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Multifaceted New Mexico

  • Submitted by: David Stybr
  • Submission Date: 14th Feb 2005

Alamogordo, Albuquerque, Bandalier National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Los Alamos, Roswell, Santa Fe, Socorro, White Sands National Monument


New Mexico is the 5th largest state in the United States (after Alaska, Texas, Montana and California), and its wonderful combinations of mountains, rolling hills, deserts, plains, farmland and ranchland meant that we would have plenty to explore. We spent only a week in New Mexico and explored a great deal in that time, but we could have easily spent twice or thrice as long in this vast multi-faceted state and still not seen everything. New Mexico also had some of the clearest and bluest skies we had ever seen.


Our adventure in New Mexico began before we even left home, thanks to some strange late March weather. Illinois was fine, but New Mexico had some surprises in store. Originally we had planned to explore New Mexico in sections, from the northwest to the center to the southeast. However on Saturday, March 28 before we left home, we learned that some late March snowstorms were headed toward the higher elevations in northwest New Mexico. My wife Denise quickly made some phone calls and luckily we could modify our planned itinerary. Then we left for the airport and flew from Chicago via Denver to Albuquerque. Usually we can fly nonstop from Chicago O'Hare Airport to just about anywhere (except for really distant places such as Australia or Chile), so the connection in Denver for a domestic flight was quite unusual for us. Nonetheless it was worthwhile because we found a good fare and added more points to our United Airlines frequent flyer account. This was also our first flight on a Boeing 777, which seems very well designed and comfortable. The seats also have small individual television monitors which let us select our own programs to view.

Albuquerque had perfect warm sunny weather when we arrived at Albuquerque International Airport late Saturday afternoon and rented a car. That evening we dined at Stewart Anderson's Black Angus Steakhouse. This was one of our favorite restaurants when they had briefly branched out into Illinois about 10 years ago, but now this chain seems to be in only the western states once again. Our hotel in Albuquerque was the Crowne Plaza Pyramid, which was very comfortable. However the cold front would reach Albuquerque the next day, so we spent only 1 night there at the start of our stay. We would return to Albuquerque late the next week when the warm weather front reoccupied the city.

Sunday morning brought light snowflakes to Albuquerque. After a nice breakfast we checked out of our hotel, and stopped at a grocery store for enough snacks and drinks for our long desert drives for the next few days. Then we drove about 200 miles and 4 hours southeast on US 285 across the desert to Roswell. Shortly after we left Albuquerque, we crossed the warm weather front and suddenly found ourselves in sunny warmth again. Southeast New Mexico is very flat and semi arid, so we saw a lot of scenic nothingness for 4 hours. However after our usual hectic workweeks, this was just what we needed. Nonetheless, before long we were able to notice the subtle changes in the desert landscapes which are caused by slight shifts in local climate and the existence of artesian basins from region to region. This was not the great sand dune desert like the Sahara or the home of giant cacti like southern Arizona, but rolling sparse shrubland. Soon we learned that deserts are very multi-faceted indeed. Some parts of the deserts which seemed at first to be flat plains were in fact huge shallow basins, so that the horizon could be 30 or even 50 miles away instead of the typical 5 or 6 miles. As a result it can be very difficult to judge distances in the desert.

Our home in Roswell for the next 2 nights was the Holiday Inn Express. The weather was warm and sunny but windy. Roswell was founded about 1870 on the site of several springs and artesian wells as a stopover for cattle drovers and for the railroad traffic. Today the economy is based on irrigated agriculture, shipping, manufacturing and oil production. Roswell has a population of 50,000 at an elevation of 3565 feet above sea level. Naturally the most famous attraction in Roswell is the International UFO Museum and Research. It is dedicated to the study of Unidentified Flying Objects and captures both the seriousness and the silliness of the UFO phenomenon. The main focus of the museum is an alleged crash of an extraterrestrial spacecraft nearby on July 7, 1947. On display are copies of newspaper accounts of the time, and photographs of UFOs from around the world. The display on crop circles was notable because almost all of the many photos were British. For a possibly extraterrestrial phenomena, crop circles are rather localized. Overall the museum was interesting but a bit hokey. A UFO might or might not have crashed near Roswell, but it seems that some locals cannot conceive the remote possibility that it might have been just a secret US air force flight test gone awry. Our impression was that Roswell has stumbled onto their ticket to fame; that's their story and they're sticking to it.

Roswell is also the site of the New Mexico Military Institute. It opened in 1891 as a branch of the Fort Worth Military Institute and was renamed in 1893. The New Mexico Military Institute is a 2 year college to prepare cadets for transfer to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Another place of interest is the Roswell Museum and Art Center, built in 1937 as a Works Progress Administration project. In addition to displays about pioneer life and the indigenous tribes, it includes the workshop of Dr. Robert H. Goddard (1882 1945). Goddard performed early experiments with rocketry in the 1920s in Massachusetts, where he launched the first liquid fueled rocket in 1926. His work attracted the attention of aviator Charles Lindbergh, who helped fund Goddard to move to Roswell in 1930, where he continued his rocketry experiments until 1942. On display is a rocket which was launched in July 1938, reached an altitude of 3928 feet and returned to the ground on a parachute. Many of the theories developed during his research have been put to good use in the present space program.

The cold weather front caught up with us again on Monday, and the temperature reached a high of only about 50F. This made it a good day to drive 100 more miles south to Carlsbad in far southeast New Mexico and of course Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Once again the weather was a blessing in disguise. Typically visitors need to dress for 90F heat outside as well as the constant 55F temperature inside the caverns. However, the cool weather outside meant that we were equally well dressed for outside and inside. First explored in 1898, Carlsbad Caverns are among the largest on (or in) Earth. Carlsbad Caverns National Park was declared in 1930. It is a 3-level cavern that contains the largest known underground room in the world: about 300 feet high by 1500 feet long by 300 feet wide. It's an immense, cathedral like chamber which must be seen to be believed. 250 million years ago the Guadalupe Mountains were an undersea reef. 2 to 4 million years ago the mountains were gradually uplifted. Water slowly percolated through cracks in the limestone and calcite to erode the caverns. Speleothem is the group name of stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other cave deposits. Stalactites form from limestone which precipitates out of water which drips from cave ceilings. Stalagmites form from limestone which precipitates out of water which strikes cave floors. Columns form when stalactites and stalagmites meet. One Japanese couple noticed how I composed the views in my photos and soon began to take photos from the same locations. High praise indeed.

Tuesday the warm front returned, and we left Roswell to drive 120 miles through the desert and the Sacramento Mountains on our way to Alamogordo. The mountains are a key to the existence of the desert cities. These mountains are high enough to precipitate rain and snow out of the clouds. This water results in enough streams, rivers and artesian basins to support modest cities throughout the desert portions of New Mexico. In fact, the mountains are high enough to make Cloudcroft at 8650 feet and 33°N latitude the southernmost ski resort in North America; the next ski resorts to the south are in central Chile and western Argentina. In New Mexico it is a beautiful contrast to drive up out of the dry desert shrubland into the lush green mountains with their beautiful forests. The late March snowstorms of a few days before which had struck elevations above about 8000 feet had made the mountain scenery even more beautiful. Sierra Blanca at 12,003 feet is the tallest peak in the Sacramento Mountains, and on that clear day it was plainly visible for about 50 miles in every direction.

Alamogordo (Fat Cottonwood in Spanish) was founded in June 1898 as a planned railroad community west of the Sacramento Mountains. At an elevation of 4335 feet and a present population of 28,000, the economy is now based primarily on the military, especially Holloman Air Force Base and the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing (with 55 Stealth Fighters). We were surprised to see a large billboard: 'Alamogordo willkommen deutsche Soldaten und ihre Familien' ('Alamogordo welcomes German soldiers and their families') and a German band concert, until we learned about the recent installation of a German air force base training unit. This and a British air force base in Arizona are about the only substantial foreign military forces permanently stationed in the United States, which contrasts with the large US military presences around the world. Just west of Alamogordo is the White Sands Missile Range. There in July 1945, the first atomic weapon was detonated at Trinity site about 50 miles northwest of town.

Alamogordo is also known for White Sands National Monument. The Tularosa Basin lies between the San Andres Mountains and the Sacramento Mountains at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert. Great dunes of gypsum sand cover 275 square miles of the desert, the largest gypsum dune field on Earth. The common mineral gypsum rarely occurs as sand because it is water soluble, but this area has the right conditions of rain in the mountains above a desert basin. Gypsum is dihydrous calcium sulfate (CaSO4.2H2O). Rain and snow fall in the San Andres Mountains, dissolve the gypsum from the rocks and carry it into the Tularosa Basin. The water collects into low spots such as Lake Lucero, then evaporates. The gypsum forms colorless crystals which eventually break down into sand particles and are blown by the prevailing southwesterly winds into huge dunes of 97% pure gypsum. The white sands are as much fun as snow drifts, but not cold or wet. This is one of the few national parks in which visitors are encouraged to climb on, play with and roll around in the scenery, because the next windy day will rearrange the white sand dunes anyway. However visitors are requested not to take any sand out of the park, except for whatever happens to cling to us. Nonetheless we had enough white sand in our shoes to create some small dunes on our rental car floor.

Wednesday we left Alamogordo for our longest drive, as we meandered back to Albuquerque. Just north of Alamogordo is Carrizozo. This city encapsulates some of the many facets of New Mexico. Just 5 miles west are the Valley of Fires Lava Files is 5 miles west of Carrizozo, 45 miles long, 70 feet deep and about 1000 years old. They resemble the much more recent lava fields on the Big Island of Hawaii. Just 5 miles east are the White Mountains, which lived up to their name due to the late March blizzards in the higher elevations. In between lies the desert basin.

Carrizozo is also the seat of Lincoln County which was the main place of activity for William Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid. It was very appropriate to play a cassette of the ballet Billy the Kid by Aaron Coplan as we drove through this area. Also in Lincoln County is the town of Capitan, the birthplace of none other than Smokey Bear. After a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains in May 1950, an orphaned bear cub was found clinging to a charred tree. He was nursed back to health but could not be returned to the wild, so he was named Smokey Bear and sent to Washington where he became a symbol for the prevention of forest fires. Smokey Bear died in November 1976 and he is now buried at Smokey Bear Historical State Park in Capitan.

At about noon we reached Socorro. M Mountain (M = Mining) is the site of one of the strangest golf events on Earth. The Elfego Baca Shoot is part of the Conrad Hilton Golf Tournament in early June. This is a single par 50 golf hole which traverses 5 miles from the top of the mountain through boulders, cactus and desert scrub to a temporary green on the desert plain below. However our real goal was about 50 miles west of Socorro, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. The Very Large Array is the largest and most sensitive radio telescope on Earth. It consists of 27 dish antennas, plus 1 spare, arrayed in a Y pattern of 3 arms 60 degrees apart. The North Arm is 5 degrees west of true north and is 19 kilometers (11.8 miles) long. The Southwest and Southeast Arms are 21 kilometers (13 miles) long. The array has 4 different configurations, from full length D Configuration (as it was when we were there) for highest resolution to only 0.6 kilometer (0.4 mile) A Configuration for highest sensitivity. Each radio antenna in the Very Large Array weighs 230 tons, and the dish is 25 meters (82 feet) across. The 27 dish antennas are connected together to form a single large radio telescope, the equivalent of a single antenna 27 kilometers (16.8 miles) across. During observations, all radio antennas in the Very Large Array point in the same direction. The average observation is 8 hours, but this can vary from as little as 5 minutes to as much as 100 hours. Generally every 30 minutes the telescopes are pointed to a known radio source for calibration, and it as awesome to see all of them move in synchronization in that huge plain. The Very Large Array was located on the Plains of San Agustin because the altitude of 6800 to 7100 feet and dry desert climate help minimize atmospheric distortion of signals. The nearby mountains and isolation help block radio noise and the flat plain eases movement of the antennas. The 34°N latitude permits observation of 85% of the sky. The antennas of the Very Large Array are moved by a special rail transporter on 2 parallel sets of railway tracks. It typically takes 2 hours to move an antennas from one station to another, and about a week to reconfigure the entire array. Once moved, the antennas generally stay in each configuration for a few months at a time. The Antenna Assembly Building of the Very Large Array houses the 28th antenna. Approximately every 6 weeks the antennas are rotated for maintenance, so that each antenna is rotated out of service for maintenance about every 3 years.

Finally we returned to Albuquerque and our hotel the Crowne Plaza Pyramid for the final 3 nights of our vacation. On Thursday we decided to explore the Jemez Mountains north of Albuquerque on our way to Bandalier. Along the way we stopped for lunch in Jemez Springs, a picturesque farming village in the Jemez Mountains between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Nearby is Jemez Caldera, which was the peak of a volcano which built part of the Jemez Mountains. About 1 million years ago the volcano collapsed and left a huge caldera 175 square miles in area, with a rim elevation of 9000 feet and a floor elevation of 8500 feet. It was filled with snow from the late March blizzard of a few days earlier, and at that high elevation we actually had to contend with blowing snow for a short while.

Soon we descended into clear weather once again and to Bandalier National Monument. Frijoles Canyon was settled about AD 1150 by Anasazi, who farmed the canyon floor near Frijoles Creek. The settlement was abandoned about AD 1600. The site was first explored in 1880 by Swiss explorer Adolph Bandalier (1840 1914). The visitors' center has a brief slide show on the national monument. Then a walking trail leads past some of the cliff dwellings and petroglyphs. The cliffs of Frijoles Canyon were formed of compressed volcanic ash which eroded. The many holes in the cliff were formed by erosion of softer parts of the cliff. Cave rooms were dug out of the cave walls by enlargement of natural holes in the softer areas of volcanic rock. In the canyon floor was the village of Tyuonyi (Meeting Place in the Keres language) which contained about 400 rooms and housed about 100 Anasazi persons. Most impressive was the Long House, a community that extended for about 800 feet along the canyon wall.

Next we drove through Los Alamos, which was the site of the secret nuclear research in the early 1940s that led to the development of the atomic bomb. Weapons research continues at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which nowadays dismantles nuclear weapons as well as builds them. It also maintains the only fully operational plutonium plant in the United States, but no gift shop for souvenir isotopes. The city of Los Alamos has a population of 20,000 at an elevation of 7410 feet and is nice enough but unremarkable. What was truly remarkable was the nearby Los Alamos Canyon between Pajarito Plateau and the Río Grande Valley, where the city reaches up to the canyon rim.

Then we drove on to our final stop of the day, Santa Fe. Founded in 1607 by Spain as La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (The Royal City of Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi), Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States. It predates the English Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts by 13 years and Boston by 23 years. Ironically, New Mexico was one the first regions in the United States to be settled by Europeans, but among the last to become a state. It became the 47th state only in 1912. We were also surprised to learn that Santa Fe and Albuquerque were briefly occupied by Confederate forces from El Paso, Texas in February and March 1862. Santa Fe now has a population of 60,000 at an elevation of 7000 feet. The downtown plaza has been the center of Santa Fe since 1607. El Palacio de los Gobernadores (The Palace of the Governors) was built in 1610 as a low adobe structure around a central courtyard. It was the seat of territorial government under Spanish, Pueblo, Mexican and American rule, and it is now the oldest public building in the United States.
In contrast to the Spanish Pueblo architecture of Santa Fe is the French architecture of the Cathedral of Saint Francis. The Cathedral of Saint Francis was built in 1869-86 in a design by Bishop Jean Baptiste and French designers in the Romanesque style of their native Auvergne region of southern France. El Santuario de Nuestro Señora de Guadalupe is the oldest shrine in the United States dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was completed in 1796 and became known as 'the mission at the end of the Santa Fe Trail'. Another famous church building is the Loretto Chapel, which is famous for its 'miraculous' spiral staircase, which has no central support. According to legend it was built by a mysterious carpenter whom some claim was a reincarnation of St. Joseph. Unfortunately, some of the locals were aghast when we mentioned that Houmas House plantation in Burnside, Louisiana has a spiral staircase just like it.

Strict building codes introduced in the 1950s in the historic sections of Santa Fe stipulate that all buildings must be in the Spanish Pueblo or the American Territorial style. This means endless variations on the Santa Fe adobe style, with thick, stucco walls and hand hewn wood beams. It preserves the historic atmosphere of old Santa Fe, but it also resulted in countless fake adobe everything until we were tired of it. For example, the phoney adobe Pizza Hut really looked bizarre. From a distance, all of these phony adobe buildings started to make Santa Fe look like the Flintstones' hometown of Bedrock. Santa Fe also seems to be full of shopkeepers from everywhere in the United States except New Mexico, who have brought along all their trash and treasures to sell to the tourists at inflated prices. The biggest complaint we heard is that Santa Fe has become too commercialized and pretentious, and that the rare qualities that drew travelers to the town in the first place have been destroyed. This concern is understandable, but its radiant yet relaxed charms make Santa Fe a very special place. Santa Fe is truly a unique city, well worth a visit.

In the area around Santa Fe and Albuquerque, several tribal reservations have established casinos in a successful bid to extract money from the white man who took their lands centuries ago. Most of the casinos were a disappointment. The Hollywood Casino on the San Felipe Reservation (between Santa Fe and Albuquerque) and the Isleta Gaming Palace on the Isleta Reservation (just south of Albuquerque) had all the charm of converted airplane hangars. However Casino Sandía just north of Albuquerque was great fun and had a wide variety of games. We didn't win anything, but we didn't lose much either, and we had a good time in the process.

Finally, after all of our explorations around Albuquerque, we saved our last day to explore Albuquerque itself. This is a secret gem of a city, and its setting between the Sandía Mountains to the east and the Río Grande valley to the west is lovely. The downtown area is much like most other cities but much cleaner. This modern part of Albuquerque began to develop after about 1880 when the railway came to town. However the best part is Old Town, where Albuquerque was originally founded in 1706 around the Church of San Felipe de Neri. This has a central plaza and colonial buildings similar to Santa Fe, but the atmosphere seems much more genuine and friendly, and most of the shopkeepers and restaurateurs are actually local people. Our lunch at Church Street Café was excellent, and we found some great souvenirs. The weather on this final day of our vacation was absolutely perfect. After our many long drives across the desert that week, this day of leisure and tranquility in Albuquerque was a great way to end our wonderful vacation in New Mexico. Near Old Town is the legendary Route 66 of song and story, which runs along Central Avenue, as well as several interesting museums. Modern Albuquerque has a population of 400,000 at an elevation of 5000 feet, and the locals refer to Denver as the 'other' mile-high city.

Thus ended our visit to New Mexico. We had driven about 1500 miles in our rental car and explored a great deal, but we rightly felt that this was still only a small portion of this vast state. On Saturday we flew from Albuquerque to Denver, where our connection to Chicago was delayed an hour because the previous plane at our gate had had mechanical problems. Nonetheless we returned to Chicago by late afternoon. We had lost an hour as we flew from Mountain Standard Time to Central Standard Time. Then on Sunday we lost another hour as we changed over to Central Daylight Time. We love those long sunlit evenings the Daylight Saving Time brings.

General Observations

This time our 100 or so vacation photos did little justice to New Mexico because the experiences were as important as the sights. For example, Carlsbad Cavern was huge and awesome, but simply too dim to photograph well. Similarly the Very Large Array of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory was so, well, VERY LARGE that it had to be seen in person to be believed. It looks much better in the film Contact. On the other hand, White Sands photographed nicely, and Santa Fe and Albuquerque are very photogenic.

In addition, the people of New Mexico are about the friendliest we have met anywhere. Only in Australia have we found people as warm and outgoing. In New Mexico just about everyone went out of their way to help us and make sure we enjoyed our visit to their state, and we had many interesting conversations. This was a welcome change from many other places in the United States where people won't even establish eye contact. We hope we have brought a bit of this friendliness home with us.

One surprise was that I had expected New Mexico to be almost a bilingual state, so I had hoped for some practice with my Spanish. Even though we saw plenty of Hispanics, especially in southern New Mexico, most of them spoke only English, even among themselves. Spanish seems much more widely spoken in Illinois. In fact, German actually was the foreign language we heard most often in New Mexico, due to the many tourists as well as the German air force training units there. Due to my many business travels in Europe I speak German and French fairly well, and one group of German tourists at White Sands National Monument were amazed to hear an American like me suddenly switch to fluent German.

Naturally many places in the southwest United States have Spanish names because the early explorers and settlers came from Spain. It will be interesting to compare this with the reverse situation when we visit Chile and Argentina next December, where many places have English names because they were first explored by British sailors, particularly in the far south. For example, some places in New Mexico have Spanish/Englishs name such as Jemez Springs and Ruidoso Downs; whereas some places in southern Chile have English Spanish names such as Puerto Williams and Isla Dawson.

We encountered many German, French, British and Japanese tourists, and it was interesting to hear foreign perspectives of the United States. The European tourists absolutely loved the wide open spaces, the national parks and the great contrasts in scenery. In the midst of the huge white sand dunes I encountered a group of British tourists. One of them mentioned that in his lifetime he hoped to visit all of the national parks in the United States because they were so fascinating, well maintained and the park brochures were so thoroughly documented. Some French tourists expressed similar sentiments. They had visited some of the most exotic locales on Earth, but said that one great attraction of the United States is that is offers a wealth of places to visit which also have a well-developed infrastructure in even remotest areas, which we Americans take for granted.

We are very happy that we spent a week in New Mexico, and we explored a great deal, but we could have easily spent twice or thrice as long in this vast multi-faceted state and still not seen everything. On a personal note, New Mexico was the 47th state I have visited (in addition to the District of Columbia, and US territories such as Puerto Rico, the Panamá Canal Zone and the Virgin Islands), and now I wonder why it took so long for us to go there. That leaves only North Dakota, Montana and Idaho, which would be great candidates for a nice summer vacation sometime.

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