“And every stop is neatly planned for a poet and a one-man band” – Simon & Garfunkel
Miles traveled: 371.2
Today was a National Park kind of day, visiting Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico followed by Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Salt Flat, TX. I hit the road in the morning after checking the oil level in the Jeep (just being cautious), draining the cooler, and making sure my hiking socks were within reach of my hiking boots. Pretty excited that the boots that were made for hiking were going to get some use and take to a couple of trails today!
The drive to Carlsbad, New Mexico was…well…it was plain and dusty. Not too much going on in rural Texas, although I did notice that I was driving through oil, cotton, and pecan country. The oil and cotton I expected, but pecans were a bit of a surprise! But aside from that – holy barren landscape! Thank goodness for audio books – I am on my third (I finished the What Alice Forgot book several days ago and listened to John Grisham’s The Racketeer yesterday) of the trip…so hopefully I don’t run out! I started The Kite Runner this morning to keep me entertained, as I drove through a whole lotta nothing for just over 3 hours! I passed through the very Grand entrance into New Mexico (they really pulled out all the stops for the signage) and proceeded to drive past much of the same landscape with the occasional odd feeling small towns that the highway passed through that were equipped with some 1950s era motels advertising “free color tv” and even some which had clearly been upgraded to include “free interned”. Have no idea what ‘interned’ is, but I would put good money down to say that it probably has a dial up tone upon activation. New Mexico was like stepping back in time and into an alternate universe all at once! Weird place. But hey, at least I gained another hour (so I am now 2 hours different from the east coast).
Upon entering Carlsbad, NM (the park is about 20 miles outside of the ‘city’), I stopped to feed the Jeep and pick up more ice for the cooler – it’s roasting, piping hot out (topped out today at 105 degrees, thank goodness for no humidity – that would be unbearable). I finally arrived at Carlsbad Caverns National Park after the very scenic 7-mile drive up to the visitor center and cavern entrance. Finally, a change of scenery from the flat plains of Texas and New Mexico!
Carlsbad Caverns is a vast change of pace from the first National Park I visited on my road trip (Hot Springs NP). It is in the middle of nowhere, and located in the Chihuahuan Desert of the Guadalupe Mountains. It’s also mostly underground – I say mostly because there are a couple of hiking and driving trails on the surface of the park. But the underground cavern is the place to be. You can get down to the “big room” in one of two ways – an elevator or hike down the natural entrance. The natural entrance is a steep 1 mile hike down 800 feet in elevation. I opted to take the elevator down and hike out as steep downhill hike + Sarah’s knees = not an enjoyable experience. After taking the elevator down 754 feet below the surface of the mountain, I stepped out into cool temperatures and darkness. It is a constant 56 degrees in the cave – and it was glorious. I followed the pathway into the Big Room of the cave and proceeded down the walkway passing some pretty incredible formations and features on the cave. For some perspective, the Big Room is 8.2 acres in size. As far as what’s really down in the cave – I’ll let the pictures tell the story. After making my way through the mile long path, I put away the camera and hiked a very steep 800 feet out of the cave. When I returned to the Jeep that had been dustily baking in the sun, I rewarded myself with a nice cold Sioux City Cream Soda from Pops – and it was divine. Don’t panic – it’s super hot out and it’s a very dry heat, so I have graduated to my second 24-case of bottled water of the trip and am keeping hydrated.
I then drove a relatively short (and quick – speed limits in NM and TX are 75…which seems a tad fast for the winding part of the roads) 45 miles or so, back into Texas, to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This park is relatively small as National Parks go, and it a hiking-centric park as there are no driving routes through it. I was excited about a good afternoon hike after spending so many hours in the Jeep sitting! Now as I mentioned, the temperatures peaked today at about 105…and this was when I was in the park. I stopped by the visitor center to quiz the ranger on recommendations for a trail to hike – I was planning on camping in the park, so wanted to get in a 2-3 hour hike this afternoon and another in the morning. Well – sometimes you can plan down to the minute, and Mother Nature just has different plans. Because of the heat, the park ranger strongly advised against hiking this afternoon and there was also no overnight camping because of the weather. Well crap. So I talked with the ranger for a few minutes and she gave me some of the history of the park and mountain range, followed by a couple of shorter hike options so I could at least get out and do something! The Ranger’s only request was that I check in with her when I finished hiking (I suppose to make sure I hadn’t died from the heat). Oddly enough, the park ranger was a 2009 graduate of the College of Charleston and grew up on Pawley’s Island, SC. Small world. So we had a fun chat about South Carolina, The College, her working as a park ranger, and my road trip. Small world! I set out on the couple of short hikes through some very beautiful landscapes and enjoyed the great outdoors, even when it wasn’t what I was hoping to accomplish today in the park. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches!
I checked back in with the Ranger, caught the short video about the park, and walked through the small exhibits in the visitor center before heading back to the Jeep. I grabbed another cold water and Gatorade out of the cooler, took off my boots, did some research on lodging, made a quick call to a hotel to make sure they had a room for the night, and made my way to El Paso, TX, finishing The Kite Runner on the way. El Paso is a dry and dusty place, but a rather large/spread out city right on the US/Mexico border along the Rio Grande. It was also quite difficult to navigate through between the road construction and crazy spaghetti bowl interstate design. But alas, I made it to the hotel and settled in. A bit earlier than I expected, but no complaints here – I’ve had several very long days on the road so a little more R&R works fine with me! Since I have a huge head start on day 16, I am going to take care of a couple practical matters tomorrow while in El Paso before I head to my next stop.
Until next time…