature, abandoned and groping in an infinite void. This is a darkness you can only experience, as the guide points out, underground, for everywhere else some hint of light always sneaks through. No night is this dark, no eclipse this complete. It's an impressive feeling, sitting there helpless, and a reminder of the horror and mystery that lies at the heart of every cave, even one so relatively tamed.

King's Palace tour completed, Z and I find that we have an hour and a half to kill before the flying of the bats (more on this later), so we decide to drive down the 9.5 mile Willow Canyon circuit that starts from just outside the visitors center. The Park brochure says that the drive offers "dramatic desert mountain scenery", but I can't claim to have seen anything particularly breathtaking. Still, it's a pleasant enough drive, a dirt and gravel road that winds through stands of yucca and prickly pear, flanked by low hills crowned with great buttresses of weathered rock, the stones looking for all the world like the walls of some ruined fort. Now and then there's a view of the plains, but in a country where most landscape is flat scrubland, this doesn't impress much. Riding along the path, what I was reminded of most was the road driven by the main protagonist in Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry. The landscape here is more rugged, more desert like, but the overall effect is the same - of something slow and tentative and little mournful winding to its inevitable conclusion.

Back at the Visitor's Center, we head down to the Amphitheater for the Bat Flight. Carlsbad cavern is home to a massive population of Mexican Fruit bats, all of whom emerge from the cave around sunset to hunt at night in the surrounding countryside. This means that if you wait outside the mouth of the cave on a summer evening, you can see a swarm of anywhere between 70,000 and 800,000 bats emerging from the cave and taking flight into the sky.

On this particular day, the amphitheater is overflowing, it being labor day weekend. Z and I manage to find seats right at the back (we figure we should try and be the first to leave - the prospect of being stuck behind some five dozen cars inching their way out of the park afterwards is not one that appeals to us) and settled down to wait for the Bat Flight. Of course, they can't just let us sit and wait for the bats to emerge, so we have a ranger giving us a little talk about bats in the interim (Aarrghhh!). In all fairness, though, he does a good job. Of course, most of what he says is common knowledge to anyone who knows anything about bats beyond their role in vampire films, but his talk is engaging and his enthusiasm for bats infectious; plus you have to feel sorry for a guy who has to keep talking till the bats show up, which means he could end up stuck there for an hour just trying to keep a crowd of hundreds entertained while sticking to the subject of bats. No mean feat that.

Eventually the bats emerge. I have to admit I was expecting something more ferocious, more feral. A great rush of wings swarming into the air, that kind of thing. Instead we get a swirling yet somehow delicate pattern of tiny black figures, dancing on the air like motes, or fly ash, their wings beating with the open and shut motion of butterflies. As they flew out of the cave, the bats turn in a neat spiral, like a crowd of commuters climbing a staircase, and having made it out into the open fly jerkily away until a line of them hangs in the twilit sky like a thin taper of smoke rising ever higher. It's a mesmerizing sight.

Leaving before the end of the bat flight, Z and I make our way back to the car park and from there back out to the highway. Our plan at this point is to make for Alamogordo and spend the night there, arriving early next morning at the White Sands National Monument. As it turns out, however, every place in Alamogordo we call looking for a room is full, so we finally decide to drive an extra 60 miles out of our way to Las Cruces, where rooms are still available. By the time we figure this out it is already past 9 pm, and we have a four hour drive still ahead of us, so we grab a pizza from the Domino's at Artesia (easily the culinary low point of the trip) and head out on our way. 180 miles and one speeding ticket later, we arrive at our hotel, only to find there had been some kind of mix up and they don't actually have a room for us. Fortunately, someone else who did have a reservation hasn't shown up at this point (it's 1.30 in the morning), so the lady at the front desk decides to defer the problem and gives us his room.

[to be continued]

[1] Actually, I lie. The reason we pick the Velvet Garter is because we've driven through three towns without seeing anything that looks like it might offer a decent meal. Every town we pass through seems to have stepped straight out of one of those early 80's films about small-town America - think Paris, Texas.

[2] It has to be said that many of the names of the features within the cavern are dreadfully twee. The story goes that these are the original names Jim White gave to these formations when he first came down into the cave. I'm suspicious though. I find it hard to believe that any self-respecting sixteen year old male would go around calling things 'the land of the fairies', let alone a sixteen year old tough and macho enough to spend his time boldly going into caverns where no man has gone before. Also, I mean, just look at this thing below. You seriously expect me to believe that a hormone crazed sixteen year old looked at this thing and didn't make the obvious connection?


Space Bar said...

only two footnotes? what is this? :D

Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Speeding ticket in backwoods town. You were John Rambo?

Tabula Rasa said...

i respectfully submit that it was the grilled chicken sandwich that caused the snuffing-out of your self.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I gotta ask. How can you be in New Mexico and not see Julia Roberts? Or did I miss that? Which reminds me: request - can you stop doing these absurd 7.3 million word New Yorker style articles or at least just post an abstract when you do this? (and I'm sure I'm not alone in this). Hell, maybe I can make a decent living - sell Falsie Cliff Notes. The Digested Falsie.

This one would read: Falsie goes to New Mexico, gets a ticket, eats somewhere and sees a cave.

You're welcome, I'm sure.


Falstaff said...

space bar: Forgive me. It was a long, tiring trip. Besides, it's only the first day.

aqc: Nah. Though Z did have some idea of buying a shotgun and shooting up road signs.

TR: Could be, could be. Personally, I think it was the fries.

n!: What's all this about me seeing Julia Roberts in New Mexico. I don't know what rumors you've been hearing, but they're not true. Julia and I are just friends.

And the point of all those words is to put adequate space between the pictures.

Gammafunction said...

Definitely rambling New-Yorker kinda post but fun read on a bored Friday night.

This is a darkness you can only experience, as the guide points out, underground, for everywhere else some hint of light always sneaks through

was it really that dark or did your eyes adjust to the dark and you could see outlines?

Shyam said...

I love travelogues, even if they make me long hopelessly to see it all for myself. Your write-up made me wish more strongly than I have in a while!