Shooting Stars, Stalactites and Stalagmites …
While visiting Big Bend National Park, we stayed at an RV Park in Lajitas, Texas, about twenty miles from the park entrance. Our RV was parked a short walk from the Rio Grande River and surrounded by beautiful mountains with exciting hiking trails. The daytime scenery was breath-taking. But the real picture show didn’t start until after dark.
The views of the night sky in this part of the country aren’t encumbered by the same light pollution we’re accustomed to in the Midwest. And folks around here are dedicated to keeping it that way. In our RV park, there was a rule that all exterior lights must be extinguished by 9:00 pm to preserve the breathtaking views of the night sky. When you stick your head out of the RV after dark, it takes your breath away!
So, when it was time to leave Lajitas, we decided to spend a couple nights in Marathon, Texas, just north of Big Bend. Other than the famous Gage Hotel, there’s not much in Marathon. There is however, a really nice RV park that’s a mecca for night sky enthusiasts. Professional and hobbyist astronomers come here from all parts of the world to study and enjoy the crystal-clear night skies. There are telescopes and astro-sensing equipment everywhere! One of the reasons we decided to pay a visit was that, on most nights, there is a two- or three-hour long astronomy presentation with some instruction about astro-photography. I had decided I wanted to take a nice picture of the night sky, and this was the place to learn how to do it.
For the most part, the skies were dark for our viewing with only slight light pollution emanating from the small security lights around the RV park. There was, however, a glow on the horizon to the north that seemed out of place. When I ask about this nuisance glow, I was informed it was the oil fields seventy-five miles to the north. I didn’t give it much thought at the time but, a couple days later we would discover the significance of these oil fields as we made our way north to Carlsbad, New Mexico.
When I was a young boy, my father would almost always take Mom and me on a two-week summer driving vacation. It was important to him, and he would sometimes drive 700 miles in a day just so we could experience some natural wonder. And later in my adult life, I realized how important it was to me that he take the time to expand my horizons beyond the corn fields and baseball fields of Illinois. Dad, Mom and I would pile into Dad’s Packard, or Mom’s Chevy Biscayne, and head for the open roads. We usually headed west, rarely north, south or east. One of Dad’s loves in life was reading the books of the great western writer, Zane Grey. I’m guessing that, other than wanting to share the western wonders with Mom and me, he wanted to view the settings for those great classics.
One of the first places he took Mom and me was to the Black Hills of South Dakota. I fell in love with the Black Hills. Dad later confided in me that the reason we explored the Black Hills before making our way into the Colorado Rockies was that he didn’t want me to be disappointed with the Black Hills. Dad’s sleight-of-hand worked. The Black Hills of South Dakota will always have a very special place in my heart.
One of the highlights of our visit to the Black Hills was Wind Cave National Park. I had never been in a cave before. I’d been forced to learn about stalactites and stalagmites in grade school, but this was my first opportunity to see one of these geological wonders in person. This was also my first visit into a cave. It was a real treat. And the National Park Service Rangers did the same thing they do in all caves. They pointed out the stalactites and stalagmites, and they explained their origin and the importance of preserving this beauty.
And then they do the lights out show! While they’ve got you hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth, they carefully seat you on a bench and tell you not to move. They then turn off the lights so you can experience the sensation of total darkness. If you haven’t experienced this sensation, it’s a once in a lifetime experience not being able to see your hand in front of your face. It is TOTAL darkness! And once is plenty for me!
Now I’m not bothered by much, and I’ve done some crazy stuff in my life that others wouldn’t dream of doing. However, in my weaker moments, I can be a little claustrophobic. I have to admit, this lights out, total darkness-thing freaks me out! And after about five seconds, I’m ready to scream! At ten seconds, I’m triangulating the reverberating voice of the chattering Park Ranger and calculating how far I must lunge in order to knock him to the ground, rip the light switch out of his hand, and return the lighting situation back to normalcy.
I believe that I acquired a clear understanding of the whole cave thing after only one cave visit. I concluded early in life that I probably wasn’t going to be a spelunker (look it up!).
But I was gracious when, a year later while visiting the Colorado Rockies, Dad insisted we visit Cave of the Winds. It again was beautiful, there were the same stalactites and stalagmites. And, once again, the same “total darkness”, lights out show. Really?
So, when Jane suggested that we depart Marathon and head north for a visit to the famous caves of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, I did my best to bite my lip and act excited as we hooked up the RV and headed north to Carlsbad, New Mexico.
I was looking forward to an easy 200-mile trip from Marathon to Carlsbad and more of the rugged beauty of Texas and New Mexico. What I didn’t realize was that we were about to experience the uncomfortable consequences of not doing our travel homework before departing on this short hop up to Carlsbad. We were soon to discover that our planned route took us right up Route 285 and right through the center of a huge, booming array of oil fields and the chaotic, bewildering infrastructure supporting those fields!
Soon after turning north on 285, we began to see a few “horse-head” oil wells. You know, the type you see occasionally out in the fields of the Midwest, slowly and lazily pumping small amounts of crude oil out of some farmer’s field. Our thought was, “How nice. Some rancher is getting a little oil off his property.” The further north we traveled, the more oil wells we saw, followed by big drilling rigs, and big trucks. Suddenly, we were smack in the middle of a huge, booming petroleum metropolis! There were big trucks everywhere, operated by busy oil field workers with little patience for a couple of retired mid-westerners pulling an RV through their domain. It was dusty, dirty, and we had no business being in this area, especially while pulling an RV! It took several hours to travel the 200 miles through some of the roughest roads we’d experienced.
And all along we cussed the petroleum industry for our uncomfortable inconvenience … as we cruised along to the purring sounds of our 5.8 liter, V-8 powered, 86-octane gas-guzzling internal-combustion engine, while drinking from our petroleum-based plastic water bottles and eating from our petroleum-based plastic bags filled with yummy trail mix harvested by farm equipment powered by a huge list of petroleum products. Drill baby, drill!
A day after we finally arrived in Carlsbad, we made our way over to Carlsbad Caverns to tour the caves. Now, in spite of my feelings about caves, I was encouraged that these particular caves were on another level of grandeur. They’re some of the largest in the world and get extra high marks for their beauty. So, I kept my enthusiasm as high as possible and didn’t let on to Jane that I was only doing this because she wanted to.
What I was soon to discover was that this was one of many lessons in not being such a cynic and allowing myself to step out of my self-imposed “box” and expand my horizons. Suffice it to say, if you’re ever near Carlsbad Caverns National Park … GO! It is awe inspiring. Thanks, Jane.
Words can’t describe the wonderous majesty of these caves. And, there is no way I can adequately describe the scale of these massive caverns, more than 800 feet below the ground. Many are multiple football fields across! And there is no way my photos can adequately show what we saw. But I’ll try in the photos below.
And yeah, the Ranger did the lights off thing again! Creepy!
Be sure to leave a comment below if you’ve had similar experiences. We always like to get your comments!