"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Carlsbad Caverns

Mind boggling sensory overload. Outrageous. Spooky. Weird. Get ready...  From the hundreds of photos we took, I've selected a variety that might be meaningful to those who have not seen this first hand. I tried to get a balance of close ups and long shots, and different kinds of rock formations.  Even so, this may be overwhelming and repetitive. I hope not.

We woke up to a very cold morning, for the first time in weeks. So we bundled up and headed south to the New Mexico-Texas border in what must be the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains. They didn't seem quite like mountains. You have to drive through them a ways before you get to the Cavern entrance.

Visitors have the choice of many tours, but several folks over the past few days had recommended that we take the Natural Cavern Entrance and Big Room self-guided tours. So we did.  In the caves it stays about 58 degrees all the time. So we were already dressed appropriately for the chill.

First stop is the Visitor's Center where we picked up a couple of audio tours. They worked really well and we were glad we got them. This is the only cave I've ever been in where you could walk through by yourself without a gang of people led by a ranger telling goofy stories.  Once out of the Visitor's Center we passed through the Wildlife Amphitheater before starting the descent. This is where people watch thousands of bats leave the cave in the evening. This only happens in the warmer months, so the bats have already flown south. (In fact, I overheard some visitors talking to a ranger who said they had all pretty much left just the night before. The bats knew it was going to get cold I guess.)

Then the long trail down begins, and it goes on for a very, very, very long way.  It takes about an hour and a half just to get down all the countless switchbacks to the Big Room, and there is so much to see every step along the way.

The trail down is almost enough by itself, and it's more than I've seen in any other cave. Here's a shot looking back up through the opening.

The last of the natural light fades...

The cave is lighted with theatrical lights that are subtle yet effective. It used to be "in" to light caves with boldly colored lights, name the features fancifully, and even to add cute little trolls and gnomes to the landscape. You can still find caves like that in this country. Now the national parks try to provide just enough light so that visitors can see the most interesting formations while still giving the essential feeling of being in a cave, which is a very dark place. To us it usually just looked like dim warmish light, but the camera picked up more obvious shades of green and gold in addition to white.

The entrance flattens out...

Formations begin to appear...

And it keeps going down! 

We weren't sure we were going to be able to get pictures at all, but I think our cameras did really well.  The cave is too big for a flash to be effective. Here's what happens. The foreground gets washed out and the background is blurry.

The rock formations as a whole are called speleothems.  The types in this cave are stalagmites, stalactites, popcorn, columns, soda straws, flowstone, draperies and many combinations of them all. This a close up of some draperies.

These are very thin draperies lighted from behind, called the "Whale's Mouth." 

This is popcorn...

And this is a combination of speleothems.

This is a close up of a small portion of about a 20 foot column.

There are no significant crystal formations in these caves, but in an adjacent cave system (where no one is allowed but researchers) there are massive crystals of several kinds.

Once the descent of the entrance trail is complete, visitors are directed to a concession and rest area, thank goodness, because by that time we were glad there were restroom facilities in the cave.  The overall effect is kind of Disneyworld meets Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.

Here's this hybrid entrance to the restroom.

So, on to the Big Room. The pictures do not do justice to how big it really is. They say it is the size of 6.2 football fields. You can see the silhouettes of two people on the far left. By the way, we encountered only about ten people in 4-5 hours.

All around in every direction there are formations (also called decorations), large and small adjacent grottos, holes going up, holes going down, passages going every which way.  The cave and all the formations are formed by water, which still runs through the cave, meaning that it is a "living" cave or  still forming. There are some small reflecting pools on the cave floor, but the water level fluctuates in response to the amount of water coming down from the surface.

Visitors must stay on the paths. No problem. The paths are really smooth and there are always railings to hang on to.  Other parts of the caverns that can be reached on other tours are not so easy to traverse.

This picture is looking up at delicate stalactites forming along cracks in the ceiling.

This section is called "Fairyland:"

More columns and stalactites...

My favorite formation was this group of stalactites lighted like a huge chandelier near the center of the big room.

I tried to capture it from every angle. In this picture you may also get a sense of how densely the speleothems have formed on all surfaces of the cave.

This massive stalagmite is called the "Rock of Ages."
By this time we were feeling kind of aged ourselves, and saturated enough with caveness.

But there was still more...

This miniature grotto is called the "Doll's Theater." It really is doll sized.

And this formation didn't have a name, but I think it looks like an evil troll, 
so here's wishing you, dear reader...

a Happy Halloween!  See you in Texas!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

New Mexico: Brantley Lake State Park

Here we are at the ends of the earth.

Well no, actually Brantley Lakes State Park in southern New Mexico.  Another huge site, with nothing between us and the Chihuahuan Desert. 

The level of the lake here is way down, so no water sports this time.  A walk down to what's left of the lake led to encounters with lots of prickly and dead vegetation.  See the round brown circles? Those are underwater plants that grow in circular clumps. Yeah, they aren't underwater anymore.

Anyone know what these plants are?

Or these?

Or these?

I know this one is a cactus, but not what kind. These kinds of plants are all new to me.

 And aren't these pink ones cute?

The low water has left lots of odd stuff on what is now the shoreline: dead bushes, old wheels, eroded land. It was all kind of dramatically ugly so I thought I'd just mess around with the special effects in Picasa.

These were a line of wheels leading down to the water. No idea why.

This is the new shoreline.

This is a drowned bush that looks upside-down - with its roots in the air.

So are these. They look like hydra-ish sea monsters.

We were just here so that we could visit Carlsbad Caverns. This weirdness is in preparation for more weirdness underground tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

New Mexico: Bottomless Lakes State Park

We're near Roswell, New Mexico now, camping at Bottomless Lakes State Park.  Roswell is the place where a UFO purportedly crashed in 1947 and much was made later in the 20th century among UFO and conspiracy enthusiasts of a supposed military cover-up. The town still has a few tourist traps and museums about aliens and UFOs, but nothing looks like its doing any great business. I guess interest in the UFO thing has faded and so has the downtown area where these places are, or used to be in some cases.  Some local businesses still have carved or plastic little green men out in front of their stores, or space related words in their logos.  "Galaxy" and "alien" are popular names.  It's a funny place.

Roswell does have some large things going for it; among them are the New Mexico Military Institute, the Roswell International/Industrial Air Center and quite a few cattle feed lots south of town.

The State Park is 12 miles east and has a full service campground with everything but sewer hook ups. (It does have a dump station.)  We're in site 27 - the largest site we've ever had anywhere - and a stone's throw from the miraculous Lea Lake.

Typical of New Mexico, the surroundings are mostly dirt, prickly stuff and dry grass, but we do have some shade from nearby tamarisk trees, the weed of the Western freshwater shores.  Atypically, the ground around the lakes is not dusty; it is kind of clayish instead, so things (and Kona) don't get so dirty.

The "bottomless" lakes, which are really from 17 to 90 feet deep, were formed by underground water dissolving the salt and gypsum above it and creating sinkholes or ceynotes. Most of the holes are shallow or filled in with debris, minerals and vegetation. Some, however, are crystal clear and very deep. Of those, Lea Lake is by far the most lovely. 

The water is a cool 63-68 degrees, and I've read that somewhere between 2.5 to 9 million gallons of clear, slightly saline water flow through it every day. That's easy to believe, as there is a very full but small canal with beautiful water rushing out of the lake 24/7 and filling the nearby wetlands. Visibility is incredible and the lake has a subtle blue-green color from the resident algae. Fish, softshell turtles, ducks, coots and dragonflies are also in residence.

There is a large stone bath house and sheltered picnic building, with this photogenic tower...

and a family friendly sand beach.

In the summer the lake is very popular, but now we have it pretty much to ourselves. We are enjoying what seems to be an unseasonably warm Fall here, and so we (I mean Rick and Kona) have gone swimming daily.  We (I mean Rick and I) have kayaked a few times too.

Throughout this valley the same geological processes have created shallow wet land areas that are refuges for masses of ducks and sandhill cranes. We got our first sight (and sound) of the cranes while taking a stroll at sunset on our first night here. There is a very nice boardwalk through the wetlands, with three camouflaged viewing huts along the way.

I did some more exploring by bike and foot over the next few days and discovered a dirt road that led further out into wetlands.  On my first evening out there the flocks of cranes were landing right over my head, so close that I could hear their wings beating and the little chatting they were doing to one another as they landed. Sandhill cranes make a huge racket as they gather by the thousands in the evenings. But as they are landing in their groups of 10-50, one or two make a different kind of little call that just sounds like a small conversation about their landing plans. Then as they join the large group there are loud calls, and so many that it is a cacophony you can hear far and wide.

Rick and I set up there the next night before sunset in hopes of getting some good pictures of the landing cranes.  

We waited and waited, taking some great pictures of the clouds...

 the wetlands...

 and even a quick rain shower as the sun sank. But no cranes! 

Finally, just as I was despairing that they had changed their location or were gone for the season, here they came.  They didn't fly right over head - maybe the wind was coming from another direction - but we did get lots of pictures anyway.  No close ups this time though.

As we left the sky was turning this incredible apricot blue color. 

Back at the campground I got one last shot of the lake and the tower. 

Every night we go to sleep to the eerie calls of the sandhill cranes in the distance.  

We are here for one relaxing week and then we're off to see the Carlsbad Caverns, and on to Texas.