Westward Ho!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Thursday, April 28, 9:30 am:


At 200 feet below the surface of the earth, I realize I’ve made an error. Instead of doing the Big Room loop which is a relatively level 1.25 mile stroll through the Caverns, we’ve taken the “steep and strenuous” Natural Entrance trail which drops us over 800 feet of elevation through a series of switchbacks and ramps to arrive at the Big Room. We should have taken the elevator (!) down the 800 feet and then done the walk. Oh well, it’s downhill.


Six hundred vertical feet later, with thighs and calfs burning from holding us upright on the downhill grade, we hit the bottom. But what a journey! We started at the yawning pit where swallows swooped and climbed around us. Past otherworldly carvings created by sulfuric acid produced when the ancient seas that covered this plain receded. The Caverns are at the westernmost edge of the Permian Basin, one of largest oilfields in the world. The same seas that produced the caverns created the oilfields. There are stalactite looking formations throughout the caverns, but they were formed by the carving of the sulfuric acid rather than dripping of rock. Worth the trip and the pain.


We arrived at the City of Carlsbad, New Mexico on our fourth day out of Sarasota. Ah, Carlsbad, NM. Four days of cross country travel landed us on the doorstep of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in the middle of a vast and arid brownness that stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions. Carlsbad itself is also brown and dust covered. It’s a regional outpost for the oil field, uranium and potash businesses that dominate this area.


The white pickup truck (Ford F150 Off Road preferably) is the ubiquitous transportation, manhandled through the state routes and roughly graded access roads by, well, men. This is a business town, not a place you’d chose to live. Houses are primarily manufactured or medium-sized RVs. Women are few and far between. Hotel chains line the main road, providing weekday housing for the workers and managers who live elsewhere. Our dinner choice will be between McDonald's and Walmart. At least Walmart has wine.


We arrived here through a kaleidoscope of the southern US: Tallahassee, Pensacola, Hattiesburg, Jackson and Vicksburg Mississippi—the vast pine-forested emptiness. The Mississippi River crossing at Vicksburg was a huge disappointment—only sixty feet wide and lost in the rain. Where is the “Mighty Mississippi?”


As we zip through Louisiana, I think that Ike would be crying in his soup over the state of the Interstate Highway System in Shreveport. Crumbling cement overpasses with rotting and exposed rebar, we raced to get through before the whole thing collapsed. Just when we think they’re nothing here, we come across a reference to the R.W. Norton Art Museum which has an excellent collection of Frederick Remington sculptures and Martin Heade Johnson paintings. We’ll have to schedule them for a later stop, after the coming infrastructure upgrade.


Texas likes to claim everything is bigger in Texas. Since we’ll have to drive over 700 miles across it to get to New Mexico, we’d have to agree. Tyler is the first substantial city and coincidentally, is home to the largest rose garden in the world with over 38,000 plants and 600 varieties. Sadly, not in our schedule this week. Outside Tyler, hypnotic fields of waving green grasses border I-20, only transitioning to the cement and limestone facades just outside the Dallas metropolis. After Dallas, the plains area of West Texas quickly turns to brown with only the green leaves of the creosote bushes to break the droning monotony.


We stop in the tired cow town of Abilene for the night. Once famous for cattle drives, there’s little here Now. Most houses are abandoned, windows stoned out. A small downtown area buoyed by government spending: a new convention center with no events on the schedule. Maybe they expect the overflow from Austin to migrate north. We end up at the Beehive Restaurant because that’s where all the people seem to be going. It turns out they’re heading there because this place serves the best steak I’ve ever had. It takes two days to finish and the second day is just as good as the first. I wonder if our return trip can be charted through Abilene.


Our fourth day takes us to the aforementioned Carlsbad, but on the way, we go through a geography lesson and view of the US we’ve never seen before. As we leave Abilene, we turn off I-20 to take TX176 through the aforementioned Permian Basin. Oil extraction, refining—any type of energy business is conducted here.


One of the by-products of oil extraction is something called NORM. Yup, Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material. Turns out of that all that dirt that comes out of the ground when they dig an oil well is radioactive. It ends up in massive, flat topped hills that are covered over and protected according to Federal Government guidelines. We didn’t drive up to check for compliance.


Because West Texas shares a similar geology (limestone) with Florida, it is also a huge potash mining region, just like Manatee County, north of Sarasota. Potash is converted to potassium fertilizer and is in hot demand. Trains with four diesel engines and hundreds of hopper cars wait to be filled at the Mosaic Company’s extraction site. The physical manhandling of the environment here is breathtaking.


Finally, we cross from Texas into New Mexico. The only change is that now we’re on Mountain time. Carlsbad lies dead ahead along with our dusty Hampton Inn.


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