Monday, April 25, 2011
Caverns, UFO's and Bottomless Lakes: New Mexico's Land of Enchantment
Carlsbad Cavern National Park lies within the limestone Guadalupe Mountain range, the world’s best-preserved Permian-aged fossil reef in what was once a shallow inland sea some 240 plus million years ago. I talked my friend into going in through the natural entrance which gives the visitor an idea of what it might have been like for Jim White who first stumbled into the cave in 1898. Leaving the Visitors Center, we follow the trail down behind the parking lot and past the Bat Flight Amphitheater. We had hoped to see the exodus that evening but were told at the ticket booth that the 400,000 bats had not yet returned from Mexico. Once past the amphitheater, the trail dips, beginning it’s one and a quarter mile descent into the earth.
Entering the gaping mouth of the Natural Entrance of the cave by a series of steep but paved switchbacks, it took about an hour before we arrived at the Big Room, the equivalent to almost 79 stories below the surface.
We strolled around the one and a quarter mile trail slowly, letting groups of students pass, taking our time. Stopping to sit and better take in the essence of the place, we looked up 350 feet, feeling like kids staring up at the ceiling paintings in a great cathedral. At 56°F (13°C) year round, we had worn our fleece jackets but after a while of not moving the dampness seeped into our bones.
Carlsbad is home to some of the world’s largest and longest limestone caves, which unlike other caves around the globe, were carved out by sulfuric acid instead of water. And, Carlsbad Caverns, one of the youngest of all the caves formed, is but a single cave within a larger 117 cave system that continues to grow as new ones are discovered.
We were sitting in the seventh largest underground chamber in the entire world discovered by a sixteen year old apprentice cowboy out looking for strays who instead stumbled upon the mouth of the cave having seen a plume of bats flying into the evening skies to feed. Sitting there listening to the dripping, we became aware that this place was still in the making. Millions of years old, this antiquity was still growing stalactites, soda straws, draperies, and ribbons. Airfield size rooms adorned with totem poles, flowstone, rim stone dams, lily pads, shelves, cave pools, and stalagmites forming drip by drip, day by day, year after year.
Located in the Pecos Valley, the town of Roswell, New Mexico grew up around large cattle ranches on land previously occupied by Mescalero Apaches. From the development of Fort Stanton in 1855 to the closure of the Walker Air Force Base home to the world’s longest runways in the ‘70’s, the town had always had a strong military presence. Fort Stanton was first founded as a frontier outpost to protect settlers from Indian raids. But, it owes its fame to having later stationed the infamous Buffalo Soldiers.
Although African-American regiments were formed during the Civil War, Buffalo Soldiers were those formed by Congress after the war specifically, but not exclusively, to suppress the Native American up risings that were hindering western expansion known later as the “Indian Wars”. Smokey the Bear’s hat is a lasting legacy from the Buffalo Soldiers that had served in the Spanish America War. In order to better shed water from the tropical monsoons, these soldiers had reshaped their Stetsons with a Montana "pinch".
It was these often decorated soldiers who later served as the nation’s first rangers at Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Sierra Nevada National Parks protecting them from illegal grazing, poaching, logging, and –of course--forest fires. They were the first non Natives to cut a trail--now "the" trail-- to the top of Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada’s, the highest mountain in the contiguous states. As segregation policies began to take root in the early 20th century, the Buffalo Soldiers began being used as laborers until, regrettably but all too typically, they were once again called up to fill a shortage on the front lines during the world wars. The last of the Buffalo Soldier units were deactivated during the Korean War.
Today the economic well being of the town no longer depends on either ranchers or the military, but is mainly derived from the thousands of tourists who come to learn about the 1947 Roswell Incident. What began as a solo-sighting of an alleged alien spaceship crash is now a multi-million dollar tourism attraction. It is not the crash to which the “Incident” refers, however, but rather to the subsequent cover-up of the recovery of the craft and occupants.
The military officially maintained, and still maintains, that the hoopla resulted from the crash of an experimental, and classified, high-altitude surveillance balloon. Thirty years later, in 1978, retired personnel that had worked at the supposed crash site began contradicting the official claim effectively resurrecting the famous and controversial UFO mystery just in time to revitalize the depressed town that only a few years before had lost half its population with the closing of the Walker Air Force base.
Driving the main drag, there is visible evidence of the success of this marketing scheme. With names like “Not Of This World Coffee Shop” and replica flying disks mounted on roofs and pillars such as the one at the local McDonald’s, with giant green plastic inflatable aliens looming in almost every shop window, it is easy to doubt, and mock even, the verity of the original incident for which Roswell is best known. Not surprisingly, I had to practically drag my cynical friend through the doors of the UFO Museum and Research Center whose mission is to provide an educational resource pertaining to UFO phenomena.
If not grudgingly, certainly with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek we paid for our tickets. As he made his way from one exhibit to the next, he became less and less cynical and more and more absorbed in the mystery that had captured my interest as a wee lass. Exhibits included information on the Incident of course, as well as on crop circles, other UFO sightings, the mysteries of Area 51, (a military airfield in Nevada where experimental aircraft and weapons systems are tested), and abductions.
Had we planned better, we may have allowed ourselves time to visit the caves at Fort Stanton and the Bottomless Lakes. Bottomless Lake State Park southeast of Roswell consists of nine circular lakes that are water filled sinkholes, (caves whose roofs have collapsed). The lakes with names like Devil's Inkwell and Lazy Lagoon are, in fact, not bottomless as early cowboys had thought, ranging in depth from 17 to 90 feet and all but two are surrounded by steep red cliffs and some by salt flats.
The National Park Service isn’t the only federal agency to have claim to subterranean natural wonders. The Snowy River Passage whose discovery in 2001 by a Bureau of Land Management team is part of a 12 cave system west of Roswell, including Fort Stanton Cave the third longest in New Mexico with over 14 miles of publicly accessible trails. It would have been a nice follow up to Carlsbad Caverns that we had seen the day before.
Be forewarned, however, that the guided tours offered at Fort Stanton Cave are a bit more interactive than those offered at Carlsbad and can have you crawling on your hands and knees for more than 650 feet and pulling yourself prone by your elbows through passages so small you have to turn your head sideways to pass through.
As is the case with many discoveries, the long awaited discovery of the Snowy River Passage happened by shear accident by a volunteer explorer kicking a coffee can that just happened to have found its way between the rocks. The explorer listened to the can ricochet off rock walls into the abyss. Broadcasting live by use of new technology, a cave radio, the team reported a play-by-play to the above surface crew and the world above, of their decent into the unknown. Yikes.
Further excavation revealed a 70 foot long vertical borehole that led to a calcite starburst decorated vertical tunnel that eventually lead to an expansive dry riverbed. The entire bottom of this river passage was coated white with a glistening crystalline calcite deposit This deposit would turn out to be five mile long, perhaps the longest such deposit in the country. Since scientists have unearthed several new species of endemic microorganisms and the cavern continues to be mapped, this cave has been since designated a National Conservation Area only accessible to scientists who continue to study and explore the seemingly endless cavern.
Posted by Ruth Newell