On Day 7, we woke up early again, packed the car, and readied ourselves for another long drive. As we went in and out of our little cabin at Chisos Mountain Lodge in Big Bend National Park, the spring on the old-fashioned screen door meant that we made more noise than our fellow guests appreciated. I started thinking about how long it had been since I had stayed anywhere with a real screen door - not the soft-close, partially-glass versions you see today, but the ones your great-grandmother’s house had. I realized then that I’d never told my own kids, “Don’t let the screen door slam!” as they ran outside to play, bare-footed and laughing.
I spent a nostalgic moment longing for simpler times. But then I remembered that I’d spent the night with no covers on, half-clothed, trying to stay on my own side of the bed since it was far too hot to be touched and decided that modern A/C trumps screen-door nostalgia every single time.
With the car packed, we began to make our way out of the park and down to lower elevation. Just as we left the lodge area, we were shocked to spot a small Mexican black bear by the side of the road! These bears only returned to the park from Mexico in the 1980s, so we didn’t expect to get to see one. (Incidentally, the Mexican black bear is evidently ursus americanus. My friend Andrew made fun of me for calling it a Mexican black bear, asking me if I checked his passport or if he spoke with an accent. But I promise that the rangers and placards in the park called it a Mexican black bear.)
|The bear conveniently appeared right beside the bear crossing sign.|
|I took many crappy pictures of this bear. This one was actually really good and has Casa Grande in the background!|
|We were surprised that this bear was so slender.|
Anyway, no one else was around, so we took lots of pictures and some video before leaving the little guy alone and driving away, thrilled with our luck.
About an hour and a half from Big Bend is Marfa, Texas, an art enclave in the middle of nowhere. Several New York artists moved here and started their own little piece of awesomeness in the west Texas desert, and I wish we had had time to explore it more thoroughly. I’ll just add that to my list of places to come back to sometime.
Outside Marfa is the area’s most famous piece of art, Prada Marfa. This installation was the brain child of artists Elmgreen & Dragset and is not an actual store though it displays a wall full of real Prada shoes (all European size 37) and six bags (with the bottoms cut out to discourage would-be thieves). Beyonce made a pilgrimage here with her entourage in 2012, lighting up Instagram with her photo, and the little building has been pictured repeatedly in countless fashion and art magazines including Vogue.
|Me in front of Prada Marfa|
|Spotted windows, dusty bags and shoes, and even dead moths on the floor inside are all part of the art of this installment.|
Not to be outdone, a tongue-in-cheek Target appeared recently nearby, evidence of the wit of the locals. Leave it to Texans to hold their own with New Yorkers.
About three hours later we arrived at our third park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We had bought our tickets in advance about two weeks earlier, so we had to arrive by 12:30 to check in for our 1:30 King’s Palace tour. We were early, so we decided to grab lunch before descending into the cave. There is a snack bar down in the cave that serves pre-made sandwiches and salads, but the restaurant up in the visitors’ center had more interesting options. Josh and I split the Mexican pork adovada, slow-cooked pork in chili sauce over Mexican rice, and Kinley had a burrito. The adovada was delicious, and we finished with plenty of time to change into jeans, hiking boots, and sweatshirts before taking the elevator down 850 feet into the perpetually-56-degree cavern to meet our tour group.
|Park #3 - Carlsbad Caverns|
|In addition to being a national park, Carlsbad Caverns is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Josh would like to visit as many of these sites as we can.|
Here’s the thing. The King’s Palace tour was an hour and a half long and you get to see parts of the cave that you can’t see without a ranger. But I have to say that you probably don’t really need to do a tour. The Big Room is accessible without a tour, and it is, frankly, beautiful. And huge. Like, it took us an hour and a half to do the Big Room, and that’s without the $5 audio guide. There’s just so much to see! Granted, we didn’t take any of the shortcuts that are available, we read every placard, and the kids worked on their Junior Ranger booklets as we went, but I’d still say you don’t really need a separate tour. That said, there is one candlelight tour that tends to sell out weeks in advance. I haven’t done it, but if ticket sales are any indication, it may be really special. But, I’m telling you, the Big Room is plenty special.
We’ve done all the caves in the parks system – Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Mammoth Cave, Oregon Caves, Russell Cave – but this place is more impressive to me than all the others. Mammoth Cave is impressive because it is the largest cave system in the world, but this place has the largest cave room in North America and it has eye-popping formations in every room. Mammoth Cave just doesn’t seem as Mammoth after seeing this place.
After we finished the King’s Palace tour and our own tour of the Big Room, the line for the elevator to return to the surface 850 above was at least an hour long. We decided instead to take the Natural Entrance Trail and climb our way out. I had been assured by a young, perky ranger that it wasn’t stairs and that the paved trail’s switchbacks were her favorite area of the cave, so we bypassed the elevator line and made our way toward the path.
People, do yourselves a favor, and take my advice. Walk down. Ride up. The trail really is well-maintained, and there really are only 10 or so stairs. But that 45-minute walk was not easy. I made it, but I was huffing, puffing, and sweating most of the way.
Near the mouth of the natural entrance, a colony of cave swallows has set up camp, and you could see their frequently-falling poo in the darkness-piercing sunbeam that actually resembled an alien ship’s tractor beam, if the tractor beam were also laced with bird crap. Which, now that I think of it, would bring an interesting element to the next Star Wars movie. You’re welcome, Disney.
Anyway, I found myself huffing, puffing, sweating, and now trying to dodge falling bombs of bird excrement as my children shrieked with horror and ran ahead, abandoning me to save themselves, just to escape this 850-foot-deep tunnel of darkness. And did I mention the stink? Surely I mentioned the stink. Because the last 50 yards smelled of untold eons of fowl foulness that had me pulling my shirt over my nose and now huffing and puffing into my own sweaty chest.
Eventually, I stumbled out into the harsh light of day, grateful for the heat and blinding desert sun, only to find that it was still another 1/3 of a mile to the visitors’ center. And then, at the door to the visitors’ center, was the stupidest sign I’ve ever seen on a trail. Why in the world would you put the warning sign at the point where hikers are going down????? Why in the world wasn’t this sign down in the cavern at the point where you decide to go UP???? What is wrong with these people??!! I mean, aside from dodging poop and holding your nose, going down isn’t hard!! Coming up is hard!!! I just don’t get it.
Shaking my head with bewilderment, I went inside, ready for a bathroom and some water. Our lunch had been so good that we decided to have dinner in the restaurant as well which would give us time to check out the gift shop and bookstore before the bat flight program began at 7:30. Josh and I shared The 1923 Panini (named for the year the caverns became part of the NPS system), and, truthfully, I could have eaten another one. The kids’ choices were just OK, and we decided that we’d recommend lunch there over dinner.
|No pictures are allowed during the flight, but we snapped this one before the bats began trickling out.|
Every night from sometime in March to sometime in October, about half a million Brazilian free-tailed bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns in a mass exodus that people travel from all over the world to witness. We had been told to be at the amphitheater by 7:00 to get a good seat, but it seemed to me (after a few minutes of embarrassing my children by checking out various options) that all the seats were pretty much the same. A park ranger gave a very interesting and informative talk starting at 7:30, and we saw a mule deer and a swift fox on the hillside behind him as he talked. The cave sparrows continued to swoop and poop until, at about 8:15, some sixth sense told them to go to their nests to get out of the way of the swirling bats about to exit the cave in search of water and food.
Another ranger signaled that the bats were beginning to form at the natural entrance, out of view of those of us in the amphitheater, so the ranger giving the talk sat down to watch. We all held our breath, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. A couple of bats flew up. Then a handful more. For the next 45 minutes, we watched as bats emerged in groups of 3 or 4 at a time, but they never took to the skies in massive tornadoes of blackness as we’d expected them to.
Evidently, the wind had gusted just as they were about to take flight, and, weighing just a few grams each, they didn’t want to take their chances against the breeze tonight. As we watched other people trickle back to their cars, we eventually decided to do the same. As we left, a ranger told us that the flights are much more predictable in August and September, so remember that if you ever plan to go.
We were disappointed, but we remembered our early-morning surprise bear encounter and reminded ourselves that bats are wild animals and not a circus act, ready to perform on cue for an amphitheater full of gawking humans. We quietly walked to back the car, looking at the stars and carrying new memories as souvenirs.
+2 for a bear sighting
+1 for thought-provoking art in the middle of nowhere
+2 for the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen
-1 for inadequate trail signage
-1 for unexpected avian fecal matter
+1 for bats that live on their own terms
-1 for sitting on rock benches for two hours