Frolicking Underground in Carlsbad

My Childhood Summer Home in the Desert Is All-American, Right Down to the Plutonium

My first time going caving was almost my last. I was in Carlsbad, New Mexico, with my mother, who’d grown up there. My mother is exponentially braver than I am, and the spelunking was her idea. We signed liability waivers, donned headlamps and gloves, and descended into a little pocket of earth through an undistinguished opening that I, under any other circumstance, would have passed by. Within five minutes I regretted having agreed to the expedition. We clambered down rope ladders into a darkness lit only by the headlamps. As we trudged downward, my feet could not get purchase on the slick ground, every once in a while slipping in small cold puddles, and I longed for the sunny day outside. My mom and I could have been walking along the Pecos River. We could have been at Dairy Queen eating Blizzards. But no–we’d chosen this.

Following the guide, I crouched down to step through a tiny crevasse and lowered myself on a rope to the next level. Then I slithered through a tunnel on my belly, my elbows close to my chest, the walls seeming to edge closer as I went, as if fitting themselves around me. I was terrified, but I couldn’t even have said of what. Any desire I’d had to see the cave was gone. My sole motivation in continuing was that I refused to be wimpier than my mother, who was wriggling gamely through the gloaming, an excited smile on her face.

At last we found ourselves in a sort of chamber, and the guide had us gather together and prepare to turn our lights off. In some ways I think darkness is the point of spelunking, its destination, as much or more than the caves themselves. This is what people come for; it’s what they can’t get anywhere else. Cave darkness is so complete that it invades your brain. You lose the sense of where you leave off and the world around you begins. You sit there blinking, waiting for your eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness, as they might in your home, but you could wait forever and this would never happen, you would never discern forms and shadows in front of you. It’s like blindness, I suppose, but communal, and you know that it will end.

Once the guide flicks the light back on, smiling in perky satisfaction–national park guides are always perky–everybody looks somebody else in the eye and makes a satisfied, “whew, glad that’s over” expression. That first time, this was the moment I knew I’d make it to the end of the trip, and that I’d be going caving again.

The way out is inevitably faster than the way in, and the brilliance of the desert sun makes you blink. It’s hard to say, when you come out, which seems stranger-the world underground, so slippery and dark, or the implausibly wide, bright blue sky.


To me the most beautiful drive in this country will always be the drive from Albuquerque down to Carlsbad, a city of 26,000 people located in the southeastern pocket of the state. You take Route 285 most of the way, and you don’t see much at all. Rarely is there traffic. What you do find is ranchland, dotted with sagebrush and cholla and prickly pear, and a vast horizon infrequently broken by towns it takes barely a minute to drive through. Cattle linger by the fences, and every once in a while you might spot an antelope. This is the kind of landscape people describe as “empty,” not realizing that its uncluttered openness is itself a presence, a commanding one. There are few places in the world where you can better see the sky.

The austerity of the desert is suddenly, drastically, disrupted when you hit the refinery-scented air and bright green alfalfa fields of Artesia, and then, further south, comes Carlsbad, a sleepy, pretty place on the banks of the Pecos River. With its tree-lined streets, Carlsbad feels like an oasis, just as it must have to its founders, who, after finding mineral springs nearby, named it after the German spa town Karlsbad. The New Mexico Carlsbad is not what you would call a resort destination, but it has parks and schools and lawns and pecan trees casting welcome shade, and the atmosphere is relaxed. Even the Pecos seems to run slow. Though some parts of Carlsbad are prosperous, others are on the shabby side. There’s a Main Street downtown with empty storefronts and few pedestrians, and neighborhoods where the houses sit unoccupied or poorly maintained.

Carlsbad is my mother’s town, and my grandparents lived there for half a century. When I was a child, my family used to drive down there from Canada, where my parents had moved after my father took a job in Montreal. These epic road trips–four kids and two adults in a station wagon, no air conditioning, over five or six days–are the stuff of family legend, and we’re justly proud that we survived them without killing each other.

In Canada, we lived in the suburbs, with long winters and tightly scheduled extracurriculars. Once in Carlsbad, we entered a small-town pace that seemed out of a different era. There were lizards and hummingbirds and heat that baked you until your skin crinkled. Some days, we played bumper cars at the tiny amusement park or went paddle-boating on the Pecos. We walked, sun-dazed and blinking, through the Living Desert State Park, the first place I ever saw a rattlesnake. More often, there were long afternoons spent playing cards or listening to our grandfather tell jokes or drifting through strip malls with our grandmother. When our grandparents wanted to show us off, we’d go visiting at the homes of their friends, drinking Hi-C in cool living rooms while the adults chatted. Even the tedium of these hours was exotic because there was no such thing as an afternoon spent “visiting” where we were from.

We loved Carlsbad, and the fact that nobody at home could quite grasp where we went in the summer–“you’re driving where? Mexico?”–was part of what made it seem a special place. This is a child’s view, of course, colored by the mentality of vacations and the affection of doting grandparents. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a truth to it, too. Carlsbad is a special place, with unique topography and resourceful people, a city that curiously straddles the future and the past.

It’s also a place that hasn’t had it easy. Its geographical isolation–five hours from Albuquerque, three from El Paso–probably hasn’t helped it maintain its economic solvency. But Carlsbad is scrappy. It’s had to reinvent itself numerous times in order to stay viable. Over and over again, it has kept going by turning to its desert landscape, and by looking underground.


My own family was part of Carlsbad’s underground economy. My grandparents arrived in Carlsbad in 1951 when my grandfather was offered a job at a potash mine there. After stints in a succession of tiny western towns–Ely, Nevada; Grass Valley, California; Crown King, Arizona–where my mother and her brothers went to school in one-room schoolhouses and food and money were scarce, Carlsbad was where they finally put down roots.

My grandparents, Dave and Eleanor, were very different from each other. Eleanor had grown up in Los Angeles, and her likes were a city girl’s: clothes, jewelry, poetry. She smoked ultra-light cigarettes through a white plastic holder stained by the lipstick she always wore. She never forgot what it had been like to struggle, and for the rest of her days she supplied food and clothes to every needy family she met in town. When we visited, she took me to drink milkshakes at the counter of Corner Drug–or at least she did until its owner, John Volpato, was accused of murdering his wife. This sensational event was later the focus of an A&E true-crime show, City Confidential, which my siblings and I watched in fascination, unable to reconcile its lurid voiceover narration (“Carlsbad … danger in the desert“) with the happy place of our memory. Volpato was acquitted, but Eleanor, who believed he was guilty, never set foot in Corner Drug again.

If she was of the city, Dave was not. He’d grown up on a plantation in the Philippines, hunting and hiking and fishing. He was a hearty, rugged man with a rolling, infectious laugh who loved the outdoors and people in equal measure. He once terrified my sister by taking her fishing in the Pecos and, when something tugged on the line, convincing her a crocodile was about to surge out of the murky water. He called their obese cat (whose real name was Ginger), Fat Ass, as in “Come here and sit on my lap, Fat Ass.”

Everyone in town seemed to know everyone else. Shopkeepers greeted Eleanor by name, a little fearfully, it should be said, because her standards in customer service were high and many failed to meet them. Dave flirted with all the waitresses and told a constant stream of terrible jokes. His joke about Carlsbad was that he came to town to work, and they never paid him enough money so that he could afford to leave. Potash was originally discovered in the area by geologists looking for oil. Largely used as a soil fertilizer, it’s the common name for potassium compounds deposited by seawater from inland oceans that long ago covered the Southwest. The water evaporated, and the potassium salts crystallized into beds of potash ore. With the oceans gone and the surface of the earth changing, these deposits came to be covered by thousands of feet of earth. In a mine, the potash ore is excavated, processed above ground, separated into component elements, and developed into fertilizer.

Unlike hard rock mining with tunnels, a potash mine carves out large rooms supported by pillars of the remaining potash. I never got to see the actual mine–by law, you had to be 18–but my mother describes it as beautiful, the walls sparkling red and white. The mine was connected with miles of track for the ore carts and miners to travel around. It was like a highway with traffic signals, like a city underground.

From 1951 until 1982, when he retired, Dave went to work at the mine. Though by the end he was a manager who spent much of his time in an office, his favorite thing was to go underground. I think he loved, more than anything, the camaraderie of miners, that particular masculine energy that comes about when men spend large amounts of time alone together under risky circumstances. Dave’s friends were miners, and they had miners’ nicknames, each with its own rationale. His most helpful assistant was nicknamed Friday, Robinson-Crusoe-style. My favorite story was about Suitcase Simpson, who when he first came to town rode his horse to work every day carrying a suitcase. After a while his son grew up and worked at the mine too; they called him Briefcase. Briefcase’s son eventually worked at the mine as well. His nickname was Wallet.

Almost all the mines are closed now, tapped out. The buildings belonging to the U.S. Potash company, the first mine that went into production, are being torn down and the land returned to its original vegetative state. Once the above-ground buildings are gone, there won’t be any evidence of it left at all.


I had my first date in Carlsbad at 14, with a boy I met at the city swimming pool. He was the lifeguard and knew I was from out of town because, he said, “nobody here does the breast stroke.” He came to pick me up in a red sports car, honking his horn outside. When I stood up to go meet him, my grandmother looked at me severely. “If a boy can’t come to the door, then you shouldn’t go out with him,” she said. She also gave me $20 in mad money and a key to protect myself with if necessary. “Jab it in his eye, then run,” she advised. She’d seen some things in her youth, back in L.A.

The key was not necessary. The lifeguard took me to Denny’s, where we drank milkshakes in a booth with another couple, and then he walked me over to the fairgrounds, where we rode a Ferris wheel and held hands. In Montreal, I had a mad, futile crush on a boy who wore a long black duster and a Flock of Seagulls haircut. We rode the same commuter train downtown to school, and in the mornings we stood between the cars shivering, smoking cigarettes, and talking about Andy Warhol. The Carlsbad date was so American, so wholesome, that I was charmed. I kept exclaiming how sweet everything was, which I’m pretty sure was irritating to the lifeguard. The date ended early. I never saw him again, but I still think about it–not the boy but the ritual of it, which seemed classic and wonderful to me and was second nature to him.


You could say that the underground is what put Carlsbad on the map. The city was originally founded by a cattleman-entrepreneur who saw in the Pecos River an irrigation source that would turn parched desert into fertile soil. But it was something more unusual that made the place famous–vast underground caves.

The Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located just outside town, in the Guadalupe Mountains. As with the potash beds, these caves are geological remnants of an ancient inland sea. The caverns were in a fossil reef laid down by that sea, long ago covered by earth.

In 1898, a teenage cowhand named Jim White was out riding his horse, looking for stray cattle, when he saw something that looked like a dark volcano or whirlwind in the desert hills ahead; it turned out to be a flight of bats. White tied up his horse and walked through the brush until he was at the edge of an enormous opening in the ground. “I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen,” he’d later write in his autobiography, “out of which the bats seemed literally to boil.”

Undeterred, White explored the cave with his homemade kerosene lantern, making his way along slippery ledges and openings until he came across the first of the cave’s limestone formations. Supposedly he threw a rock into a pit and listened to it roll endlessly until its sound became an echo. Then the light from his lantern went out and he was plunged in complete and utter darkness. “It seemed as though a million tons of black wool descended upon me,” he recalled.

Companies eventually began to excavate the caverns, digging a shaft for easier access, lowering a bucket to harvest the bat droppings (known as guano), which were then sold as fertilizer, mostly to California fruit orchards. Photographs of the caverns ran in The New York Times in the 1920s, showing men in cowboy hats leaning against stalactites and stalagmites many times their size, piquing public interest in the place. After excavation stopped, the caverns became a national park in 1930.

My family and I went to the caverns countless times. The main entrance White found is now paved and handicap-accessible. You walk down a spiraling path into the spectacularly large main cave, like the world’s biggest, deepest ballroom. There is something primal about the experience of descending below the earth. The air is cool and moist and not un-refreshing, but there is a strangely scentless quality to it, the missing tang of vegetation and dust.

Then you wander, along dimly lit trails, deeper in. The enormous stalactites and stalagmites are formed by water moving through the limestone pockets of the cave, drip by slow drip, so the park is really a study in slow, slow motion, the long reach of time made visible. Some formations are bubbly, lava-like. Others are flat and long, striated, like wet marble. All of them are pale and intricate, with folds and spirals. The biomorphic variety in shapes and sizes of the formations is plant-like. Over the years, the formations have been given fanciful, imaginative names: totem poles, flowstone, lily pads, soda straws. Certain locations have proper names, too–The Bone Yard, The Hall of Giants, Lake of the Clouds–that recall the romantic era of exploration. However safe and accessible the main cavern is, heading into it does feel magical, kind of brave. It’s like walking into a giant’s ear, the whorls and formations complex and somehow private, a secret the earth has kept to itself.

Once you’re at the end of the tour, you can stop at the Underground Lunchroom, which is its own landmark, a lunch counter where you eat sandwich and chips in the dim light and constant 56-degree temperature. With its 1960s décor and rocky cave ceiling, the Underground Lunchroom feels both dated and otherworldly, like having lunch on the set of an original Star Trek episode.

For a time, Carlsbad Caverns was one of the most popular national parks. In recent years, though, attendance has declined; there were only 413,786 visitors in 2005, roughly half the total from its peak year (1976, with more than 876,500). Maybe the park is too remote, too inaccessible, with not enough other stuff to do nearby.

Or maybe the problem hasn’t to do with geography but with changing ideas about what a vacation is. In an age of Harry Pottered amusement parks and cruise ships boasting ice rinks and Broadway-like musicals, it’s little wonder that the alternative of a long drive across the desert to see some bats, and walk underground, to a cool, quiet cave and utter darkness, is losing market share. In Ultima Thule, his collection of poems about Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, park ranger Davis McCombs wrote, “Children of a clanging, squeaking world,/we cannot bear the silence.”


Carlsbad’s latest underground industry is potentially its most profitable, its most futuristic, and certainly its most controversial. As the potash industry declined, the city began looking for other ways to support itself. Help came from the Department of Energy, which identified salt beds below the desert as candidates for the storage of nuclear waste.

The establishment of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) was first authorized by Congress in 1979; the Carlsbad area office opened in 1993, and the first waste shipment arrived in 1999. WIPP is a series of caverns where the Department of Energy buries “transuranic” waste, meaning materials that have an atomic number higher than that of uranium, such as plutonium. This waste is a byproduct of nuclear research and weapons production. What’s stored at the WIPP facility in Carlsbad are things like contaminated gloves, equipment, and chemicals. After the stuff is stored in barrels and shelved underground, the salt will gradually creep in around it, sealing it up. After a few years, the waste is impossible to access or retrieve.

From the start, WIPP was contested, with environmental activists across the West, and in northern New Mexico, which skews green, in vocal opposition. These activists warned of a poor state being bribed into taking unwise risks for a little economic stimulus. They expressed concerns about the stability of the underground salt beds in the long term, as well as about the transportation of the waste to Carlsbad from other locations.

But in Carlsbad people welcomed WIPP, because they wanted the jobs. To people like my grandfather, land was there for the using. Carlsbad had made money from pockets of oil and gas; it had made money from potash and park tourism. Why wouldn’t it use the salt beds for nuclear storage, if it could?

The story of WIPP stands in stark contrast to that of Yucca Mountain, in Nevada. In 1987 Congress named Yucca Mountain as a site to bury high-level radioactive waste. But extensive lobbying by the local population, including Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, has prevented the site from going into operation. In 2009, Obama stopped the Yucca project. The high-level waste originally projected to travel there has remained at the nuclear plants that produce it, building up over time.

Now that WIPP has been established for low-level nuclear waste, there’s talk of expanding its capacity to include the higher-level waste they didn’t want at Yucca Mountain. After last year’s crisis in Fukushima, it’s clearer than ever that safe (preferably not above-ground) storage of nuclear fuel rods/waste is crucial. Thus far, Carlsbad seems to be a safe alternative–no evidence points to poor effects on human health or local groundwater, and the salt beds are geologically stable. But when it comes to nuclear waste, “thus far” is only so reassuring.

The nuclear material will be underground, and radioactive, for thousands of years. It’s possible that the location of WIPP will be forgotten in time and that people in the future might accidentally release the radiation. Since 1991, the Department of Energy has been working with a team to come up with signage that will somehow be comprehensible eons from now. They’re developing a system that includes granite pillars and slabs marked with etchings and pictures. Warnings will be written in multiple languages, and they’re also considering pictograms–including, perhaps, the unhappy figure from Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.” The people on the team include linguists, scientists, science fiction writers, anthropologists, and “futurists.”

Whatever the team comes up with, these symbols will be added to the other markings on the landscape, like the arrowheads and petroglyphs of the native Americans who once roamed the Guadalupe Mountains, or the etchings left by the Spanish explorers in the 16th century as they made their way across the land. They will tell the story of the long-ago past–that ancient ocean of which salt is the only remainder–meeting a distant future we can’t even envision. And they will form yet another record of human beings assessing the desert, surviving in it, making of it what they can.


In my 20s, I lived in Albuquerque for a few years, and I made a lot of trips to Carlsbad, seeing it through more adult eyes. Then, after my grandparents died, there was no longer much occasion to visit, and it’s not a place you just stop by on your way to somewhere else. But I still consider it one of my homes in the world. It is my link to my mother’s past, to mining and the desert and the West, all of which are part of my heritage and my being no matter how far away I grew up from it.

The last time I went to Carlsbad, I was with my siblings and our mother, and we did some of the activities we’d enjoyed as children, with the greater self-consciousness but also keener enjoyment of adults who’ve learned that not all of life is like summer vacations. We took a boat ride along the Pecos as the sun set. We hiked into the caverns. A tarantula took up residence outside our motel room; we took photos of it. On a blindingly sunny afternoon we went to visit Dave and Eleanor’s graves, and we took photos of those, too. They have the kind of grave marker with their pictures mounted on it, and they looked at us, smiling and full of life, from their resting spots underground.

Alix Ohlin is the author most recently of Inside, a novel, and Signs and Wonders, a collection of stories. Follow her on Twitter @AlixOhlin.

*Photo courtesy of D. Garding.


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