Monday, August 3, 2009

O' Christmas Tree

In blackness, complete silent blackness, everything blends. The body and mind and surroundings evaporate. Hands drift off with rocks. Feet spread into places above and beyond and inside. Thoughts are now and gone and later. I am a boy reaching and falling, and I am an old gasp. I have yet to live and I am always.

And … I turn my headlamp back on, kiss the rock next to me, remember I’m not the metaphysical type, and drop deeper into the cave I’m exploring.


“Lets go to Carlsbad Caverns,” Jared, my middle school chum, proposes. “I found a map that tells where the backcountry caves are.”

Well, I grew up claustrophobic to the point that I would walk twenty flights of stairs to avoid a confining elevator, so caves were never my forte. But, after watching the “Caves” episode of Planet Earth, I knew it was time to face the fear.

Jared picks me up in his girlfriend’s truck. Zeppelin screams, “Hangman, hangman, pray tell me that I'm free to ride,” through the dry falsetto air and we are off.

Three hours into the drive and my hiking boots have run off. For twenty-five dollars Wal-Mart equips me with the worst boots money can buy.

At 10 pm a hellish yellow Camp-on-Arrival (KOA) sign welcomes us to what Edward Abbey called Industrial Tourism.

KOA’s website describes their Carlsbad location as a place to, “Kick back and relax with family and friends at this eight year-old campground, which is truly an oasis. KOA will spoil you with its 2,000-square-foot community room, meals delivered to your site, a beautiful commercial laundry, outstanding restrooms, a fenced dog park, a heated pool and an adult hot tub.”

We see a skunk under a floodlight, a white flash screams off its back. Glowing red coke machines buzz and burp consuming nature’s serenity. Deer eat from open dumpsters. Water spigots drip, drip, drip New Mexico’s water into dying grass. The lights erase the stars. TV’s advertise Oprah’s new weight loss program from the open windows of RVs.

But I am happy. The more people that call this camping, the less people there are in real wilderness.

Jared opens a beer and tosses me one. We pore out a little for the skunks stalking us in circles, and make bets on whether a drunk skunk is less or more likely to spray us. They scratch at our tent most of the night, but we don’t smell much worse in the morning.

We are on the trail by 8:00 am. It is 102 degrees. We have three gallons of water between us, plus 30 pounds of lenses, lights, tripods, and a camera. Sweat gushes from me faster than I can refill it. Heat snakes off the rocks.

Two miles and hundreds of feet up, we find a hole, the entrance. Jared’s map suggested the use of a repelling harness, but said the drop was only twenty feet and could be free climbed. We did not bring a harness.

I tie some webbing to a rock, grab hold, lean back and remember it has been ten years since I last repelled. But, hand over hand, arms shaking, I plunge.

Jared has never free climbed or repelled.

“I don’t think I can do this,” he stammers.

At the bottom my heart still pounds. “It is easy,” I lie.

He declines.

I turn from the entrance, look into the abyss, and take a step.


Rock-cicles stab from the ceiling. Goblins and goliaths, frozen, perch and hunker in shadows. Columns like twisting teeth bend in on me as I stare up.

Between each chamber is another squeeze. Once through is another cacophony of spines, orbs, ringed stumps and fluted spires. I am too excited to be claustrophobic.

A cave is two worlds. First it is natural, black, alone, a mind’s playground. Then, a light blinks on. A blue castle, sparkling, hangs upside down from the ceiling.

Another light, a ten-foot brain, red to orange, shimmers with its oblivious thoughts.

Light three ignites a petrified furnace of terraced teacups. Surrounding are shelves like tree fungus that cling to the walls and collect milky dust.

Out of the black flashes an emerald saber-tooth slashing the midnight from ceiling to cellar.

Then, from above, looms the cavern’s namesake, a Christmas tree – a two-story high dimpled rock pyramid that rests on a two-foot wide stone stump. I could spend days circling it, but Jared waits up top and I’ve spent 3 hours inside so I light it, frame it in my shot, and set the tripod.

Click, the camera is set for a two-minute exposure. The stationary lighting looks good, but I need a few flashes for the rest. I only have one.

I change the exposure to three minutes so there is time to move around for multiple flashings. The shutter opens and I stumble through the dark to the chosen locations.

I flash the ceiling; flash the foreground, flash to fill the gaps left by the fixed lights. Walking, the ground feels unstable.

Back at the camera the shot is blurred. Checking the lens, the focus is accurate. My movements must have shaken it. Is the floor solid? Deeper cavities often lurk under caverns thought fully explored. This level hasn’t collapsed yet I guess.

My last attempt I am a panther slithering over and between the formations with grace. After the last flash I try to hold my excitement from perturbing the ground and camera. I look, Success.

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I start to collect my lights. My fear turns on as the lights go off. I remember where I am, in a deep confined space, my nemesis.

Shadow spreads its velvet cloak behind and above and around me. Trying to move faster my feet are like two of the three stooges. The goblins are back, but bigger now and their fingers rip at my clothes. I nearly run. I can’t breath. Taunting echoes reverberate through the air. Should I go left or right, up or down?

Then … Jared calls my name, light from the entrance squeezes though, he drops the rope, and I am out.

(Legal Disclaimer: The events in this story may or may not have happened in the way described)

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