Packed up our square grey govt-issue Astro mini-van Friday evening and headed east on I-25 (rt. 66) from Albuquerque. After passing through the canyon between the Manzanos and Sandia Mountains, the landscape flattens out onto the eastern plains. I don’t think there’s another bump east of there for at least a few states. This is kind of fun and different for a while and we like the sunset and the breeze through the windows and occasional sightings of antelope and abandoned adobe ranches. But then you get to Cline’s Corners (where there is the biggest, tackiest travel centre/gift shoppe in the world. I like the wall shelf unit of personalized coffee cups saying “The Smith’s” or “The Malloy’s” complete with quote marks and misplaced apostrophe) and turn south and things get even flatter and more barren all the way to Roswell.
Roswell is kind of bland other than the alien thing, but Artesia, the next town south, is just plain awful. Just before Artesia is a series of mounds of cow manure heating up under plastic held down with tires, and the smell is indescribable. Then the cowshit odor dissipates so that your palate is cleansed and you can enjoy the aroma of some kind of natural gas plant that makes you reel from the stink. We stopped to watch the fire shoot from the chimneys and partly I admit we wanted to breathe the air for a while because we couldn’t believe people live around there and put up with it. And because unlike them, we could just drive away from it.
We got a room at the Holiday Inn and went out for dinner in Carlsbad, where apparently no one has ever seen an interracial family before. The other patrons were staring, slack-jawed and paralyzed by our presence. The good part was that when we got in the outdoor hot tub, the other people got out, so we got it to ourselves. So see? There is always a silver lining!
Saturday morning we drove south another 28 miles to Carlsbad Caverns, the main point of the trip. Before we get to the cave, my ten year old daughter, Olivia asks, “Am I going to hit my head on Something-agtites in there?” She always has the best lines. Carlsbad Caverns was awesome. What can I say? The place is absolutely enormous and magic and unending. Cave rooms the size of football stadiums, then tunnels leading to other rooms and all kinds of surrealistic visions. (Remind me to tell you the story of the last time I was here five years ago with twelve gay men and my son Nigel on a special tour of the caves, and after the big cave conservation “you-can’t-even-chew-gum-in-here” ranger lecture, little Nigel PISSED in the cave when they turned out the lights.)
After walking for a few hours in this chilly otherworld underground, my husband Byron ran the seven miles back and the kids and I drove back to our hotel in White’s City.
I had gotten a reservation in a hotel in White’s City, because I read that this was the nearest place to stay by the caves. Turns out this is NOT a “city.” This is one of those hokey 1950s phony “Western Town” strips of “shoppes” in the middle of nowhere, cashing in on its proximity to one of the wonders of the world. And selling homemade fudge, candles, gaudy “Indian” crap, tee shirts and there is “Granny’s Opera House” and “The Velvet Garter Saloon” and just to add to the festive note, as you walk along the wooden walk in front of the shops, little speakers sing, “Howdy Pardners, and Welcome to White’s City!!” We averted our eyes in embarrassment, but at least enjoyed the swimming pool/waterslide park by the hotel.
That night around dusk, we drove back to the natural entrance of the cave, and sat in an outdoor amphitheater with some other tourists, waiting for the bats to come out. Mexican Free-Tail bats live in the cave from May until Sept. and exit nightly to spend the night flapping around the Pecos River in the moonlight, eating insects before returning to their roosts (and their young) at dawn. When we got there at around 7pm, there were thousands of cave swallows , which at first were easy to mistake for bats, but they head into the cave for their nests when the bats head out. A ranger gave a little presentation that made me want to give up everything I do to go off and study bats. She said they had been leaving the cave every night for the last two weeks at around 8pm, then she looked at her watch and said huh, they must be late tonight. It was 8pm on the nose and right behind her, a million bats come swirling in a reverse tornado from the depths of the cavern. What a spectacle. What a cliche, but… what a sight to see. Man! That’s all I can say about that.
That night back at the hotel I watched some birds swooping around in the lights over the swimming pool and was disgusted by a hotel worker telling me they were bats when clearly they were not. Nor were they swallows. A quick search of my bird book identified them as Lesser Nighthawks. I watched them for a long time after my family went to bed.
Sunday we went back to the caves and took the ELEVATOR 800 ft. down to an unlikely gift shop/lunch room in the middle of the earth (I hate to admit this, but my only memory of visiting Carlsbad Caverns with my El Paso, Texas relatives when I was seven years old is of the box lunch with the cheese on white bread sandwich I had down there in the underground cafeteria).
We took a “special tour” of part of the cave with an appallingly verbose ranger, which just intensified my crush on the female ranger from the night before…ln her little green hat and olive epaulette shirt… but I digress.
So after our Sunday morning cave tour, we repacked the grey-box car and headed back north. Byron decided to take a shortcut on a two-lane road zigging northwest through the most remote part of the state. The only “town” on this route through the rangeland was called Willard and I couldn’t imagine anything much being there. With breathy rainstorms on the horizon and the kids asleep in the back, Byron said, “Would you like a fried egg on your red chile enchiladas?” I said yes, and a slice of lime with my Tecate, if you have it.
Without the slightest hope of anything like this - in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday - we entered the six building town of Willard to find a place called “Willard Cantina y Cafe,” with the daily special being “Carne Adovada.” With Tecate beer and a slice of lime.