Midwestern Summer Nostalgia

I’ve spent 5 out of the last 6 weekends away from the city–on the shore of Lake Michigan, in a small lakeside town in central Wisconsin, and camping along the banks of the Wisconsin River. I return to these same places every summer, spending a good chunk of my July and August floating in freshwater and soaking in midwestern sunsets. Even though I have an impossibly long travel wish list and try to go to new destinations as often as possible, I look forward to my midwestern summertime every year.

This year, I took along a waterproof speaker and attached it the front of my kayak with bungee cords so I could listen to a mix of pop, indie rock, and 70’s AM Gold while paddling. I’d tuck a New Glarus Spotted Cow in a coozie into the drink holder, then leisurely cruise around the lake, sipping my beer and humming along to “Waterloo Sunset”, “Summer Breeze,” and “Night Moves.” As the sun set further into the sky, the surface of the lake turned glassy and still, reflecting the dark silhouettes of tall pine, the sky above a melted popsicle orangey pink. I spend a week with my family on this lake every year. We take rides on the pontoon boat and drop anchor in different parts of the chain, cannonballing into deep water. There’s home movies of me at 5 years old, playing in these same waters, the same orangey sunset in the background, overlaid with the staticky fuzz of VHS.

Every August, a group of our friends do a float trip on the Wisconsin River. For 16 years now, we return to the same campsite along the river bank. In this timeframe, people have come and gone, gotten married and had kids, and moved out of state. But every year, we keep going back, reliving the same carefree day spent floating down the same 6 miles of river, drinking local beers on sandbars and laughing over memories from years ago. We retell our favorite stories while living out new ones that will be told over the same fire pit in future years.

I’m a notorious winter apologist, but there’s nothing like summer days and nights that bring out my love for the Midwest. Give me three months of campfires, golden afternoons spent kayaking to the lakeside bar,  hiding out from hot days while sipping Bloodys and Old Fashioneds in a dive with flannel curtains on the windows, and dipping my bare feet into silky blue water as it runs along the sides of a canoe. I fantasize about leaving the city for longer stretches of time to live on the water, somewhere quiet and wooded, where fog lingers in the mornings and burns off as the sun rises, and the surface turns to glass as night falls.

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Volcanic Forest Camping

Wednesday, May 8: Santa Fe National Forest

Soundtrack: “Mountain Song” Jane’s Addiction

It’s a chilly morning. We pack up camp, making sure to leave no trace, and head to nearby Jemez Springs, a historic town along the Jemez Mountain Trail Scenic Byway. One of the first places we see is a delightful looking cafe with an outdoor pen full of goats and chickens, so we stop there for breakfast. Now that we’re off the high mountaintop, it’s already warmer in the sunshine, and we sit outside on the patio and listen to the goats bleat at each other. I order blue corn blueberry pancakes and coffee, and they are heavenly.

if you are ever in Jemez Springs, go to Stage Stop Cafe

Today is our last full day in New Mexico (*sobs*) and we don’t have any plans other than to leisurely explore the national forest.  On our drive back into the wilderness, we stop at Soda Dam, a spot where water from underground hot springs bubbles up over a mineral deposit rock formation. The Jemez River meanders along the road, and this little nook of land is astoundingly beautiful with the mountains and sky as backdrop. I love exploring it and climbing over the rocks and sticking our heads into little caves; how can we do this every day for the rest of our lives?

Soda Dam, Jemez River

We drive up to the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The road winds around a large grassy bowl that’s actually the 15-mile-wide crater left behind from a dormant volcano. There’s a small visitors center, so we stop inside and chat a bit with the ranger. We’re planning to do dispersed camping a second night, and he confirms that the spot on the map we’re looking at is a popular site in the summer. He mentions the black bears in the area, and shows us some photos taken by recent hikers. “How can you tell bear scat?” he asks us, then delivers the punchline “It smells peppery and has bells in it.” I love a sassy park ranger.

We do one more short hike, leaving the van at a picnic area to walk the trail to Jemez Falls. A light rain sprinkles down on us, and the strong scent of pine reminds me of being in Yosemite. At the falls, Kurt of course wants to scramble up and down some rocks to get closer. I feel my anxiety kick in, but I tell myself, it’s OK. He will be fine; he’s not dumb. Eventually, I work up the bravery to climb closer also, and get a better vantage point. I guess this is the key to dealing with phobias–trying to think rationally instead of imagining every possible worst case scenario, taking things one slow step at a time, and remembering to breathe.

Jemez Falls

Kurt is a Gryffindor

It’s time to find a place to make camp, so we drive back up the rambling forestry roads, up into the mountains. Among the thick pines, we find a nice large clearing with the remnants of a few fire pits; it’s obviously a party spot in the summer. This early in the season, however, there’s not many other campers out and about, so we park and begin to settle in. We’re just in time; a heavier rain rolls through. We hang out in the van, eating snacks and drinking wine with the van door rolled open so we can enjoy the smell of the rain.

It’s-a me!

After the weather passes through, Kurt starts to work on building a fire. I’m standing next to the van with my pink sparkly “I’m 40, bitches” wine cup. For the first time, a vehicle ambles up our road. Instead of continuing on, the Jeep makes a sharp turn into our clearing and drives all the way up to our campsite, about 100 yards off the road. The driver rolls down his window and calls out a greeting. He and the woman sitting in the passenger seat chat with us a bit; they are locals and they’re camping further down the mountain. It strikes me as a little odd that he drove all the way up to a stranger’s site so aggressively like that. He asks Kurt’s name; he doesn’t ask me for mine. Finally, he and the woman wave and tell us to have a good time, and they drive away.

“That was weird,” I say. Kurt’s guess is that they spotted the van and thought that they might know us, or that maybe we were friends of a friend. I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts, so MY thought is that they were scoping out our van and plan to come back in the middle of the night and axe murder us.

Kurt goes back to working on the fire, and I stroll around the area with my wine cup. In the grass, I notice a bunch of shotgun shells not far from where we’re parked. A little further into the woods, I see a pile of bear poo (no bells in it). Still, I’m convinced that we’re more likely to be killed by a Jeep-driving axe murderer than a black bear.

As the sun sets, it turns into a beautifully starry night. We enjoy the warm fire and the wine, and eventually climb into the cozy van. Nobody gets murdered overnight.

 

 

 

Bandelier and Facing Fears

Tuesday, May 7: Taos to Santa Fe National Forest

Soundtrack: “Keep Yourself Warm” Frightened Rabbit

After this stretch of city stays, we’re going to be camping again. I shower in the Earthship, taking advantage of running water plus enjoying the experience of bathing next to a flower garden. Once we’re packed up, we get coffee to go and say goodbye to Taos, headed back towards the large national forest that surrounds Santa Fe.

Bandelier National Monument is our first stop. The canyons within the 33,000-acre park are an ancestral home of the Pueblo people. In 1150 to 1550 CE, people carved homes into the soft rock formations created from volcanic tuff, creating cliffside dwellings.

In the parking lot, we pack a daypack with snacks, water bottles, and jackets, then begin our day of hiking. The park trails take us right up to some ancient dwellings where we can climb wood ladders and explore cave-like spaces, their ceilings blackened with soot from campfires.

Once we finish the easy Main Loop Trail, we head deeper into Frijoles Canyon towards Alcove House. Set high in the mountain ridge, Alcove House is a sacred ancestral site where historians believe up to 25 Pueblo people lived at one time. I’ve seen photos of the steep trail leading to Alcove House, so I mentally prepare myself during the 2-mile walk to get there. Along the way, two signs warn us that the final .5 mile of trail is a 140 ft. vertical climb involving ladders, and those with health problems or a fear of heights should not attempt it. Awesome.

the 140′ vertical trail to Alcove House

When we reach the first ladder, I want to give it a shot. I can always turn around if it gets too scary. Kurt goes first, and I catch up to him on the initial rock landing. The trail is incredibly narrow, at points barely wider than one of my boots. At the base of the longest ladder of the trail, we reach a traffic jam as obviously, only one hiker can climb at a time. I stay on the rocky landing as a woman watches her 11-year-old daughter make her way down. The girl had gone all the way to the top, and after she climbs down, I tell her that she did an awesome job and she’s much braver than me. “Thanks!” she says, before adding “You can do it too!”

Kurt on the Alcove House Trail

Well now, I HAVE to climb all the way to the top because a kid believes in me. The next wooden ladder is about 30 feet tall, flat against the rock face, and there’s nothing but air to the right of it. I take a deep breath, then go up at a steady pace, focusing on the next rung up and not looking down or over the cliffside. As I near the top, I see Kurt above me taking photos. I grip the last metal handle in relief. There’s some trail, some stairs, and a few more short ladders, and the next thing I know, we’re at the top.

the view from inside Alcove House

The view is spectacular. For a few minutes, Kurt and I are alone in the Alcove House, so we are able to take photos free of any other hikers. An ancient kiva sits within the dwelling, and I try to imagine what it would be like to live all the way up here and look out at this beautiful view of the canyon first thing every morning. Eventually, more people make their way up, so Kurt and I begin our downward descent so that they can take their own photos. I have a feeling the return trip is going to be scarier, because you HAVE to look down as you go.

Focusing on my breath, I take it one step at a time. My heart is pounding, not just from nerves but also from the high altitude, which always affects my dumb sea level-accustomed lungs. Slowly, the forest floor gets closer and closer, and my boots land on earth with a final thud.

Success!

We rest on a bench, eating our snacks and watching hikers move up and down the trail above us. The trail back to the visitors center is an easy stroll through the forest, and I spot a young elk resting beneath a Ponderosa pine. We take photos from a safe distance. When we pass an elderly woman holding binoculars, Kurt tells her about the elk, and she replies “Oh I’m from Idaho, elk are a dime a dozen to me!” I guess us Illinoisans are easily impressed.

As it gets later in the day, the temperature feels cooler. I pull my fleece jacket on over my tank top. We drive towards Santa Fe National Forest. While stopping for gas in Los Alamos, we take a weird exit off the main road and accidentally get into a lane that takes us up to the security gate for some large sprawling building complex, so we do a quick u-turn. Oops, we almost tried to enter the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Awkward.

In the national forest, we use a forestry map to find a stretch of roads designated for dispersed camping. There’s a good spot on the ridge, set in a bit from the dramatic cliff (I’ve had my fill of heights for today). I’m happy to be outside again after 5 straight nights in towns and Airbnbs. The fresh air smells so good. Also, at 8,300 feet, this is the highest elevation we’ve ever camped at. A cold drizzle starts to fall, so Kurt gets out the grill to finish cooking dinner–bratwurst and chopped veggies.

I add more layers as the cold sets in.  The rain turns into snow. This puts me strangely at ease. Camping high on a mountain range is unfamiliar territory to me, but camping in the middle of a random snowfall is just like home.

 

 

Ancient Ruins and Acrophobia

Thursday, May 2: Chaco Canyon to Albuquerque

Soundtrack: “Ruins” First Aid Kit

There’s a ton to see in Chaco Canyon, so we get an early start and drive to the visitors center to pick up some maps. Thousands of Puebloan people lived in the canyon between the years 850 to 1250 A.D. until they eventually left the area during a 50-year drought. Chaco is a UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with structures and petroglyphs over a thousand years old. These ancestral homelands are considered sacred ground to Hopi and Pueblo people today, and it’s important for us to remember this as visitors. Or, as I put it to Kurt, “Let’s not do anything dumb that Justin Bieber would do.”

We start at Pueblo Bonito, the largest great house in the canyon. The scope of it is incredible to see in person. It is estimated that close to 800 people lived in Pueblo Bonito at one point. Each of the houses has multiple kivas, where rituals were practiced, and from the beams visible in the remaining standing walls you can see that some parts of the structure were once 4 or 5 floors high.

It’s a perfect day for hiking; the air temperatures are cooler now that we’re in a higher elevation, but the bright sun keeps us warm. I start the day in a tank top and long-sleeved shirt, but I quickly stuff the outer layer into our daypack. The trail takes us through the ruins, and we are even able to walk into various rooms, ducking through the doorways and peering down into the many kivas. I’m glad we bought a few trail guides at the visitors center so we can follow along and read the in-depth history as we pass each historical marker.

Kurt wants to take the Overlook Trail so we can see the aerial view of Pueblo Bonito. it’s a 2-mile trek that travels 177 feet up the canyon wall, hugging the ledge. I am terrified of heights, but I also want to see the view, so we forge ahead. The initial climb is steep and requires you to scramble up boulders then into a narrow crack. By the time we reach the top, I’m shaking and need to sit down to collect myself. I hate being acrophobic; I don’t want to miss out on experiences like this.

Kurt climbing up the Overlook Trail

A man passes by us on hiking poles and notices my hesitance to join Kurt closer to the  cliff edge. “You must be afraid of heights,” he says, and when I reply in the affirmative, he kindly says “It’s OK. We all have a fear of something.” He then goes on to tell us all about his plantar fasciitis, then we exchange pleasant goodbyes. The exchange makes me chuckle; it’s so purely American to be outwardly gregarious and kind then totally overshare. We continue our hike to  the overlook, and the view is absolutely worth it.

view of Pueblo Bonito from the Overlook Trail

After we climb back down to sweet sweet solid earth, we drive a little deeper into the canyon to reach the trailhead of the Peñasco Blanco Trail. We do the 4-mile version which takes us along the bluffs to a section covered with petroglyphs. Kurt and I scan the cliffs for drawings carved into the rocks. The Pueblo people tended to place their petroglyphs 10-15 feet off the ground, which helps us to differentiate authentic carvings from the fake ones and graffiti left by visitors at standing level (the fact that anyone would do this infuriates me). Historical markers also help us find the petroglyphs located higher up the cliffs, some eroded by the passage of a thousand years.

The trail continues several more miles further into the wash, to what the park calls the Supernova pictograph. While petroglyphs are carved into rock, pictographs also include the element of painting with natural pigments, so it’s more rare for them to stand the test of time outside in the elements. It’s theorized that the pictograph found in Chaco depicts a supernova that occurred in 1054. The Anasazi people who lived in Chaco left evidence that they were early students of astronomy, and the Sun Dagger petroglyph on Fajada Butte might have been used as a solar calendar.

After the Petroglyph trail, we need to hike back to the van. We could have easily spent several more days exploring the rest of the Canyon loop, but our schedule has us leaving today. 2 weeks is a generous, luxurious amount of time off of work, but no amount of time is ever enough when there’s so much amazing stuff to see. We take the rough road back out of the park, then make our way towards Albuquerque. On our way, we pass Cabezon Peak, a 7,785-ft tall volcanic plug jutting dramatically in the horizon.

Cabezon Peak

We reach our Airbnb around 8 pm, shower off all of the sweat and dirt from our long day of hiking, and then walk to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner. The next several days of our trip will be spent in towns, immersed in modern civilization, which feels a little jarring after so much camping. For now, I sit back and enjoy this easy access to chips, salsa, and handcrafted margaritas.

 

 

The Radio Waves of the Galaxy

Wednesday, May 1: Truth or Consequences to Chaco Canyon via Socorro and Pie Town

Soundtrack: “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” Lucinda Williams

Before leaving Truth or Consequences, we stop at Black Cat Coffee & Books to caffeinate. Cats, coffee, and books are three of my favorite things. Today is another big driving day as we head north, and we have a few stops along the way.

Our first stop of the day is in Socorro at Very Large Array, one of the world’s premiere radio astronomy observatories.  27 gigantic radio antennae operate together to create a telescope that spans miles. Kurt is a science nerd, and I’m a sci fi nerd, so he is totally geeked out about the function of the array while I’m like “Wait, Contact was filmed here?! Awesome!” We buy tickets to the self-guided tour, and from the moment you reach the visitors center, you are asked to turn off your cell phones (not even airplane mode suffices) because of the incredible sensitivity of the equipment.

Very Large Array

I’m terrible at explaining what exactly happens at this research facility, despite having watched a 20-minute documentary narrated by Jodie Foster as part of the tour, so I will direct you over to the official website. But basically, these 27 antennae are constantly reading the radio waves of the galaxy. A series of railroad tracks criss cross the ground, which is how they move the 82-foot tall dishes into various formations. It’s pretty cool to see the antennae lined up across the desert, against the backdrop of infinite blue sky.

We drive for just under another hour to hit up our next stop along the way. Pie Town, population 186, is situated along the Continental Divide and plays host to the annual Pie Festival. We roll up to a cafe where several hikers sit outside, taking advantage of the first cell service we’ve had in a while. It’s the perfect timing for a lunch stop, so Kurt and I go into the cafe and I order green chili stew. As we eat, another couple who we had seen at our last stop walk in. The waitress asks “So you went to the Very Large Array?”

“Why? Are we glowing?” the woman replied, and we all chuckled as the server pointed out the tour sticker still attached to her shirt.

We order two mini pies to go, and I can’t wait to dig into them. I can’t help but think of Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, proclaiming “This must be where pies go when they die” as he digs into a slice at the Double R Diner.

Back on the road, we see more and more hikers, and then it dawns on me that they’re probably doing the Continental Divide Trail. Our route takes us through El Malpais, which means “the badlands,” and the scenery is dramatic and stunning. We pull over when we spot La Ventana Natural Arch from the road. I can’t get over how beautiful New Mexico is. Why do we live in Illinois again??

La Ventana Natural Arch, El Malpais

It’s hours of driving to our final stop for the day, Chaco Culture National Historic Park. The last 20 miles to Chaco Canyon are notoriously rough, unpaved road. All over the internet, there are warnings about attempting to drive it in a low profile vehicle. We reach the dirt road and slowly begin making our way along; it’s just as bumpy as advertised, miles of uneven grade and cattle guard miles from any town,  without a single bar of cell service.

It takes us close to an hour to go 20 miles. The van feels like it’s shaking apart, and I hear our stuff rattling around in the back, falling off shelves or rolling around in their bins. We’ll have to remember before we crack open any canned beverages. Out my window, I see a jackrabbit sitting on the side of the road, then go hopping away, its large white ears visible above the brush. Fajada Butte emerges into our view.

the road to Chaco Canyon

There’s one campground within the park, Gallo, which is first come, first served. We drive around looking for an open site; the place is packed. We find a find a spot in the middle of the RV area, but after we pay the camping fee, a better spot opens up on the outskirts of the grounds after another vehicle leaves, so we quickly move the van. “It’s like house hunting all over again!” our new neighbor jokes to us.

Our new spot gives us an incredible view of the canyon and the butte in the distance. I relax by the fire with my book and cup of wine. We eat ribs for dinner, which we carried from Chicago in our cooler, and mini pies from Pie Town for dessert. As the sun sets, the temperature drops; it’s our first cold night. I put on my hoodie and my fleece to stay outside a little longer and watch the sky fill with stars.

Sand Dunes and a Spa Day in Southern New Mexico

Tuesday, April 30: Lincoln National Forest to White Sands to Las Cruces to Truth or Consequences

Soundtrack: “Las Cruces Jail” Two Gallants

From our campsite, it’s an hour-long drive to White Sands National Monument. We eat a light breakfast of yogurt and granola and drink piñon coffee, then hit the road.

You can see the gleaming white sand dunes in the distance as you approach the national monument. After we stop in the visitor center and pay our admission fees, we drive the van along the road that skims between waves of sand dunes. The white sand is gypsum, and it feels softer and silkier than regular beach sand. Kurt parks the van in a picnic area, and we get out and explore. White sand dunes sprawl in every direction around us. We take off our shoes and run up and down the dunes. There’s a school bus parked nearby, and a gaggle of kids running and laughing, using sleds to ride down the dunes. We head in another direction, up onto a higher dune far away from other visitors. The sky is clear and blue, and sun beats down at us and bounces off the white sand. On a day like this, you need to apply sunscreen on every inch of your body.

White Sands National Monument

It’s fun to play in the sand. I attempt a cartwheel and flop onto the sand. Kurt and I try running up a steeper dune to see how far we can go, then surf our way back down, running sideways to keep our balance. A strong wind creates rippling patterns in the gypsum that immediately bury footprints; it would be very easy to get lost out here if you wander off too far. I can almost imagine I’m on another planet out here, somewhere Star Wars-y like Tatooine or Jakku.

Surfin’ USA

Back on the road, our route takes us through Las Cruces, so we stop at a restaurant called Chachi’s that our friend recommended. At this point of the trip, I begin in earnest a pattern of eating green chile as part of every meal, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. My green chile burrito and gigantic margarita are incredible. My margarita is also practically the size of a movie theater bucket of soda, so Kurt is stuck driving us the rest of the way to our final stop for the day, Truth or Consequences.

Literally for years, I’ve been wanting to visit Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, if for no other reason than its name is awesome. I can’t even remember when or where I first heard of it, but after doing an initial bit of research, I learned that the city sits on the Rio Grande and is known for its natural hot springs.

The Rio Grande

For our stay in T&C, I booked us a room at Riverbend Hot Springs Resort. After camping for most of our trip up to this point, we both crave showers and a real bed, so the resort is a nice treat. We check into our room, change into swimsuits, then go scope out the pool area. Multiple mineral hot springs pools are built into the ledge hanging over the banks of the Rio Grande. Underneath a large wooden pergola, there’s various lounge chairs, wicker basket seats, and hammocks for relaxing out of the sun. The pool area has a key rule, which is that only whispering is allowed, so it’s very quiet and serene. It’s exactly the New Agey moment I’d wanted.

Kurt tests the waters

Kurt and I soak in the mineral pools for a while. It’s super hot out, so sitting in a naturally heated 106-degree stone tub isn’t exactly refreshing, but the water is supposed to have healing elements and the scenery is gorgeous. I bring out my Kindle and read in the pool for a while. Kurt moves to a hammock for a nap. Once the heat gets to me, I sit on a lounge chair to dry and do a bit of writing in my travel notebook. I love the quiet aspect of the resort, with the only sounds coming from the light breeze, the lapping of the river, and soft windchimes. After so much constant movement and activity this week, we both enjoy being still.

spa day

At dinnertime, we walk to the nearby brewery and sample a few local beers, then get chicken wings from an Asian fusion restaurant. The sun has set, and I am eager to revisit the pools and see what the outdoor garden looks like at night. It does not disappoint. The greenery is dotted with tiny little green and blue lights, and lights are projected onto the trees across the river, giving the entire pool area a fairy-like magical appearance. Kurt returns to his favorite hammock, and I get back into the springs. Now that the air temps have cooled, it feels amazing to sit in the hot water. I lean back against the edge of the stone tub to gaze at the night sky and absorb all the healing.

 

 

 

 

Carlsbad Caverns and Camping

Monday, April 29: Roswell to Carlsbad to Lincoln National Forest

Soundtrack: “I Will Follow You into the Dark” Death Cab for Cutie

The shades on the van do a surprisingly good job on keeping out the bright sun. From my time living in Nevada in college, I remember how cool it gets in the desert overnight, and how quickly it heats up when the sun rises. Kurt makes us an amazing breakfast–egg and sausage burritos with green and red peppers, onions, and hot sauce. We eat at the picnic table, soaking in the sunshine now, because we’ll be spending most of this day underground. Back on the road, the landscape gets more and more desert-y. Tumbleweeds! Pronghorn! We see two roadrunners dart across the pavement.

In Carlsbad, we stop at a coffee shop to meet up with a friend (Hi Zane!). It’s nice to chat with a familiar face who is also a local, and she gives us lots of great restaurant recommendations for our trip, as well as shares some of her personal stories of the Caverns. I’ve barely been inside any cave systems besides a smallish one in southeastern Wisconsin, back in high school. I tend to get claustrophobic, but I know that the Carlsbad Caverns are gigantic, nothing like the midwestern cave where I had to crawl on my belly to get through some of the narrow passageways.

The drive to the National Park’s visitor’s center takes us through miles of sprawling desert hillside. It’s now hot outside, about 90 degrees, but we know it will be a cool, clammy 50 inside the caverns, so I bring my fleece jacket to throw on over my Captain America tank top (worn to boost my bravery points). To take the natural cave entrance, we leave the visitor’s center and walk back outside down a trail which eventually descends into a dark, gaping hole in the ground. The trail snakes into switchbacks for a gradual decline. As we reach the mouth of the craggy rock, dozens (hundreds?) of tiny swallows whoosh in and out over our heads. I try to get a good look in case they are bats, even though I know it’s the wrong time of day for them. I love bats; they are like goth mammal-birds. The chirping of the swallows echoes through the mouth of the cave, and we go past the last rays of sunshines that disappear into the caverns, then we are enveloped in cool darkness.

“Oh, you think the darkness is your ally, you merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it.”

The entrance chamber is gigantic, and as we descend deeper into the cave, I make a lot of Bane references.  Finally, we reach the point where we can no longer see the opening, and if all of the lights went out, we’d be in complete and total darkness. The park system has strategically placed lights throughout the caverns to highlight interesting rock formations and guide visitors along the trail, but it’s still quite dim and Kurt is just a shadow in front of me. It’s a Monday in late April, so there aren’t many other visitors, and at times it feels like Kurt and I are the only ones in the cave with no other people in sight.

It takes 2-3 hours to walk the entire trail. Many of the features were named by a teenager, Jim White, who first explored the caves in 1898, and they have ominous, descriptive names: the Boneyard, Witch’s Finger, and the Bottomless Pit (seriously, why are so many things Bottomless in New Mexico? I am acrophobic and it freaks me out).

The Queen’s Chamber, Carlsbad Caverns

We weave through the caverns on the trail past limestone formations that look like Cthulhu, and stalagmites twice as tall as we are. 250 million years ago, this area was an inland sea. It is a bit mind-blowing to be in a place like this, somewhere untouched by the progress of humanity while paradoxically created by the passage of centuries. It feels primal and eerie, and I half expect some sort of prehistoric creature to emerge from the cracks and drag me screaming into the bottomless pits. I get nervous and hang onto Kurt’s arm to ground me. The deep crevasses make me think of Superman II when Zod falls to his death.

We eventually reach the Big Room, the largest chamber in the caverns, nearly 4,000 feet long and 255 feet high. It’s impossible to capture the immensity, depth, and otherworldliness in a photo. I feel like we could emerge from this place and return to an Earth full of dinosaurs. But then we reach the underground gift shop, because of course there is, so we take a break and eat a snack while sitting on a bench. Imagine being the cashier at this concession stand, taking an elevator 800 feet down into the ground to get to work every day.

underground concession stand

When we finish exploring, we take the elevator back to the visitors center, to 90-degree temperatures and blazing sunlight. It’s time to find a campsite for the night, and we have lots of ground to cover to keep on schedule. We drive for nearly 3 hours to Lincoln National Forest. The terrain changes, and rolling hills morph into tree-covered mountains. Grassy valleys are dotted with white and brown cattle; BLM land alternates with private ranches. We turn off onto a forestry road, using a pdf map on our iPad. After rambling along rough gravel, we find a turn-off into a clearing that makes for a perfect campsite. There’s a previously used fire ring and enough trees to give us some privacy from the road. The air smells like Ponderosa pine and sagebrush.

We settle into our usual routine; Kurt gathers firewood while I get assemble our folding chairs and travel table. At the edge of the clearing, Kurt finds a hunk of animal fur and a few cleaned bones that look like they were once a small deer. I begin thinking about what predators live here, maybe mountain lions or black bears. We make tacos for dinner, and watch the sun set behind the tree line.

Lincoln National Forest