I lose it a bit. I say I take full responsibility for losing Stanley, but don’t care about a stupid piece of paper. This is of course not true – I feel terrible.
Then I find the little bugger hiding between the door and my equipment (audio recorder, camera ...the magic eight ball binder.) I curse at him, and the girls crack up at the sight of me scolding an inanimate object. I give Stanley a time-out.
Maybe I’m the one that needs the time out.
I drive first. The speed limit is eighty, and I’m taking advantage. There is nothing – and I mean NOTHING – for miles around. Not even billboards. The windmills aren’t moving, and even the sheep that occasionally dot the roadside look like stage props. Regardless, we all agree there is something beautiful in the simplicity.
Mom wants me to pull over to get a piece of cactus to take home. I'm not sure why she can't just BUY a cactus. Grandma reminds her there are rattlesnakes and that seems to end the conversation ... for a while.
We switch off after a few hours. The girls tell me about the acres of wind turbines we passed when I closed my eyes for 30 minutes in a failed attempt to get some sleep. We stop at all the historical markers we come across. And after what seems like eternity (and a flat butt later), we arrive at Carlsbad Caverns. Mom and I are going to do the Natural Entrance Route, a one mile hike into the depths. It's really, really steep -- so we tell Grandma we'll meet her in the heart of the caverns, which she can access by elevator. We tell her to relax, have a cup of coffee, and we'll do the 8.2 acre Big Room Route together when we get down there.
She's nowhere to be found when we arrive.
Here’s our respective reflections:
It was as amazing as I remember it. I had never done that approach before – and now find that I’ve outgrown my interest in spelunking. I walked into Slaughter Canyon once -- when my knees where less stiff -- and I was a lot younger. It made me appreciate a good working elevator.
It was also like breathing in the fumes of the world’s largest cat litter box. And there’s just something about grabbing a slimy wet handrail that made me cringe every time I had to do it. Yucky.
The girls stuck me in an elevator and said we’ll see you downstairs. I looked around. Waited around. Then talked to a park ranger who suggested touring the Big Cavern – either the half mile or mile and a quarter walk. I started with the short tour and decided to go all the way. I came upon a rock formation that looked just like Jabba the Hutt.
Karen and I were too pooped to make our way down to watch the bats fly out. The nice park ranger Amy met earlier suggested we park at the East end of the parking lot. There was a never ending stream of bats. I don’t know how to describe it.
BACK TO ME
My favorite part was meeting Park Ranger Gosia. Actually, that’s just her nickname, but if I tried to tell you her real name, you’d go blind trying to figure out how to pronounce it. She’s from Poznan, Germany -- the same town as my great grandfather. Gosia goes over the rules and regs, telling us not to talk in regular voices since sound can carry up to a quarter mile. She tells us the rules apply to Flat Stanley as well, then regales us with a few stories.
In the stretch of cave we’re tackling, sound echoes. It gets amplified – a lot. She tells us about this guy on the trail ahead of her one time who farted. Well, the fart sound echoed ... and amplified ... and carried. He was horribly embarrassed.
No kidding. Who farts in a cave? I’d be more worried about scent than sound carrying.
Gosia also tells us about this elderly couple touring the cave. The gentleman came up to her and said his wife wanted to know what it meant when water landed on your head in the cavern. She replied, "It's a cave kiss." He turned and shouted into the darkness to his wife, "It's cave piss."
Man, people are funny.
Mom shouts my name as soon as we get in so I can hear what it sounds like in a cave. Her knees are killing her when we finish and begin the search for Grandma. We search the gift shops ... the restrooms ... the car. Mom stays there as I run back in to the cavern for a full-scale search and rescue effort. I'm beginning to worry the old lady has been grandma-napped.
She's just finishing the loop when I get off the elevator. She's tired after the pretty strenuous (especially for an 86-year-old) walk, so she heads to the car as well. I do the loop solo, and I'm glad for the quiet and solitude.
And when I say quiet and solitude, that's EXACTLY what I mean. It's so silent here that my ears are actually ringing from the lack of sound. There's occasional dripping sounds (cave piss), and so much to look at it's nearly impossible to take it all in. I keep thinking it's like walking on the moon. Beautiful, but foreign and slightly alien looking. Fitting for where we're heading next -- Roswell.
Before we head out, we head to watch the bats fly out to hunt bugs. Carlsbad Caverns is home to about half a million Mexican free-tailed bats. They start trickling out around 6:45 pm, and steadily pick up pace. As they leave the mouth of the cave, they fly in a counter clockwise direction before heading South. The "audience" is watching very quietly The bats are extremely sensitive to sound. It affects their sonar and thus their ability to fly. You can hear the flaps of their wings and the smell from the caves brought up with the cool air from the depths of the cavern. It's kind of like a bat tornado feeding a stream of black water disappearing into the night sky.
I sit next to Zach and his Mom from San Diego. They're driving back from Gainesville, Florida, where he just finished college. They've been driving the same route as us and have stopped in many of the same cities. We agree that being trapped in a car with your Mom for thousands of miles take a Zen-like patience at times.
For context, it takes the about two hours to fly out of the cave. We leave after 35 minutes. Zach says a bat is a bat. I agree, but it was still pretty cool. Once.
We arrive in Roswell around 11:00 pm. There's another bug in the room, but I think we're all too tired to care. Grandma snored so loud last night, she’s earned the privledge of her own bed tonight. Yaaaaaaay!
I'm sleeping in.