Way down under

At New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns, descend into a world of mystery

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THE TELLTALE BATS

The land beneath southeastern New Mexico's deserts and mountains is perforated with hundreds of caves, products of chemical reactions between hydrogen sulfide gas and freshwater that began more than 12 million years ago. "These are the premium show caves in the world for the profusion of formations and the tremendous size of the rooms," Richards says. "The lack of mud is also appealing. You can go exploring and not come out looking like the bog monster."

The first recorded visitor to explore Carlsbad Cavern and come out to tell about it was Jim White, a cowboy who discovered the cavern entrance in 1898 after he noticed an odd stream of smoke on the horizon. Investigating, he discovered it was a cloud of bats boiling out of a cave.

For the first 15 years, Carlsbad Cavern's prime enterprise was mining ― bat guano, for fertilizer ― but eventually the potential for tourism dawned. The site became a national monument in 1923 and a national park seven years later.

We humans, normally lovers of natural light and vivid color, are drawn into caves by a web of intersecting reasons. A cave is an alien world, an environment so unlike the Earth's surface that it might as well be another planet. "It's a poor man's astronaut adventure," says Mike Huber, a hard-core caver who moved to Carlsbad in 1990 for southeastern New Mexico's constellation of otherworldly caverns. Richards cites the thrill of discovery ― the not-too-remote possibility of being the first human ever to view something on our home planet. And there is the intangible security of entering a womblike space that evolves only on the geological clock. A cave eclipses the urgency of the morning's news.

 

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