I hesitated in the candlelight in front of the locked metal gate seven hundred and fifty feet underground. The cave was slightly warmer than the inside of a refrigerator and smelled of mildew and the earthy scent of bat guano. As I inhaled the cool, moist air I glanced around me at the dark rock walls. My fiancé Andrew waited beside me, listening to the gray-haired park ranger give our small group last minute safety instructions. At the end of his speech, the ranger mentioned a story about a kidnapping in the cavern. Four armed men held several people captive for hours near the spot where we stood. Had I paid better attention, I would have heard him say this crime occurred in 1979. I was, however, busy calculating how long the candle in my lantern would burn before it left me in the dark.
I glanced at my fellow tourists and tried to imagine one of them pulling out a gun. The flannel clad young couple in running shoes had two small children with them, so I expected they would behave. The retirees from Florida, dressed in matching Hawaiian shirts, did not look menacing. I decided at the least I could outrun them if they turned out to be dangerous.
Andrew and I chose this tour from the comfort of our home, weeks before our trip to New Mexico, and we bought the tickets online. I don’t mind spontaneity, but my first love is a well-planned itinerary. I browsed the options listed on the Carlsbad Caverns website and rejected the “Spider Cave Tour” based on the name alone. Andrew lobbied for the “Lower Cave Tour”, but after spotting the words “crawling” and “rope ladders” in the description, I knew this would not work for me. When I was a child I broke my arm, swinging from a plastic jump rope tied to a tree. I didn’t think the experience would improve if I recreated it underground fifty years later.
“I wonder if they have a senior discount,” I asked, as I clicked through the Park Service website.
“Oh no, don’t fool with that, just pay full price,” Andrew insisted.
I am happy to accept any age related savings given, while Andrew searches for and plucks out his gray hairs each evening. I once offered to sign him up under my AARP membership, and you would think I had volunteered to donate one of his kidneys.
After some discussion, we agreed on the Left Hand Tunnel tour. It promised to recreate the caving experience of early explorers. The only warning listed described walking on uneven surfaces in dim lighting. I can find my way to our bathroom in the middle of the night, so I thought I would be okay.
When we arrived at Carlsbad, Andrew tried again to convince me I had the skill and flexibility to navigate the Lower Cave Tour. As we strolled along the paved path through the main cavern, the Big Room, we stopped to peer over the railing, down into the deeper portion of the cave. A narrow dirt path wound through stalagmites and disappeared through a dark opening in the cave wall below. Lovely formations like lacy curtains flowed from the ceiling, but I wondered how securely they were attached. “Crushed by beauty” might be a nice epitaph, but would be small consolation once I was buried.
“I don’t think I can climb down a rope ladder, and there are no lights down there.” I pointed over the side. In contrast, spotlights in the Big Room illuminated both the cave formations, and the paved trail with gentle lighting. There were no rope ladders in sight. Instead, people traveled up and down in elevators, dined at a snack bar, and relieved themselves in restrooms with running water and flush toilets. Still, it touched me that Andrew had this faith in me; that I could scamper down a rope ladder and crawl through bat infested tunnels in the dark. We pledged to grow old together even though I have a head start.
When Andrew and I first met our age difference didn’t matter. We seemed to be in that sweet spot of time between middle age and infirmity. However, I remember that I will retire eleven years before he does. I agonize over broken hips, and Andrew scoffs I am too young to worry about falling.
While we waited for the tour orientation to start, I looked at a photo display of early explorers to the caverns. The women wore their finest silk dresses and caps with feathers. I wondered how they managed the cave while wearing high heels. The men wore sensible loafers and looked dashing in wool overcoats and fedoras. All of them looked out of place as they dropped into the cavern in the large bat guano mining buckets used by visitors before the cavern upgraded to wooden stairs.
“How historically accurate is this tour? Will they lower us down in a bucket?” Andrew asked.
“No, I believe they phased that out,” I replied.
As we assembled in a small classroom, the park ranger who would lead the tour checked off our names. He asked us to affirm our ability to walk across a dim, rough dirt path. I felt confident about my “Yes!” until he opened a metal cabinet filled with hard hats, elbow pads, and head lamps, things a coal miner would use. When he took out a box of candles and left the crawling equipment in the cabinet, I sighed and sat back in my chair. We all lined up to select a candle, and I picked one with a fresh wick that looked like it would last until the end of the tour.
After the orientation, we rode the elevator down, and walked over to the Left Hand Tunnel entrance. We picked up our lanterns, and the ranger lit the candles placed inside. He warned us of the danger of spilling hot wax on our neighbors or the fragile cave formations and off we went.
As we entered the tunnel, my eyes adjusted to the dim light. I managed to spot my feet, fearful that I might wipe out a small, irreplaceable artifact with my sturdy hiking boots. We came to a slight incline in the path, a slick little hill about four feet tall, and the ranger offered a hand up and over to anyone who needed it. I hadn’t met my insurance deductible for the year, so I accepted. Everyone else–except the elderly couple from Florida — scrambled up and over the top as though they were stepping up onto a curb outside Starbucks.
The lantern did a fair job of lighting up a one foot perimeter of the cave around my feet, so I had a great view of the crushed rock on the dirt path. I kept my eyes trained on that path as the ranger mentioned the deep pools of water and the steep drop offs that we passed. I listened as he described other points of interest, the sparkling pyrites and ghostly pale calcium carbonate formations. When I felt steady enough, I lifted my gaze from my feet and focused on the backs of Andrew’s legs as he strode along. At one point we stopped and the ranger pointed out an area where an early visitor used a flare to burn their initials into the cave wall, proving that even decades ago people were assholes.
About halfway through the tour we came to a spot leveled out by thousands of tromping tourist feet, and we set down our lanterns. The ranger continued the kidnapping story he mentioned at the start of the tour. It turns out there was alcohol involved, which explains why the would-be terrorists thought it was a good idea to isolate themselves 750 feet underground and demand a million dollars, an airplane to Brazil, and an interview with a reporter. They got the interview, but not the money or airplane, and everyone came out of the cave without injury.
“With your permission, I’d like to do something exciting now,” The ranger said. I worried that here at last we would be asked to rappel down an underground crevice or scale a rock outcropping. I prepared to protest that the tour description failed to cover this.
“I’d like us to blow out our candles and experience the cave in total darkness.” When no one objected, he continued. “We will stand here in silence and then I will come around and light your candles.”
I breathed a sigh, standing still I could do, even in the dark. The cave dimmed as each person blew out their candle, and one by one I watched my fellow tourists disappear. The darkness enveloped me like a soft, thick blanket, and there were no sounds of trouble, no heavy breathing or whispers from a drawn pistol.
When the ranger suggested that we each hold up a hand in front of our face, I kept mine at my side, fearful if I couldn’t see it, then my hand would cease to exist. I knew my hand was there, I felt it dangling at the end of my arm, but it was disconcerting to know something was there but not be able to see the physical proof of its existence. This was the price I paid for a lifetime of reading scary stories.
A slight breeze brushed my cheek, and I heard a rustling, flapping sound that was either a bat brushing by or Andrew waving his hand in front of my face. I bumped him with my shoulder and he reached down to clasp my hand. My fingers intertwined with his while the ranger came around to each of us and relit our candles. We made our way back along the path, through the metal gate at the entrance to the tunnel, and dropped off our lanterns at the end of the tour.
When we stepped off the elevator at the surface, I left to browse the overpriced souvenirs in the gift shop while Andrew stopped to look over a table top diorama of the caverns. I came out to see him studying a map of the Lower Cave.
When I turned fifty, I traded in the recklessness of my youth. I chose my clothes for comfort rather than sex appeal. Then I met Andrew, and I took a chance on dating a man eleven years younger than me. Chance implies a risk of loss, but as we grew closer, I realized there was no risk here. The loss was in the years before we met. Here was a man who would find my hand in the dark.
I pointed over to the information desk. “Why don’t we stop and see if there are tickets for the Lower Cave tour?”
When we asked, the ranger informed us that there wouldn’t be another tour until the following week. “It sells out quickly” he told us, “It’s our most popular tour.”
“I’m sorry.” I told Andrew and tried to hide my relief. There is nothing like reaping the benefit of sacrifice, without actually having to make it.
“That’s okay.” Andrew said, “We will come back sometime. We can practice climbing up a rope ladder.”
I calculated how many years we would have to wait before I qualified for the National Park Senior Pass. I pictured a much older me, leaning on a walker with one of those cloth bags on the front to hold snacks and a book I was reading. I told Andrew I would be game to try the rope ladder, and he took my hand as we walked across the parking lot to our car. If the rope ladder doesn’t work out I thought, maybe they could just lower me down in a bucket.