biography

Cowboy Caveman

“Dad, I hate school. I don’t ever want to go back. Please! Please! Please! I want to do something else!”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“I want to be a cowboy.”

And so Jim White, Sr. pulled his 10-year-old son, Jim, Jr., out of school. He drove him 400 miles from their ranch in central Texas, to a cattle ranch in southern New Mexico. And that’s where he left him, to fulfill his cowboy dreams.

Damn! Wouldn’t it be great to have a dad like that?

Five years later, Jim White, Jr. was riding his mustang through the Guadalupe Mountains, searching for stray cattle. Suddenly he encountered something that stopped him and his horse dead in their tracks. It looked like a column of black smoke pouring up into the sky.

Was it a volcano? Jim wondered. Nope, not noisy enough. How about a tornado? Couldn’t be. There was no wind, and the nearest thunderhead was miles off.

He ventured closer, finally tying his bronc and pushing and hacking his way on foot through thick chaparral. That’s when he made a discovery that would change his life, and southern New Mexico forever.

It was an enormous black hole. And belching from the mouth of this maw were thousands upon thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats. The bats were whirling frenetically in a counter-clockwise direction just above the hole, then rising into the sky and spinning off into space in a spreading dark cloud.

The cave Jim White discovered, although without the paved walkway.

Night was falling fast, but this 15-year-old’s curiosity was piqued. He just had to see more.

Jim rode back to the ranch. He didn’t stay long. He returned a few days later with a hatchet, fence wire, a homemade kerosene lantern, and some matches.

He used the hatchet to cut rungs from the surrounding brush, and wove these rungs through the fence wire to create a wire ladder. He lowered this ladder down into the darkness of the cave. He lit his homemade lantern and descended the rungs of the ladder to a ledge 50 feet below. Then he scrambled down a slope another 20 feet and began spelunking for the very first time in his life.

When Jim White looked up, after climbing down his wire ladder, this is pretty much what he saw. By the way, those aren’t bats flying at the mouth of the cave. Rather, they are swallows. Hundreds of swallows have made their home here, and work the day shift eating insects. The bats take over at night.

What the hell gets into the heads of kids, to do dangerous and foolish things like this? Some kids just think they’re immortal, and that nothing can happen to them. But tragically, some of these same kids find out, all too late, that they are not. Would Jim be one of them?

His were the first human eyes to view the grandiose elegant underground beauty that we now know as Carlsbad Caverns. He began his adventure by using his lantern to explore the bat cave. Then he about-faced and descended a dark, broken declivity into the bowels of the caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns is a petroleum product. The Guadalupe mountains are made of limestone. About 5 million years ago the groundwater level here was much higher, reaching up to near the surface of the earth. Petroleum reserves below this groundwater produced hydrogen sulfide, and this hydrogen sulfide seeped up into the groundwater, causing a chemical reaction that produced sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid dissolved the limestone, forming the caverns.

He crept like a cat, negotiating treacherous ledges, and avoiding terrible dark, deep precipices. His skin bristled in horripilation at the sound of clattering rocks dislodged by his feet, echoing and echoing as they tumbled down inky black pits. He scrambled and slid over limestone boulders, wet from condensation caused by the constant 56 degree temperature.

Finally he debouched into a huge room, thousands of feet long, and hundreds of feet wide and high. Monstrous stalactites dangled from the ceiling, and similar-sized stalagmites met them halfway up from the floor. And many other weird speleothems dazzled Jim’s eyes from the glow of his lantern.

The groundwater level dropped after the caverns were formed, leaving these massive cavities beneath the surface. Within the last million years, a hole eroded, opening up the caverns to the outside world.

He became so engrossed in this splendid strange scenery that he forgot about something very important. Kerosene. Without warning his lantern burned through the last of this light-giving juice and lost its flame. Jim was instantly enveloped in total darkness and left completely and helplessly blind.

The bravery and foolishness of this immortal explorer were about to kill him, for he needed light to find his way out of the cave.

Who knows, maybe many other caverns were formed within the Guadalupe mountains, that have not yet opened up to the surface.

But Jim had a backup plan. He grabbled about, searching for a canteen filled with kerosene that he’d brought along, just in case. Then he fumbled through his pockets for some matches. After a bit of effort he refilled and relit the lantern. The darkness pulled back.

Jim beat it out of there before the last of this spare kerosene was consumed.

But he wasn’t finished spelunking. A short time later he returned with a young Mexican friend. They exercised surprisingly good foresight by bringing along a large ball of string, which they intended to use to trace their way back to the cave’s exit.

Stalactites hang from the ceiling, whereas stalagmites grow from the floor. They were formed through a process called speleogenesis. Speleogenesis requires water, so most of the speleogenesis at Carlsbad Caverns ceased about four million years ago, as groundwater receded.

They spent about three days exploring the intricate innards of the caverns. No one knows just how much this duo discovered, but in the 1980s some splelunkers discovered the words “Jim White 1898” scratched into the rocks, far deeper and further than anyone had ever suspected they’d reached.

Of course Jim and his Mexican friend freely reported their fantastic findings to anyone they encountered above the surface. But they were just kids. Adults would laugh at them, and chalk up their tales to overactive imaginations. It took years for Jim to convince anyone to come take a look for themselves.

A paved trail currently winds through much of the same areas that Jim White and his Mexican friend explored.

But after a while a few did take Jim up on it, and got their own eyeful of this massive, wondrous cavern. They told their tales, and before long, word began spreading far and wide over the countryside, just like the bats emerging for their evening feast.

Once word got out and people started believing it, Jim White never worked as a cowboy again. The cave took over his life. He became a guano miner, hauling batshit out of the depths and sending it on to fertilize orchards in California. He also worked for a few years as a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns, when it was a National Monument.

This formation, and the formation at the middle right, are rated R. No children under the age of 17 are permitted to view them.

A book about his life was ghostwritten for him, which he sold inside the famed Underground Lunchroom of the caverns. And he earned a few bits now and then guiding tourists through the cave system.

He never got rich from this natural wonder, and in fact barely scratched out a living. And then in 1946, this cowboy turned caveman suffered a heart attack and passed away. He was 63.

Each of the 400,000 plus visitors per year unwittingly sheds a minute amount of lint from their clothing as they walk the trails. This lint adds up after a while, and can combine with condensation to damage cavern formations. But once a year a lint cleanup is conducted, where workers use special brushes charged with static electricity to pick up the lint.

We can thank Jim White for his discovery, though it’s likely someone else would eventually have found this cave, with it’s tell-tale evening bat “smoke”. But it’s unlikely anyone would have had the derring-do to discover it Jim’s way.

Who else would have dared to venture alone into such unknown depths of darkness? And who else would have been savvy enough to bring along a spare canteen of kerosene?

In my view, Carlsbad Caverns is much more interesting when Jim White’s story is included. Jim White was never rich in money or education. But he had a tale to tell that no one could match. His adventuresome spirit and temerity made him wealthy in ways that cannot be measured. Except with the help of the glow from a homemade kerosene lantern.

You can use an elevator to descend into the caverns, or you can hike in through the natural cave entrance. I recommend the natural cave entrance hike if you can handle it. You’ll see much more. And you can always take the elevator back up and out.

Categories: biography

11 replies »

  1. You are absolutely right – the story of these caverns is even more incredible with Jim White’s story layered on it. Wow – there is such a fine line between bravery and stupidity!! Survival to talk about the experience is the only real yardstick in which to measure it.

    These are amazing photos, Tippy. I assume they are your’s. Not so easy to do in that lighting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Yeah they’re mine. I put a 2 second shutter delay on the camera, then usually rested it on top of the guard rails on the trail. That allowed me to keep the camera still for the photos. Just the same, many did not come out and had to be scrapped.

      Like

      • That’s to be expected. I have a 1 in 10 expectation – only one out of ten will be a decent shot … so I take LOTS 🙂

        If you had to scrap many, I’d say it was worth the ones you posted. They are great.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, I wondered if this was fiction at first… what a story! Definitely Jim White should be mentioned on tours of Carlsbad Caverns. Great pics, love the giant stalactites and stalagmites. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. The Park service has a plaque in the visitor’s center that honors Jim White. So at least he got a plaque out of it.

      Yeah those stalactites and stalagmites are pretty amazing.

      Liked by 1 person