I hear America singing…
The barren landscape of southern New Mexico haunts the imagination with spirited stories of survival. On a trip from Albuquerque to Carlsbad, I sit quietly in the passenger’s seat as my wife Laurel drives. I conjure images of the early American settlers, their silhouettes stark against the persistent turquoise sky as they trundle into the fierce heat of the western sun. Our reliable Subaru Outback’s audio system proves to be a sound companion on our journey as it plays Steve Reich’s mesmeric choral work, “Desert Music,” perfect for the more austere patches of land we encounter. Track after track, the music seems to emerge from the land itself, its rhythmic pulse giving rise to songs never sung but often imagined.
…the varied carols I hear…
Songs without words, somehow an antidote to viewing the monotony of this rugged terrain; its brown sandy soil and thorny scrub stretching to the horizon in all directions. After driving for three hours we stop for lunch at Valley of Fires Recreation Area just outside the city of Carrizozo in the south-central region of the state, the winds so severe we can barely hear one another. Post lunch, we head south on Billy the Kid Trail through Lincoln, the county seat where punk Billy shot his way out of jail, killing two of sheriff Pat Garrett’s deputies before Garrett evened the score four months later, circa 1880. By late afternoon we arrive at our destination: Carlsbad, New Mexico, known by most travelers as the city where Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located. It isn’t. But close enough. The city of Carlsbad provides hotel rooms and restaurants for the curious folks wishing to spend a day one thousand feet below the surface of southeastern New Mexico. It also offers respite to the hundreds of workers in the surrounding oil and gas fields, the only real “industry” in the region. Over the 2017 Memorial Day weekend, Laurel and I were among those curious folks to visit Carlsbad and the Caverns.
Journeys throughout New Mexico are as majestic as the changing landscape. To Weary visitors who flock to the state from metropolitan areas with dense populations, traffic snarls and tensions that cling to the psyche like Velcro name tags, the mysterious landscape wraps itself around the willing supplicant. There’s a feeling of freedom one experiences driving south on I-25 from Albuquerque as the verdant lands enriched by the slow-moving dappled brown waters of the Rio Grande River give way to red rock mesas sprouting from the high desert like a fist busting through a sheet-rock wall. From green to sandy brown the land becomes more foreboding. Small towns that once held promise for early settlers now look like apparitions along the increasingly empty roads whose only salvation is they connect to an interstate highway. New Mexico has many state and national parks that attract visitors and locals throughout the year. Journeys to the parks like the one we’ve embarked on can be demanding, especially when inflated bands of visitors descend on them; they seem at times like swarms of ants high-stepping to their destination in quick-time yet without a quick-witted sense of purpose. Don’t misunderstand, viewing the subterranean wonderland of Carlsbad Caverns is an awe-inspiring experience. Less awe-inspiring are the people descending into the depths of the caves with us. The problem, at least for me: observing how unfocused many of those I encountered were when faced with the rigors that a subterranean environment presents.
Those of mechanics…
We on the other hand were not unprepared visitors that weekend. In fact, we prepared carefully for the trip, even going so far as having our trusty Outback retrofitted with new head gaskets and all the other mechanical components required for an engine overhaul at a cost of $4,000. We were even prepared to take on the bats.
…each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong…
In 1923 the bland but decent President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed Carlsbad Cave a National Monument. Four years later the U.S. Congress established it as Carlsbad Caverns National Park, thus enshrining one of North America’s many astounding natural wonders. The caverns were discovered about 1898 when a young cowboy named Jim White was working with a fence-mending crew in the Chihuahuan Desert. He saw what he thought was a whirlwind rising from the desert hills. Curious, he tied his horse to a tree and moved closer to the black plume. Astounded, he later described the scene: “I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which thousands of bats seemed literally to boil.”
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam…
A few days later he returned to the cave with rope, fence wire and a hatchet and fashioned a ladder out of the carcasses of low-lying shrubs; the ladder gave him access to the cave, beginning what would become many visits as he explored deeper and deeper into its cavities. Over the following years Jim White worked a variety of jobs, including guano engineer. Yeah, guano engineer. It seems that American ingenuity was hard at work in the dry Chihuahuan Desert. It wasn’t enough for some people to just marvel and enjoy the mysteries of this place so companies were formed to mine the guano for use as fertilizer in the California fruit orchards. To do this they dug shafts into the caves and hauled the stuff out. And there was plenty to haul out! The caves are home to thousands of bats, seventeen species including a large number of the Brazilian free-tailed bat, one of the most abundant mammals in North America. Every day at dusk — well, almost every day — the bats escape en masse from the dark, cool confines of their stuck-to-the-ceiling perches in the cavern and head for the dry desert air. Their collective flights from the maw of the cave’s opening into the darkening sky is a breathtaking spectacle seen nowhere else in North America. It attracts hundreds of human visitors to observe the phenomenon from the safety of the outdoor amphitheater overseen by a friendly park ranger. We are two of those human visitors. We arrive at the park by 7 PM and seat ourselves amidst the folk.
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work…
In front of the adoring throngs stood Ranger Kathy, reciting a brief history of the “Flight of the Bats.” We listen to her talk, hoping at some point she’ll launch into an aria from Strauss’s Die Fledermaus just to break the monotony of her well-rehearsed, aimed-at-second-graders talk. No such luck. She drones on for 30 minutes, stopping now and then to peer skyward in search of the creatures. “There, I think…” she trails off. “…Just a bird,” she despondently reports. Laurel and I look at one another as she tilts her head towards the exit — the well-known signal to make haste for the door. “No. Let’s wait a little longer,” I whisper. We wait. And we wait a little longer. A few bats appear, then a few more but no swarm as promised. As the sky darkens and the mostly kids-with-their-parents leading the way head for the parking lot it becomes clear there will be no “Flight of the Bats” on this night. As we drive the 20 miles to Carlsbad where we had secured an Airbnb room, I imagine the bats were following us, grateful to escape the massing throngs of tourists. No such luck.
The Airbnb room we rented for our stay in Carlsbad is in a ranch-style home that could have been anywhere in the U.S. It has none of the endearing southwestern quirks and qualities we had become used to. If not for the dry heat engulfing southern New Mexico in the early spring, the house could easily have been in central Illinois. The room’s small, like many Airbnb rentals. Affixed to the wall are Biblical quotations – “To those whom much is given, much is expected” catches my eye before I can escape its guilt-laden premise. Like most Airbnb hosts, the lady of the house is super friendly but given her choice of decorative signage I can tell we don’t have too much in common. This becomes even more evident when she recommends restaurants we might be interested in: McDonalds, Burger King and one of those so-called pizza places. We politely thank her then head for the town’s only brew pub before settling on a barbeque joint that reminds Laurel of places she knew as a kid growing up in Georgia. Since I’m not a barbeque fan I settle for fried chicken. Tired from the day-long drive, we find solace in our rented room and prepare for an early departure to the Caverns the next morning.
The boatman singing what belongs to him on his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck…
We wake early and find a coffee shop recommended on Yelp. Located along the banks of the Pecos River, it’s a decent start to what would be a long day. Not only is the espresso serviceable but we’re able to sit and look at the subtle movement of the river, wondering what life was like for the boatman who piloted his barge through the muddy waters of the Pecos back in the day when New Mexico was part of old Mexico. We wonder if the boatman sang as he navigated his barge through the heart of Carlsbad. But if so, the lilt to his voice would likely be in the form of a song of praise. Maybe not a song in praise of an almighty God but rather a song sung in celebration that he was on his way out of Carlsbad, with a keen eye on the Rio Grande River which would eventually take the Pecos into its wake. We shake ourselves free from this romantic reverie and head to the Caverns.
The drive from Carlsbad – the city – to Carlsbad National Park is not particularly noteworthy. Unless you are dazzled by the sight of well calibrated oil drills throughout the area, there’s not very much to take in. That is, until you arrive at Whites City (no apostrophe required). The “city” is named, of course after Spelunker Jim White and serves as the unofficial entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. Other than a strip mall full of secular reliquaries and chock full of touristy junk, Whites City is a city in name only. To borrow that famous long-ago literary phrase from Gertrude Stein, “there’s no there there…” Similarly, the road from Whites City to the Caverns winds through beautiful mountainous country, the road climbing then dipping, turning and twisting for 12 miles, ending at a series of large parking lots leading to the entrance of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. When we arrive around 9:30 AM, those lots are already almost full. This is not a good sign. After a search, we snag a parking spot amid a sea of sleek SUV’s, our well-traveled tan Subaru Outback looking almost forlorn as it sits among these chariots to American greed. We gather our gear and head for the visitor’s center to schedule the day’s activities.
Trekking to the visitor’s center, it becomes painfully obvious we are part of a vast crowd of eager adventurers headed to the lower depths of the earth. But unlike the characters in Gorky’s “The Lower Depths,” we are not poised to spin illusionist tales to quell our growing apprehension about being surrounded by folk who reside in a very different world than we do. Simply put: despite having the requisite wardrobe and equipment for the journey below, we are somewhat out of our element. I begin to feel anxious over the prospect of mingling with people who almost speak a different language than I do. It’s going to be a long day. My anxiety is not illusory.
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands…
Even with our trusty National Parks Eagle Pass, we stand in line for 30 minutes to gain admission to the Caverns, a wait I am neither prepared for nor happy about. Slowly the line inches along, past the usual souvenirs sold at all National Park visitor centers: books, tee-shirts and baseball-like hats manufactured in China, CD’s pressed in Romania and small dolls sewn by Southeast Asian villagers. Nobody ever seems to buy these things. Most people just fondle the prominently displayed samples. When we reach the front of the line the attending park ranger – Ranger Joe, seems relieved at seeing what might be his first of the morning glimpse of an Eagles Pass. This well-used credit card-sized piece of laminated plastic ID indicates he does not need to engage us in small-talk about the Caverns or answer questions about the temperature in the cave; he knows we did our homework. Pointing to a desk across the room, he suggests we sign up for one of the tours conducted later in the day. We take his advice and register for a tour of King’s Palace, one of the larger sets of adjacent chambers in the cave. Exiting the visitor center on a path leading to the Cave’s entrance, we turn to look at the admissions line, which has become twice as long as when we first joined it. Where, I wonder, do all these people come from? And how are we all going to fit into the cave? And are the out-of-sight bats reputedly clinging to the cavern’s ceiling going to get pissed at these odd- looking creatures invading their turf? Likely, but I’ll never know.
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown…
We have a choice to descend into the cave either by elevator or walking. One look at the line (another line!) waiting for the elevator convinces us the better way in is by foot. Not that we need any convincing since part of any adventure is walking through it. Or around it. Just so long as the feet don’t fail us, we’re good. So, in the early morning light, we begin our descent into Carlsbad Caverns, down a steep 75-story pathway. One look at some of the people preparing for their descent tells me there might be trouble ahead.
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing…
The trail into the cave is narrow, maybe three feet wide. It consists of a combination of slick surfaces and carefully constructed concrete steps placed at positions where they provide a respite from the smooth surface. The path is graded at 6% with switchbacks set approximately fifty feet apart. The smooth surface and concrete steps require footwear that provides a secure grip, so as not to go tumbling down the path or falling off to its side. To our amazement, we observe a larger-than-one-would-expect percentage of our fellow travelers merely wearing regular sandals or rubber thongs. Not a good idea! They do not meet even minimal qualifications of achieving a secure grip. They are, in fact, more like small skates, without those little rubber bumpers to slow down or stop a skid, should it occur. Fortunately, there are hand railings along the path to ease the pain of ass-on-hard-rock. Just in case. More astonishing to us is the number of young couples carrying their kids with them, small kids strapped into one of those front-loading papooses with the kid staring at their parent’s chest while hanging on for dear life. Why, we wonder, would anyone endanger their children like this? Fortunately, and despite our wondering ways, there are no incidents of poorly-shod walkers (or their kids) tumbling down the cave’s path.
There is a sheen of human sounds coming from those infant travelers; sounds made more ominous as they echo off the cave’s walls. I can’t help wondering (again) if the sound makes the bats cling closer to their perches in the cave ceiling or if it makes them shit themselves out of fear. I’ll probably never find that out, either. After fifty minutes of cautiously maneuvering down the path, past the carefully-lit stalactites and stalagmites, we arrive at a large opening aptly named “The Big Room.” A sign placed prominently at the end of the pathway guides visitors to the restrooms. The Big Room and the restrooms are positively jumpin’ this day.
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else…
The only singing this day in the underground is the quiet singing one experiences from involuntary musical imagery, known as an “earworm”. I’ve heard these intrusive songs often occur from either thinking too much, or too little. I’m not sure how the aural senses react when they’re essentially deprived of the natural sounds usually occurring in the open air. I bet they’re confused. When underground, audio signals careen off the walls causing disturbing echoes that bounce around the space. Similarly, the imposing darkness of an underground environment causes people to squint as they adjust to the loss of color and light. Yes, we are squinting. And adjusting, until an image becomes clear: a misty glow gradually comes into focus from the center of this massive opening in the earth. And…it’s a Concession Stand! A circular kiosk selling more of the usual swag: tee-shirts, hats (made in China), etc. To its right, along a side wall, a Canteen is vending soft drinks, water and made-to-unorder sandwiches. Aligned next to the Canteen are small square tables where one can eat and drink. In the dark! Well, almost. A small lantern provides a thread of light, just enough to be able to see what’s in your sandwich. Luminous fluorescent lights emit a constant B-Flat hum throughout the space, a drone mingling with constant chatter from the visiting throngs. The bathrooms — clearly marked with signs in English, Spanish and Kanji characters — are located at the end of a long tunnel. As I walk toward the light at the end of…, I half expect to see a few of the Clay People peel off the wall to engage Flash Gordon in a fight to the death. Maybe my twisted imagination is the result of burrowing so deep into the earth. Spoiler: Flash always crushed the Clay People as he dispensed with them on his eventual journey to zap Ming the Merciless and Queen Azura of Planet Mongo. Refreshed, we head toward the first self-guided tour of Carlsbad Caverns.
I see what I think is an opening, a crack in the crowd of tourists, most of them possibly lured to the swag-loaded kiosks and away from the icy eerie sculpted forms suspended from the cavern’s ceiling or springing up from its floor. We check the map Ranger Joe from the Visitor’s Center gave us showing various parts of the cavern that can be explored from the Big Room without a guide. The King’s Palace tour we registered for did not begin for another three hours, so we lock our sights on one of the paths leading away from the concession area through a low-lying passageway weaving through and around the Big Room. Seeing the bizarre rock formations populating the massive room ignites my imagination, I wish to give them names different from those christened by the park rangers and volunteers who maintain the cavern. As we enter the passageway, we see people ahead of us who are moving very slowly, stopping sometimes in the middle of the path to take pictures. And yeah, we see people carrying kids in there, too, although the pathways are not nearly as precarious as the ones leading down into the cave.
The day, what belongs to the day…
Our time underground stretches on. We become accustomed to the darkness and I began once again to hear familiar tunes — those pesky, repetitious, persistent “earworms” at work. First to enter the repertoire is “Mahna De Carnival,” the infectious thematic song serving as a kind of idée fixé or leitmotif for the film “Black Orpheus.” Clearly, this is most appropriate given the circumstances of my treading lightly around the Hadean Underground. I could have shape-shifted into Orpheus, the Apollonian seer of music, who transfixed Hades with his songs, so he could spirit Eurydice away and into the daylight. But after spending almost an entire day underground I sure as hell would not turn to look at Eurydice when the daylight was so close. Sadly, Orpheus did just that; the Bacchanalian pleasures of Carnival lost forever. But since I am lost in the romance of the story of Orphée and Eurydice, those earworms work their magic as “Ah Felicidad” takes over from “Mahna De Carnival.” Eurydice or no, I was headed for Carnival. At least in the realms of my imagination. The real Carnival would appear later that night. In the meantime, we head over to the ranger-guided tour of King’s Palace.
In 1959 the film version of Jules Verne’s novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” splashed across America’s fading art deco screens, much to the chagrin of serious film devotees everywhere. Verne’s story told of a group of geologists venturing below ground level in Iceland to unearth the mystery of a volcanic rock left by a Swedish scientist about 300 years prior to this discovery. The intrepid crew led by James Mason and (believe it or not) Pat Boone, find a passageway that will take them down to the earth’s center. They eventually stumble upon a subterranean ocean that plays havoc with the expedition, leaving them a bit bewildered until they discover the sunken city of Atlantis along with the skeletal remains of the guy who started the whole thing, a bony finger pointing to the place where they can escape to the surface. After fending off an attack by a giant lizard they climb into some kind of large bowl floating atop a stream of lava — they’re now in the bowels of a volcano — pushing them to the surface through some sort of shaft. They make it back, their clothes in tatters. The set of the film’s interior was shot in the King’s Palace section of Carlsbad Caverns. With an image of James Mason and Pat Boone et al trucking along the silvery pathways of inner earth, we venture into this surreal cavity with our trusty guide, Ranger Laura. It’s the highlight of our day in Carlsbad Caverns.
One of the more intriguing moments comes when Ranger Laura has the tour group sit along a smooth- rock ledge facing the large room full of scintillating stalagmites and stalactites that was used as background scenes in the original “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” As we stare into this room, Ranger Laura informs us she’s about to turn off the lights so we might experience what it was like when Jim White first discovered the caverns’ darkness and silence. To fully experience what this must have been like, she asked us to remain totally silent. The lights went to black; the silence follows. My thoughts turn immediately to John Cage and his iconic work, 4’33”.
As a lifelong musician-producer-presenter of new and experimental music, I have first-hand experience with avant-garde composer John Cage’s music and writings. I had the honor of knowing John and commissioning an original work from him for the music ensemble I directed for three decades. Many of the experiences I had with Cage’s music were directly – and sometimes indirectly – related to the concept put forth so elegantly in his piece 4’33”: Silence is a most important aspect of sound. Cage came upon this notion after spending time in an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1951, a story he told many times. While in that chamber he heard two sounds, one high and one low. The high sound was his “nervous system in operation” while the low sound was his “blood in circulation.” He composed 4’33” for solo instrumentalist in 1952 following this experience. It is his best-known work and one that still pisses off classical music audiences as it forces them to sit still – and listen! – while a performer (usually a pianist) diligently realizes the score in silence, the only sound he makes is turning the pages of the score. Fortunately, 4’33” is played more and more, so those pissed off listeners are becoming less and less a factor as what used to be called “new music” is gaining a larger and wider listening audience. In this seminal work Cage posed a profound challenge to the listener, one that I’ve always maintained is somewhat frightening to some people: to listen to yourself listening. And so it is with me on that day in Carlsbad Caverns when Ranger Laura pulls the plug. Five minutes later while the lights come back on I feel spiritually cleansed, absolved of an unknown transgression. Perhaps I sought redemption from a feeling of superiority while being surrounded by people I really didn’t wish to be around. (Hold that thought!) The remainder of our tour of King’s Palace is terrific but does not compare with my five minutes alone with the memory of John Cage.
Five hours below the surface of the high dry desert, we begin to experience light deprivation, a causal phenomenon akin to psychic depression, like seeing a picture of, you should pardon the expression, Donald Trump. We decide to head for the light of day.
The walk up and out of the Caverns is difficult. Especially after having been there for most of a day. And so we decide to take the elevator. It presents a surprising challenge. Across the breadth of the Big Room and through a filmy haze of incandescent light, a long line of people snakes its way from the elevator portal to a point about twenty-five yards away. A beefy cop-in-waiting informs everyone who attached themselves to this line that it would take an hour or more to reach the elevator. Instead, he advises them to consider hiking out, a trip that could take less time. He has few takers. Even we decide to wait in line.
At times I’ve been accused of not being very patient. Not true! Well, somewhat. I do admit to not having much patience with people who do not take the time to be informed citizens of this wacky world of ours. The same could be said when I attempt to glue small chips broken off dinner plates back into their original places. Regardless how patient I attempt to be, I still grow impatient when the glue sticks to my fingers and the small chips I thought were repaired stick to my skin. There has gotta be a better way, I tell myself. When it comes to waiting in long lines, the patient factor increases immeasurably, the result, possibly, of having served four years in the U.S. Navy where waiting for everything is a way of military life. Waiting patiently in long lines is one of my specialties. Good thing too, since the wait for the elevator does indeed take almost one hour. (Fifty-five minutes to be precise.) The ride takes one minute to ascend to the now almost empty visitor center. Stepping out of the elevator, I glance at the now deserted kiosk where Ranger Joe good-naturedly prepared us for our descending journey earlier that day. I hope Ranger Joe found solace with other off-duty rangers, exchanging stupid stories about the day’s travails over a silky Oregon (or Napa) Pinot Noir. Or, hell, a Bud Light would probably do the trick as well. Having turned away from Ranger Joe’s kiosk we exit the visitor center into the glorious New Mexico light!
The drive out from Carlsbad Caverns National Park on the sinuous road to Whites City seems longer than the drive into the Park. Perhaps it’s because towards the end of most New Mexico days, as the sun drops below the horizon its residual light casts an eerie yet calming presence over the land. Shrubs of high desert varietal plants and trees cast fleeting shadows as the ground slowly cools to embrace small animals seeking nourishment before having to fend off the menace of larger nocturnal predators. Vehicles that invade this ancient theater are like interlopers at a private party hosted by those One-Percenters I keep hearing about yet never want to meet. As the light dims on the road the color changes from whitish to almost black. The natural light show one experiences at pre-sunset serves to calm a traveler, stretching psychological time to its limits, making the trip more enjoyable. From Whites City US Route 62 is the escape route to Carlsbad. Approaching Carlsbad in the black night, the lights of the city give off a glorious glow. As we draw closer and the traffic piles up, visions of a traditional New Mexican restaurant dance in our weary heads, an alternative to the run-of-the-mill chain eateries populating the city. New Mexico chile would be an antidote to the suffocating crowds we experienced in the Caverns.
Such is our quest on this calm night. Patiently, we find La Patrona, likely the purest of Mexican places in Carlsbad. After a meal and margaritas, we leave the restaurant, looking to the right to see the area’s aglow from bright colored lights just a few blocks away. A large Ferris Wheel rotates slowly in the desert night, our eyes following its mesmerizing trajectory. We’re tired and bit woozy but simply cannot pass up an opportunity to check out the scene. It’s a Carnival, probably like the one I had envisioned while still in the darkened grip of Carlsbad Caverns.
At night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly…
I grew up in North Philadelphia, solidly working class, the bustling factories nearby would soon yield to the changes of a fast-approaching geopolitical world. The neighborhood slowly transformed from cloistered traditional Irish and Polish immigrant families to lively outgoing Puerto Rican families. One thing causing this cultural crosshatch might have been the ubiquitous taprooms appearing on almost every corner of the narrow streets of the adjoining neighborhoods. Another factor was the annual arrival of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Like many harbingers of Fate, it arrived via a long train. What could be more romantic to a 10-year old kid than waiting for the circus train to pass along tracks located just a block from the row-house he lived in? My friends and I would run to the train station and watch as the train slowly passed the platform. We would stand on our toes to see into the windows of the passenger cars, hoping to catch sight of the gorgeous women who would soon hang from a trapeze suspended from the heights of the Big Top or stand on the back of a lumbering elephant; all smiles as their feathered costumes fluttered with each step of the animal’s powerful legs. The cars that carried the animals were not nearly as enticing as the windowed passenger cars. They were more like the cattle cars transporting cows and pigs to the local meat factory a few blocks away. Except they had pictures of circus life: clowns clowning and elephants marching trunk-to-tail (with pretty women standing on top, of course). The circus train would stop a mile from the station on tracks set beside a large athletic field that would be home to the circus for its Philly stay, its cars strung out like the model trains in my family’s small living room at Christmas time. The local producers of the circus would circulate word to neighborhood kids that there was work serving as gofers for the men who made the circus come to life, like the guys who rigged the large poles to support the big tents. In exchange we would receive a bunch of tickets for the shows. Each year I made sure I was one of the chosen few, claiming a good place to stand when the circus officially opened with a parade around the athletic field cum circus city, then through the neighborhood streets. Once the circus officially opened I roamed through this wonderland (or weird land, depending on one’s young visceral imagination). My imagination usually led me from the spectacular to the spectral: The Sideshow.
The shows in the Big Top were pretty cool to us kids, but Sideshows were downright creepy. Of course, we were drawn to them. Their hastily-erected stages stood side-by-side on a dusty path, normally the dirt-encrusted patch of land between first and second bases I knew from my baseball-playing days on this very athletic field. The stages were demarcated by canvas “walls” with slits that hung tantalizingly open. Pictures of grotesques waiting to be gawked at beckoned while a guy with a megaphone challenged the curious to “step inside and view the unviewable…”
We looked at the fat lady, the man with three eyes and the tattooed man, but especially enticing was the bearded lady. None of us had begun to shave yet but we had memories of seeing the neighborhood men walking around with face stubble and a few mustaches. But a lady with a beard? That was very weird. Kids being kids, we did our best to torment them as they sat silently on stools staring out at us wishing, I’m sure that they could climb down and kick our asses. Just to keep things in perspective, you see. Flashforward: Memories of those ancient Sideshows from my childhood and related circus-y stuff flash through my mind when I enter through the portals of the Carnival beneath the looping shadow lights of the Ferris Wheel in Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs…
Stepping into this weird wonderland, the first sensation was of sound: loud and dense, boom-ey and echo-ey, ugly; candy-colored Rap blasted from large audio speakers that had never in their tech lives enjoyed the thrill of caressing a single pure tone. Worse yet, multiple sources blasted unidentifiable cantations; at least two maybe three different “songs,” pouring forth, each more indistinguishable from the others, creating a less-than-interesting Ivesian sonic landscape. I cap my ear drums with fingers that had long ago learned the proper position to lessen the invasive impact of unwanted sound, but, here, to no avail. The sound is so perniciously LOUD it invaded my space via my well-rooted feet sensitized to parsing the universe’s Tantric movements from years of tai-chi study. The painful quality of the sound however gives way to a kaleidoscopic reel of bodies in motion.
Smiling brown and white faces everywhere in anticipation of the next slow ride in a fast machine or the taste of blackened hamburgers that emerged from the sizzling griddles inside the faster-than-ever food trucks. Walking around the Carnival grounds might yield surreally weird sights, like the kid sitting on the counter of one of many trickster galleries enticing people to throw a softball at the head of a stuffed animal or stuffed something or other. Not until later did we view a photograph of this kid and then realize he was not one of the stuffed something-or-others. His legs dangled in front of the stand in the same way a stuffed tiger’s legs did. Magical! Transfixed, we made several rounds of the Carnival grounds until the magic – and intrusive sounds – wore us down. Our Airbnb room beckons us. Our return there was overdue, to relax with several glasses of an Oregon Pinot Noir I had brought along and get some sleep. The next morning, we awaken early to begin the long drive home.
Six hours, in fact. Carlsbad lies in the southeastern corner of the state, not far from the Texas border. Rather than retrace the southern route from our home in Corrales — a small village on the northeast cusp of Albuquerque — we decide to drive into the Sacramento Mountains and have lunch in the resort town of Ruidoso, at the foot of Lincoln County National Forest. This is yet another majestic New Mexico drive that carries us through flat desert lands but with a twist: ahead we view the outline of the Sacramento Mountains, each passing mile bringing us closer to the cool green elevated landscape where we would become replenished. During the drive I relive the previous days, wondering why I felt — feel –such a wrenching sense of disorientation when mingling with so many people whose lifestyles are so alien to me.
Call me a snob. An elitist. Or maybe even an ageing hipster, if you will, Truthfully, maybe I am an ageing hipster. But a real one. I have always been part of an interesting and uncommon community of thinking, productive people — a vibrant array of musicians, writers, poets, visual artists, scholars — who tend to place themselves above or separate from everyday people, regular folk, ordinary people, the masses, maybe what used to be called ‘hoi polloi’ or even the general public. I get that. I try to ramp down a bit when I’m surrounded by more traditional people, but it doesn’t seem to work. This time spent in the bowels of Carlsbad Canyon and the visiting Carnival over the past Memorial Day Weekend was fun. But once again it left me feeling like I’ve always felt living in America — something like a foreigner, or as the Japanese would say, “Gaijin.” Just like Walt.
And by that, I mean Whitman, not Disney.