The year was 1898, although there was little need to know the year or the month or even the hour for a man who had spent his life out in the endless Chihuahuan Desert. Ever since he was ten years old, he had been a cowboy, preferring to earn a living in the wilderness than an education in a schoolroom.
For six years, the days rolled on almost without distinction. Stick and wire fences were all that broke up the endless miles of creosote bushes and blazing blue sky. Mile after mile, day after day, it was the same.
Then one day, the young man looked up from the fence row he was repairing and saw the earth open up. A black cloud belched out from broken ground and filled the endless blue with shards of night.
He mounted his horse and rode on and on against the sunset until he found himself staring into the very center of the earth. A deep, greedy black pit hissed cool, dank air across his face. The black ashes that swirled around in the growing darkness were not ashes at all, but thousands and thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats.
His name was Jim White, and he was standing face-to-face with the discovery that would change his life forever. He had found Carlsbad Caverns.
Night was growing fast, but Jim made up his mind right then and there to come back and see what was inside that hole. Other people had seen the same thing he had–a gigantic black pit filled with bats that flew out and clouded the desert sky each night–but not one of them ever had the thought to go down into the bat-filled darkness to see what was inside.
But Jim was sixteen, and God gives sixteen-year-old men adventure in their blood and strength in their bodies to do the things that need to be done to move this world forward. He was not old enough yet to know the danger of discovery and not wise enough to the value of life to think it might not be worth giving up for a hole in the ground.
So he came back with the tools of his trade: barbed wire, foraged sticks, and a home-made lantern. Jim worked the wire into a ladder, lit up his lamp, and descended into the darkness. Even the weak glow of the blue flame could not keep him from seeing the beauty hidden in the cavern.
Massive stalactites, stalagmites, and draperies–words Jim had never even heard before–stood before him in silent tribute to the Artist who had been forming them in secret for thousands of years before any human eye would ever see them. He wandered farther and father as the cave continued to open into new passages filled with unspeakable wonders. He was a man among giants.
Suddenly, Jim’s light went out. Darkness clapped her hand against his mouth so he could not scream. The man was a boy again in an instant. He struggled to breathe in the sudden, frantic realization that he had been swallowed by the earth and could not find his way out.
Slowly, panic gave way to reason and Jim managed to find the extra kerosene he had carried down in a canteen. He filled his lantern blind, and when the light shone around on the eerie, ancient catacomb again, he fumbled, shaking, for the way out.
But he came back time and time again, learning the passage ways by unwinding a spool of yarn behind him so he would not lose his way. Over time, he brought others to the cave: tourists, scientists, famous adventurers and important men–anyone who wanted to share the wonder with him.
Jim lived above the caves his entire life, always learning, always discovering, always looking deep to see what other secrets the earth held for him. Even after the caves gained national attention, he stayed. No one else knew the caves like he did, after all, and no one else loved them as well.
We came to the caverns over one hundred years after Jim White first stood at the gaping black hole and decided to venture in. Even though all the decades have passed and the cave is no longer something fearful, I felt as if I was making the discovery on my own. It was bright in there now, not dark, and the bats were gone for the winter. Paved paths, not questionable ladders and guano buckets, led us down into the belly of the earth.
But what a sight it was to behold.
Never in my life have I seen something so awe-inspiring as those caves, whose arched ceilings and intricate walls are more beautiful than any temple ever made by man. Where on this earth could I go to see the works of any hands that could rival this? What other architect could build such glorious structures, drop by drop, with water?
It took my breath away.
I thought of Jim White, who stood on the edge of the deep, dark cave with dusty boots and no good reason to go further, and made a choice. He went in.
And then we went back. He went deeper, and higher, and farther–farther than the safety of yarn balls and handmade ladders. He could have been satisfied with the beauty of the first great hall of stone, but he wasn’t. Somehow, he knew that the deeper he went, the more glory he would find.
Still, that sixteen-year-old boy had no idea what wonders he would find beneath the earth. He thought it might be something great, but he could not even begin to fathom the depths of the riches of his discovery. Even today, more than a hundred years later, the far-reaches of Carlsbad Caverns remain largely uncharted and undiscovered.
But if you were to climb to the surface and look around, you would see the same unchanging desert that Jim saw every day of his life. The same blue sky, the same sandy ground, the same line of mountains in the distance. If he had not ridden toward the unknown, and been willing to step into the deep, we might never know that there was anything more to see in the great New Mexican wilderness.
I stood in those caves, eyes raised in wonder, and thought, “How much do I miss of God because I am not willing to look, and not brave enough to go deeper, then deeper still?”
What if I was willing to be unsatisfied with what my eyes could see? I wonder what marvels would await me right beneath the surface.