National Geographic : 1924 Jan
TH NATIONAL, CiOGRAPIlIC MAGAZINE the cavern. Ilere, too, our journey ends, for the guide reminds us of the difficulties in retracing our steps. Reluctantly we return, snatching hasty glimpses of scores of objects as fascinating as those already seen. The surface is reached just at dusk, where, in spite of the hard home ward journey ahead, we watch for a time the swarm of bats leaving the cavern. AMONG MOUNTAINS OF RUGGED BEAUTY The cavern alone is a noteworthy addi tion to the exceptional variety of geo graphical wonders of the United States, each distinctive of its kind, but fortu nately it is surrounded by features which enhance its future scenic value. Few persons now traverse southeastern New Mexico and few realize that mountains rise there to altitudes of nearly I0,000 feet. Moreover, these mountains are carved, by erosion, into a remarkable series of sharp ridges and steep-walled gorges which are scarcely surpassed for rugged beauty. The rocks of these mountains consist of limestone of late Paleozoic age, in thick, massive layers which slope gently in an easterly direction and pass under red sandy shale in Pecos Valley. The shale contains thick beds of gypsum and rock salt, which dissolve in the circulating underground water. The limestone also is soluble, but less readily than the salt and gypsum, and be cause of its greater resistance to the action of the water, the caverns in it are formed slowly, but become enormously large, and endure through long ages. Carlsbad Cavern is only one of a dozen or more known to exist in Guadalupe Mountains, although little aside from their mere existence is known of these, even locally. Here is ample opportunity for adventurous spirits who are looking for unknown regions to explore. The plants near Carlsbad Cavern are of great interest to those unfamiliar with the Southwest. This part of New Mex ico has a warm, semi-arid climate in which thrive a variety of plants of amaz ing shape. These give to the landscape a strange aspect that is a source of never ending delight to the visitor. However, to those for whom the novelty has worn away. these weird forms of vegetation are sources of annoyance and discomfort. The 1prdom )inating characteristic is thorniness. There are thorn bushes and thorn trees; thorned shrubs with spike like leaves; Spanish bayonets and Span ish daggers. This is a country of prickly pears and cat's claws; sagebrush and greasewood; thorny mesquites and screw beans, and many less familiar but no less interesting forms of plant life. The beauty of a cactus in bloom and of the great flower stalk of the century plant is well known, but the equally gorgeous appearance of many of the other plants when in fruit or in flower is less familiar. Probably the most interesting plant near Carlsbad Cavern-certainly the most prolific one-is the sotol, of which there are many closely related species. The one which grows luxuriantly near the cave and adorns the barren, rocky slopes is known as Dasylirion lciophyllum. It consists of a spongy base a few feet high, crowned with hundreds of linear leaves about a yard long and half an inch wide, armed on both margins with numerous sharp recurved teeth. The leaves thus resemble blades of a jig saw, except that both edges are armed with teeth (see illustrations, pages 28 and 38). Occasionally a plant is seen with a fruit stalk emerging from the center of the leafy crown, but most of them are with out fruit stalk, for the plant dies after fruiting. TILE SOTOL IIAS MANY USES The sotol is useful in several ways. The heart of the leafy crown resembles a cabbage; and this, as well as the spongy interior of the short, thick trunk, makes excellent food for cattle when the toothed leaves are removed and the plant split open. Sotols were formerly used as food by the natives, who roasted or boiled the heads after removing the saw - blade leaves: also, from the fermented trunks is distilled an intoxicating drink called "sotol." The long, tough leaves are used for thatching and for making baskets, mats, and rough cordage. These uses seem to date back to very early times, for baskets and burial receptacles made of sotol leaves have been found containing skeletons of prehistoric people in caves and sheltered nooks high in the canyon walls of Guadalupe Mountains.