Like Sarah mentioned, we went to bed early. In fact, as the main (only) proponent of driving through the night for the first time on the road trip, I wouldn’t have felt right not taking the first shift. So it was to bed at 9:00 or so for me while Sarah and Tom hung out and at least a couple hours of quality sleep before walking up with Sarah and Tom, piling what few things we had in the house into the car, wishing Tom and Sarah a good night, and driving.
As we drove I noticed familiar sights. Even in the dark, I recognized the turns and some land marks leading towards the wine trail. I wondered how long we would be retracing our steps; we had already driven the full length of the wine trail all the way to a town called Fredericksburg (stopping along the way), the full way back to Austin, and — as I was about to discover — the full way back out to Fredericksburg. On the two legs of this journey that we didn’t stop for wine, the entire drive was just over an hour and a half. This was a little annoying: everyone was asleep and we were just re-tracing our steps. We even had to fill up at the exact same gas station that we had earlier in the day! Why did we even drive back to Austin? But soon I lightened up, thinking about how three hours of “unnecessary” back tracking had allowed us to see the most incredible display of bats I could imagine while we visited with Michael more and ate awesome Tex-Mex.
Driving at night through middle of nowhere Texas is nice. The roads had very little to slow me down, the speed limits were as follows: 80 miles per hour during the day and 65 during the night, unless you were a truck in which case it was 70 during the day and 65 at night. I kept the weighted down Xterra at 72 or so and hit the cruise, and it was fast enough to keep things interesting.
After a few hours, we drove through several spots with an overwhelming sulfur smell—worse than I have ever experienced. Tom woke up in the middle of the night and asked me to pull over ASAP so that he could relieve his bladder. It was in the middle of one of these relatively short “patches” of smell, and man did he notice. He jumped back in the car and asked if everywhere outside smelled as bad. I laughed, said “no” and kept driving.
At five in the morning, it was time for another fill up and time for me to get some sleep. I woke Sarah up as we were pulling into a gas station and man was she cranky. She complained about how she wasn’t going to get any sleep and the next day as a result she was going to hate the caverns and the sky was falling. By the time I pumped the gas she was in the driver seat ready to go and a little apologetic. You don’t want to mess with Sarah the first five minutes when she wakes up, especially at five in the morning.
I fell asleep in the front passenger seat of the car and woke up in New Mexico, about a half hour before we arrived at Carlsbad Caverns in Carlsbad, NM. We were able to enter the National Park area before the caverns even opened, but the Visitor Center and path to the entrance of the cave were closed off. We used the single open bathroom and dug around in the car for granola bars while we waited. We were among the first in line for the cave tours. I had several lined up and was extremely excited. There was a lantern tour: Left Hand Tunnel, as well as the Lower Cave, which is advertised to have an “incredible diversity of cave formations that compete for your attention almost everywhere you look.” I was excited for these once daily tours as well as the more common Kings Palace, a tour with a paved walkway that allows visitors to concentrate on formations instead of footing.
To my dismay, as I approached the ticket counter, I was greeted by repeating “sold out” labels after what seemed like most of the tours. As it turns out, on any given day, everything but the Kings Palace tour fills up. Many tours are only available once a day for fifteen or twenty people and fill up weeks in advance. I purchased our admission to the caves and for the Kings Palace tour and relayed the bad news to Sarah and Tom. After another half hour of waiting, we headed for the natural entrance. As soon as we started walking, any disappointment evaporated.
The entrance was a sheer cliff. It would be impossible to navigate without climbing equipment or a series of ladders if not for the extensive concrete paths zigzagging back and fourth. The result of this windy path is that the dramatic drop is able to be walked easily with a shallow downhill grade—like walking down a wheelchair ramp instead of a steeper (but more direct) stairway. The caves were amazing, with something to look at every step of the way down the huge corridor. I am not sure that any explanation will do it justice, but check out the pictures.
While walking, we saw no end to the path for quite awhile. The whole path ended up being one and a quarter miles, and with the frequent stops to stop and admire everything, took close to an hour for us to navigate. The lighting was provided by spotlights, which were all behind rocks or in crevices. This lack of direct light made the walk even more interesting and authentic-feeling.
We reached the bottom. Tom and Sarah both decided that their wardrobe was insufficient for the alarming drop in temperature. They quickly decided to take the 754 foot elevator (I’m not kidding) from the heart of the cave to the top and grab closed toed shoes and additional layers. I felt okay and walked to the in-cave concession stand for coffee to help wake up more completely. I wondered around a bit and made sure we knew the starting point for the Kings Palace tour. Upon Sarah and Tom’s return, we walked directly to the meeting area and got ready for our tour.
Kings Palace was more amazing than our descent: The formations—formed from the movement of water and the deposition of previously dissolved calcium carbonate dissolved therein—were dramatic, and varied. They included the ever popular stalagmites and stalactites, draperies (sheets of calcium carbonate), columns (you guessed it), and soda straws (small, hollow stalactites). The endless sizes, shapes, and combinations of these formations made for quite a viewing experience. At one point the guide turned off all of the visible spotlights and created total blackout conditions. I would not want to be an explorer whose lantern went out in the depths of this cave.
After this, we shot back up the elevator for some lunch (the in-cave snack area hadn’t been delivered food because they were short staffed). They had a good selection of burgers and a couple specialty sandwiches (gratuitous food photo!).
We descended the elevator again to go on the self-guided Big Room tour. This is the second largest chamber in the world, and the largest in the western hemisphere. The formations, while different, had many familiar features to those in the Kings Palace, but many were on a larger scale and everything was still very interesting. Again, we spent a ton of time taking pictures and admiring our surrounding.
After a full day of spelunking, we piled back into the car and entered “Roswell, NM” into the GPS; at the point when we added Carlsbad to the itinerary the geography made it obvious that we would have to go to Roswell to play with the aliens. On the way we stopped at Cottonwood Winery, where we did a tasting and sampled some spicy peanut brittle.
We checked into our hotel in Roswell and headed back out for another buffet at the China King Super Buffet — and more training for me before the 72 ounce challenge; the time for the eating challenge was approaching quickly.