Driving from Texas to New Mexico, we nearly ran out of gas in the desert. Our trip went a little like this: I took the first leg of driving while Rachael slept. I was zooming through the hills of Texas, going faster than I think is wise to admit to, when Rachael eventually woke up and offered to switch. As we were just passing some gas stations, I said we could stop at the next one. Then EIGHTY miles passed. I was burning through gas quickly, zipping along. In two-lane highways they say left lane is only for passing, but as far as I saw it, I was passing everyone, so I was perfectly content in my own personal race course. But as the hills turned to desert, and our fuel gauge crept lower, my appreciation for the sparse beauty of the land, interrupted only by dirt roads leading nowhere and oil pumps dipping up and down like those insatiable bird toys, turned to anxiety. The middle of nowhere was no longer a hyperbole. We couldn’t get internet on our phones to search for gas. Dots that showed up on our maps as towns revealed themselves to be one broken down farmhouse in the distance. For an hour we drove on this way, my eyes nervously scanning from our ever-decreasing gas bars, to my speedometer, which I now held at a restrained pace, to the previously despised right lane, where I tried to stay in the slip stream of the truck in front of me. Visions of us walking down the side of the road, trying to hitchhike, became more vivid. I had no appetite for food, there would be time enough to picnic when we were stranded on the side of the road. We nervously laughed at our jokes that at least it wasn’t too hot outside, and that we seemed to have a good tail-wind. Finally, with no end in sight, we came to a rest-stop. We pulled over, hoping there would be a map, or someone to tell us how much farther we had left. We were down to our last bar in the fuel gauge, gas-light on. No map, but some Oklahoma-platers told us that we were only 14 miles out from gas. We could make that!
Sweet, sweet salvation.
And some comedic relief: their convenience store held this priceless post-card.
With that lesson learned (I never ever ever let my tank far below half now), we made it the rest of the way to Carlsbad, NM, home of the Carlsbad Caverns. After checking into another Super 8 (dear God there is more on that later), we rewarded ourselves for not perishing in the desert by splitting a garden burger, onion rings, and a vanilla milkshake. Carlsbad has an unnervingly high concentration of Chinese Buffets with horrendous reviews by both Yelp and our motel receptionist, so we just went to this oddly themed, highly fried, and thankfully edible diner: Happy’s. Smiley faces and Disney cartoon figurines lined the walls, but the comfort food did make us, well, happy.
After that we took a nap, and what I am about to relate will only horrify and disturb you 1/100th of the amount it did Rachael and I. Rachael found bed bugs. Multiple large, disgusting, orange, tick-looking, bed bugs. AHHHHH. It was so so so so… bleh uggabugga shiver shake revolting. I can’t even put up a picture here. I never want to see those things again. NEVER STAY IN A SUPER 8. I can only imagine the horror that one would feel if you realized you have crabs. I mean seeing those things in my bed I was about to burn the hotel down and and everything I was wearing. If I found such a thing in my nether regions? You’d have to sedate me and throw a flea bomb into my undies, then purchase a mind wiper out of the movie Men in Black and use it on me. I’d still probably need counseling after that. The intense kind, like out of a Clockwork Orange.
Anyway, I digress.
Clearly, we were out of there on the double and moved into a motel across the road. Probably not far enough, but we took it, after some intense initial bed inspections. I had wanted to go see the bat flight as all the bats exit the Carlsbad Cavern at night, but I was exhausted after all our near-death experiences. Still, Rachael dragged my ass out, and away we drove. About 20 minutes from that one-road town, up in the hills, we arrived in time to look out over the beautiful plains as the sun started to lower in the sky. The golden grass stretched as far as the eye could see. It’s odd; along this trip things I used to only say as er, sayings, I came to use to describe literal events in my life.
A ranger was giving a talk about the bats, so we wound our way down to the cavern’s mouth.
From here on out we weren’t allowed to take pictures because it could disturb the bats, but I found some on the internet that accurately portray what it was like. A good number of people sat in this amphitheatre to listen to a ranger speak. We learned about the different species of bats in the cave, their habits, hearing ability, diet, and a fatal disease effecting them: white-nose syndrome. While it was still light out, cave swallows flew counter clockwise in and out of the cave. The bats would take this same counter-clockwise path, but it wasn’t known why.
My favorite part of the talk was when the ranger told the story of the formerly classified Project X-Ray. In WWII the government invested in developing “bat bombs”. They took a bunch of bats from Carlsbad Caverns and attached them with a small timed incendiary bomb. The idea was that because Japan used so much bamboo, paper and other highly flammable material in construction, the government could release the bats who would go roost in the eaves of these buildings and then cause multiple explosions, causing fires and chaos with fewer lives lost. As our ranger said, “That plan worked out really well. They exploded our Air Force Base down the road.” Yep, the bats got loose and roosted under the air base’s fuel tank, burning it down. Kooky.
As soon as it started to get dark, the bats swarmed out of the cave in a rush. It was one solitary bat to lead the way, and then within seconds it was thousands. You could hear their wings beating the air as they flew over us, silhouetted against the the dimming sunset. They flew out in seemingly endless hoards.
We sat in silence, watching for a good long while. As it showed no sign of letting up, and we were starting to get cold, Rachael and I finally hiked back to our car.
Watching the bat flight was unexpectedly impressive. I was tired, but as soon as we got to the caverns the view, the night air, the ranger’s talk, and finally the bats, made the entire trip worthwhile. I was so glad Rachael had forced me to throw off my exhaustion and drive out there. Our woes from the day were completely forgotten by the time we left. If you go visit the caverns to go caving, don’t miss this equal, but lesser appreciated, attraction.