Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NEW MEXICO

The diabetes cowboy in Carlsbad Caverns National Park – yeehaw!

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“Have breakfast with me, momma
I hope they'll let us in
Got a leather jacket on
You know that is a sin
Gunga Din”
—The Byrds

A lot didn’t go as planned today, but I had one of the greatest blood sugar successes in diabetes history. A victory for the ages; a tale that will be handed down through the generations to unbelieving children for millennia.

Well, maybe that’s a slight overstatement. But I was quite proud of my diabetes mojo today on a trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the southeast corner of New Mexico.

First of all, Masayo and I wanted to take a guided ranger tour of the vast and celestial underground cave system. But research from our motel room up in Roswell suggested that every tour was already booked – not just for the day we wanted to go but for the entire week.

And here’s me, thinking that we could just waltz on in on a Tuesday in the off-season. But Carlsbad Caverns is apparently more popular than we thought.

Oddly prescient column in the Roswell paper at breakfast.

We had also discussed the idea of waking up much earlier than usual, like 7:00 am or even earlier, to start getting better starts on our days. But that didn’t happen on Carlsbad Caverns morning; since we would just be walking down ourselves through the cave whenever we arrived, why hurry? We enjoyed cereal, coffee and bananas in the lobby of Budget Inn and read the newspaper, finally hitting the road at a respectable 10:00 am.

“Assess” it? OK but I won’t know until the hike is over.

Passing through Artesia and the city of Carlsbad, stopping on the way for picnic food, we arrived at Carlsbad Caverns National Park and wandered into the visitor center, which indeed had a lot more cars in the parking lot than I expected.

The ranger inside told us that all tours were indeed full and we could go by ourselves, but it was getting late in the day and we’d have to get to the bottom and then start hiking out by 3:30 pm. It was already 2:00 pm; we hadn’t eaten lunch yet and barely had time to get down before we’d have to turn around.

Here’s where the diabetes awesomeness started.

We rushed back to the car to stuff our faces with our erstwhile picnic fare; sitting in the sun in the front seats with the car off we ate hummus with saltines, applesauce with no cutlery, figs, cookies (well, a plastic bag full of cookie crumbs), granola bars, and flat warm water. My BG before all this was 107.

This made me highly nervous: I needed a Humalog shot for all this stuff but the shot would be followed by some rather rapid and intense physical activity: it’s a steep and long hike to the bottom of Carlsbad Caverns. Furthermore, I inject into my legs and that’s what I’d be using most. I knew my BG could plummet.

I calculated that normally I’d take about 11 units for what I was eating – so I took 7 instead in preparation for the hike. And I took a big baggie full of glucose powder packets, enough to fix any low, I hoped.

Cave swallows at the Natural Entrance.

I shot up and ate the granola bars as we walked quickly across the hot parking lot. Inside, Masayo noticed all the clocks were one hour behind our phones; it turns out that competing cell towers in the area confuse things and we actually had an extra hour to relax and enjoy the hike.

Nice turn of events, but it didn’t help my delicate insulin situation.

We began the hike down, along a dark and paved walkway with a handrail that you have to use until your eyes adjust. Cave swallows (not bats as I first thought) flew around the entrance where the daylight quickly disappears as you walk down.

Amphitheater for the nightly bat flight show.

The walkway, according to the ranger, has up to a 20% grade, and it was murdering my knees which have always been touchy with downhills. (In the Huangshan Mountains of China I had to resort to a silly side-step on the steep stairs a few years ago.)

My BG felt ok though. And all around us the cave formations are spectral and wondrous, weird and fantastic. Gigantic stalagmites rise from the floor far above head height, some of them touching or nearly touching their nourishing stalactites that hang down from the ceiling. Tan and curvy curtains seem to flutter, frozen in place. Everything is lit tastefully with hidden lamps – just enough to let you see but completely avoiding garishness.

At the bottom, in the Big Room which may be Carlsbad Caverns’ main attraction, we gaped at the gigantic structures all around is. There were some persistent drips and even pools here, and the fact that all this grandeur is the effect of aeons of slooow and steady water movement became clearer.

I checked my BG before we started the hike back up – the most physically strenuous part of the trip for everyone, and the reason we kept passing panting people sitting on the many benches along the route on our way down. My BG was 101 – perfect, but obviously too low less than two hours after taking insulin, and before an arduous uphill march.

Camera vs. cave vs. One Drop meter. (It was 101 mg/dL.)

I ate four packets of glucose powder (5g of carbs each) and then as we started up the spooky dark incline talked myself into three more packets. My BG should wind up around 240, minus the exercise effect, I calculated: I should be fine at the top. Or, I’d keel over and become part of the cave formations myself for all eternity. For, while there is an elevator from the bottom so people don’t have to hike up, it was out of order, today and today only, for maintenance.

Fate is always an exciting mystery with diabetes!

I tried to walk slowly but kept falling into long, strong strides in an effort to get to the top more quickly. Finally after about 15 minutes I could feel a kind of second wind thanks to the glucose powder: I had needed it, and it was working. The hike up wasn’t all that bad, actually; my knees can do uphills all day long and since my job is an English teacher in Japan who stands a lot, my leg muscles were fine.

Like giant chess pieces.

At the top, we were both hot and tired, Masayo especially so. We stumbled to the car where I checked to see my grand finale: my BG was 129.

I pumped my fist in triumph. That’s one of the toughest situations I’ve ever had to deal with, diabetically, and I made some excellent choices as it turns out: could have used even less insulin (3 or 4 units only?) but I got through well with judicious application of glucose powder packets.

Then it was a two-hour drive back to our motel in Roswell; Masayo slept on the way while I wondered if there would be a latent effect of all that glucose I’d downed. If I ended up really high after all this it wouldn’t be a shock, but would spoil the achievement somewhat.

Back in the room later, before dinner, came the moment of truth: I put my One Drop meter on the table, pricked a finger and squeezed out a drop of blood, head the beep of the meter, waited and… 169.

I’ll take that anytime! The Carlsbad Caverns episode was over; the cave and park were incredible and all-enveloping, and my blood sugar endured something difficult and came out fine – better than usual, even.

Masayo walking through the Big Room, far below ground level.

It just goes to show what experience and experimentation can do, whether for blood sugar or for anything. I like the dynamic that diabetes lets you play with: you make educated guesses, you test how it went, and you learn something each time.

And sometimes, just sometimes, you get a victory to really feel proud about.

Whataburger did what Carlsbad Caverns couldn’t

Dinner was simple after all this: we walked to Whataburger and ate in the motel room. I checked the chain’s website and calculated my Humalog based on their nutrition info. Later before bed I was still doing fine: 136. I left it alone and hit the sack.

I must have slept pretty deeply; there is a helicopter landing pad for a hospital right outside our door, and during the night a helicopter came. It shook the room and kicked up a mighty thudding roar. It woke Masayo up – but I didn’t know about it until the morning when she told me about it.

My BG, strangely, was 217 when I awoke. The 136 hadn’t held overnight. I blamed the Whataburger, or maybe more accurately, the evil fries. There’s something to experiment with: do burgers, or fries, or both have delayed blood sugar effects overnight?

How do you handle exercise right after a shot?
Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.

Next page: Day 14: Guadalupe Mountains NP, good BGs and spectacular stars

“Spending the night in a tent in Guadalupe Mountains National Park not only straightened out my diabetes for the day, it gave me a stellar sky show.”

About the author

Jeremy has traveled to over 40 countries, taken several road trips across the United States (and Canada), and lived on and off in Japan for several years. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1982 but doesn't let a little thing like that stop him from exploring the world.

Jeremy writes about his travels with diabetes on 70-130.com as a way of logging his excursions and of inspiring others who might be feeling hesitant to take their own big bite out of life.

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