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New Mexico and Arizona trip

  • Submitted by: Evelyn C. Leeper
  • Submission Date: 14th Feb 2005

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October 10, 1992:

Well, less than one month back from the Caribbean and we're off to the Southwest--New Mexico, Arizona, and a smidgin of Texas, to be precise. Our plan is to fly to Albuquerque (on our free TWA tickets), rent a car, and see everything, or as much of everything as we can in three weeks. Luckily the car rental includes unlimited mileage.

Our sources for this trip included the Arizona and New Mexico volumes of the 'Discover America' series, HIDDEN SOUTHWEST by Ulysses Press, the American Southwest volume of the 'Insight' series, the AAA guide for Arizona and New Mexico, Jay Robert Nash's BLOODLETTERS AND BAD MEN, a couple of 1980s guidebooks our library was selling off at a quarter each, and everything about the area from Usenet's rec.travel over the past several months. During the trip we also got NEW MEXICO: A NEW GUIDE TO THE COLORFUL STATE by Lance Chilton et al, THE ROADSIDE HISTORY OF NEW MEXICO by Francis L. Fugate, and THE ROADSIDE HISTORY OF ARIZONA by Marshall Trimble, as well as a few books about Tombstone and other specific historical locations. I've also been reading Zane Grey and Tony Hillerman, and Jack Williamson's reminiscences about growing up in New Mexico.

We arrived in Albuqueruqe about 2:30 PM and picked up our car. I seem incapable of getting the right car on the first try at Hertz. In Puerto Rico, the first car was low on brake fluid; here they had a sign up saying, 'If you're traveling to El Paso, ask for special information.' The information turned out to be that they didn't want to rent us a Ford (as they had just done) because Fords get stolen there. So we ended up with a Mazda instead, and a cassette player that the Ford lacked. That was welcome--we had brought cassettes to play.

We headed south on I-25 for Socorro. By the time we had gone twenty miles we had decided we wanted to retire here. It is beautiful! There are miles and miles of miles and miles, covered with shrubs and flowers, and in the distance, mountains and rock formations.

Seventy miles south of Albuquerque (on a 65 mile-per-hour road) is Socorro, the home of the Very Large Array (VLA) of radio telescopes. Well, that is how Socorro is described, but the VLA is really sixty miles west. What Socorro really is is a strip of motels, gas stations, and fast food restaurants hiding historic Socorro--a dozen blocks of buildings dating back to the last century. For a Saturday afternoon, though, this place was really quiet--no people and hardly any cars. It wasn't a ghost town, but it was getting close.

We stopped in the Dana Bookstore in the Valverde Hotel and talked to the owner about books, science fiction, and where to eat. She also collects books and likes science fiction--a bit unusual for a woman in her sixties (or more). We were buying A VERY LARGE ARRAY, an anthology of science fiction by New Mexico writers. We also got the Chilton guidebook here. It's the size of a phone book. The store was remarkably well-stocked for a town of 9000.

For dinner we ate at El Sombrero, the bookstore owner's recommendation after Don Juan's (which is closed on Saturday and Sunday). Very good and very cheap--a combo plate was $4.10 and chicken fajitas were $4.95. We both ate very well for under $13 including tip. And we even sat next to a genuine Indian. He was from Gujrat.

Mileage today: 86 miles.

October 11, 1992:

Partly because of jet lag and partly because of our schedule, we were up early. After breakfast at 6:30 AM (huevos rancheros for Mark and biscuits and gravy for me), we drove to the VLA at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. This was 48 miles west on US 60, then another 4 miles south on US 52 and NM 166. These were good roads and there was no traffic this early on a Sunday morning, so we made very good time. The road took us through Magdalena, which used to be a major cattle center.

When we got to the VLA, it was so cold I put on my winter coat over my heavy flannel shirt and T-shirt, and put on some gloves. The fact that we were at 7000 feet may have had something to do with it. It was also only 8 AM. We had read that the Visitors Center opened at 8: 30 AM, but they actually open at 8 AM.

Although coming in we had seen several deer, the rest of the visit was strictly technical. The Visitors Center had a twenty-five-minute slide show about the work done at the VLA, and a five-minute video about the results sent back from Voyager 2. There were also several exhibits describing how radio astronomy works (and mentioning that it was invented/discovered at Bell Labs).

By the time we went outside for the self-guided walking tour, it had warmed up enough for me to take my gloves off. We got to see at least one of the receivers up close (there are twenty-seven and one spare, weighing 230 tons each and movable along a thirteen-mile track at five miles per hour). They are very trusting here. Not only could we go right up to the base of the receiver, where all that stopped us from climbing onto it was a sign asking us not to and a short stretch of fence we could have walked around (it went off to the left and then just stopped there), but the store consisted of a couple of racks of postcards and booklets with the prices posted and a slot to drop the money in. I guess most visitors are honest enough that it doesn't pay to staff the Visitors Center.

Luckily for you, I will not explain how radio astronomy works. One note that did occur to me while watching the Neptune video was that the diagram of the solar system we sent out with Voyager 2 was inaccurate; it showed only Saturn as having rings and now we know that Neptune does also. Oh, well, I suppose it's not worth sending out a recall notice.

They also had a section explaining how all the heavier elements-- heavier than hydrogen and helium, that is--were formed inside stars. So we are truly 'star-stuff,' as someone said.

It was very quiet at the VLA. I imagine people were working the same as any other day--telescope time is still valuable enough that there are no days off for a telescope--but that was all inside the buildings. Outside there were no people (except for one man who was turning on the tree sprinklers), no cars, and only a few birds who didn't have too much to say.

We retraced our route back to Socorro and I-25. On the way back we saw more cars, but it still was not what one would call a congested road. Along the way we grooved on the scenery and listened to commentators on the radio doing the equivalent of a pre-game show for the first of the Presidential debates.

From Socorro we went south 9 miles on I-25, then east 66 miles on US 54 to Carrizozo. South of Socorro we listened to a tourism broadcast about the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. This was one of those things where a sign along the road says, 'Tune your radio to 610 AM for tourism information.' We encountered others as we traveled, giving us a sort of guided tour on the cheap, with Ricardo Montalban as our guide.

We crossed the Rio Grande (not the 'Rio Grande River,' no matter what my sixth-grade teacher said!). I bet you thought that ran between the United States and Mexico, and it does (or at least along part of the border), but it has to come from somewhere, and this is where it comes from. It looks about the same here as at the border--a muddy, rather small river which wouldn't be known at all were it not for the fact that it forms a major border.

Further along US 54 we passed through the Mal Pais Lava Beds. Since 'Mal Pais' means 'Bad Country,' it's not surprising that the landscape looks very rough here. Hills and long rolls of dried lava cover the ground to the horizon, and the plant life changes from the saltbrush and soaptree yucca of before to weirder-looking plants such as the walking-stick cholla (also known as cane cholla) and cow tongue prickly pear. I suppose this is as good a time as any to describe some of these. Yucca is the entire family of succulents (a.k.a. cactus) that has those long, pointy, sharp leaves. Soaptree yucca, the state flower of New Mexico, grows taller than some of the other varieties, for example the Mohave yucca (which is distinguished by having 'threads' along the edges of its leaves). Saltbrush is grayish-green and looks like shrubbery someone has dusted with ashes. Cow-tongue prickly pear has large oval/elliptical leaves (which look like cow tongues) that are chained rather than growing from one stem, and a purple fruit. (I'm sure you've seen pictures of it.) Cane cholla is the hardest to describe. It's made up of tubular stems (with spines) forming a sort of fractal pattern. (Now at least the mathematicians among my readers have some idea what it looks like.)

We crossed the lava beds (whose northern end we will be seeing later on this trip) and turned south on US 54 to Carrizozo. 27 miles down the road we turned off and drove 5 miles down a side road to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. (Everything is very well marked here, with signs saying that such-and-such is coming up in a mile and then a sign for the turn itself.)

We spent an hour at the Petroglyph Site and could have spent a lot more, because the rocks with carvings on them (dating back about a thousand years) are scattered over an enormous plain. There were people hiking a couple of miles away from the entrance. I'm not sure how much more we would have gotten from the extra time, as I found many of the carvings hard to spot. We went out about a half mile and then returned, taking a slightly different path. This worked out nicely, as the final stretch on the west side of the first ridge (I think) had the clearest and most petroglyphs of any section. One theory is that all these were carved by sentries to pass the time. It is a good look-out spot, commanding a view of a huge area, but some of the figures seem too accurately placed astronomically to be just random. For example, at the winter solstice, one has precisely half of it illuminated.

What would have helped us appreciate the petroglyphs more would have been a guide, or even a pamphlet, but this is a relatively new national monument, so they are not as advanced as other locations. (Mark noted that the sanitary facilities were as primitive as the petroglyphs.)

We spent a few minutes talking to a couple from Texas. (New Mexico seems to have a lot of Texas tourists now. I wonder if they wait for the rest of the tourists to leave first.) Then we rejoined US 54 south for 17 miles to Tularosa, then took US 70 south 10 miles to Alamogordo, where we got a room at the Motel 6 there--a budget chain more common in the West than in the East, at least for now.

After checking in, we went another sixteen miles south on US 70 to White Sands National Monument. (If you want to translate miles to time, one mile to one minute is about right. It's very easy to average sixty miles per hour here, and not hard to find yourself doing almost eighty at times.) We arrived about 3 PM and bought our Golden Eagle Passport. (A Golden Eagle Passport costs $25 and covers all entrance fees for your carload/family for the National Parks, Monuments, etc., for a calendar year. Since on this trip we're going to at least a dozen, this makes sense. By the way, National Parks are designated by Congress, National Monuments by the President. There is no inherent difference between the two.)

White Sands National Monument (not to be confused with White Sands Missile Range) is about 150,000 acres of gypsum sand beds and dunes. As you enter you see the 'tail end' of the dunes, which are moving north at a rate of about thirty feet a year. (The Visitors Center explains all this.) Here there is a fair amount of vegetation. As you drive deeper into the dunes, the vegetation thins out, with only the hardiest plants remaining--plants that can put down roots fast, and grow fast and high to stay above the rising dunes. The road in is eight miles each way, but about four miles in changes from pavement to packed gypsum. This is necessary because of the ever-shifting dunes--they can move the road easily enough.

In the center all you can see are the whole dunes and the mountains in the far distance--a truly alien landscape. Mark claims it looks like snow, but the air temperature belies that. In spite of the heat, though, the sands themselves are very cool--the white reflects all the heat back. Maybe that's why the air is so hot. Walking barefoot on them is surprisingly refreshing, and the sands provide a better footing than one might expect. Climbing the dunes is remarkably easy.

Many of the books recommend coming to the dunes at sunset, because the sun is less harsh then. This means an easier time looking at the dunes and plant life (no sunglasses!) and also a better chance of taking good pictures. So about 4 PM we decided to leave, eat dinner, and return about 6 PM (sunset was at 6:35 PM).

On the way to dinner we stopped for gas. While we were filling up two groups of youths got into an altercation which resulted in one of them smashing the rear window of the other ones' truck with a tire iron and several other tire irons being thrown about (all fifty feet from us, I should add). So much for low crime rates. The ones in the undamaged truck raced off and the others were going to follow, but the police arrived before they had a chance.

Dinner was at Western Sizzlin, a Sizzler clone. 'Nuff said.

We returned to White Sands National Monument about 6 PM. It was much better. Besides the light being softer, the temperature was cooler and the place was much quieter. During the day there were a lot of cars and people and children playing and yelling--and sound really carries here. At sunset, you have hardly any people and they've come either to take pictures or to enjoy the sunset in solitude and quiet. We watched the sun set in almost absolute silence, and then the full moon rise over the mountains. We stayed a while longer, held by the beauty of the place, but eventually had to leave (the Monument closes one hour after sunset).

We returned to the motel, watched an instant replay of the first Presidential debate (which ran 5 PM to 6:30 PM Mountain Daylight Time), and wrote in our logs a bit. I fell asleep around 8 PM; Mark lasted a bit longer.

Mileage today: 348 miles.