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Focus Regional Winter 2021 | Journey to the Center of the Earth


Absolute darkness. Total silence. Overwhelming sensory deprivation.

Millions of years ago, sulfuric acid dissolved limestone along fractures in the rocks of the now Guadalupe Mountains, and thus began the creation of the Carlsbad Caverns. During the descent from the unrelenting desert sun to the utter and astounding darkness that is the belly of the cave, one can only imagine the trolls and troglodytes lurking behind the towers of ancient limestone. Winding around damp and twisted paths through gnarled speleothems, it feels like dropping into the bowels of the Earth. While actor and comedian Will Rodgers called the caverns, “the Grand Canyon with a roof over it,” people sensitive to claustrophobia feel the weight of 750 feet of rock above their heads. For the more fearless spelunker, guided tours lead visitors through tight cracks and unlit trails of Spider and Slaughter Canyon Caves. Evidence shows that Indigenous peoples knew of the caverns for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but it was not until the late 1890s that a young cowboy named Jim White dared to drop into the abyss. The PBS Weekend Explorer captures Jim White’s thrill at the discovery: “I thought it was a volcano,” Jim mused,”but, then, I’d never seen a volcano — nor never before had I seen bats swarm, for that matter. During my life on the range, I’d see plenty of prairie whirlwinds, but the thing didn’t move: it remained in one spot, spinning its way upward. I watched it for perhaps a half-hour until my curiosity got the better of me. Then, I began investigating… I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which the bats seemed literally to boil.” Jim White happened upon one of the many legendary sights to be found in Carlsbad Caverns National Park: the bat flight. According to the National Park Service, “The size of the colony fluctuates from night to night and season to season. Between 200,000 and 500,000 bats call the cave home over the summer, swelling to over one million during migration.” These flying mammals are universally regarded as creepy creatures of the night, however former Park Superintendent, Thomas Boles, would beg to differ: “These bat flights are just as much a part of the scenic value of Carlsbad Cave, as is the upward rush of boiling water at Old Faithful.” The flight of the bats is so iconic that the Mescalero Apache people called the caverns “Home of the Bat,” and the Zuni Pueblo dubbed it “Bat Cave.” The title Bat Cave stuck until the induction of the caverns into the National Parks System in 1930.
Caverns National Park. A choose-your-own adventure awaits!
Most people are surprised to learn that Amelia Earhart worked at Carlsbad Caverns as a park guide! NPS Photo (vg/bh)
Caverns National Park. A choose-your-own adventure awaits! Most people are surprised to learn that Amelia Earhart worked at Carlsbad Caverns as a park guide! NPS Photo (vg/bh)
Horsehair worms emerge from a cricket in Dr. Hanelt's lab. 
Photo provided by Ben Hanelt
Horsehair worms emerge from a cricket in Dr. Hanelt's lab. Photo provided by Ben Hanelt

If the Boneyard, Devil’s Spring, Devil’s Armchair, Devil’s Den, or Witch’s Finger seem too mild for your dark exploration tastes, there is always Spider Cave aptly named after the infestation of spiders near the entrance. Bob Nymeyer describes the sight: “What I had seen were spiders. Literally millions of them clung to the ceiling and walls, forming a black mat completely covering the rock” in his book, Carlsbad, Caves, and a Camera. By 1967 all the spiders were gone. The cave still scores high on creep factor though, especially for the claustrophobic and nyctophobic (i.e., fear of the dark) visitors of Carlsbad Caverns. The wild cave is toured with flashlights and headlamps only and includes crawling and sliding through narrow passages.

Bats, Spiders, and ZOMBIE CRICKETS, OH MY!

Deep in the caverns lies a dead zone. Birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles do not venture far beyond the natural entrance. Three species of cave-adapted crickets, as well as beetles, millipedes, centipedes, arthropods, and parasitic worms make this alien landscape their home. While crickets are typically noisy, cave crickets are silent like their cavernous dwelling. Any noise makes them subject to danger. According to Mark Kaufman of the National Park Service, “The cricket’s greatest threat does not walk on land — it lurks in the water. Parasites, in the form of worm larvae, float in the cave’s pools waiting for a cricket to take a sip of water. And once inside their cricket host, the young worms do not simply exploit the cricket’s bodies — they take control of their minds.” Hijacked by the horsehair worm, the cricket’s behavior veers far from the natural path, straight into danger. The worm compels the cricket to jump into the water. Once in the water, the cricket succumbs to drowning and the worm bores through its body, fully grown and ready to reproduce, an act of animal savagery as grotesque as a cavern-inspired nightmare.

Jim White once explained the darkness of the caverns as “so absolutely black it seemed a solid.” Others who have experienced its depths have described it as permanent inky blackness and so dark not only can you not see your hand in front of your face, it’s as if your hand never existed to begin with. Even today, there are areas of pitch-pure blackness yet to be explored in the 120 known caves of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. A choose-your-own adventure awaits!

Article written by Morgan Fox and originally published in Focus Regional 2021 Winter edition.

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