In the Footsteps of Giants - Robert E. Howard and Carlsbad Cavern
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
I was twenty-one when I first sat down to watch the 1982 sword and sorcery classic, Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a life changing moment for me. While far too many people dismiss and deride this film as 80's cheese, nothing but oiled muscles and scantily clad women, they would be wrong. At its heart, John Milius' Conan is a philosophical journey masked by an age of high adventure, a journey that deeply resonated with me. I had come to the movie through an author named Howard Philip Lovecraft, creator of Cthulhu and the mythos it inhabits. I knew from my research that Lovecraft had a friend, a pen pal in fact, named Robert E. Howard. Howard was the creator of Conan, and Lovecraft considered the fictional era in history that Conan inhabited to be part of his fictional mythology. I dug that. So, I found the first thing linked to Howard that I could, the aforementioned film.
While the film will always have a special place in my heart, and it overflows with Howardian elements (check out the Rogues is the House podcast for more), it is not the Conan that Howard created. I discovered this as I picked up the Del Rey edition of "The Conquering Sword of Conan", an updated collection of Howard's original tales. The first story I read was entitled "The Servants of Bit-Yakin", previously published as "The Jewels of Gwahlur", and takes Conan on an adventure of danger and intrigue through ancient ruins and a subterranean world. In the annotation of the tale, the editors mention that this story was inspired by Howard's only trip outside of Texas, a vacation where he visited New Mexico and took a tour of Carlsbad Caverns.
I am an avid visitor of National Parks and Monuments, and I have been dying to visit Carlsbad Caverns so I could see what brought my favorite author got the inspiration to write one of my favorite Conan tales. Well, I am happy to say that I finally got the chance.
Over this last Vernal Holiday, Easter to you religious types, my girlfriend and I packed our bags, loaded up the dog and headed south from Albuquerque, New Mexico with the caverns as our destination.
I will admit that once you turn south from Cline's Corners, the drive becomes quite...boring, unless you are able to find beauty in the vast, never ending plains. Stretching toward the horizon are nothing but gently rolling hills, broken only by desolate towns, herds of cattle, and the occasional clutch of Pronghorn antelope.
We had booked a small cabin at the KOA campground south of Artesia and north of Carlsbad (the city), and was pleasantly surprised with my first stay at such a place. The cabin was small, but clean, had A/C, there was a dog run, a pool, and the HQ even cooked their own BBQ. Each site had its own grill and fire pit where we successfully cooked hot dogs and baked beans on a classic New Mexico windy evening. Nearby Artesia is a small oil town with a beautiful downtown, but the smell of "money" permeates the area. We were a bit worried that the smell would follow us, but we had no issues with that.
After a good night's rest, we headed out early to explore the caverns. I have been to a few caves before, the largest of which was Wind Cave in South Dakota (another great trip), but I was not prepared for what awaited me. In all the caves that I have been in before, I was lead in a tour group by a ranger or guide and shown all the marvels time and geology could muster. This is not the case at Carlsbad Caverns.
The mouth of the cave is massive, but dwarfed in comparison to what lies beneath. the system of caves is so large, that a trail network was been created inside that allows you to wander and sight see at your own pace.
The trek down into the bowels of the Earth was awe inspiring. At one point, just before the aptly named "Twilight Zone" there is a vista that I could have sworn was a matte painting ripped straight from the set of Temple of Doom. I am not sure if this is a testament to natural beauty or to the unbeatable realism of now "out dated" practical effects, or both. My photography doesn't do it justice.
As we walked down the paved, switch back trail, I was taken aback at the depth were were diving. The trail never seemed to end, only going deeper and deeper into the gloom. I can only imagine what Howard felt as he descended with what likely amounted to little more than an lantern. For those of you less interested in the trek, there is elevator access both up and down, but be warned, the line is long.
When we finally completed our mile and a half trek into the cavern system, we found ourselves in a dome that could easily fit multi-storied buildings. Eons of water had formed groves of giant stone columns and pillars, Intricate displays of delicate stonework created miniature shadow theaters at once fanciful and grotesque. I have no doubt that Howard's mind was working on over drive as he took in the sights, sounds, and scents of the cavern system. In fact, I can draw distinct similarities between passages in "The Jewels of Gwahlur" and the underworld through which we walked.
"Above them gleamed the phosphorescent roof; a hundred feet below them stretched the smooth floor of the cavern. On the far side of this floor was cut by a deep, narrow stream brimming its rocky channel. Rushing out of the impenetrable gloom, it swirled across the cavern and was lost again in the darkness. the visible surface reflected the radiance above; the dark seething waters glinted as if flecked with living jewels, frosty blue, lurid red, shimmering green, and ever-changing iridescence." -Robert E. Howard, The Jewels of Gwahlur
Fantasy aside, and despite the modern conveniences, it is easy to imagine how the first explorers felt when they began to explore the cave system. As history tells us, a curious teenager by the name of Jim White, first dropped into the caverns by a homemade rope ladder in 1898. The system was explored by numerous intrepid adventures, mostly in by lamplight, a solid wall of darkness enveloping them a mile below the surface. It wasn't until 1932 when the visitor's center began modernizing the access routes with a pair of elevators. Of all the sights and sounds within the caves, nothing hammered home the sense of adventure and danger those early men and women faced than the solitary wood and wire ladder still hanging above the abyss.
I could talk for hours about my trip. I could tell you about geology and prehistory, I could tell you all about the people and fantastic creatures that have come and gone since the cavern's creation eons ago, but that's not really the point, is it?
Go. Go explore. Go adventure. Go tread the paths of those that inspire you. I will tell you that I have never felt closer to my favorite author. As a writer, there was something special about walking the same path and seeing the same sights that Robert E. Howard did. I have a notion that it will only be surpassed by my inevitable visit to his home in Cross Plains, Texas.
While I heartily recommend a visit to Carlsbad Caverns, if just for the natural wonder of it all, I also highly suggest you seek out the places that inspired your favorite authors. I promise you won't regret it.
And as Conan would say: Live. Love. Slay. Be Content.