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Don’t Mess Up Texas

August 10, 2014

I screwed up. Twice.

For starters, I totally underestimated Carlsbad Caverns, specifically in terms of how much time we should spend there. There are several parts of the cavern and several ways to see it, and I picked what appeared to be one of the best ways: a guided tour of a section of the cavern called King’s Palace. It is, in fact, widely considered the most impressive part of the cave and it is also the deepest part. But when we got there and started to look around and talk to Park Rangers it became clear that, although the King’s Palace tour was going to be great, we should have also done the self-guided tour of the Big Room (the main part of the cave that most visitors see), and we should have also considered either coming in or going out through the Natural Entrance rather than only entering and exiting through the elevator in the Visitors Center. Unfortunately, each of those would have added about an hour and a half to our time at the cavern, which would have been wonderful but would have also required us to stay in the middle of nowhere.

So we had to settle for the King’s Palace tour. But once we were on the tour, it hardly seemed like settling. Sam and I have been inside caves in New York, Missouri, Montana, Alabama, Kentucky, and South Dakota. So at this point in our spelunking careers, it takes a lot to impress us. Carlsbad impressed us. The first thing we noticed was the enormity of the place. It’s not the biggest cave in the world (that’s Mammoth Cave in Kentucky) and it’s not the longest (that’s Jewel Cave in South Dakota), but what makes Carlsbad seem so big is the size of the rooms. The Big Room, which we didn’t see, is the size of six football fields. But the smaller rooms (we saw King’s Palace, Papoose Room, and Queen’s Palace) were immense, and the formations in those rooms were similarly huge.

The next thing we noticed were the stalactites. (I know right now you’re probably wondering whether stalactites are the ones on the floor or the ceiling. Answer: ceiling. Here’s an easy way to remember: stalactites need to hold on “tite” or else they’ll fall down. Also, the word has a “c” in the middle, for ceiling. “Stalagmite” has a “g” in the middle, for ground.) The stalactites in Carlsbad are unusual in that there are a bazillion of them and they’re mostly very thin and long and pointy. In King’s Palace Sam said it looked like someone above ground stuck a million swords down into the ground and we were looking up at their blades. The Park Ranger really liked that description, as did I.

Kings Palace

Kings Palace

Kings Palace

The last major room on the tour, Queen’s Palace, is so named because on each side of the room there are massive stone “draperies” that make the room look rather royal and yes, kind of feminine–for a cave, anyway. The draperies are each about 40 feet tall, which means they took hundreds of thousands of years to form. But from across the room Sam noticed an oddly shaped stalagmite that might have helped give the room its name.

Queens Palace

It’s a little hard to see in this shot, which makes it all the more impressive that Sam noticed it. So here’s a closer look:

Queens Palace

See how it looks kind of like a queen?

Sam wasn’t done impressing people just yet. As the tour was ending he asked the Ranger what the difference is between a cave and a cavern. The Ranger, who had recounted the entire history of the cavern and had quoted multiple nature writers from memory, was stumped by Sam’s question.

On the way out we got to see one cool little rock formation that the people who just go to the Big Room never get to see. It’s called the Bashful Elephant because it looks like an elephant who has turned away in embarrassment.

Bashful Elephant

And we finished our visit to Carlsbad by doing something you can’t do anywhere else in the world: go to the bathroom 800 feet below ground.

Carlsbad Caverns underground bathroom

So in the end my blunder may have prevented us from seeing more of this extraordinary cave, but between the tour and the bats the previous night, we did just fine. That said, if you ever visit Carlsbad Caverns please do yourself a favor and budget at least three hours and preferably five so that you can see all the really cool parts.

After a quick lunch we spent the rest of the day driving east. Literally. We left Carlsbad at around 12:30 and we didn’t stop driving until almost 6:30. And Western Texas is not exactly known for its scenery. It’s known for its oil. So the drive was pretty much five hours of this…

Western Texas

…interrupted occasionally by this:

Western Texas

And that’s where my second mistake came into play. See, those five hours of driving were actually six hours on the clock. When we crossed from New Mexico into Texas we changed time zones, losing an hour and bringing us much closer to sunset than we wanted to be on a Friday. Originally I thought we might spend Shabbos in Dallas, but losing that hour along the way made that impossible. So instead we ended up in Abilene for Shabbos. Abilene is a fine little city but it’s no Dallas. (In fact I did a little research and the city is actually named after a Kansas cowtown with the same name. So it’s not even the original Abilene.) And waking up Sunday morning in Abilene means we’ll get a later start in Dallas than I wanted, which means we may not get to do all the fun stuff I had planned.

With that said I’d better wrap this up, as we’ve got to get up early so we can get to Dallas. While I’m sleeping, you can enjoy Sheryl Crow’s tribute to Abilene. This is the song I think of whenever I hear anything about Abilene, even though the song is not really about the town. But, like the city, this song is not the original Abilene, either. The song at the top of this post was written in the 60s and is actually about the town of Abilene … Kansas.

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