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Just take a look at the picture showing the entrance to the Carlsbad caverns. Now imagine it without the switchbacks and paved walkway, and imagine how crazy (or brave depending on how you define it) the first person to go in there must have been. Native Americans had known about the cave for centuries, but it took a white settler in the mid 19th century coming across the opening before it was ever fully explored. Once people began to realize the immensity of the caverns, they of course became a tourist stop. People used to enter the cave on wooden staircases and ladders, but today you can either take the elevator or the walkway you see on the right.
If you walk into Carlsbad, instead of taking the elevator directly down into the Big Room, your first view of the caverns is this large, totally intimidating cave. It is a gaping hole in the ground covered with bats and seemingly opening up to nothing but a big black abyss. The day we went was cold and rainy, giving the experience an exceptionally creepy air. There had been a family walking with us to the entrance, but somewhere along the way they must have gotten spooked because when we entered the silence we realized that they were no longer behind us.
Carlsbad ended up being the antithesis of our Zion experience. We had what must have been a mile walk underground before we got the Big Room (“the largest known natural limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere”) and the whole way we only encountered one other human. It was a surreal experience walking, walking, and walking, continually sinking into the ground surrounded the whole time by these smooth limestone walls and columns. There was no sign of an end and no other life. Only the occasional sound of dipping water served as a reminder that we hadn’t left this planet for another.
When we entered the Big Room that surreal feeling remained, but all of a sudden we were surrounded people. We had walked 750 feet underground and suddenly we were on a wheel chair accessible path with families and other tourists. The place took on a homey and comfortable feeling, like you should be taking off your coat and staying a while (although, perhaps that was just because I had been walking downhill under the earth for an hour now and was just happy to be on level ground). I felt embraced by the grandeur of the place. It felt much the same as sitting in one of the back pews at St. Peter’s Basilica, and when I stopped to just listen to the space, the cavern was filled with a music composed of camera shutters, whispers, dripping water, and footsteps.
Amazing, how creepy and foreboding can go to mystical in just 750 feet.