Carlsbad and El Desierto Frágil

In early September, less than two days after I returned from a nearly 3,000 mile solo road trip to California, I turned around and went on another road trip; this time with V, and much closer to the borderland, three hours away to Carlsbad, New Mexico.

We wanted to celebrate the Labor Day holiday weekend by visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park. In a three-day flurry of outdoor pandemic-safer activity, we also visited Sitting Bull Falls in the Lincoln National Forest, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park, and the Pecos River Flume and Heritage Park. The latter is featured on “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” as being “The World’s Only River that Crosses Itself,” and not even a sudden and hellacious storm thwarted our exploration of it.

One of my favorite things about serving on the U.S.-Mexico border has doubtless been the proximity to places in my home country I have wanted to visit. My experience traveling in the American southwest has been so limited there will be no way to check everything off the list this tour, but getting out to Carlsbad Caverns was something I really wanted to do.

We made our way to Carlsbad on a Saturday morning, and as we approached the Guadalupe Mountains at about 75 mph I snapped an impromptu shot through the windshield of the 4Runner. It came out pretty well, considering.

El Capitan Lookout, near Van Horn, TX and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park – as seen from US-62 (photo editing courtesy of Uncle RC) ~ September 2021

When we arrived in Carlsbad, we checked into our hotel and decided to head to the flume. I still didn’t really get what a flume was (I was picturing orange flames and smoke plumes for some very strange reason) but I knew it was going to start raining soon and I wanted to see it before that. (I’ve since come to understand that a flume is like a raised aqueduct, but rather than just letting water flow through it like an aqueduct, it is engineered to channel the water through and keep the flow at a certain level. I read it’s something to do with an open declined gravity chute, or something, but I’ll leave that to the engineers.)

Anyway, as we arrived and parked under the bridge, it rather suddenly became so windy that when I opened the truck door to get out, the wind literally ripped it from my hand. It was a ridiculous wind, the kind that blows puddles dry, the kind that makes you stumble and laugh until it dawns on you that despite your substantial weight you might actually get blown to the ground. We exited the wind tunnel effect area beneath the bridge and decided to brave the approaching storm to climb up and see what we could see from above, and I’m glad we toughed it out.

With the storm about 15 miles away, we had limited time to explore the world’s only river that crosses itself

I’m not sure exactly how this river manages to cross itself – maybe it has to do with the magical science of flumes? – but it certainly did seem to be the case. Below you can see it behind me, and then also in front of V as he looks down at it. Trust me, it’s the same river. And there actually isn’t anything magical about it, but it’s still a cool oddity we enjoyed. You can read more about the history of the Pecos Flume at this linked Condé Nast Traveler article.

Pecos River Flume, Carlsbad, NM September 2021

The adjacent Heritage Park has some displays of old farming equipment and historical information about the area. There we felt the first droplets of rain, which quickly turned into the anticipated deluge. In seconds we were drenched as we hopped back into the 4Runner and Google-mapped our way to some Chinese takeout.

Greater roadrunner (Correcaminos Norteño), New Mexico State bird ~ Heritage Park, September 2021

Our second day in Carlsbad we headed to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where our annual national parks pass excepted us both from paying the $15 entrance fee, which was awesome. Because it had recently rained heavily, we decided not to take the long, slippery hike into the caves and instead went down in the elevator; although masks were required, not everyone was wearing one (or wearing it properly) and I didn’t relish the idea of packing myself onto a crowded, narrow trail with other people exerting themselves as we all tried not to slip and knock each other down.

Carlsbad Caverns, 9/5/21

For some reason V had worn shorts and forgotten a jacket, even though he hates being cold and has been caving enough times to know it is chilly by his standards. So he acquired a warm maroon and gray Carlsbad Caverns sweatshirt featuring a flying bat from the gift shop before we descended into the cool darkness.

The park is home to 17 species of bats, and although some roost in trees or rock crevices, some do roost in the caves. Between spring and autumn, you can visit the caverns to watch the “outflight” – it may take up to three hours on an evening for several hundred thousand Brazilian Free-Tail bats (who originate from Mexico) to spiral counterclockwise out of the caves. Bats are often misunderstood, but as the world’s only flying mammal, they consume a ton of pesky insects. They also play an important role as native pollinators, dispersing the seeds of a diverse array of plants.

This one I felt like had people in it…

Although the caverns have been a national park since 1930, they probably began forming somewhere around 250 million years ago. They contain more than 100 rooms, many not accessible to the public. Among others, we’ve seen the caverns in Luray, VA and Australia’s Yarrangobilly Caves, as I wrote about in 2018. But the caverns in Carlsbad were worth seeing. I’d wanted to go since I was a kid and my mom had visited them, so I finally made it. It blows my mind to think of early explorers venturing into caverns with candles and wire ladders, having not a clue what lay a few feet ahead of them.

We couldn’t find much by the way of a healthy take-and-go lunch at the caverns, since I try to avoid eating indoors. We decided to head over to our next stop, the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park. Unfortunately all the food we found there came from vending machines, but once we’d arrived and paid to get in, we decided to subsist on a lunch fashioned from our own car snacks instead of driving down into town for lunch and then coming all the way back.

With my favorite cactus the Prickly Pear (Nopal) at Living Desert – the fruit and pads provide an important food source for native peoples and wildlife, and the waxy plant slows moisture loss by only opening special pores at night when the air is cooler. I promise I did not eat any!

There was even a greenhouse featuring non-native plants that needed a different climate to thrive

There were a few animals at the park too – birds, butterflies, big cats, and even a bear. There were signs asking people to wear masks around the big cats which can unfortunately catch COVID-19 from humans.

L to R: Yucca, Nopal, Ocotillo – three native species you will see everywhere in the Southwest!

Prickly Pear fruit

The Fragile Desert / El Desierto Frágil

In the past, many people regarded the Chihuahuan and other deserts as barren, lifeless places. They were seen as places that needed to be altered drastically to be livable. We now know that deserts can have a high diversity of unique species of plants and animals.

The landscape as we see it now is the result of decades of human change. Cattle, sheep, goats, and other livestock grazed on the native plants and grasses. Some non-native species grew in their place. Other places were stripped of plants altogether.

Because of its dryness, the desert takes a long time to “heal.” Minimize your impact on the land by staying on designated trails.

Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park

Our final day in Carlsbad, before we headed back to Juárez, we ventured an hour out of our way to visit Sitting Bull Falls. We drove for what felt like forever on a road empty of everything except the occasional cow until we finally saw signs for the Lincoln National Forest.

Sitting Bull Falls, NM

There were leeches in the water, so we didn’t end up swimming, but we were OK to chill our feet in small pools we could see were clear. It wasn’t super-crowded, but you could tell that quite a few people were willing to make the trek out there. Some even hiked to the top of the falls and appeared at the top, so perilously close to the edge to take the customary selfies I had to look away. Once I actually said a quick prayer we wouldn’t see a man fall to his death. (I remember stories of U.S. citizen deaths from cliffs in Australia when I was serving there more than once, and I’m sorry to say it was almost always selfie-related.) Other than that and the leeches, Sitting Bull Falls was a peaceful space.

I pretty much just wore tank tops or beer shirts on this whole trip, it seemed

It was a good thing to spend time and reconnect with V after being gone for two weeks on the road by myself. I think this was the first trip we ever took together where I didn’t drive. I mean, at all. I didn’t so much as get behind the wheel once. It’s highly unusual, especially as I love driving and I’m often mildly carsick when I’m not the driver. It was also the first trip we ever took where I didn’t bring anything nice to wear, do my hair, or even wash it. I have never in my adult life gone out of town without a curling iron or a flat iron. Ever. Until now.

A combination of the pandemic making it difficult for me to plan to eat anywhere indoors and some other health challenges that I won’t get into at this point has meant I’ve had to accept some changes lately that are still a bitter pill. Being gentler with my hair and trying to leave it alone will be a part of that for the foreseeable future. But Carlsbad isn’t a fancy type of place anyway, and I loved this trip, the things we did and saw, and particularly the time together in the beautiful outdoors – places new to us that we would have been sorry had we missed.

Salt flats we passed on the way home, US-62

  4 comments for “Carlsbad and El Desierto Frágil

  1. November 29, 2021 at 10:27

    Good to catch up on your blog. Great pics, especially of the desert, and perspective on living the FS life always interesting. ~ Kelly

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

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Sarah W Gaer

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