Half of my first summer as a teenager was spent in a compact car, driving back and forth from Southern California to New Orleans with my mother and nine-year-old sister. I was torn between huge curiosity and excitement, and the nagging certainty spending so much time with my ultra-extroverted mother and sister would cause my head to explode. I remember we argued daily, but remember more clearly all the places we saw along the way.
It was the first trip I took after deciding I could, just maybe, write a novel someday. Every part of me was primed to store experiences and research with the intention of one day using it in a book. One excursion in particular made a huge impact: Carlsbad Caverns.
Carlsbad was my first cavern experience. I fell in love with caves from the first moment, despite the guano. There was magic and anticipation in walking the switchback path from the surface to the underground. There was mystery in looking ahead to the darkness, and anxiety of the unknown. Being underground was thrilling, and the massive scale of the caverns was terrifying and awesome.
It’s impossible for pictures to give you the sense of how small one feels in those huge and vaulted chambers. There is no way to demonstrate how it feels to realize just how much stone is hanging over your head. There is no isolation greater than cave darkness.
Is it any surprise that some of that experience would show up in my books?
Part of Sand of Bone’s story uses caverns as its setting. I had so much cavern-stuff I wanted to put in! But the setting must serve the story—not the other way around—and the story wasn’t at about spelunking and exploration. Still, I incorporated elements of Carlsbad into Sand of Bone, including the one thing I learned about the caverns at Carlsbad that completely freaked me out. (I’ll bet anyone can guess it, once they’ve read the book.)
At every opportunity since that cross-country trip, I’ve explored caverns. Granted, those opportunities have been somewhat limited since I’m the only one in the family with this interest. I talked my late husband into going once, but he was deeply uncomfortable being underground. My son will go along for walking tours—we’ve hit nearly every cave in the state, and a few in neighboring states—but his interest deteriorated in the teenage years.
The good news is that, with the son grown, I can now go cave-visiting on my own. I do hope to make the Mammoth Cave all-day caving experience in the next year. It would be nice to come full-circle with a similar experience in Carlsbad. The son is adamantly against participating in those tours since they require belly-crawling through some passages, and lighting no more extensive than headlamps. Thinking of all the rock above sparks his anxiety.
Me, I think it sounds amazing.
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Photo Attribution: Top of the Cross, Carlsbad: “Top of the Cross in Carlsbad Cavern-1” by Daniel Mayer – Taken by uploader. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Top_of_the_Cross_in_Carlsbad_Cavern-1.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Top_of_the_Cross_in_Carlsbad_Cavern-1.JPG