Time Excavates

Carlsbad Caverns, like most things in New Mexico, were further away than they looked on our map. Uncartographed stretches of open highway practically pushed the play button themselves on the Black Sabbath Volume 4 cassette I keep in my backpack for just such travels. The GPS seemed frozen in time with a perpetual 4.5 hours left of travel as my husband, Evan, and I cruised at 75 mph, the only car on the road. There were a few big towns on the drive from Albuquerque to Carlsbad: Roswell with its alien museum, military University, and record shop; Artesia with its Texan oil drillers, smell of natural gas, and the sensible mix of Mexican Catholicism and New Age mysticism. For the most part, the plains and buttes along Route 285 were interrupted only occasionally by towns that consisted of a post office and an empty playground. The rare nicety was a (typically closed) gas station, the dismembered pumps and faded signs mere talismans, reminding travelers that, while this may look like the moon, there is a very earthly possibility of running out of both gas and luck.

However hard to find working gas pumps may have been along the lonesome highway, the oil extractors could be seen for miles at a time, long stretches of giant machines moving slow and diligently. Up and down, these black silhouettes toiled the earth, bringing to mind the dinosaurs who roamed the planet as the very oil these machines extracted was first being created.

I want Evan to love this place. I used to live here, and a large part of me never left. New Mexico’s on-the-license-plate nickname is “Land of Enchantment.” This is officially due to the relentless beauty of the landscape, but the legend is that there is a curse on the state. It works like a magnet, according to my friends, and once a heart attaches to the state, it won’t let it pull away. One may move away for a few years, but after a while the pull will be too severe and there’s no choice but to return, regardless of disruption to an otherwise settled life. I traveled for a few years before venturing to Pittsburgh, and somehow nine more years passed as I fell in love with a local, bought a house, and settled into a rather cozy writer’s life. But the clocks are always ticking, even if we ignore their chimes, and the desert has been calling me for ages.

My longtime efforts to leave have historically been met with a raised eyebrow and a sigh, as if I’d suggested we get preventative root canals. In the coming weeks before our trip, my amorous descriptions of New Mexico built up a callous on my husband which I then worked to soften. You’ll probably hate it, I backtracked, realizing I’d overdone it with descriptions of stormy sunsets gathering on the mountains and the lavender scent of fall. There are multi-thorned spurs called goat heads that break from their vines and blow everywhere. The dog would never adapt. My daydreams of the American Southwest were that of an old lover, one who provided things currently absent in my life. My desire to return to this place was like trying to create a symbiotic love triangle, and it made Evan uncomfortable. Why can’t I be your desert oasis? his eyes said as he listened to my ramblings, eyebrow cocked.

I kept an eye on his’s facial expressions as he picked up on some of the things I love most about New Mexico. Green chile and cheese burritos at the gas station, friendly locals happy to answer any questions or help out with a problem, the snow falling on mountains, stretching down to them with long dark arms of precipitation with the sun still bright on our faces. My not-so-secret plan was working — one love of my life was meeting the other, and they were hitting it off.

As the road poured like red chile sauce forever south, the landscape changed, badlands turned to farms and back again, homes turned from trailer to abandoned shack to ranch mansion. Abandoned mining towns sat untouched as the world just barely changed around them, and the more prosperous and capitalist put up cast iron gates across the entrances of their private dirt roads, with Villegas, Trujillo, or Johnson sculpted in the arch. Closer to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the road lifted and twisted with the earth, Desert Hackberry and Apache Plume bloomed from the growing hills and the Guadalupe Mountains emerged once again into view.

By the time Evan and I reached the Caverns, the view alone kept us hesitating at the gates. Walking towards the entrance, we were instead pulled across the parking lot to the edge of the landscape, our whole future laid out in front of us. This is why we came to New Mexico. This is why my dreams all take place here, 12 years after I’d moved away. I’d never spent much time in the southern part of the state, and while I love the northern lushness of Santa Fe, Pecos, and Taos, I was struck by the overwhelming sense that I was finally home, a wild animal released back to her land. Maybe it was the altitude, or just the clear desert air that filled my lungs like balloons after I’d been breathing city exhaust for a decade, but I was lightheaded. I remained on the cliff and reached back for Evan’s hand. We stood there, admiring the planet’s ability to create such bizarre formations, and humanity’s ability to see this wide expanse of land and have no unyielding drive to pave it with strip malls and industrial parks. Towards the south, the highway could barely be seen like a dark river cutting along the curve of the sandy landscape, and if my vision was stronger I may have seen the few Criollo or Corriente cattle meandering in their fields, gnawing on the tough shrubs that polka-dotted the rolling foothills.

The American Southwest can have a Magic Eye quality, as eyes relax and focus like camera apertures to find so much detail and wash it away simultaneously, creating a beautiful hypnosis as they try to discern distance. But I’d never been to Carlsbad Caverns, it was a long drive, and they were soon to close for the evening. With a squeeze of the hand, Evan and I snapped ourselves out of our daze. We paid the small fee at the counter and shuffled off with the other families to the holding pen where we waited for our elevator operator to give us our queues.

“Anyone want to touch a stalactite?” the operator asked without humor. We all looked at each other, no one wanting to be the first adult to admit that yes, we really wanted to pet a stone. We knew we should know what it felt like, but we all collectively, secretly, wanted to be sure.

He gestured to the sad, pink hunk of mineral in front of him, smooth and dirty as the worry stone I keep in my pocket.

“This is your chance. There is absolutely no touching the formations in the cave. If you have to get it out, do it now before we go down into the tunnel.” Everyone frowned and nodded and most of us reached out and tried to not make eye contact as we rubbed the rock; it was clear why they don’t want visitors doing this to the cavern walls below. This stalactite looked pitiful, shamed.

Because we got there after the Natural Entrance closed, we took the elevator down the 1.25 miles into the earth, and stepped into the cool, dank cavern. The path that takes tourists around the Big Room is coincidentally also 1.25 miles. We took our time through most of it, surprised at how incredible it really was. Turns out it’s hard to take photos of a dark cave full of rocks, fossils, and minerals that have dripped and gathered like wax over millions of years and do it any sort of justice. The pamphlets technically look similar to what is inside, to the point that one can identify Witch’s Finger, Rock of Ages, and Queen’s Draperies, but beyond that the expanse of the caves, their depth and detail and sheer size, felt surreal to walk through as a mortal. At some points, the path gets close enough to the rocks to see how they were formed. The time it took for our glorious planet to patiently sculpt the reef fossils, stalactites, and stalagmites is hard to comprehend, considering many of the formations are still slowly dripping and shifting, minerals in the perfect ecosystem are mixing and regenerating, building and deteriorating. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Adopt the pace with nature; her secret is patience.” As a fellow East-Coaster, I’m alarmed he figured out in his mom’s back yard what took me 2,500 miles to understand.

Born and raised just south of Boston, I feel in my gut the constant roar of the ocean. The tide shaped me like a sand dune. Living in New Mexico, I acknowledged a strange similarity in the two landscapes; there were times driving between Albuquerque and Santa Fe at night when the dark stretches of land felt as textured and bottomless, and the lights of Albuquerque in the distance as reflective, that I felt the same emotional pull as staring out across the Boston Harbor. Walking amongst the formations in the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns, the musky basement feel brought me back to my childhood standing on the big seawall boulders, inching into the bay to reach under for sea creatures, or being careful in my steps for the periwinkles that blinked and sighed like thousands of tired mothers. There were no periwinkles down here, 1.25 miles into the ground, and no mussels, but their energy was here. About 250 million years ago, this area was under water. Since then, time came and went like tide itself, during which the land lifted, gases escaped, fossils exposed, and minerals seeped. In a sense, the ocean is still very much present at Carlsbad Caverns, moving organically, albeit slowly, to create structures that, while we cannot touch them, feel presently alive and pulsing.

But then, everything in New Mexico happens more slowly. Mañana is something that permeates everything. Whether it’s drivers waiting a solid minute before tooting their horn at the person in front of them who hasn’t realized the light has changed, people showing up late to meetings or being slow to make plans, or the more grand scale of geological time. In Boston, buildings are emptied and refilled like trash cans, people constantly coming and going from communities that are sometimes amoebic in their shifting boundaries but very much alive. Even Pittsburgh, which experienced a mass exodus in the late ’70s when the vast majority of mills closed and displaced millions who had no income, has bounced back to become one of the most livable cities in the country. It now has a fantastic infrastructure of hospitals, universities, art and nonprofit institutes, and independent businesses that collectively worked to rebuild the city. While the decades may have weighed heavily on the shoulders of those who carried the city during that time, and while there is still work to be done to rebuild and support some of the neighborhoods still devastated by the exodus and by racial tensions, Pittsburgh is again a city, a true community. Time worked as a tool to rebuild, and worked with great rapidity, considering the work done.

The ghost towns of New Mexico, with their abandoned storefronts and homes that look like someone ate breakfast and decided to leave before having to wash the bowl, expose a longer version of time. People leave and sometimes don’t come back. Sometimes they do, like the quirky towns up north such as Cerrillos or Madrid, but the transition is gradual and the new communities bring with them their own ideas of the revitalized homestead. Carlsbad Caverns may not be able to exist out east simply because we don’t have the patience for such things.

About halfway through the walk, Evan pointed to an impressive mound beside us. I looked up, already over-saturated with the general magnificence of the entire place, and couldn’t see what was especially inspired about this particular formation.

“Keep an eye out for bats, I guess,” he said with a smile and shined his flashlight on top of the heap, exposing its detail. The whole mound, dozens of feet tall, was guano, the top layer looking fairly fresh. It wasn’t the same calcite and limestone as the other formations, but still an example of nature’s patience and the planet’s ability to appreciate and facilitate life in even the most minor and quiet ways.

We exited the Caverns about an hour before sunset, when the bats were due to wake and escape for the evening. We didn’t stay. Half-wild animals ourselves, we didn’t need to see the urgent flight into night. We had adopted the pace of the caverns, but only for a brief moment, and felt the need to take flight ourselves. Wild animals, returned home.

We headed back out the way we came, though the light had shifted while we were underground and everything looked different, almost effervescent in the setting sun. At Brantley Lake State Park, we drove deep into the wilderness, searching for a place to pitch our tent for the evening. No one was in the park, as far as we could see, and we found a spot by the beach that morning eventually shown to be rather dirty and unimpressive, but in that pinkish hue like Himalayan salt, it was an outdoor honeymoon suite.

While progress may move more slowly in New Mexico, the sun sets at the same speed, and by the time our tent was up it was just about dark. Feeling charged by the slowly swooshing lake against the shore and the phenomenological power of Carlsbad Caverns, we took off our clothes and climbed onto the hood of our rental. I glanced over at Evan, whose face had relaxed into a calm smile that’s so rare for Easterners, the face of a person who feels he is exactly where he needs to be. Maybe it was because he saw my face shift as our plane first descended over Albuquerque, or because time is what we so often lack as a couple, and here, it was in seeming endless supply. Maybe it was because in such an empty part of the world, there is space to be exposed. I would later have the conversation with Evan that yes, the magnet pulled at both our hearts, and we did end up moving here eventually. But in the moment, this shared moment of happiness was enough. I knew the questions would be answered in time.

As the last of the sun disappeared from the sky, it pulled the day’s heat with it. Naked and exposed, our skin shook with the rush of cool air as goosebumps puckered one by one. We watched the stars, also one by one, form their own slow shapes, trillions of years old and away, taking their time.