New Mexico Travelogue (Part 2)

by Keith Stanley

(Copyright 2001)

Sunday, December 9, 2001; 3:56AM

I had a full day yesterday and ended up in Albuquerque.  First thing after checking out in Santa Fe, I tried finding the Santa Fe Institute without luck (despite my careful search).  In the process, I saw more of residential Santa Fe up in the hills (& took a picture of a rock formation and landscape up in one of the subdivisions being developed).

Thereafter, I was off to Los Alamos (where the first atomic bomb was developed & where there’s located the still very significant Los Alamos National Laboratory).  The drive up on Route 502 was incredibly scenic (especially nearing Los Alamos)—climbing from the lower reaches of the canyon to the mesa tops . . . rocky outcrops, remnants of a mesa worn down, the road carved out of the side of the canyon wall, rising a thousand feet above the canyon below (see picture take from road).  
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On Route 502 to Las Alamos

Las Alamos itself is small (about 18,000 population), modern, clean, nicely laid out, self-contained . . . a complete little community, though there’s not really a lot there. I ate lunch at a sub shop (tuna on a western bagel) and checked out prices at a couple of motels before leaving (expensive at $69 a night) . . . no budget places. Los Alamos is about an hour from Santa Fe.

After lunch, I had about 3 hours of light left in the day, taking the half-hour drive over to Bandelier National Monument (named after the anthropologist/explorer who did so very much to establish knowledge of the Native Americans or Puebloans in the Southwest).  This is very nicely run by the National Park Service.  One can see the main sites with only a few miles of walking from the visitor’s center.  One sees where the Ancients lived, where pueblo housing two or three levels high stretched along the cliffs of tuff (compacted volcanic ash from two big eruptions 1 and 2 million years ago) . . . tuff is pretty soft, geologically, and erodes pretty easily into some fantastic shapes . . . strangely, it is common to see all types of holes, small caves, and pock-marks on the cliff faces.  The Ancients, who built their civilization here 1000 to 500 years ago, made use of some of these natural features, but seemingly mostly build their own units (often multi-story) in complexes (pueblos) up against the cliff face (and some on the canyon floor) . . . the "Long House" stretches 800 feet along the cliff face.  The interpretative loop (path) for park visitors goes up among the ruins and there are even a few ladders, allowing visitors to climb up the few extra feet necessary to see into some of the small caves used by the community.

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Bandelier Nat'l Monument scenery Bandelier scene with cliff dwelling ruins

There’s a spur path, about a half-mile long, off the interpretive loop, leading to a ceremonial chamber and kiva on the cliff face.  One accesses the chamber/kiva by climbing a series of wooden ladders and stone steps about 110 feet up the cliff face . . . neat!  There is actually a ladder down into the kiva for those who wish to go down.  A kiva is a circular room, dug or carved down into the ground, covered with a roof, and having a ladder leading down into it from above.  Kivas were used by the Ancients for religious/spiritual purposes or ceremonies, and are still so used by some their decedents today in various pueblos.  Non-natives usually aren’t permitted access . . . indeed tribe members (such as the Taos pueblo people I visited earlier) often are brought up to safeguard the details of their spiritual practices (and in some cases their languages) from Western eyes/ears, as being the only remnants of their culture they feel they can call their own.  The ruins in Bandelier were apparently abandoned by the Ancients even before the Spanish arrived in the Southwest in the 1500s.  Visiting the ruins, one can imagine what’s it’d have been like to have lived there, living off the land of the canyon.

It was about 5PM and dusk when I left the Bandelier. I stopped just outside the park entrance to consult my maps and guides, deciding to head south to Albuquerque, rather than north to Abiquiu or elsewhere.  I seemed to be of a frame of mind to do some considerable driving (which is what exploring NM south of Albuquerque will require).  Before I begin on that, though, I may spend today in Albuquerque, taking it easy.

I found a great room here in Albuquerque (off exit 230 of Interstate 25) at a Studio 6 (‘extended stay’ hotel/motel).  The room comes with a complete kitchen, and the place is well-maintained (or new) and nicely arranged, all for under $40 a night!

Monday, December 10, 2001; 2:33AM

Albuquerque: I had another fullish day Sunday, even though not checking out (in Albuquerque) until 11AM.  First, I found my way down to the Old Town area of Albuquerque, with its historic plaza and San Felipe de Neri church/chapel, built the year the town was founded, 1706.  Today, this part of town is considered a highlight for tourists.  It’s a four square block area of ‘period’ structures, now largely occupied by arts & crafts establishments selling wares of a local flavor, including, of course, the distinctive cultural/art forms of Native American pottery . . . there are many styles and grades, from fine art to decorative . . . (there are also the woven fabric designs & and Kachina dolls) . . . all of which I saw so much of up in Santa Fe and Taos.  Sometimes I wonder if the Native American culture is overly commercialized . . . I wonder how Native Americans feel about it. I was not all that taken with Old Town.  It might have helped if I’d known which buildings were ‘historic,’ when built, former uses, etc.

Also in the Old Town area is the modern New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, where I spent a good 2 or 3 informative hours, especially in the extensive and well done portion detailing the history of the Earth, its geology and the development of life through time, beginning with the earliest days. Once we got up to the period beginning about 300 million years ago, the focus was specifically on the life and times of this region . . . the reptiles, amphibians, dinosaurs, mammals . . . all the forms that came and went (with some successors still in existence).  There were exhibits on just about any natural process of significance to this region, with especially good, walk-through exhibits on volcanoes and cave formations.  Another whole area of the museum included the planetarium and detailed the history of the Universe from earliest days, but I didn’t spend much time there since I’d recently seen a similar exhibit at the Hayden Planetarium in N.Y.C.

By the end of my time in the museum, it was about 3PM in the afternoon. I drove east from Old Town on Central Avenue, especially enjoying the nicely restored portion (historic Route 66) in the vicinity of Albuquerque’s Civic Center beginning somewhere around 6th Street, now with a great number of bars/saloon’s (for all I know, it’s been that way for a long time).  A couple miles further on I toured the extensive campus of the University of New Mexico . . . it looks like a nice place to be a student, though I didn’t see much in the way of places where the intelligentsia might hang out as I was passing through.

After touring the campus area, I headed back to Interstate 25, south maybe 90 miles to Socorro, where I am spending the night (now morning) at the Econo-Lodge for $30 . . . the room is decent in all respects . . . it even has a small refrigerator and microwave oven.  The drive from Albuquerque to Socorro went, I believe, down the Rio Grande River Valley, which seems to be quite broad, mostly flat, and very dry with ‘scrub’ sort of vegetation.  I could not see the river but was able to see some mountains off to the east, then a few in the west. In a few places the dust kicked up, momentarily reducing visibility.  Speed limit on the interstate was 75.  Again there was a nice sunset with the rim of the land seeming to glow, even in the east, as the sun was slipping over the horizon.

Later Monday morning, Socorro, NM: With the light of day, and a little exploring, I found that Socorro (population 9000) has quite a bit to recommend it.  First there’s the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (Tech) with its substantial, pleasant, and well-maintained campus, looking more impressive than its 2000 students might suggest.  I like that there’s a goodly number of trees, and such, on campus (and around other parts of town, too) . . . more than one might expect in such a dry region.  Socorro has quite a long history (predating Albuquerque).  It swelled in the 1880's with the coming of the railroad and the discovery of gold and silver.  The mining went bust soon enough, but not the town.

There’s the historic town square and some nice old buildings along Manzanares Avenue . . . also, some nice homes up in the hills west of the campus.  About an hour west of town there’s the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope complex, which I’d like to see. Just south of town there’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, said to be a great place for ‘birding’ this time of year.  It’s possible I could stay here another night, encouraged by my discovery the motel has a fitness room with machines, weights, and treadmills.

Monday, December 10, 2001, evening

Today was another eventful one, with the highlight being seeing the Very Large Array (VLA) Radio Telescope, which is just off Route 60, about 50 miles west of Socorro.  It’s called "very large" because it is—it functions as a single instrument consisting of 27 dish like antennae, each dish about 80 feet across, each part of a structure massing at about 250 tons.  Each of the 27 structures can be moved by a specially constructed transporter on dual railroad tracks.  There are three sets of tracks, each 13 miles long and each joining the other two at an end point, meeting (I suspect) at 120 degree angles.

IMG_0217D VLA row & blue sky .jpg (44438 bytes) IMG_0219D VLA dish detail.JPG (88374 bytes)
VLA Radio Telescope Dish close-up

At any rate, I had the Visitor’s Center all to myself . . . not a single other visitor was there, nor was there any staff present, during the hour I looked over the informative displays re the purposes and significance of the instrument.  What was really neat then was that I was able to go on a self-guided walking tour (following a marked pathway) that took me right up close to one of the dish/structures.  I got some very nice pictures of the dish/structure and of the array. Maybe I was fortunate that the array was in a small, tight configuration, with the 27 dish units maybe extending out on each of the 3 dual rail lines only a couple thousand feet from center (each of the rail lines is 13 miles long . . . had the dish units been in a spread array, they might have been spaced out along the tracks extending 13 miles in each direction).  At the end of the tour, I got to see one of the transporters used to move the array structures, close-up, over by the antenna assembly building.  For more on the facility and radio astronomy, see www.nrao.edu .

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Transporter Dish

The facility is located on a flat, expansive plane, relatively distant from civilization and surrounded on all sides by mountains, which tend to shield it from man-made radio interference.  After my visit, I continued west on Route 60 to Datel, a town consisting mostly of a gas station and a café (where I had a delicious hamburger for lunch).  From Datel, I took Route 12, driving generally southward for about an hour through terrain that became mountainous and forested (maybe some type of fir, evergreen), with the road twisting and winding . . . very little traffic.  I can’t say that I saw any other vehicles heading in my direction during that hour and only a few going the other direction.  I tried the car radio but couldn’t get anything on either AM or FM.

After driving the hour, I arrived in Reserve, NM, a more substantial town of 600.  The town had, for me, quite a distinctive feel.  It seems to function as a regional trade center, mostly frequented by men driving pickup trucks, stopping to buy supplies, access the ATM, grab a bite to eat or a drink, visit with others, etc.  I noticed that a fair number of the men seemed to carry their dogs with them in their pick-ups.  I even saw one pick-up, its bed loaded high with logs with a dog riding on top.  He stood on the logs, balancing, not seeming to mind (though I’d not give much for his longevity if this were a regular practice).  The gas station dog ran up toward the truck as it passed, barking . . . I’d have to say the truck dog did a good job defending its ‘turf’, responding crouched from the edge of the log load with some aggressive barking as they went by.

I was on good (and circumspect) behavior during my short time in Reserve.  Reserve is the seat of Catron County, which county is said to be populated by about 3000 residents who are mostly ranchers, cowboys, loggers, with a reputation for not being particularly fond of federal government authority and environmentalists.  My guidebook helpfully informed me that county officials had recently passed a resolution urging each family to own a gun.  It was fine with me that they not know I’m from Washington, DC, where I’d worked 20 years as a IRS attorney . . . it was bad enough just to be driving a new (rented), clean, white Dodge Stratus (with no dog, yet).  On the whole, when I travel (or even in my everyday life) I like to blend in, to be an inconspicuous observer.  My car (among other things) crimps my style in this part of the country.

Leaving Reserve, I drove another 80 miles or so through beautiful, winding-road, mountain scenery, as the sun sank low, then disappeared behind hills to the west, leaving the houses in the hills to the east (as I approached Silver City) glowing back at me, windows glinting in the dusky light.

I’m spending the night in Silver City, a major population center of over 12,000, the city light sparkling in the valley below as I came down into town on Route 180 from the west.  I’m at the Super 8 Motel, at $44, about $5 less than the Comfort Inn or the Econo-Lodge next door.  There’s the old Palace Hotel downtown, single rooms with a lot of character for $32.50, but I guess I wanted more in the way of heat and convenience.

December 12, 2001; 12:26AM

Yesterday (Tuesday) was another full day.  I began in Silver City, where a bit of light snow had fallen early in the morning but was already well on the way to melting by the time I left my room about 9:30AM.  I took another look around the historic old downtown.  Somehow, seeing the quaint (Victorian?), closely-spaced, two & three story, commercial buildings of a classic, small-town main street makes me feel a little sad or nostalgic, even though I’ve never lived in a small town.  I guess I’ve always wondered what it would be like.  Maybe I feel sad that the old downtown area is not as busy as I imagine it once was (owing to the modern commercial strips and primary shopping now located elsewhere).

After the quick tour downtown, I saw the campus of Western New Mexico University . . . pretty decent, but not as impressive at Tech in Socorro.  I headed south and east out of town on Route 180 to Deming, where I picked up I-10 to Las Cruces.  [Las Cruces, at about 80,000 population, is said to be the 2nd largest city in the state, though I’d not have guessed it was larger than Santa Fe.]  I was out of the mountains on mostly flat or rolling, dry terrain . . . the real beauty was in the clouds—low, ragged, fast moving . . . the terrain brightening, darkening, brightening, etc., in a rapid succession of changing moods.  [The clouds had been thicker, darker, early on . . . I was feeling depressed as I set out, but my mood brightened immediately with the first bright patch . . . it was almost sunny . . . I never lost sight of the bright patches, even when momentarily under darker skies.]

Just outside Las Cruces, I visited the Old Mesilla Village Plaza.  Mesilla was formed about the same time as was Las Cruces (about 1850), by Mexicans.  As a result of the Mexican War (1846 - 1848), Mexico ceded large portions of what is now the U.S. Southwest to the U.S.  At the time, there was a relatively small strip of land that is now part of the U.S. in Mexican hands, such that Las Cruces was formed on what was then the border.  Just on the other side of the border, Mexicans in the territory, who did not want to become part of the U.S., formed Mesilla, which quickly became a thriving town, more robust than Las Cruces in early years.  In 1853, however, it too became part of the U.S., as the U.S. - Mexican border became what it is today with the U.S. purchase of 30,000 square miles of land from Mexico (the Gadston Purchase).  Today the old Mesilla Plaza, which retains many period pieces of Mexican/Hispanic flavored architecture (now converted to more-or-less kitschy retail uses) is popular with tourists.

Las Cruces is the home of New Mexico State University (at approximately 16,000 students, a major university with a good-sized campus).  After looking around the university, I headed north and east on Route 70 toward White Sands National Monument and Alamogordo, NM.

Pictures taken at White Sands National Monument:
IMG_0230D copy White Sands (unmod) (+).jpg (94844 bytes) IMG_0231D copy White Sands transition (ok).jpg (70068 bytes)
Dunes, transition zone Dunes, transition zone
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Dune & sky Dune & strange lumps
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Dunes at dusk Dunes, black & white
IMG_0238D dunes, mountains (San Andreas), clouds, bush) (foreground lightened).JPG (32525 bytes) IMG_0246D bright sky dark dunes (+).JPG (36651 bytes)
Dunes, setting sun Dunes, setting sun

White Sands National Monument is a fantastic place and I got lots of pictures as the sun was sinking low.  Geologically, this entire area was part of a graben that began forming about 10 million years ago . . . i.e., it became depressed or collapsed compared to the rest of the surrounding land, sinking maybe several thousand feet below surrounding lands to form a basin, exposing rock strata all around the basin . . . one or more of the strata were composed of soft, water-soluable gypsum.  Even though the area is pretty dry, there’s been enough precipitation to wash gypsum out of the strata and down into the basin, where sometimes there would be a lake at what is now the southwest corner of the White Sands desert.  Often the lake would be dry and a dry wind would blow gypsum (some originally in crystalline form) across the flats, breaking it down into sand, which then drifted.  White Sands is the world’s largest area of gypsum sand and dunes (most the world’s sand is quartz based).

From the White Sands visitor center, one drives into the sands area along a road that’s maybe 10 miles long, at first paved, then becoming packed sand.  The day of my visit, it had rained a bit before I arrived . . . the ranger told me the rain would have the effect of making the sand less bright than usual, but was still plenty bright.  In fact, once further into the dunes, past the transitional regions where highly-adapted (hardy) vegetation is able to live, the dunes reminded me of a desert of snow . . . huge snow drifts . . . it didn’t hurt my delusion that I was visiting in December, a cold breeze blowing that easily made it feel freezing.  I was one of the few people out there.  At the end of the road, there’s a 4.5 mile loop trail out into the "Alkali Flats." I went out for the pictures.

I wondered how it was that, interspersed among the great dunes (often as much as a good 50 feet high), there were flat sandy areas with vegetation.  I suppose these were natural, although there were other flat areas along the packed sand trail that looked man-made, as if compacted by vehicles (park vehicles . . . no public off-roading is permitted in the park).  Certainly it was clear that, along the roadway and for parking areas, the sand had been plowed, looking much like snow-plowed snow.

As I came out of the Alkali Flats, an RV pulling up and four people (probably a family . . . at least two were children) got out to dune climb.  One of the kids (a boy maybe 12 or 13 years old) carried a rectangular board/pan sled to the top of a dune, to try the sledding down the 40 degree slope.  It was tough sledding---as he threw himself down hard on the sled, I could hear him grunt from the impact a 100 feet away as he went absolutely nowhere . . . maybe it’d have been better sledding had it not been for that rain earlier!  I could hear his mother laugh from the bottom of the dune, calling up to him, "was it as good for you as it was for me?"

By this time, it was getting dark. I drove out of the park, stopping only to take a couple of pictures of the glowing, dusk-twilight, barely illuminated land.  From the park, I drove the fifteen or so miles to Alamogordo, watching as the town glittered in the cold, white-seeming night, down in front of me.  Once there, I found a Motel 6 (again eminently satisfactory (and only about $30 a night)).  Today, after looking around Alamogordo, I plan to stop just a piece up the road in Ruidoso, to check out what is said to be a substantial resort area.  I’d spend a night, or maybe even two, there, if I can find a reasonably priced place with a nice view, where I might just relax and ‘contemplate.’

Wednesday, December 12, 2001; 7:27PM

Today has been another eventful one and I have survived it, just barely. ;-)  I guess I’ll take events in chronological order ¸

Before leaving Alamogordo, I took a turn around the old downtown and saw the USFS building with the Hurd mural.  I had breakfast at McDonald’s and found a lot of local color.  Two tables down from me to the right (no one in between), a woman and 2 men were talking . . . well, she was doing most the talking and/or her voice was the only one I could hear.  She was a good talker . . . a down-home conversationalist . . . nothing earthshaking in what she said.  It wasn’t so much what she said, as the way in which she said it.  Plain-spoken, with a Western or rural accent, she chose her words carefully . . . they were not big words, but they conveyed something of who she was, her humanity, her values—a simple woman who’d seen her share of life, who cared and was worthy.

First she read from the paper to her companions about the Bin Laden video tape, soon to be made public . . . I couldn’t hear her companions reaction, but suspected she was looking for some of moral support.  "Isn’t Bin Laden’s (now confirmed) behavior just dastardly!" might have been her feelings . . . though, had she expressed them outright, she’d not used those words.

She went on to speak of the political parties, saying that she’d learned young that "you vote Republican if you want to see the small man get smaller" (albeit she said she’d have voted for Powell had he run). She said she’d have voted for Clinton if he’d been able to run . . . had no quarrel with his policies or his doing his best for the country . . . "so what if he liked women . . . and lied about it?"  She expressed her approval that he’d stopped plans to destroy the country’s stock of smallpox vaccine (which had been said, by some, no longer to be needed).

At some point in the discussion about voting Democratic, one of her companions said something that was apparently witty/funny.  The African American woman sitting across the way from me, maybe 70 years old, let out a mirthful yelp, then caught herself and put her hand to her mouth.  Momentarily she went on to say something appreciative, in just such a natural way . . . maybe she knew the others.  Her husband, also 70 or so, came back to join her . . . I could see that he was gentle and loving . . . they made a lovely & loving couple. OK, enough of local color.

From Alamogordo I took Route 82 east to Cloudcroft, no more than about 20 miles but at least 3000 feet higher in altitude . . . up in the Sacramento Mountains.  It turned out they had just had their first substantial snowfall of the season, 6 to 10 inches . . . beautiful, fresh, powdery . . . all the pine/fir trees dusted white against dark green, from top to bottom . . . the highway ran through the Lincoln National Forest.  Cloudcroft is small . . . one main drag, rustic in the snow, like a U.P. Michigan town in winter.  I explored off the main drag . . . at one point trying to find "The Lodge" I’d heard about.  I took a side road, seeming to be little more than a single lane in places, steep, still white with snow (but recently plowed) . . . I never found The Lodge.

I decided to move on to Ruidoso.  I took Route 244 as being the shorter route (and one not requiring me to backtrack), n/w the guy’s at Allsup’s in Cloudcroft telling me that Route 244 was a secondary road and might not be as passable as Route 82.  I suspected, though, it be OK, based on what I’d seen on the other roads around Cloudcroft, and it was!  True, there were slushy, crunchy, icy patches (that actually put a substantial drag on the car if I ran over them), and the road was not plowed to full width in some places;  but I pretty much had the whole road to myself.  I needed to take extra care in the turns.

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Cloudcroft, Chamber of Commerce Trailer in woods

During the middle portion of the 40 mile drive to Ruidoso, I was again at a lower altitude where there was less snow, afterward regaining altitude and snowcover.  At one point on the drive I was ‘in the zone,’ enjoying the open road and the scenery, while listening to Pink Floyd (‘the machine’) on the radio.

Coming into Ruidoso, I found it with a fresh 10 inches (or so) of snow and was open to finding a place to stay (even though it was barely 2PM), provided I could find a room with a nice view.  Ruidoso is a resort town, spread along miles and miles of highway, but, because of the terrain, barely extending any way back from back from the main roads.  The lower main roads were already clear to pavement, but I eventually found myself driving up Upper Canyon Road, which got snowy past the narrow bridge.  Almost immediately upon starting to explore this road, I could see that there were lots of cabins being offered, cabins nestled in the canyon’s forest, a small stream running. Here the snow was pristine, the road, though plowed, still white.

I stopped three different places inquiring about cabins or rooms.  I liked the friendly proprietor of the place (Noisy Water Lodge) out toward the end of the road.  He let me have a cabin for $59 (plus tax) . . . said he’d have given me a smaller one up on the forested hillside, but thought my car might not be able to make it, so instead gave me a larger one right on the road (normally it’d have been $89 a night).  The cabin is less than 10 feet from the narrow road.  From the living room one quite easily can hear the occasional vehicle pass . . . no problem . . . it’s not a frequent occurrence, happening maybe once or twice an hour.

Thursday, December 13, 2001; 6:16AM

The Cabin: Staying in a cabin has been an adventure for me.  By far the biggest trial was getting the fire started and keeping it going. As far as I was concerned, this was not a mere luxury . . . the living room was really rather chilly.  The only real heat source in the cabin (other than the wood-burning stove) was the propane heater on the wall in the bedroom.  It did rather well in there---a nice, steady, continuous stream of warm air coming out the upper portion and going up to the ceiling.  It’s effects, however, were attenuated in the living room and kitchen . . . furthermore, I’m not one to turn on the gas range merely for the heat.

The proprietor had given me a fire-starter block and permission to get some wood from the tarp covered woodpile.  I brought six small logs down (they had to be fairly short to fit in the stove). I’d never operated one of these stoves before, but figured everything would be ok---I’ve built enough fires in regular fireplaces.  It turned out, though, I had trouble knowing whether the flue was open or closed.  Unlike a regular fireplace, even though the flue was closed, I could start a fire without smoking up the room, as long as I kept the door to the stove tightly closed.  Furthermore, I could see plenty of smoke coming out the stovepipe outside.  It was just that the fire wasn’t burning well and a puff of smoke would come into the room whenever I opened the door to adjust the logs.

Of course, I’m very much one to dislike smoke coming into the cabin . . . I’m sensitive about that sort of thing.  I opened a few windows, which seemed to do ok airing the place out but wasn’t helpful in getting the place warmed up.

Finally, I called the proprietor, up in the main house, to see if he could tell me anything about getting the fire going.  It turned out I didn’t have the flue open after all . . . he also suggested I might leave the stove door cracked open a bit.  Yep, these things helped a lot---the fire was drawing well & burning much better.  Soon enough, I threw caution to the winds and closed the windows . . . it was no longer smelling very smokey (but then, maybe I’d adjusted to it).  I figured my clothes would probably smell all smokey, that I’d probably go to a laundromat sooner or later (albeit my jacket might require dry cleaning).  I was careful to keep my suitcase closed so that the stuff in there would stay fresh.

Once the fire was going, I got a nice, hot shower.  There was no shortage of hot water or water flow (though I was mindful to keep the flow at a reasonable level, knowing water is precious in this part of the country).  The cabin, btw, has its own water heater, which makes a characteristic little knocking/pinging sound when operating.  The smallish logs (fir or pine?) burned pretty quickly, but, strangely enough, the stove never seemed to produce all that much heat.  I noticed that the interior was lined with inch think cinder block-like brick and wondered about it’s purpose . . . maybe it served to keep the stove from getting too burning hot on it’s exterior, but, if so, it defeating the purpose of creating warmth.  At any rate, I’d done the best I could.

The cabin floorplan is rectangular, probably about 30 by 20 feet, roughly divided in half by a wall extending most of the length of the centerline.  The living room/dining room is along the front (on the north side?), the kitchen in the west, connecting to the bathroom and though it to the bedroom, both on the south wall (the bedroom taking the southeast corner).  As befits a cabin, the place is rustic, with pine wood boarding all around the interior, especially in the living room, where all walls and the ceiling are boarded in mostly medium dark varnished pine.  There are some very nice touches . . . the rocking chair in the living room (where I spent most of my time), a nice, sturdy, new couch, the wood-burning stove, a couple of small wooden decoy ducks and a counter/ barstool niche between kitchen and living room.  There was also cable TV, for those not inclined to ‘rough it.’.

It’s now 7AM and getting light out. I’m going to go out to walk along the road.

8:15AM

I’m back . . . very nice.  The snow was crunchy, with just the hint of a squeak, as I walked on the plowed road.  My walk was long enough to remind me how it is to be out in bracing cold air (colder than it usually gets where I now live (Washington, DC)).  My legs were both cold and warm—a surface chill, but warm from exercise at the core.  My nose was cold, sniffles partly frozen, and my breath condensed to hoar frost in my mustache.  My feet were warm enough in my hiking shoes, doing better than my fingers, which I pulled down into a loose fists in the palms of my gloves.  It was nice to have this interlude---I hadn’t expected to see anything like this on this trip.

Soon it will be time for me to go down onto the flatlands of southeastern NM, heading toward Carlsbad.

Saturday, December 15, 2001; 6:17AM

I made it all the way from Ruidoso to Carlsbad, NM, in about 3 hours on Routes 70/380 and 285 . . . the roads were mostly straight, good, and fast.  I arrived in Carlsbad so much earlier than expected that I decided to go down to Carlsbad Caverns National Park that very afternoon, rather than waiting until the next day.  The park entrance is maybe 20 minutes south of town on Route 62/180.  Soon after I turned onto the park road, I learned that the last permitted entrance to the caverns through the natural entrance was 2PM.  It was already close to 2, and being as the park road itself is maybe 8 miles long, I figured I’d be a little late, but hoped they’d let me go down anyway.  I really wanted to take the natural entrance down, rather than taking the elevator from the Visitor’s Center down to the Big Room about 800 feet below.

The drive up the park road itself is a beautiful drive.  Immediately, I found I’d left the flat and mostly barren plains for a much richer area, heading up the canyons, the mountain, on a twisty, winding road that takes what the terrain gives.  And what terrain it is!  There are so many exposed rock faces and strata, visible in the hill & canyon sides (even aside from roadcuts).  Here (unlike the face of the Sacramento mountains seen from White Sands) there was less talus (rubble debris, scree).  Though the hillsides were rocky, they also grew desert vegetation.  At 2PM in December, the angle of the sun was just right to bring out the relief and detail on some of the high strata . . . I was sorely tempted to stop and take a picture or two, but reluctantly decided against, as I wanted to make the natural entrance in time.  Not only the is the geology of the worn, dry hills something of true beauty, but the desert flora along the park road is rich and varied compared to that on the plain.  I wondered if this was just because the terrain was left undisturbed, due to a difference in micro-climate, or if the Park Service had cultivated it (I doubted the latter).

I purchased my ticket at 2:10PM and they let me take the natural entrance route!  I was told to move along, that a park ranger would be coming down shortly after me, turning off lights along the route.  So, off I went, moving at a decent pace, noticing a couple in front of me as being the only other people on the walkway.

The natural entrance is only a few hundred yards from the Visitor’s Center and the walk down is, as you might imagine, fantastic.  First, at the entrance there’s a little amphitheater for dusk time viewing of the hundreds of thousands of bats that then emerge for nocturnal feeding (from the upper portion of the cave, I believe).  The bats, I understand, were ‘out of town’ in Mexico for the winter.  I’m told the, even in summer, the bats do not at all bother cavern visitors . . . I suspect they’re almost entirely out of sight, sleeping during the day.

The trail starts down and in from the natural entrance.  Almost nowhere in the system are there any stairs—instead the paved, man-made trail winds back and forth, downward, with many sharp switchbacks.  The trail itself is quite an engineering feat, often supported/buttressed on its downhill side by angled piles or walls of natural rock (maybe sometimes cemented in place, but not noticeably so to my very casual inspection).

As I walked down, the natural light quickly faded, through a brief ‘twilight zone’ into what would have been complete darkness, were it not for the man’s lighting.  I’d loved to have taken some pictures, but there was not enough light without a tripod (I figured I could come back the next day with one).  After the initial steep decent from the entrance, the path continued at a gentler slope down (along the side?) of a long, somewhat largish, rock-strewn upper chamber, then winding around and continuing down on the other side and further into the complex, where the passageway sometimes became fairly narrow, and soon again steeper, back & forth across the floor of the sloping natural passageway.  I wondered how much the construction of the pathway had disturbed the natural environment . . . maybe a good bit, but I had the feeling I was getting a good idea of what’d it’d have been like in its natural state.  The pathway wasn’t so intrusive, once down in the Big Room, because it is flat there (no switchbacks needed), such that the path walkway can basically just go around the perimeter of the room.  The Big Room is where many of the most outstanding ‘decorations’ (stalactites, stalagmites, columns, straws, popcorn, flowstone, etc.) are located.  The National Park Service directs tourists, so as to minimize any further damage to this World Heritage Site.  The Big Room may be nearly 1000 feet long and maybe several hundred feet wide with a ceiling of a hundred feet, but it would be a mistake to image the Big Room as one large, regularly shaped space.  In fact, it a very irregular, with many grottos, indentations, and intrusions in all directions and with all manner of natural ‘decoration.’

Toward the end of my self-guided tour, I was getting pretty weak with hunger (no eating allowed down in the caverns) and losing my appreciation, yet not wanting to miss anything . . . by hindsight, I’d rather I’d just left, than lose my sense of awe.  After all, I expected to come back the next day.

IMG_0256D copy Carlsbad Caverns amplitheatre, natural cave entrance (ok).jpg (74064 bytes) IMG_0256D copy Carlsbad Caverns amplitheatre close-up of stone benches (+).jpg (115203 bytes)
Amphitheater at natural entrance
Carlsbad Caverns
   Close-up, amphitheater stone   
IMG_0275D copy Carlsbad surface buildings (nice!).jpg (111873 bytes) IMG_0276D copy sunset light 'cabin' White City.jpg (75689 bytes)
Low sun on surface buildings
at Carlsbad Caverns
White City, sunset reflected
former 'motel' room

I was out of sorts coming back to the town of Carlsbad after seeing the caverns.  Having seen the caverns, I felt I’d seen all of the major sites within striking distance, leaving me little to do my last 4 days in New Mexico, but wait for my flight home [a rather deplorable attitude, but, there it is].

Not all went as I would have it the next 24 hours.  I drove back to Carlsbad and got a room at the Motel 6.  Generally, I’ve found good value at Motel 6, but this was the exception.  Though I’d requested a non-smoking room, the room smelled ‘stale.’  By hindsight, I wish I’d gone back to get a different room, but I was tired and rationalized that the smell was not that bad (and might be no better in another room).  I stayed, and so did the staleness.  The room was more run-down than most. The water for my morning shower wouldn’t get hot . . . it was warm enough for me to get into the shower (maybe about body temperature), but not warm enough to warm me up or encourage me to get out again into the colder room.  A little later, I found a cockroach crawling on my clothes on the bed.  In short, I was not a happy ‘camper’ and wanted to get out of there at first chance.  I pretty much was out of clean clothes, though, so I did a couple of loads of laundry at the motel’s laundry room, staying down there during the process . . . it was nicer than my room---no stale smell and very comfortably warm.

I drove around town, first looking at the extensive river park walk along the Pecos River, then through a nice residential area, before heading out to Living Desert State Park, out on the north side of town.  It’s really very well done . . . I learned a fair bit about the desert vegetation and the types of animals that live in the desert and their adaptations to it. After learning from exhibits at the Visitor’s Center, I walked along a pathway through desert terrain to see the plants, and also birds and other animals in their enclosures, . . . in the latter aspect, the park is a zoo. I felt sort of sorry seeing some of the animals confined—the elk, the owls, the hawks, etc.; but one of the park volunteers told me that none of the animals there had been captured, instead having either been found injured (and nursed back to health) or formerly been people’s pets, etc.  Still I felt bad for some of them, even though, all things considered, the park is a good place.

After the park, I had a good lunch at Denny’s.  I was tired of all the fast food hotcakes and whoppers I’d been eating, so, at Denny’s, I had a Reuben and pumpkin pie!  I also took a nap in my car.  After all this, I was again on my way to Carlsbad Caverns, glad to be leaving the town and Motel 6 behind me.  I got to the Caverns later than the previous day (maybe around 2:30), but, I figured this was OK since I was planning only to use the elevator down to the big room to take some pictures.

As it turned out, this was not to be.  I did make it down to the Big Room, but after my first shot, had trouble getting my camera to work.  It’s a new camera, with many features, and a very good one, but I’ve not used it much.  It was dark in the caverns, n/w manmade lighting . . . my camera wasn’t working . . . I went back to the better lit area near the elevators/concessions to read the manual, learning that, in certain instances of darkness and low contrast, the autofocus mechanism is unable to work, in which case the camera doesn’t shoot.  The solution is to put the camera on manual focus.  I tested this out in the concession area and reviewed some of the camera’s other features . . . things seemed to be working.  While in the men’s room, I checked out my tripod, which also is new (but unlike the camera, is light and cheap), wanting to reassure myself that it would keep my camera from falling, even when the adjustment screws were loosened.

Coming out of the men’s room, I was surprised when the lights in the concession area suddenly went out.  There was no one in sight, and there was a chain across the pathway to the Big Room and a sign saying not to enter.  I called out several times . . . someone heard me and came over from somewhere the other side of the concession area (all this is down on the cavern level at the bottom of the elevators), telling me it was nearly 4:30PM and that soon all the lights would be turned out.  I hadn’t realized it was nearly so late and so close to closing time.

So, I didn’t get to take any pictures after all, but, strangely perhaps, felt relieved—I was free of the ‘responsibility’ and of the need to use the awkward tripod.  My big uncertainty was whether to leave the area altogether or stay ‘til the next morning.  I checked out "White’s City," just outside the park entrance—it’s little more than a Ramada complex and was almost completely deserted, although I could get a room there for $60, about twice what I’d pay back in Carlsbad.  I didn’t have a good feeling about paying that amount to be isolated in White’s City.  Nor did I want to go back to the town of Carlsbad.  Unfortunately (or maybe not), this part of the country is sparsely populated—my only other reasonable choice for lodging would be in El Paso, more than 2 hours to the west.  I knew if I went that route, I’d not be coming back.

Notwithstanding my wanting to get pictures and test my camera in the caverns, my gut feeling was to leave.  While driving to El Paso, I figured that this was the way of life—the need to make choices . . . something’s lost and something’s gained.  I regretted not being able to see the scenery in the night on the way to El Paso.  On the other hand, there’s something I like, almost mesmerizing, about driving on a quiet two-lane highway late at night.  The road was well reflectorized, lending a bit of a surreal aspect, like coming in for a landing on a lit airfield at night.

There wasn’t much in the way of facilities along the way.  I stopped at an isolated roadhouse (restaurant, etc.), thinking I’d ask if I could use the facilities, until I saw the sign on the door saying that "this is not a public relief facility . . . water is expensive out here . . . no restroom use unless you buy something."  I decided, "to heck with it." Another 10 or 15 miles down the road was a pull-off picnic area.  Although there was no outhouse there, the side of the road served just fine. Two truckers had pulled over with the same idea.  I liked the fact that we’d all discreetly turned our lights out.  When I looked up in the sky, I was surprised, nearly breath-taken, by all the stars (including the Milky Way) I saw in the clear, dark night sky (no city lights to interfere out there).

I made it to El Paso and the Red Roof Inn---much nicer than the Motel 6 the night before.  I’m expecting to head back north toward Albuquerque, though I may well not get there today---I think I’d be happy to stay in the town of Truth or Consequences, NM.

Sunday, December 16, 2001

I made it all the way to Albuquerque (from El Paso) yesterday.  I stopped at the Pizza Hut in Truth or Consequences, but otherwise found little of note there.  After T or C, I ventured a few miles off the interstate to see a reputed ‘ghost town’ at Cuchillo.  It turned out to be a small, down-at-the-heels town with some abandoned buildings, seeming little different from many others I’ve seen on this trip, especially up in the mountains.  I’m at a Motel 6 for $36 and the room is fine.

Monday, December 17

I found a cool eatery & coffeehouse here in Albuquerque, where I had lunch and watched the funky, artistic, intellectual, varied group of people gathered there.  The café was called something like the Atomic Star and had as its emblem a cowboy riding a rocket.  I could imagine it’s having been there since Historic Route 66 days (though it probably hasn’t been).

Tuesday, December 18, 2001

I had a good flight from ABQ to Houston.  I found myself sitting next to a young woman who is a 5th year geology student at Tech in Socorro . . . cool!  Further, she’s specializing in astro-geology.  We talked geology much of the time, but also life at Tech and all manner of other things.  Tech apparently is quite a good school.  Is this a coincidence or what?!! I just happened to find Socorro perhaps the nicest small town on my trip and Tech the best looking small university, as well as having rekindled my interest in geology on this trip (I even bought "The Field Guide to Geology" a few days ago).

I made it home from Baltimore-Washington Int’l Airport via commuter train to D.C.’s Union Station, then subway to Dupont Circle.

[The End]


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