My father loves to travel. He is not a patient man. I quickly discovered that is not always a pleasant combination.
Our family benefited from my father’s fondness for travel. Eight straight summers we went on extended family road trips, a luxury we enjoyed because my father was a teacher and my mother didn’t work outside the house in those years. We visited 48 of the 50 states and all the provinces of Canada except for Newfoundland. We fished in Kentucky, ate lobster in Maine, and saw salmon heading upstream in Oregon. We explored the great national parks throughout North America, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Banff and Jasper. We explored big cities and small towns.
My father’s impatience flared at times on our journeys. He hated to wait, no matter the cause. Traffic jams could set him off, whether they were caused by accidents or highway construction (be it on the Trans Canada Highway or on the at-the-time-still-unfinished Interstate system). So could long lines in amusement parks, inefficient workers at supermarket checkouts, or slow service when he was buying film or flashbulbs for his camera. The occasional outburst was usually a small price to pay for the opportunity to see the wonders of the continent and spend time with family and friends who lived from coast to coast.
One summer, as we were traveling through the American Southwest, we planned a stop at Carlsbad Caverns. I could tell this must be significant. The national park is out of the way, tucked into the southeastern corner of New Mexico. No other attractions beckoned nearby. The entrance to the park is 142 miles from El Paso, and even farther from Albuquerque and Santa Fe. You only go to Carlsbad Caverns if you make a point to go to Carlsbad Caverns. Making this much effort to see anything was evidence that my father wanted to go.
I could also tell Carlsbad Caverns must be a major stop because my father made sure to stock up on the important supplies: film and flash bulbs. He wanted to document our journey down into the earth with bountiful photographic evidence. Clearly this was a sight not to be missed.
After hours of driving, we reached the park. My father pulled the car and the trailer into as shady a spot as possible. Then we headed to the visitors center, entered the elevator and descended down to the caverns below.
I wish I could say that I still vividly remember the formations carved into the limestone by dripping water over the centuries. I have heard that the sights are spectacular. Yet I recall none of what I saw that day.
Instead, what I remember is that soon after we left the elevator, my father stopped to take a photograph. Only the flash failed. He tried again. Still no flash.
“S#%&!” he said, almost under his breath.
He tried again. Nothing.
New flash bulb. Nothing.
“Son of a b&^$*!” he said louder, the cursing bouncing off the rock surrounding us.
As I said, my father is not a patient man.
Yet this time he did not give up easily. He raised the camera once again. Point. Aim. Click. Nothing.
Another new bulb. Still nothing.
“G+} d*#$ it to h%@@!” he yelled, stomping his feet for added emphasis. The expletives and stomping kept spewing from him, and kept reverberating deep in the earth.
Dad’s salty language was embarrassing enough above ground, but this was mortifying. His frustration echoed off the stalactites, stalagmites and helictites. I wanted to walk away, yet knew that was not an option. I tried to ignore him, but that was impossible underground. I was trapped in that echo chamber.
Some day I will have to return to Carlsbad Caverns to see the beauty I cannot remember. I will be sure to bring my camera. And stop by the gift shop to buy postcards of the visual glory below. Just in case.