Instead of being lowered in guano buckets like the earliest visitors, we had the experience of modern elevators; yet my impressions of Carlsbad Caverns were not unduly hampered by modern technology. The rapid descent was reminiscent of William Beebe’s bathysphere descents off the coast of palm-studded Bermuda. The prehistoric sea’s former presence seeped into my mind. When the elevator touched bottom and the doors opened, we entered a landscape of what seemed like a new planet. The lobby room, contained within tile walls, had a heavily eroded gray cave ceiling. We slowly, meditatively ambled out of this room into the naturally cool cave of intense silence.
Edwin Way Teale’s description of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky in North with the Spring (1951) rang true:
The year stands still in a cave. There is no summer, no winter there. Time is not divided into four seasons of the year. The rising and setting of the sun is something remote and unreal. Calendars are meaningless in this moonless world of damp and darkness.
Thirty or forty people trekked silently into an immensity of underground space with stalactites and stalagmites growing out of the ceilings and floors. All eyes seemed fixed on these unfamiliar objects of the underworld. As the speechless group was silently guided deeper into the dimly lit depths, I thought of Dante’s depictions of the deep and dark inner rings of the underworld and had to come to grips with some sort of earthly reality to assure myself that I had not died and that my soul, along with thirty others, was not being led to some final destiny in a strange afterworld.
Only after about ten or fifteen earth minutes of walking inside the Big Room did my trance begin to dispel. I began to note things in a more rational fashion. The squeaking of blind mice occasionally disrupted overwhelming silence along with the sound of pebbles rolling off ledges made by blind crickets scampering about in pursuit of tourists’ cracker crumbs. While bats do not live in the Big Room, obviously they did at one time since a large twenty-foot high pile of deteriorated guano remains to this day. They had, at one time, an opening to the sky, somewhere three hundred feet above. Perhaps a minor earthquake sealed it up.
We shuffled past many small lakes and springs of the interior of this cave and approached Mirror Lake at the base of cathedral organ-shaped stalagmites. The eerie reflection of twisted, eroded limestone had a mesmerizing effect. Our slow shuffle continued past the Temple of the Sun, coral-like Fairyland, Giant and Twin Domes and on up to a hilltop where we stood and stared at the entire Big Room in which nearly a half mile of unearthly dripstone spread beyond in eerie gloom. Each underground formation remained an unwritten poem. At length, we hypnotically returned to an upper world of New Mexican light and sun and clouds and prickly pear cactus.
Weeks later, we entered yet another cavern deep under the Rockies. If at Carlsbad Caverns I had experienced a strange afterworld, here in southern Montana at damp and chilly Lewis and Clark Caverns, I thought I must have sinned grievously as we followed our guide ever downward on winding stairways through angular dark tunnels and deeply pitted dripstone chambers. Several stalactites had much earlier fallen and stuck to the smooth surface of limestone walls. Standing and staring deep within the first large room, I sensed that I had never left the underworld of Carlsbad. Going deeper into dimly lit vaulted caverns, we ambled ever so slowly into the Brown Waterfall Room. The smooth brown ripples of ferrous limestone looked like oozing and tantalizing salt water taffy that we sinners were forbidden to eat.
Then we shuffled toward the giant Atlas Column towering twenty six feet high and eighteen feet thick; this giant ice cream cone also remained as forbidden refreshment for all of us. Beyond the Atlas column stretched numerous bands of candy-like calcium deposits of flow stone, flowing within hand’s reach. Our guide snapped us back into reality by explaining that, like Carlsbad under the Guadalupe Mountains, a prehistoric sea is responsible for the formation of these caverns. In this case, an ancient sea invaded limestone of the Madison Formation to be cracked open with fissures that grew into caverns of the present-day Cave Mountain, Montana. The whole process took over 200 million years. He added that it takes approximately one hundred years to form one cubic inch of dripstone.
The same disastrous earthquake that struck Yellowstone in August, 1959 shook and rattled Cave Mountain, but fortunately it did not cause any major damage to these magnificent underground formations. Thankfully the earthquake occurred late in the evening when there were no tours being conducted during what would have been a phantasmagoric experience. As we exited our last tunnel, we awkwardly squinted our eyes once again in a bright and blazing sun.
Photos by the author, Richard F. Fleck