Monday, September 30, 2013

Carlsbad Caverns

     Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Guadalupe Mountains, which stretch across the southeastern corner of New Mexico into Texas.  As you travel past canyons and cactus, it’s hard to imagine what might be lying underneath.  

     There are 118 limestone caves, twisting and turning for miles underneath the desert floor.

     There are several tours to choose from, ranging from easy to difficult.  We chose to take the moderate Natural Entrance Tour, which follows the traditional explorer’s route:

     The trail starts with a sharp series of switchbacks carved into the monstrous opening of the cave.  This is one of those sights that pictures cannot do justice.  

     Here is the view from the inside the cave, looking out:

     I tried to capture the remaining circle of natural light from the path below.

     If you’re interested in taking photos inside a cave, let me share the few things that I have learned:  Turn your ISO all the way up and your f/stop all the way down (to its largest).  Put your camera on continuous-shooting mode.  Focus on the most crucial, stand-out component of your composition and hold the shutter down for at least 2-3 exposures.  Since the NPS doesn’t allow tripods (and I don’t blame them) inside the caves, you’ll be shooting everything handheld.  I’ve found with continuous shooting that I’ll get at least one steady photo out of the bunch.

    The Natural EntranceTour is self-guided, which means you have as much time as you need to weave down the smooth path created by the park system.

     It wasn’t long into our journey when we came across some beautiful columns reflected in a stagnant pool of water.

     Here is a close look at the intricate formations that create Carlsbad Caverns, the skin of a column and some crystalline boxwork:

     The Natural Entrance Tour weaves down, down, down... for 750 feet.  It’s about a mile and a half long, though it can feel longer with the constant downward slant.  Your knees will get tired after a while as one switchback after another takes you past towering formations that stretch into utter blackness.

     If you’re claustrophobic, you needn’t worry about visiting these caverns.  This tour in particular contains more open spaces than are fathomable.  You’re below the ground but the ceiling is so far above you that it’s like a second sky.  As you walk along you’ll admire many of the famous cave formations: stalactites, stalagmites, columns, (which is when the first two have grown into each other) spires, and straws.

     Some of my favorite shapes are the curtains of soda straws clinging to the cave ceiling.

     Once you’ve reached the end of the Natural Entrance Tour, you’ll be 1/4 of a mile under the ground.  But don’t worry, you don’t have to walk all the way up to get back out.  There are elevators that take you right back into the Visitor Center.  

     If you’re not ready to leave the caverns, this is where you can veer off into the Big Room, the most expansive chamber in the caverns, which weaves around for another mile or so.

     There is even an eerie, greenish-blue cave pool.

     Carlsbad Caverns began forming around 5 million years ago.  Much of these caves are in pristine condition.  You are not on planet earth anymore, you’re inside of it.  It’s a completely different world, beautiful and mysterious.

     Here is a massive stalagmite which was at least 60 feet tall, water dripping down onto it constantly.  You can see this one forming before your very eyes, one tiny drop at a time.  

     Carlsbad Caverns is a complete time warp.  The 3 mile tour had taken us nearly 5 hours to complete, but it felt like a matter of minutes.  

     The only negative thing I could possibly say about Carlsbad Caverns is that it has the potential to make any other cave you might see after it seem small and unimpressive.  I've been to Wind, Jewel, and Mammoth, the other caves made famous by our National Park System.  And I'm very glad that I experienced them before Carlsbad.  I hate to pick favorites between the diverse and natural beauty of the caves, but you know what they say... save the best for last.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Terlingua Ghost Town Cemetery

     There is always something about a Ghost Town.  

     After leaving Big Bend National Park and heading West on 170, it wasn’t long before we came across Terlingua.  At first it appears to blend in with the desert landscape, buildings made of bleached stone and gravel crumbling down to return to the earth.  

     As you get closer you see signs of habitation, more so than your average Ghost Town.  Terlingua is no doubt a tourist destination.  A small number of people still live in the town and operate modest businesses such as a cafe and a campground.  You aren’t going to get the deep sense of isolation and abandonment that you’d get in a Ghost Town like Cisco, but these people are living inside of and next to the remaining relics of what was once a booming mining town.  It will still fill you with a sense of wonder.

     The relentless desert sun didn’t leave much time for exploration so we drove up a hill to the cemetery for a glance around.

     I love cemeteries.  I don’t find them frightening in the least; I find them peaceful, this one especially so.

     The cemetery in Terlingua impressed me with such a humble tenderness.  These weren’t graves of polished granite, nor were they neatly engraved.  There were no flowers.  Most of them were simple wooden crosses secured into piles of stone, bleached by decades of Texas sun.  

     This is one of the finer grave markers, an iron plaque surrounded by a wooden fence.  The fence was long broken, making crooked shadows on the dusty ground.  

     Most of the headstones consisted of rocks with the names and dates painted on.

     Some of the graves were built into tombs, but most of them were left to the elements and were crumbling.  Even so, modern religious candles in glass jars had been placed around most of them.  So it was clear that someone was still visiting, praying, remembering.  

     By the 1890’s Terlingua was a thriving city of 2,000 people, mostly miners and their families.  The cemetery represents a broad majority of those people.  

     Sitting here in a comfortable leather chair, writing on my iMac computer, I can try to imagine the hardships of what their lives must have been, but I’ll never really know.  Walking through the aisles of their loved ones’ final resting place in the hot sun, taking out my camera to capture my heavy mood, then getting back into an air conditioned car and driving away... I’ll never really know.  

     It might seem ironic, but I believe a visitor, a stranger, can carry their own form of respect into a cemetery:  You lived here once.  I never knew who you were.  But somehow... I’ll always remember you.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Day in the Life of Big Bend

     How big  is Big Bend National Park?  

     Big Bend is over 300,000 square miles.  It fills in the bottom Southwest portion of Texas, bordering the Rio Grande River and the country of Mexico.  A single ribbon of highway stretches down from the North to meet it, with only a handful of small towns surrounding it for hundreds of miles.  Visit Big Bend and quickly discover how appealing solitude and isolation can be.

     I was there in the middle of July when temperatures were soaring into the 100's.  July being the offseason, I passed no more than a few cars along the vast, stretching roads.  During midday, the bottom of the canyons can reach 110.  But up in the mountains you’ll be comfortable enough, even in the height of Summer.  The nights are cool and perfect, the skies inked with nothing but blackness and blazing stars.  It is an astounding place full of rugged, Texas beauty.    

     Here is a picture of a midday stop at the bottom of Boquillas Canyon.  It was so hot my camera was burning my hands!  But it was a beautiful view of the Rio, (one of my favorite Rivers) and of Mexico, which begins just on the other side of the river:

     If you’re going to visit in the Summer, the canyon bottoms are best explored in the early hours of the day.  But if you go in the Winter, make sure to check out the Hot Springs in Boquillas Canyon. 

     Driving around the park was slow going.  Every few yards we were stopping for a Jackrabbit as they hopped out all over the road.  I probably saw over a hundred, but they moved so fast I didn’t get a picture of a single one.

     When you’re in the desert in the middle of Summer, you have to make the most of certain parts of the day.  Mornings are the coolest and the easiest for hiking.  The sand and rocks haven’t heated up yet, and there is still a chill in the air.  The sun rises sweetly, its rays aren’t yet a blight.  But by 10 or 11, you’re thinking about taking cover.  

     I chose to spend my one morning taking in the glorious Rim Drive in the dawn light, watching the Chisos Mountains appear as shadows in the lavender sky.  As the sun came up over the mountains we pulled over and walked to the edge of a shallow canyon.  

     This Ocotillo plant caught my eye as the first light shone through it:

     Before the day got too hot and the light too harsh, we made our way out to Santa Elena Canyon.  This is easily one of the most stunning experiences you can have in Big Bend.  Many people choose to take a boat on the River here, but I was happy staying on the sandy beach and watching the reflections.

     A mysterious ribbon of Rio slices between two sheer cliff walls in Santa Elena Canyon:

     In Big Bend you’ll get to inspect some of the very finest plants the desert has to offer.  These are Agave; their height rivals those of certain trees, and they were all over the place.
     We chose to camp in Chisos Basin.  It lies at an elevation of 5,400 feet and its temperatures made for a perfect night of camping.  The grounds weren’t full as it was the offseason, which was lucky considering they don’t allow reservations.  So we had our pick of some prime sites.  

     As the light started to slant in the sky and turn the world golden, I admired the Western facing sides of the Chisos Mountains.    

     I spent the better part of my day and evening at the Window.  The Window is where the Chisos Mountains split open like an ethereal portal to some other world.  It just so happens that the sun sets perfectly inside of this window.

     A lovely sunset sky, the path, and grasses illuminated like spun gold:

     Sprawling cacti and the window in the distance, the last rays of light fading fast:

     If you’ve read any of my other posts about the Southwest, you’ll already know that I am in love with the desert.  Painters and Photographers have been drawn to the American Southwest for centuries.  Though it offers a zen like silence, an array of enticing colors not found anywhere else, and rocky formations that span descriptions from breathtaking to bizarre, I believe there is one aspect that truly casts a spell over all the artists who can’t stop making these desert pilgrimages.  It’s the light.  

     Sand and rocks are conductors of light, each hour of the day chaperoning the sun’s rays into endless combinations of beauty.  In the desert, all the elements are stripped bare and you realize how intricate the circle of life is.  Earth in exposed rock, Air in the perpetual sky, Water in the shape of everything you set eyes upon, Fire in the daylight and more stars than you’ll ever see in your life.

     The Window at dusk, the land sprawling on continually and turning into a parfait of shadows.

     The Window View was only a short walk from our Chisos Basin campsite.  We siddled back in the twilight and found a giant rock, still warm from the desert sun, and lied on our backs and watched the blue bowl of the sky come down on us as night fell.
     Don’t think for a moment you’ll be bored after the sun goes down in Big Bend.  If anything, the sky here is worth the trip in itself.   We were lucky enough to be there on a moonless night with not many clouds: the perfect conditions for Milky Way gazing.  Once total darkness hit, there was nothing but stars.  Big Bend is an International Dark Sky Park, which means the sky is almost as pure and perfect as it was hundreds of years ago before the Industrial Revolution.

     I feel like I say this too much:  I didn’t get enough time in this park.  Is there ever enough time to experience a National Park?  I would love to explore that question more thoroughly one day, but my suspicion is- No.  There is never enough time.  

     But I am so grateful for my chance to see Big Bend, even if it was for just a day.