Smorgasbord Letters from America – 1986 – New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns and Halley’s Comet.

Over the next two weeks I will be sharing the article that I wrote for my parents primarily but with a view to adapting to send off to a magazine at a later date. We crossed Texas and into New Mexico to hopefully experience a once in a lifetime sighting of Halley’s Comet which only appears every 76 years. Our trip offered some wonderful opportunities to explore the area and here is part one.

Unfortunately at some point over the last 32 years, the photographs that I took have gone missing,probably when we lost a great many books and other paper items when our house was wrecked by a leaking pipe when we were away in 1996. However, thanks to and their free use images, I have managed to find a few to share with you.

New Mexico and some ambitions fulfilled.


We decided that the ideal time to make the long drive to New Mexico and the Carlsbad Caverns would be the weekend of January 19th, there was a holiday on the Monday and David and our friend Walter could take the time off work. The Weather Channel assured us of a dry, warm three days so instead of packing enough clothes for two weeks; I restricted myself to some jeans and a sweater for the cooler evenings.

We managed to leave Houston by 3p.m. and decided to take route 290 to Austin and then on to join the main East, West Highway 10. This was a mistake as we got caught up in Austin’s rush hour traffic and lost considerable time on what was going to be a very long trip anyway.

Matters were not helped by poor signposting through the town and by the fact that I complacently folded the map about a mile too soon. However, after leaving Austin’s limits, we made good time to the junction of the 10, especially as the three of us could alternate with the driving. By now it was dark so very little of the area could be seen, but thankfully the road was clear with light traffic and we managed to make Fort Stockton, 500 miles from Houston, by 1a.m. Here we stayed the night at the good value Rodeway Inn, leaving early the next morning, fortified by a large and excellent breakfast in a small but very friendly diner.

On to Carlsbad

There were 158 miles left of the trip to the Carlsbad Caverns, and a lucky choice of route took us from Orla, on the 285, miles across to join the 180 which lead into New Mexico and the Caverns. This winding road through the desert provided us with a spectacular view of the Guadalupe Mountains and Guadalupe Peak, at 8,751 feet, the highest point in Texas. The day was bright and with only a few clouds and the range was very impressive and a stark contrast to the vast flatness of most of the rest of Texas. For us it was the first bonus of this long trip.

Shortly after joining the 180 we entered the state of New Mexico and after driving parallel with the mountains for 15 miles we reached White’s City at the entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns road. Although the term one horse town would certainly apply to White’s City, it provided the only refreshment and accommodation for the immediate area and had obviously prospered from the thousands of annual visitors to the Caverns. We decided to explore this small town later in the day and pressed on up the canyon to the Cavern’s visitor centre where we signed on for the Blue Tour.

A brief history

It is known that the Indians in the Guadalupe area first discovered the entrance to the Cavern and relics and old Mescal cooking pits have been found in and around the entrance.

However, it was not until the late 1880s that any exploration of the enormous underground world took place. A local rancher, while looking for a stray cow, witnessed an evening bat flight from the Cavern. From this chance sighting, knowledge of the cave and its bats was passed on until several enterprising companies began to mine the rich bat guano, so prized for its fertilizing qualities. Over 100,000 tons of guano were removed, but none of the six companies were able to make it a profitable operation. However, one man who had worked for most of these companies at one time or another, James White, explored the cavern with a hand held lantern and with what must have been a great deal of courage. After this first primative exploration, discoveries were made deeper and deeper into the darkness, until now there are over 3 1/2 miles of lit pathways over 700 feet below the surface.

The Blue Tour

The Blue Tour lasted about 4 hours and consisted firstly of a Ranger guided tour down to the lowest point and then a self-guided tour with individual radios which picked up commentary along the route.

The drawback to the guided tour is that you are forced to go at the pace of 180 or so other tourists, which included quite a number of elderly people and small children. Most of these very small children were quite plainly terrified by the darkness and strangeness of the cavern and cried most of the tour. As there are excellent nursery facilities at the surface it seemed a little heartless of the parents to subject these children to the experience and it did spoil the tour for a great many people. However, the rangers did an excellent job of herding us safely to the bottom and were available to answer questions some of which were more basic such as “When do we get to the snack bar?” and “Where are the restrooms?”

The three of us were really looking forward to the self-guided part of the tour and having reached the bottom we were issued our radios. There is a large refreshment area on this level with gift shops and restrooms, many people took the opportunity to have lunch for the first time at 700 feet and then took the elevator back to the surface.

The more adventurous started out to explore the Big Room, a spectacular wonderland of stalagmites and stalactites. For over an hour we followed the path through this strange world, admiring the Temple of the Sun, the Totem Pole and the Crystal Spring Dome to name just a few. I enjoyed the visit very much, as we all did, but David felt it was too organized, and would have much preferred to have spent time in the newest cave that had been discovered, where hand- held lanterns and a more adventurous spirit was necessary. Of course safety is the key factor and very important with so many people wandering around on their own within the main cavern area.

It had definitely been worth the long trip from Houston, as was the incredible view that greeted us after our 700 feet elevator ride to the surface. From the Cavern’s car park you could see for miles across the desert towards the Guadalupe Mountains and we decided that this was the ideal place to fulfil the second ambition of the trip, to see Halley’s Comet.

Here is a short video about the caverns and the surrounding area. Courtesy ofGoTraveler

Our first night in White City

By now tired and dusty, we returned to White’s City and booked into the Best Western Motel which was as usual very good value and comfortable. After showering and changing our clothes we crossed the road to sample the local fare offered by the only restaurant in town, the Velvet Garter Saloon. In Houston we are used to the excellent food available and the good service and we were very disappointed by our first meal in New Mexico. We all had fajitas, one of our favourites, and were amazed to be presented with two tortillas and about three ounces of meat apiece and nothing else.

Hardly satisfying for three hungry intrepid explorers, not only that, but we were virtually hustled out of the place after finishing our entrees and were obviously not popular when we requested a dessert to fill the gap. Just goes to show what lack of competition can do to a town.

To compensate ourselves we returned to our motel room and downed some vodka and orange juice and prepared to return to the Cavern entrance armed with sweaters, a flask of soup and some borrowed binoculars from the obliging desk clerk. I am sure this varied wildlife on the surrounding hillside derived much pleasure from watching us humans lying on our backs from the car park, eves lifted heavenwards searching for the elusive Halley’s Comet.

We were very excited to find it after some minutes especially when you realize that it is certainly a once in a lifetime experience. It was a small speck but with binoculars you could see the tail and the three of us were absolutely thrilled that our long trip had been  well worth the effort.

While star-gazing we noticed a dark scuttling shape crossing the car park, after investigating with torches, we discovered a raccoon on a midnight prowl for food and about to make off with the rucksack. We obliged him with some of our soup, which he thoroughly enjoyed and then it was discovered that Sally had left both camera and flash back at the motel, a very careless move for someone so snap happy. After a couple of hours we retired to the motel and bed, happy with the first day of our trip and ready to tackle the day to follow, hopefully in the mountains.

I woke early the next morning and leaving David and Walter sleeping soundly, I drove up the canyon, this time with the camera, to watch the sun rising up over the desert. This little side trip of mine proved to be very rewarding as I was treated to the sight of a herd of Mule Deer grazing the hillside. I managed to get some photographs of these appealing animals and spent about half an hour watching them move lazily over the sparse terrain. I returned to the motel feeling fresh and ready for anything, particularly a good hot breakfast. A meal I always enjoy when prepared by someone else.

I hope that you have enjoyed the first part of our trip to New Mexico and next week McKittrick Canyon and the Living Desert centre.

You can read all the previous Letters from America in this directory:

29 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Letters from America – 1986 – New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns and Halley’s Comet.

  1. I’d love to see the Caverns. I visited the Belianska Caves in Slovakia which were amazing. There’s even a ‘music hall’ which was named after the musical sounds made by the water dripping onto the lake and concerts are held in it. I don’t think a real orchestra turns up, have a feeling it’s recorded music that’s played.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine Weekly Round Up – Good intentions by Grandmas, Bird Watching and Halley’s Comet | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

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