52 States in 8 Months

The Carlsbad Caverns

Posted in Las Vegas to El Paso by Ulf on April 16, 2009

April 1st started with a meal at Denny’s, a place Alex told me about. From the outside, Denny’s looks like any other fast-food place. But in fact it isn’t. Denny’s is a normal restaurant with waitresses, a menu and adequate prices (my breakfast cost $11). And it is slow-food; I waited for about 10 minutes until my breakfast was served. Over all, Denny’s is really just a normal restaurant. But with a great 1960s look inside, I enjoyed it!

Unfortunately I forgot what they called my meal, but it was great. And I got three refills for my coke during the breakfast, that was also nice :D. Apropos meals and coke: Did you know about something they call a “float”? It is an ice cream soda. I’ve never tried something like that, but I really want to! The next time I have access to ice cream and coke at the same time, I will make such a “Coke Float” :-).

After the meal, I got my rental car (a silver Chevrolet Cobalt LT with about 20,000 miles) to go from El Paso to the Carlsbad Caverns and back. One way is 150 miles with exactly nothing in between, not even FM radio station (and the available AM stations were boring). The car did about 30 mpg when I drove a constant 75mph on the highway. Not bad for an American car. Still, the combination of the cruise control tuning and the gearbox was awful. The car did a downshift at nearly every hill. This does not yield the comfortable ride a cruise control was designed for.

The picture above shows the average New Mexican landscape. There is just a long, straight road in front of you, and the same behind you (as you can see in the mirror). And somewhere on the horizon there are large mountains which look either very beautiful or awfully ugly, depending on the sunlight.

During my 180miles ride to the Carlsbad Caverns I saw a couple other cars, and three interesting things on the road:

  1. Once there was a state trooper on my lane who only drove like 60mph when I approached with 75mph. I was very surprised, so I also slowed down. Why would a police car want to go about 15mph below the speed limit? Did I miss any signs? Anyway, when the officer noticed that I slowed down he moved to the shoulder, so I overtook him and went back to my 75mph, and the state trooper soon disappeared from my mirrors. Life can be really boring out there ;-).
  2. The second “interesting” thing was a truck with some really oversized load! Look at the picture! I did not notice what his load was. Maybe a bucket for some surface mining digger?
  3. I also have a picture of the third interesting thing, but unfortunately I took it through the windscreen, so it looks a bit ugly. It was a border control check-point somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The officer had pretty good eyes: I was approaching at about 10mph, and I was still about 2-3 meters away when he noticed that I held a German passport in my hands. How did he know that I’m German? I mean, I wasn’t driving to fast, so that should not have given him a clue. And the federal eagle on my passport is very very small, but I guess he must have somehow seen it. Or he is good in statistics. Very good.

Eventually I arrived in White’s City, New Mexico, which is basically just the entrance gate to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. They have a gas station for those who are not prepared for the distances in the South West (or those who drive American cars with very little mpg), and they have a post office (which was closed when I wanted to go there) as well as a museum for those who don’t know what to do after the national park closes.

When I arrived at the Welcome Center of the National Park I was asked whether I wanted to take the elevator to the main room or the stairs in the natural entrance. What an unnecessary question… I mean, she must have noticed that I’m not a fat American. So, this will be the last picture with sunlight for the next couple of pages ;-).

Before I start showing you many beautiful pictures from the cave, let’s do some theory. The whole area is called the “Delaware Basin” although it’s about 2,000 miles away from the State of Delaware (Does anyone know or find out why this area is called “Delaware basin”?). Anyway, this place was a huge lake some 250 million years ago (in the Permian Period). A reef built up, mostly from algae and sponges. Then the whole thing was lifted up, the water disappeared, and the former reef is now known as the Guadalupe Mountains. All the fossil stuff that died in the sea left behind calcium carbonate, or limestone. This will become important after the next two pictures ;-).

So far I told you who the mountains were created, but I did not mention the caves. For understanding how the caves were created you need to know one more thing: This area in Texas and New Mexico contains much of the US oil reserves. (There actually were a few pipelines and pump stations along the road which I did not tell you about.)

So, what does the oil have to do with the caves? The oil contains sulfur which will be a gas if it combines with hydrogen: hydrogen sulfide (H2S). This gas slowly makes it way from the underground oil reserves to the top. When this gas went through the ground water, some of the sulfur became sulfuric acid (H2SO4). I’m not sure how this reaction actually worked, but that’s what they claim it was lake. I mean, they had a few million years of time, so that might help.

The end of the story is rather obvious: Sulfuric acid reacts with calcium carbonate, so it punches large holes into the lime stone. And I was now walking inside one of these large holes!

As the mountains grew up, the ground water level dropped lower and lower, so the cave-carving eventually stopped. Instead, dissolved calcium carbonate started to create new structures in the cave:
“Stalactites” (with a “c” for ceiling and a “t” for top) and “stalagmites” (with a “g” for ground and a “m” for bottom), and “soda straws”, “draperies”, “popcorn” and “columns”:

The basic concept of all these forms of rocks is the same. At some point there was some water with dissolved calcium carbonate in it, and when the calcium carbonate left those formations were created. But let’s go for the details. A “soda straws” isn’t massive, instead it’s more like a pipe or a “straw” (German: Strohhalm). These straws appear were water constantly enters through a hole at the top of the cave. The calcium carbonate precipitates out at the rim of the straw, which makes the straw grow down.
The stalactites grow in the same way, but the water comes from the outside and not from the inside of the stalactite. Some formation can be a stalactites and a soda straw at the same time if water comes from both the outside and the inside.

The calcium carbonate in the water from the top might also become a drapery (German: Gardine) if the calcium carbonate creates a thin wall instead of a round-shaped stone. Our tour guide illustrated this with the effect of water running down on the side of the bottle if you’re unlucky when pouring coffee into a cup — these liquids sometimes just don’t follow the direction of gravity. One could also find smaller examples of violations of the law of gravity at the roof in many of the rooms of the cave. There were small worms of limestone growing into every direction, but not downwards. The next two pictures show both these “worms” (in the middle of the first picture) and a drapery (second picture, right-hand side).

Where the stalagmites and the columns come from should also be obvious — stalagmites are created by released calcium carbonate when the water drops splash on the bottom, and columns are basically what comes out when a stalactite meets with a stalagmites after many years of growing.

But what about the popcorn? To give you an idea, this is what it really looks like:

Now, the explanation of where this popcorn comes from is not that easy. It’s about air cycling through the cave, carrying water around. Cold air cannot store water very well, but warm air can. What happens is the following: when air picks up some calcium carbonate-rich water and then hits some colder place, either the bottom or the windward side of some stala-anything, it suddenly cools down and leaves the water behind.
Well, not a perfect explanation, but our tour guide told us something about about air streams in the cave and at that time everything made sense ;-).

As you can see, I just ran out of motivation to think about physical correlations. Instead, let’s have a look at the American part of the cave. They have a dining room down there, just where the elevators arrive. And they have a post office where I wrote a few post cards. And restrooms, of course. I tried to find some Wifi and cell phone reception, but those two actually did not work. Dunno y.

Basically, the missing Wifi was the only real surprise for me, because I didn’t have cell phone reception anywhere in the south west. At&t has an even worse coverage than T-Mobile. You have to go with Verizon, all the others won’t do down there. And I don’t mean the empty roads. You also won’t have at&t reception in Page, AZ, for example. That’s a city with about 8,000 inhabitants.

But coming back to the cave, these are some more impressions:

(There are no colored lights in the cave. All strange colors come from my camera. Really!)

I have to comment on one picture, which is the following:

You probably noticed the stalactite formation in the center of the image. It had fallen down some time ago. While they were growing, these stalactites obeyed the gravity laws for a change, so they grew downwards. However, since the rock collapsed, the stalactites are pointing a bit to the side (which looks like a breach of Newton’s law). Everything in this cave is trying to convince me that nature really is about Intelligent Falling ;-).
(I think the German Wikipedia article on IF is a bit better, so check out this one.)

On my way back from the Carlsbad Caverns to El Paso, I noticed some white thing which was poorly hidden behind some abandoned houses:

I found it on Google Maps, too. This is how it looks from the top, and here is Google’s picture from the same perspective which I used.
The place is actively maintained. They have even changed the road which leads to the strange white building. Google Street shows today’s dirt road, which you’ll not find on the satellite images.
But what is that thing about?
I first thought it would be some nuclear missile, just next to the road. But there seems to be no security at all. And the whole installation looks so much as if it would belong to a farm. What are those funny little mail boxes on the roof about? I’m so confused! Anyone have a clue?

The remaining trip to El Paso was boring, once again. Therefore I had plenty of time to take pictures of the sunset:

When I arrived in El Paso, I decided that a breakfast can’t be the only meal of a day. That’s why I went to Whataburger. It’s really a nice restaurant! They were not as tarted up as McDonald’s and Burger King, and their menu was also very customer friendly. According to the picture I had a very tasty Whatachicken. If I ever see another Whataburger, I’ll go there again! Unfortunately they only have restaurants in the southern states between Arizona and Florida, so I’ll probably not see another one during my stay in the US.

I just remember one more nice thing about Whataburger: They serve the Ketchup in little boxes instead of those squeeze-tubes which McDonalds use. I believe that this is more eco-friendly than the McD-solution, and for me as a customer it’s also more comfortable. Still, serving Ketchup from large dispenser units (what is their real name?) or simply from large bottles would be even better.

If you have a look at the receipt you’ll notice that I payed exactly $6 for my menu. I really like that they’ve chosen their prices such that full dollars will come out after applying the local taxes.

Back in El Paso, I also tried to take a picture of the El Paso Star, but downtown is simply not the right place for it ;-). I’m not sure about what this Star means. I’ve read somewhere that they installed it in the 1940s. I think it is supposed to be a “Lone Star”, the symbol of Texas.


bild8241UPDATE: My nuclear missile is not half as dangerous as I first thought. Pingu found out about it on Wikipedia, and I have seen it on some board in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum which is near Washington Dulles Airport. It is either a VOR or a TACAN, or something which combines both, a VORTAC. That means that it is a device which helps planes to navigate without clear sight. That’s probably very useful in Texas and New Mexico where they have large areas without anything that could be used as a landmark.
Thank you, Pingu! I appreciate it!


One Response

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  1. Pingu said, on April 20, 2009 at 8:12 am

    I would guess, that strange building you saw is a navigation helper for aircrafts, maybe a VOR (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VHF_omnidirectional_range)? But if it is, our aircraft specialist will know better what it is … :)

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