Today we picked up Dave at the Albuquerque airport and headed for Carlsbad by way of Roswell. Mostly at the insistence of our TV-saturated daughter Olivia, who has seen more than her share of pseudo-scientific shows about UFOs, ESP, Area 51 and other unexplained what-not including the alleged conspiracy that has hidden from public view the truth about a 1947 UFO sighting in Roswell, we aimed our GPS at the Southwest corner of New Mexico. They call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment, and if you are enchanted by 90-mile stretches of unrelenting heat without a trickle of water or a sign of life other than drought-resistant shrubs, then this part of New Mexico is ready to enchant you.
We pulled into Roswell a little leery, as we had been warned it was a bit of a bust. But we were pleasantly surprised by the kitchiness of the place--a big round smiling alien head painted on the side of the WalMart, a green Martian proclaiming "we do taxes" on an accounting office window, and fake flying saucers protruding from (or flying into) building facades. The museum felt like it was put together by a coalition of conspiracy theorists and grade-school librarians using typewriters--wall after wall of courier text on yellowing placards, positing government cover-ups as the reason the only tangible evidence is pictures of what look like tin foil and some sticks.
From Roswell we moved on to Carlsbad, to visit the famous caverns. My mother went there as a little girl who had lived all her life in Oklahoma, and she repeatedly recalled it as the most wondrous place she had ever been. Given that the highest ranking alternatives in her experience were oil wells and dust devils, I was again cautious as we approached. But before we could get to the caverns, we attempted to check in to our hotel, only to be confronted with a not very sympathetic desk clerk who insisted that they had no record of our reservation.
We pulled out our printed confirmation, but he simply replied that they had no record of it, and no more rooms. We had booked through and paid a small booking fee to the National Park Service, so we called them and asked that they intervene. Instead, wer got a sincere-sounding apology from an accented woman apparently in India or Pakistan (our Federal tax dollars at work) who said that the NPS would happily refund our booking fee, and wished us luck in finding another hotel with a vacancy. So after a few choice words for the government as booking agent, down the road we went until we found a $55 per night fleabag with two available rooms. Amenities included exposed wiring in the ceiling, holes in the shower enclosure, an air conditioner that drowned out the TV, bare florescent overhead lights and a pool that had been filled with dirt and turned into a vegetable garden.
We drove to Carlsbad Caverns that evening to avoid our hotel rooms and to see the summertime phenomenon of bats leaving the cave mouth on their nightly hunt for moths, mosquitos and other tasty bugs. On the way, I got a speeding ticket from a New Mexico sherriff (handy travel tip--they have radar that can measure your speed when they are driving toward you in an oncoming lane). I apparently deserved it--he said I was going 77 in a 55 MPH zone. I do not have long eyelashes to bat (and I don't think it would have helped my case to try with the ones I've got) so I played it as the respectful, law-abiding citizen just being inattentive and surprised to find I was over the limit, and now being contrite and showing early signs of reform ("thank you, officer, I'll certainly keep a closer eye on that speedometer, as you suggest"). That got me a slightly lighter fine for going 10 over, instead of 20, with no penalty for being a complete suck-up.
We finally got to the caverns shortly before dusk, and waited at the Bat Amphitheater (the only one I've ever heard of) with about 300 other bat fans, for the stars of the show to show.
It felt a little like those Sea World venues where the dolphins do flips or the tropical birds ride mini-bicycles across tightropes. There was a smiling lady ranger with a microphone explaining bat habits, answering bat questions and making dumb bat jokes. But then we were reminded that we were really in nature, not just seeing a for-profit distortion of it. She shut off the mic and asked us to sit silently and wait. For about 20 minutes we sat and watched the last of the darting swallows retire into their lairs in the cave, watched three mule deer slowly forage across a ridge above the cave entrance, and listended to crickets and a cactus wren call as the full moon rose through puffy desert clouds. This may have been my favorite natural-world moment of the trip. Then, finally, a solitary bat flitted overhead. Then three at a time. Then ten, then 50, and soon there was a steady stream of thousands spewing into the darkening sky. Apparently 80,000 to 800,000 live in the caverns at any given time. I calculated my speeding ticket at less than a penny per dozen bats, which made it seem a lot more reasonable.