Saturday, April 11, 2009

When You Can't Go to Carslbad Caverns, Go to the Ice Cave

“Go to the Carlsbad Caverns,” my friends on Facebook suggested when I wrote: “We’re in New Mexico. Any suggestions of places to visit?” As expected, Carlsbad ranked #1 as the destination of choice. I tended to agree with my friends. I am drawn to caves and actually traveled to the spectacular Carlsbad Caverns in 2005, two years before we began our 10,000 Mile Grand Tour of the US and Canada. On this current trip, Carlsbad was off course. Our travel route placed us on I – 40 in northwest New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns is located in the extreme southeast corner – not an easy commute.

So as I apologize to my Facebook friends, I confess I listened to a young desk clerk at America’s Best Value Inn in Gallup, New Mexico. I’d wandered into the hotel on a Sunday night looking for a newspaper and some local information. I scored a discarded Wall Street Journal and found a rack of tourism brochures.

“What do you think of this place?” I asked the fellow as I held up the Ice Cave advertisement at his eye level to get attention.

“Oh, yeah. You should go there. I’ve heard it’s very nice from many of our guests.”

I took this desk clerk’s advice, the advice of a stranger, the advice of a local boy who had never been to the venue in his own backyard over my trusted advisers, my friends. He gave me good advice.

From I-40, take Exit 81 in Grants, New Mexico. The Ice Cave is on Route 53 – the “Trail of the Ancients,” a New Mexico Scenic Byway. Route 53 is the traditional path between Pueblos of Acoma and Zuni. It is the route taken by Coronado on his famous exploration. It’s a route I’ve added to our Grand Tour Map on our Prevost wall. Destination signs clearly mark the dusty turn-off Ice Cave Road leading to the circular parking lot where we had ample room to park our coach. On a busier day, the lot may have been challenging for a rig our size hauling a tow car.

For several generations the Candelaria Family has owned the Ice Cave property and preserved its integrity. Also, on their land is the Bandera Volcano, the best representation of an erupted volcano and cinder cone crater in the United States. The ancient lava trail from the volcano leads to a collapsed lava tube. Inside the lava tube is the Ice Cave.

Janet Candelaria O’Connor greeted me in the Trading Post – a kind of welcome center and gift shop offering contemporary Indian arts like jewelry, pottery, rugs, and Kachina dolls. The radiant heat from the wood burning stove and Janet’s warm smile made the place feel like a welcoming home.

Janet explained that the temperature in the Ice Cave never rises above 31-degrees. Rain water and snow melt seep into the cave maintaining the thick ice floor. She estimated the ice to be about 20 feet thick. Before I began my exploration, Janet gave me a green trail guide. In it I read that the deepest, oldest ice dates back 3,400 years. Amazing.

On the trail to the Ice Cave, I passed jagged lava, remnants of the Bandera Volcano eruption some 10,000 years ago. A yellow ribbon tied to a tree limb calls attention to a Douglas Fir estimated to be 700 years old, one of New Mexico’s oldest Douglas Fir trees. At one view point, a circular stack of lava gives indication of ancient Anazazi Indian ruins. You can see pottery, baskets and other artifacts found at this site in the glass enclosed display case in the Trading Post building.

The easy walking trail leads to a downward stairway. As I descended the uneven stairs to the Ice Cave, I passed a youngster about 6-years old trudging his way back up from the 75 foot decent.

“What do you think of the cave?” I quizzed.

Unimpressed, he replied, “It’s just a nice rink in a cave.”

He continued his ascent and I move downward. The temperature changed considerably from up top where you could be sleeveless in the sun to increasingly colder with each step down. I zipped my yellow jacket.

Unlike Carlsbad where you can roam in the depths room after room, the Ice Cave is viewed from a small, sturdy wooden platform. The mouth of the cave opens high and wide above letting in the only illumination of the cave. The ice covers the floor. And in the natural light, the ice appears to have a green tint, the effect from Arctic algae. A frozen cascade of ice covered the back wall.

I stood there thinking how exciting it must have been to discover this natural wonder. Then, letting my imagination wander, I could see the Indians climbing into the cave and using it for cold storage. I marveled at the ingenuity of those entrepreneurs who minded the ice in days before refrigeration and up to 1946. I chuckled to think how my Budweiser beers would stay chilled here. And, yes, I could even see how a six-year old saw it as an ice rink.

When I returned to the Trading Post, I visited with Janet again. I offered my impressions and that of the little boy. She had heard other kids liken the cave to an ice rink. Then, she told me about a young blind girl who had visited the cave with her parents. Special arrangements were made so the girl could touch the ice. Janet said, “The blind girl told us it was the most beautiful thing she had ever touched.”

I am sure the girl was right. The Ice Cave was beautiful to see and though I only felt its chill, I am sure it would be the most beautiful thing to touch.

April 6, 2009

Ice Cave Trading Co.

12000 Ice Cave Road

Grants, New Mexico 87020


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