New Mexico has many unusual things, and Carlsbad Cavern is certainly one of the most interesting. Somewhere between 250 – 280 million years ago, an inland sea used to cover the area where the caverns are today, and what we visit now are over 119 limestone caves laid in fossil reefs. They were formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone, leaving all these fascinating caves and reefs and formations of just about every size and shape.
Twelve to fourteen thousand years ago, Native Americans already lived in the area, and we know that from, among other things, the pictographs that can still be seen inside Carlsbad Cavern Park. In 1400, Mescalero Apaches came to the area, and many are still there. The Apaches called the caves Home of the Bat. Later, the Zuni Indians inhabited the area and called it Bat Cave. Now you know that the Bat Cave existed long before Batman came along in 1939. But it is thought that the Natives probably did not go very far the caves, as they only decorated the entrances.
In 1536, the first Spanish explorers arrived in what is New Mexico today. At that time, when the Spanish Empire dominated Mexico, it claimed New Mexico and also a great part of what is the Southwest of the United States. Then in 1821, Mexico revolted against Spain and claimed independence. After they gained independence, they had to turn and begin to fight the westward expansion that the United States was pushing for. The Mexican-American War, which defined borders between the two countries, lasted from 1846-1848. It ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. That’s when the Rio Grande River, which is constantly in the news nowadays, was declared a boundary between the two countries. The U.S. had to pay $15 million to Mexico, and in return they received ownership of California, New Mexico, parts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Texas.
At that time, New Mexico was declared a territory of the Untied States. But it did not become a state for another 62 years, in 1912. During the time that New Mexico was a cowboy and Indian territory, the town of Eddy was established in 1888, right along the banks of the Pecos River. It happens Sheriff Patrick Garrett, the man who shot Billy the Kid, was one of the founders. The town lies in a rugged area just below the Guadalupe Mountains, which rise to 1,800 meters, and this is the place where Billy the Kid and men like him used to like to hide . The town later changed its name to Carlsbad, when its citizens voted to name it after a famous European spa, Carlsbad, in Bohemia. By 1891, the town had a railroad, good irrigation, good grazing land, a lot of cattle, and a growing population.
In 1898, a 16-year old cowhand from Texas, Jim White, found the caverns that the local Native Americans had neglected to mention to the white settlers. He was rounding up cattle when he saw what he thought was a fire. When he went to investigate, he found that it wasn’t smoke that he had seen in the sky, but instead a cloud of bats. Thousands and thousands of bats just like the ones that leave the cavern every evening today. Young Jim made himself a ladder out of wire and wood, and began to climb into the caves and explore them a bit. At first, he didn’t tell anyone what he had found. He even named quite a few of the strange things he saw, and those names stuck. Eventually, the teenager revealed his discovery and made it into a little business, and was even paid to explore the caves. After some time, he began to give little tours, cooking and serving a small meal to the people he guided into the caves.
But the young cowboy wasn’t the only person around with an entrepreneurial mind. In 1903 a man named Abijah Long filed a claim for the rights to guano around the mouth of what he called “the big cave.” Guano is bat manure, and it is very rich and more condensed than stable manure. Guano mining began, and it became a business big enough for six different companies to operate. But this only lasted for about 20 years, during which time over 100,000 tons of guano was taken Carlsbad Caverns, and sold mostly in Southern California, where they were developing their citrus industry at that time. The mines were eventually abandoned because of high transportation costs.
Not many people outside of New Mexico knew much about the caverns until a photographer, Ray Davis, owner of a photography shop in the town of Carlsbad, managed to sell some of his photographs to the New York Times. They were published in 1923 and people from all over the world became interested in the caves. It was the very next year that Carlsbad Cave National Monument was established. Shortly that, The National Geographic Society sponsored serious exploration of the caves and Jim White, no longer a teenager, assisted them. An electric lighting system was installed in 1926, and in 1930 it became a national park. The first elevator was installed the next year. As for Jim White, in 1932 he wrote a little book (or had it ghostwritten) about the caves and his adventures and used to sell it inside the cave until his death in 1946.
Carlsbad Caverns are only 29 kilometers from the town of Carlsbad, and it seems that its citizens have always been careful to take care of their town. Since the town was founded, they have been proactive about attracting investors and wealthy new residents to move there because of New Mexico’s mild climate. In 1925, oil and potash were also discovered in or near the town. Potash is a kind of salt that contains water-soluble potassium, and oil is nothing more than underground decomposition of organisms such as plankton and algae that has transformed into oil and gas, not unexpected an area that used to be covered in seawater.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995. It is a magical place to visit, which is the reason the original movie version of Jules Verne’s book, Journey to the Center of the Earth, was filmed there in 1959. Who wouldn’t want to step into a setting such the caverns offer? But that is only one of its breathtaking attractions. The other one is bats.
The caverns are home to what is thought to be 17 different species of bats, and the most prominent are Brazilian free-tail bats. They are not very big; the Brazilian bats usually have only a total length of 85 – 109 mm and weigh between 10 – 15 grams, but they have distinctive little tails that extend their tail membranes. They are very, very numerous. And, they put on a mysterious show every night.
At exactly 28 minutes past sunset, about 400,000 bats fly out of the one of the main entrances to the caves. Visitors sit in an amphitheater, and they can set their watches to the time. This phenomenon is called an outflight, and it can last for up to three hours, depending on the time of year because they migrate to Mexico and Central America during winter months. They fly at up to 40 km/h! Most of the bats return to the caves around dawn, but many of the females go in and out during the night if they are nursing pups, the same as human mothers do. Yes, their babies are called pups, just like cute little dogs. Not all bats have an odor, but the Brazilian free-tails have a unique one that everyone can smell as they spiral the visitor’s heads in a counter-clockwise direction. The bat’s wings also make a lot of noise, and it is an awesome event. The bats eat about three tons of insects every night, and help to control the general insect population and to reduce crop pests. When they fly out of the cave, they are very hungry for moths, mosquitos and beetles and pay absolutely no attention to humans.
We cannot help by be awed by Carlsbad Caverns, and also by the bats. Bats are not so different from us; as a matter of fact, they are more biologically similar to primates than to mice, which is what they look like. They give live birth and they nurse their young with milk. There are approximately 1,000 species of bats living all over the world, and that is 1/5 of the total mammal species! And they are the only mammal species that can fly, with the exception of Batman and Batwoman! Be kind to bats, they eliminate insects that are pests to us by greatly reducing the amount of pesticides that farmers need to use on their crops, as well as reducing pesticides that wind polluting our environment. The most recent scientific study done in the U.S.A. revealed that bats saved about $54 billion in pest control services annually. But that’s not all they do for our species. Nectar-eating bats pollinate flowers, just like bees. And fruit-eating bats disperse seeds in different locations, spreading fruit trees and bushes in the wild. But at the very least, when you see a bat, remember that it may have a baby waiting to be nursed at home.
I was born near the end of WWII and raised in a small town in New Jersey, just a little more than a 30-minute drive from NYC. It was a wonderful place to be brought up, feeding ducks and canoeing on the river that meandered through the town in the summer, and ice-skating on that same river in the winter.
My two brothers and I were privileged to be raised in a lovely town that was safe to explore on foot, but close enough to NYC to be taken there on day trips to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily B & B circus, museums, Chinatown, street fairs in the spring and Broadway shows as we grew older. But we thought nothing of it.
Later as teens, we would go into NYC to buy a couple of beers (the drinking age in New York State was 18, and 21 in New Jersey) and hang out in Greenwich Village where we saw singers such as Bob Dylan who were on the first rung of the ladder on their way to fame.
The sixties were a time of speaking out and creating change. I decided to do my part by joining the Peace Corps, an innovative cold war program established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. I arrived in Brazil at the end of 1966, and after an adaptation period, was sent to serve in Porto Nacional, in what was Goias at that time. I can’t say I changed the course of the country, especially as I was immediately called upon to teach English in the local high school.
I have been teaching ever since; high schools, college literature, college language pedagogy, financial English and everything in-between. I married a wonderful Brazilian from Rio and we had 3 boys and moved around some, as he was an engineer who worked on hydro dams. Nowadays I am a widow and live in BH with 3 cats, one of which has extraordinary powers, and I have 4 wonderful and uniquely different grandchildren nearby. Thus far, I have had an interesting life, and this new endeavor called a blog should make it even more interesting.