New Year, Old Cave

Thanks to my cough becoming bronchitis, I was in bed before midnight on New Year's Eve for the first time in my adult life. It has been a holiday that I've celebrated every year, no matter where I've been: Japan, the Philippines, Mexico, Honduras or just at home with friends. But not this year—which is just as well, since my hacking coughs put me in no mood to live it up. And besides, since I'm traveling solo, I've got no one to celebrate with. So I got some rest, rose early on New Year's Day, and went underground.

Several million years ago, percolating water and sulfuric acid ate away at the limestone underneath Carlsbad, New Mexico, forming what is now Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Today, an elevator takes you down 750 feet, to a self-guided path through majestic caverns covered by stalactites, stalagmites, "soda straws," "draperies" and other magical formations.

The caverns encompass vast caves, both developed and undeveloped. The main chamber—"Big Room"—is the most accessible (even to wheelchairs). Measuring 1800 feet by 1000 feet, with the ceiling in some spots reaching to nearly 300 feet, "Big Room" is aptly named. The walkway wends around the perimeter of the chamber, revealing exotic sights both minute and grand.

Glittering calcite stalactites dripping from the ceiling, popcorn-like rocks covering the ground, the enormity of it all dwarfing you... words can't capture the awe one feels.

The most surreal aspect of the experience for me was the uncanny feeling that I was underwater. Gazing up at arching ceilings, looking down on formations reminiscent of coral reefs, following the undulating currents of the path, perceiving the not-unpleasant sensation of being enclosed, I could not help but feel I was scuba diving through some fantastic undersea landscape.

Next: Santa Fe and Beyond

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