A blind man walks into a cave.
Sounds like the opening line of a joke doesn’t it? I have always been fascinated with the array of National and State Parks that dot our country. Of course, most of this fascination has been more intellectual in nature, as I am not an “outdoorsy” guy. I know that I am not the only computer nerd that prefers the indoors, stereotypes do exist for a reason. Recently however, I have been making noises about trying to do more travelling around our area. To try and make some memories by visiting some of the Parks and Monuments that are within a day-trip distance of our home in Lubbock, Texas.
Part of my motivation, is that it sounds fun and I want to make these kinds of memories with our kids while they are still under our roof. But the other part is that I really want to see more of our God’s creation. Not to be morbid about it, but I am not certain how much longer I will be able to see these beautiful places and I want to capture those memories. While there is no sign that I will lose the rest of my vision, I also know that nothing is guaranteed to stay stable forever. So, with all this in mind, we planned a quick trip to the closest of the fifty-nine National Parks, Carlsbad Caverns. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is right at 200 miles from us and even with four kids to wrangle, that is about a 4-5 hour drive.
PREPARATIONS AND THE TRIP
Andi and I had done this trip a couple of times before, the last time was about seven years ago. Based on these experiences, we knew that we would be doing a lot of walking and with the kids and me, we knew we needed to get a few things to make it easier. So, in preparation, we hit Wal-Mart and picked up two hydration backpacks and three waist packs that held two water bottles each. You can never have too much water was our thinking and when the opportunity arises to buy some new fanny packs, I’m all in. I mean, I had to put my Field Notes, pen and sunscreen somewhere. Andi and I also discussed whether I should bring my cane to help navigate the cavern but we decided instead to pick up 2 collapsible trekking poles for me to use. Our thinking was that they could serve both as an aid to navigate just as a cane would but would also help keep me better balanced while hiking downhill for a couple hours.
The next morning, we loaded up the Pathfinder with snacks, kids and our gear and off we went. As per our usual pattern, we left a good 2 hours after we wanted to and departed Lubbock just after 11 AM. The drive was uneventful (for us) and we arrived close to 3 o’clock. It was a balmy 98 degrees in the parking lot, so we geared up with our fancy new packs and climbed the stairs towards the ticketing area.
When Andi got to the front of the line, she inquired about the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass for someone with a disability. A friend had mentioned that these lifetime passes for the disabled existed. From what we had read, it might be something that we would have to request throught the mail and might take a few weeks to process but that we could ask at the park if they had any on hand. Amazingly enough, the amazing friendly lady behind the counter asked me to come up to the counter and she processed our request for a pass on the spot. She even processed a refund for the tickets that Andi had already purchased, since the pass that she issued me covered not just the person it was given to but also the people that travelled in the car with that individual. Saved us $30 at the gate and now I have this awesome pass that will get us into any of the National Sites for THE REST OF MY LIFE!
DESCENDING INTO THE CAVERNS
So, with the new pass in my handy fanny pack, we head for the natural cave entrance of the actual cavern. For those of you who have never been, there are two ways to do enter the Carlsbad Caverns. You can either take the elevator down to the Big Room which, is 750 feel below ground or you can walk through the natural cave entrance and descend that same distance by foot. We chose to do the latter because we are not wimps and enjoy the challenge of navigating the dark pathway into the bowels of the Earth. Of particular note, here is the experience of passing from the searing heat and sunlight into darkness and the 55 degree coolness of the actual caverns. It is a very neat but surreal experience that I particularly enjoyed. They call this area the ‘Twilight Zone’ and the name really fits for how this area felt.
Pretty quickly, the kids moved off ahead of us, following the pathway as it weaves its way back and forth around the amazing rock formations. Thankfully, there are railings on at least one side all the way down so I was able to use these to help guide me. There were also installed lights among the stalactites and stalagmites that highlighted certain formations which also helped light some of the path here and there. I also utilized one of my trekking poles as we had planned and it served well both a support and as a walking cane when needed. There are a number of checkpoints on the way down where a well-lit sign would be with information about a certain notable item or bit of history related to the caverns.
I also wanted to mention that we brought an audio player from the Visitor Center down with us that provided a lot more details about each of these checkpoints. I recommend grabbing one as they are $5 to borrow and you return them when you are done. After about 90 minutes of walking downhill, we reached the Big Room, which is a massive open room which happens to be the fifth largest chamber in North America. Here is where we stopped for a bit and then got in line to take the elevator back up. The elevator is a pretty neat experience as well, as you realize that you are passing through solid stone as you ascend the 750 feet back to the surface.
When you exit the elevator, you come into the area where there are two great gift shops. Here is where you can find books, plush animals that make the park home and a wide variety of other items. As is the case with many retail shops, the space really felt crowded with items for sale. The aisles were narrow and I had to move extra slowly to be sure not to collide with the display of coffee cups, which were awesome by the way, and destroy several hundred dollars worth of ceramic bat mugs. In a perfect world, these types of spaces would have a little more elbow room for me to navigate in. This would allow my wife and older kids to not have to constantly worry if I was going to turn into Ferdinand the bull in the china shop. I did manage to make it through without breaking anything and I found some great things that scratched my analog itch. I picked out a patch, an enamel pin and some fantastic postcards while the kids found themselves a few items that they liked as well. I must say that the National Parks really know how to market themselves with well designed merchandise.
SEEING THE BATS, OR NOT
Carlsbad Caverns is home to thousands of Brazilian Free-tailed bats, along with two other species that reside deeper in the caverns. At dusk, many of the bats will leave the caverns in search of food. As a special feature of the park, there is a nightly presentation by the park rangers centered on the bats and some of the history and science of the particular ones that reside there. The presentation was really informative while also keeping all of our attention. Unfortunately, on this particular night, we were not treated to a large bat exodus as we had been told to expect. According to the kids, a few came out and buzzed overhead but I did not see a single one.
With that, we loaded back up and started the night-time drive home. We made it home after midnight, wore out but pleased with the overall experience. From my perspective, this was definitely something that a person with a visual impairment could still enjoy and could do relatively safely. Using the trekking pole and the keeping a hand on the railings, I never felt like I was at risk of hurting myself. A large part of my sense of security also comes from my wife and kids. It is second nature for them to help guide me when needed. Oftentimes, they will gently tug on my arm or guide me while holding my hand and I trust these tugs and pulls completely. They also helped me to not run into others as they may have been pausing to rest or helped get me out of the way of groups that were coming up on us from behind. As in many other areas of my life, I have put aside my stubborn pride in order to make sure everyone enjoys things safely. I don’t believe that having someone with you as a guide is necessarily a requirement to navigate the Carlsbad Caverns but it certainly does help.
Additionally, so much of the caverns experience does not rely on my eyesight to enjoy. Pausing and just listening to the water that has worked its way through the limestone to drip all around you. Feeling the cool air that somehow moves despite being so deep underground. These are experiences that nearly everyone can enjoy, whether sighted or not.