Ranger Pat can tell I’m cold, wet, and tired. I walk into the visitors’ center at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, my rain gear soaking wet, eyes bleary from lack of sleep. It rained all night long, thunder and lightning, hail in the morning, high winds, and 36 degrees. I’m a little bit shaky. Not sure what my next move should be, I ask Pat for recommendations. During the course of our conversation I tell him I’ve worked for the Park Service, too, at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. He suggests some easy hikes, and gives me a pass for the park. I go back outside, feeling like I’ve just connected with a comrade, a member of the ranger-tribe. The rain has stopped, and the desert wind dries my clothes.
It’s Ranger Brian’s day off, but he still has to check the fuel tanks and test the water at the Dog Canyon campground on the north side of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. He lives way out there at the end of the road, seventy miles from the nearest grocery store. The place reminds me a bit of Eagle, Alaska, where I spent last summer. Quiet, wild, high lonesome country. I love it, and what’s even better is that I’m the only one in the campground. Brian takes the time to chat with me, suggests a hike, and opens the office so I can get a bird checklist. He’ll be at the ranger station during my stay, and his presence makes me feel safe. Otherwise, I’d be all alone out here.
Ranger Jody has had a tough day. The visitors’ center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park took a direct lightning strike earlier, which fried the wiring for all the lights in one of the tunnels. A big sign over the ticket counter says, “Attention Park Visitors: The Main Corridor (Natural Entrance) is closed due to power outage in this area. You can take the elevator in and tour the Big Room.” Jody doesn’t complain, but I can guess that she’s probably had to answer the same questions over and over. She’s spent a long time standing at the information desk, and likely has had some concerns about getting people safely out of the dark where the power is off. Maybe there have been a few complaints. Still, she has patience for me, especially when I tell her I’m suffering a bit from the high altitude and a case of mild hypothermia. She asks me if I’ve had anything hot to drink. Then she recommends a camping spot nearby on BLM land, where I can camp for free.
Ranger John leads the King’s Palace tour, taking a small group of us through a part of the caverns open only for guided tours. There are fifteen of us, even though this tour can have up to fifty-five. John is from Kentucky, and says, “Mammoth is my home cave.” He’s professional, well-rehearsed, and comfortable in the caverns. I get the sense that he’s spent much of his life underground, and this is his natural habitat. His speaking manner is that of a southern preacher. Mild, soft-spoken, and powerful, his voice carries well, but he’s not a fire-and-brimstone type. Preacher John, from the church of caves, is giving a sermon in this underground cathedral. At the end of his talk, he changes gears a bit, and paraphrases the National Park Service’s mission statement: “…to provide for the public’s enjoyment of the resources, and leave them unimpaired for future generations.” Is this a contradiction? How many paths can the Park Service pave before the natural integrity of a place is destroyed? He acknowledges there is a delicate balance.
In the afternoon, I meet Ranger Katie, who will lead thirteen of us on a tour of the Left-hand Tunnel. This is a “wilderness” part of the caverns; no pavement, no electric lights. We are each issued a lantern made of wood and glass, with a candle inside. Sienna, a fearless nine-year-old girl, reminds me of myself on a cave tour when I was her age: stuck to the ranger, right up front. Katie is patient and friendly, and by the end of this tour we all feel like part of a tightly-knit band of explorers. The lanterns lend a mysterious ambiance, and offer a hint of what it would have been like to visit these caves back in the late 1800s. This part of the cavern is dry, and it’s easy to understand why humans have lived in caves through the ages. Time loses its definition; we’ve managed to escape from the modern world. We gather in a circle and blow out all the candles, sit in silence for a minute. Then Katie’s voice rings out, singing. It’s startling at first, and I feel my heart leap. But then the purity of her voice calms me.
A place where my heart and soul feel free
The solitude is my sanctuary
If you listen very carefully
You’ll hear the cavern breathe
And if you listen very carefully
You’ll hear the cavern sing
When I leave these National Parks and drive towards Carlsbad, the traffic is terrible. There are oil and gas pipelines criss-crossing the land, antennae bristling from the mountain ridges, powerlines and railroad tracks and billboards and unchecked commercial development. You can’t escape the noise, the stink in the air. I realize — not for the first time, but with renewed clarity — that the National Parks are islands of sanity within this crazy world we’ve created. They are worth fighting for, worth protecting, forever and always.
This week, I have met a whole network of people who are making sure this work gets done. The folks in green and grey are there, every day, doing what it takes. They aren’t afraid to speak the truth; in fact, that’s what it’s all about.
After the lantern tour, Ranger Katie told me she used to be in a band called the Rockin’ Rangers. Indeed.