I woke up this morning to the sound of a rooster’s crow, another first for me. I had spent the night at a dumpy motel in the sleepy town of Junction, TX, a place I hadn’t heard of until I landed there after a tiresome drive of about 10 hours and, according to Google Maps, 666 miles.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up to the beginning…
I woke up yesterday to the sound of my own alarm. I was intent on leaving my grandparents’ house by 5:30 AM in order to arrive at Carlsbad Caverns by noon. I remember rising and shutting off the phone with an acute feeling of revulsion, of petty annoyance. It struck me as odd; why am I feeling angry? Am I not on vacation? Am I not living the dream. I soon realized that it was probably because I had not woken up this early by alarm since I left my last job, when I arose in such a manner six days a week every week. A sort of conditioned psychological anguish had been awakened, momentarily throwing me off my vibe.
I left Albuquerque long before sunrise and drove through the desolate desert ranchland of Eastern New Mexico. This proved to be one of the dullest drives of the Tour, every bit as barren as North Dakota. Over four and a half hours I could count one one hand the number of towns I passed through, and most of them were so bleak, so derelict it was almost hard to believe. I stopped at one and took some pictures.
On the plus side, the complete lack of roadside attraction allowed me to make it to Carlsbad Caverns ahead of schedule. I arrived by 11:15 and, after slapping on a brand new pair of hiking books, prepared to hit the caves.
Carlsbad Caverns is the subterranean Grand Canyon, an impossibly large network of caves and chambers formed from a dissolved limestone bed. They have two self-guided trails – the “Natural Entrance” and the “Big Room” – for regular tourists as well as ranger-led tours of some of the deeper deposits. I stuck with the basic trails; the ranger-led ones required more money and advance ticketing, and besides the basic trails were incredible enough.
From the moment I began to descend the steep, winding trail into the mouth of the cavern things felt palpably different. It wasn’t just the darkness, or the refreshingly cool air, or the peculiar smell which reminded me of an unfinished basement; there’s something about being in an underground cave that triggers something mystical, some kind of primordial atavism. I felt oddly at home there; beneath the hot and angry world of man, beyond the reach of internet and social media. I began to understand why our ancestors sought shelter in such places, and to fantasize over the possibility that one day – perhaps in my lifetime – humans might have to return to such abyssal dwellings.
I tried to absorb as much of the geological information as I could, but mostly I was transfixed by the sprawling, surreal formations that hung from the ceiling and pushed up out of the floor; the thin, icicle-like stalactites dangling like the tentacles of some Lovecraftian monster. It all added to the sense of arcane mystery that was both otherworldly and oddly familiar.
As much as I enjoyed the Carlsbad Caverns, I made a slight miscalculation with respect to my visit. I had expected my venture to last all day the way the Grand Canyon had, so imagine my chagrin when I explored the entire Natural Entrance and Big Room in about two hours! My original plan had been to leave the park around 5 or 6, camp somewhere in the remote BLM land nearby, and head off for Austin the next morning.
I decided to drive into Texas early. I set my GPS for Austin, figuring I’d go as far as I could and then crash. The route my Garmin settled upon took me through a series of rough, rural highways where more trucks than cars abounded and where the potholes were so nasty and abundant I feared my car’s axles would be destroyed. For at least 150 miles it went on like this, sandwiched between trucks and SUVs with their belligerent Texas drivers. Nothing to look at but miles of West Texas oil fields with their gas flares burning menacingly against the sky.
After a couple hours of this I stopped in the first real town I could find. Pecos, Texas; home of the world’s first Rodeo, or so they claim. I stopped at a Mexican restaurant and splurged on a taco plate, the first real meal I’d eaten all day. This gave me enough composure to ponder my situation. I opened up Google Maps on my phone and looked at the cities along the I-10, wondering which of these dots, these mental abstractions, would become my home for the night. Making it all the way to Austin was out of the question but I figured I could make it to Junction, which is about two and a half hours away.
After Pecos the drive through West and Central Texas became decidedly less oppressive. The flat desert topography gave way to gently rising hills adorned with green grass and bushes, the highway became less crowded and rough. For some reason I had expected all of Texas to be cruel and unforgiving, but this was actually quite pleasant.
Just as my confidence began to peak I noticed a dark aberration in the distance. Sinister, ashen clouds loomed ahead, dumping silky sheets of rain on the horizon. Tall, singular bolts of lightning whose terror was only heightened by the lack of thunder. Shit. Could I beat it somehow? Should I pull off at the next picnic stop? As in all potentially frightening situations, the most devastating element was uncertainty.
I decided to forge ahead, and within 15 or 20 minutes I had my answer. The rain poured down like a waterfall, blanketing the highway. After having driven 80mph for the last few hours I was reduced to a paltry 40 as I struggled to keep the Impala from skidding into a ditch and turning me into a literal Ghost on the Highway.
Perhaps the one thing that saved me from disaster was the vehicle ahead of me; a Ford pickup truck towing another (damaged) car, who was also advancing at half the speed limit and whose flashing hazard beams became my guiding light as I slowly inched along. All told the ordeal lasted maybe 20 or 25 minutes, and when it was over I was more than happy to pull over in Junction, spend $45 on a dingy motel room, and hit the hay.