Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Back from holiday in Carlsbad, NM!

On the way to Carlsbad Caverns
I've recently returned from holiday in Carlsbad, NM.  Averaging a little under 13 inches of rain annually, this region is where the the Chihuahuan Desert takes over after the last gasp of the short grass prairie fades in far eastern New Mexico. My main impression was of a thinly grassed chaparral dotted with spiky yucca-like plants I couldn't tell apart. Remarkably, it rained or snowed two of the three days I was there. This was some feat considering the area averages only 41 days of precipitation per year. I have a knack for getting rained on in deserts.

Closer view of the vegetation
I'm not totally clear on differentiating the various spiked rosettes that dominated my visual impression of the landscape. I do not think I could tell them apart without their dried floral stalks. Thanks to guidebooks, I know I saw sotol (Dasylirion leiophyllum), torrey's yucca (Yucca torreyi), mescal agave (Agave parryi), and lechuguilla (Agave lechuguilla).

I've gleaned the following: sotol and lechuguilla's leaves have hooks curved back toward the base, but sotol leaves are finer with dried, light brown fibers extending far beyond the tips of their leaves. Mescal agave looks like what we call a 'century plant' in horticulture, and torrey's yucca is raised up on a brown pedestal of its previous growth, leading me to initially call it a 'joshua tree'. Yuccas (vs. agaves and sotol) don't seem to have hooks on their leaf edges. Of course, most people go to Carlsbad to see what's underground, not to do a comparative study of spiny rosettiform succulents.

Possibly a torrey's yucca?
A giant fungus-like speleothem
One of the stories my dad tells about me is that as a small child I essentially had a 'freak out' in Luray Caverns, VA. I remember reading some Tom Sawyer-y/Little House on the Prairie-type book about children getting lost in the caverns at about that time. I imagine I was pretty concerned about the lights staying on and getting back to the surface. Supposedly we completed the tour but I begged and whined the entire time.

This family story of some early childhood cave-associated terror came to mind as I prepared to go down into the cavern. I hadn't toured a cave system since that experience, so I was curious if I would discover some forgotten fear. I am pleased to report that I enjoyed visiting the fantastic Carlsbad Caverns without incident. Some things do change.

The big room
Carlsbad Caverns is famous for its remarkable speleothems (cave formations including: stalactites, stalagmites, columns, etc). While most caves are formed by carbonic acid, the limestone of Carlsbad Caverns was dissolved by sulfuric acid.  The caverns started forming approximately 4 million years ago, and progress ceased with climate change at the end of the Ice Age. These caves might start building again, if climate changes bring the area more rain.

Despite the lull in geologic activity, you could hear dripping water echo through the caverns. It smelled like dust and wet stone. Human odors seemed sharper for some reason. Whenever I passed someone wearing cologne, it was stronger than at the the surface. I'm not sure if the human scents were being thrown into relief by the spareness of the cave, or they were more efficiently picked up by my nose because of the 90% humidity underground.

It is astonishing to me that early explorers dropped ladders in the abyss and descended into the darkness in total ignorance of what they would find. It seems likely that this need to have a finger in every pie is a characteristic human trait.

I saw more of New Mexico than the caverns, and I will write on that shortly. Until then: have a happy New Year's Eve!

Higher elevation desert slopes near visitor center

1 comment:

  1. Your complaints in Luray Caverns were so measured but clear: "I don't like this; I think we should go back." You've been a good sport about us continuing to tease you about it all these years. <3