Hall of the giants – an underground basilica
The discovery and continued exploration of Carlsbad Caverns and other caves in the Guadalupe Mountains seems every bit as dangerous and awe-inspiring as the recent ventures into space. Like most people, I’d heard about the caverns for a long time, but never had a chance to visit them until this summer on our way home from Texas.
On the day of our visit, we left a sad Oggie in the park kennel, and after we told the ranger we wanted to walk to the Natural Entrance, she assessed our fitness, issued the tickets, and explained the Big Room’s self-guided tour. Another ranger stationed on the way to the entrance recited the park rules, including wearing masks and not touching anything since the oil on our hands could permanently discolor the formations.
Just inside the entrance, hundreds of cave swallows had built adobe nests and swooped, dove, and sang, seemingly unafraid of human intrusion.
The trail to the Big Room dropped 800 feet in a mile¹, but the path was easy to navigate even after we entered the twilight conditions of the cave.
As we continued the descent, it felt like we were entering a dark cathedral with architecture and decor far beyond what the human mind could imagine or hands create.
The formations were so exquisite, in fact, that I wondered what forces could have crafted this underground basilica.
The answer, in part, is sulfuric acid. Anciently, groundwater mixed with hydrogen sulfide from petroleum fields beneath the caves converted into sulfuric acid which seeped into the limestone, quickly dissolving it.
Scientists have also discovered microbes that digest the minerals in the caves, again turning the hydrogen sulfide into sulfuric acid which contributed to the carving out process.
After the water table dropped below the cave’s floor, calcium carbonate-ladened water created stalactites, stalagmites, and most of the other formations.
After the calcium carbonate water evaporated, the minerals formed not only the stalactites and stalamites, but also soda straws, flowstones, columns, chandeliers, tendrils, waterfalls, draperies, and aragonite crystals.
The results are breathtaking. The Big Room, also called the Hall of the Giants, is the size of 60 football fields with a ceiling sometimes arching 250 feet overhead.
Depending on your imagination, some of the formations can seem terrifying such as the Devil’s Den or Witch’s Finger; delightful such as the Chinese Theater, Fairyland, Doll House, and Bashful Elephant; or awe-inspiring, such as the Temple of the Sun.
In fact, I kept getting chills as we stumbled along, cameras ready and mouths open, but the goosebumps didn’t come from the cool temperature of the cave.
They came from the feeling we were walking in a realm of the numinous, “the wholly other,” defined by Rudolf Otto as something “entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life.” I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for the first explorers before the advent of electric lights.
Indigenous people used the caves, evident from the pictographs painted near the entrance, but many of the formations were named by Jim White. In 1898, while looking for cattle in the area, the sixteen-year-old spotted what looked like smoke in the distance.
Upon investigation, however, he found thousands of bats flying out of the cave. He later wrote, “I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which the bats seemed literally to boil.
“Standing at the entrance of the tunnel I could see ahead of me a darkness so absolutely black it seemed a solid” (Jim White’s Own Story).
He returned later with a kerosene lantern, fencing wire, and a hatchet to cut branches off the nearby bushes. With one hand on his crude ladder and one holding the lantern, he lowered himself into the cave and began to explore the dark regions below.
He first discovered the bat cave. Then, he inched along another tunnel. “I followed on until I found myself in a wilderness of mighty stalagmites.
“It was the first cave I was ever in, and the first stalagmites I had ever seen, but instinctively I knew...there was no other scene in the world which could be justly compared with my surroundings” (Jim White’s Own Story).
That began his life-long passion for exploring, mining, and promoting the cave. He became the park’s chief ranger after it was designated a national monument, but before that, he helped excavate bat poo, more scientifically known as guano, with some companies removing tons every day and selling it as fertilizer. Apparently it was profitable because they continued mining for twenty years.
Although guano mining has stopped, exploration in the caverns and other Guadalupe caves is ongoing, and in some areas only courageous cavers and scientists are allowed, but as much as I would love to see those spectacular sights, I was already stunned by the Hall of the Giants with its tourist-oriented spotlights, informational signs, and elevators.
By the time we finished the tour, we finally remembered our sad dog sequestered in the world above and reluctantly boarded the elevator for the ride to the surface, but any encounter with the numinous imprints a person’s psyche. Awe imprinted mine.
¹Most of the scientific information for this column was taken from Carlsbad Caverns: The Story Behind the Scenery, a beautiful book by Edward J. Greene.