By C. Van Drunen
I’m taking Hwy 53 down to El Malpais National Monument, where molten lava obviously covered the land at one time. It’s a journey of over an hour from Gallup where one can be easily sidetracked with the temptations of El Morro National Monument or a tasty treat at the Ancient Way Cafe just up the road. The lava flow naturally created underground cooling vents or tubes in a process that I don’t really understand. All I know right now is that time is of the essence because at dusk thousands of bats will be making a mass exodus from one of these lava caves and there will be two very disappointed kids if we miss this showing.
We drive over the Continental Divide, past the El Malpais Ranger Station, until we reach the El Calderon area. It’s 7:41 pm. The bathrooms at the parking area are quickly used, and we head up the trail for a 0.7-mile hike to the bat cave. At 8:01 pm we are seated at the mouth of the cave and are anxiously quiet. We probably exaggerate to the kids the possibility of the bats not coming out if we are too loud.
At 8:10 pm a handful of bats swirl at the entrance. Then a rather nasty stink fills the air, a preview to the thousands of wings now flapping deep in the cave moving their guano-tainted air toward us. At exactly 8:15 pm the bats blast out of the cave and for five minutes they swoop straight up into the glorious summer evening sky. They are fast! And they are not afraid to fly a foot from your face. My kids are in awe. If I had to guess, I’d say there are 5,000 that come out (but that’s just a guess).
While we sit and wait for the second group of bats to come out (another species, I’m told, comes out later), I contemplate how odd bats are: A flying mammal that’s essentially blind that uses radar for night flight and insect-meal location? That’s actually stranger than some guy running around in armored underwear and talking in a deep strange voice.
At 8:45 pm the second batch comes out. They are a bit bigger, not nearly as many of them, but they don’t swoop off right away either. These guys tend to stick around and swirl about us for a few minutes before departing to the skies.
By 9:10 pm we are back at the car and all members of the family are happily in Gallup beds before 11. We probably spend $25 on gas, but it’s still cheaper than taking the family to the movies, and by my take . . . it’s way better!
El Malpais National Monument has ranger-guided viewing of the bat flights every Friday in August @ 7pm @ the El Calderon area. For more info go to http://www.nps.gov/elma/naturescience/mammals-bats.htm or call (505) 783-4774 or (505) 876-2783.