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Published: January 23rd 2012
Looking back on the Valley of Fires and the Basin from the west ridge.
We left Alamogordo at 8:30 AM. We fueled up on inexpensive New Mexican gas. At $2.94 per gallon this was the cheapest fuel we had come across on the trip so far. I had just installed a K&N air filter in the car based on a recommendation from a knowledgeable family member and I was eager to see if the $50 investment was going to pay off in better gas mileage. My Dad was a veritable CPA when it came to family vacations. I rode shotgun on these excursions, maps piled high on my 12-year old lap. Every time we gassed up I was required to record gallons burned, miles traveled and calculate the all important MPG. I have been afflicted my entire life with this same OCD. How Dad loved a good MPG day. If we kids were lucky his happiness might allow us a motel with a pool for the night.
We headed north on 54 passing the ruins of old ranch houses and derelict water tanks. Tumble down adobe walls threw stair-steps against a denim blue sky. We drove over the flat expanse of the Tularosa Basin. Jagged snow capped peaks fence in the sandy oval plain.
This park was so quiet it was unsettling.
This is the old stomping ground of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Lincoln County New Mexico. An ambitious road project had slowed traffic to a trickle all the way into Carrizozo, the County seat. Once upon a time it was a busy mining community. Today it is a dying town. Its young people having left for greener pastures.
We grabbed a sorry-ass excuse for a coffee and set course west on 380 through the Valley of the Fires. A geological anomaly made up of 2 million year-old lava flows. To the early settlers it was called ‘Malpais’. Spanish for ‘Bad Country’. I was hard put to imagine horses and riders navigating the large, black, razor-sharp, clovis point boulders that make up this 30-mile long natural fence running from southwest to northeast. We climbed out of the flats to the top of a ridge, stopping to take in the view behind us. We picked up I-25 North, skirted Albuquerque and entered the stream of vehicles heading west on I-40. This is old Native American land. One reservation flows into another. The Laguna, Isleta, Canoncita, Hopi and Acoma tribes to name but a few. People of short, compact stature with
Big, black, dense and noisy. Just like the ones at the Tower of London. They'll poke your eye out kid!
jet black hair, wide features and Asian brows. They are everywhere. Pumping gas, tending Stop and Go service stations, dealing cards in the dozens of casinos along the Interstate. To the north of the highway rise soaring V-shaped sandstone cliffs that give the impression of a flotilla of rusty ship prows steaming south over creosote seas.
The new air filter was performing admirably. MPG was up by twenty-percent and it felt as if we had a few more Mustangs under the hood. This is cruise control country. Long stretches of arrow straight roads, each horizon giving way to another and another and another. We passed through Gallup, New Mexico where tiny houses perch like grimy birds in high rocky nests dug out of the sandstone Mesas and Buttes. At the Arizona border two red peaks form a narrow strait into the Grand Canyon State. Indian trading posts and truck stops bracket the road. Huge billboards advertise fresh beef jerky, beaded goods and Indian pottery. These tourist shops are all closed now. The billboards faded and melting away. The Indians have all gone to work in nearby truck stops where long haul drivers can launder their clothes, hit a slot
machine and grab a hot meal and a shower before resuming their slogs. Interstate 40 in this area traces the path of old Route 66. When I passed this way with my family as a child these trading posts were fantastic places. A world of which I had had only tantalizing glimpses while watching shows like Rin Tin Tin, Hoppalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. During those days these same decrepit billboards were new and implored drivers to stop and take advantage of the 'Last water' you would see for 89 miles. (The worst case of false advertising on record till that film; ‘The Never-Ending Story’ came out.) Here you could buy heavy, square, screw-capped canvas water bags as insurance against lip cracking thirst and burst radiators. Any traveler equipping themselves with one of these leaky, burlap covered beauties would instantly feel themselves spiritually joined to their Conestoga'd ancestors. I could picture my family trapped under a searing Mojave sun. Our Chevy Impala listing hard to port on a boulder-broken axle. Mom sitting sideways in the car, her milky Chicagoan legs extended out an open door, fanning herself with one of the now useless road maps and wondering how one
cooked a cactus. Dad stands, hands on hips staring out at the shimmering horizon. A stranger in a strange land. My brother Bob and I eye each other warily over the last swallow in the bag. My siblings lay on the ground in Saguaro cactus shade. Their postures as flat and contorted as Egyption glyphs. That was then.
The longest stretch between gas stations today is no more than 10 miles. People live along the highway in estates comprised of small cinderblock houses, ancient pop-up campers, rust-laced Airstream trailers and abandoned school buses. All of it bound together by crooked wire fencing. Parallel to the road runs the Santa Fe. Mile long trains of double-stacked sea containers stuffed with Chinese-made goods bound for a store near you.
We paid a visit to the Painted Desert. A papoose-faced female ranger in a Smokey the Bear hat gave us a map and admonished us not to remove anything from the park. We had the place to ourselves. The large parking areas were devoid of cars. Two fat, black Ravens occupied themselves on an information sign while we enjoyed the views. While the striations were clear the colors were muted. The
City Center in Vegas
8 years ago financial wizards said that this project made sense. Today they're not taking calls.
topography is one of wide rolling hills scarred by broad, fresh washes. On our way out the suspicious ranger stopped us for an interrogation. Satisfied that we hadn’t filched any fossils she allowed us to go on our way.
We stopped for gas in Winslow. I attempted to use the men’s room. A young Indian boy stood guard over the single stall in the room. The urinal was sealed under a black plastic garbage bag.
“You can’t use this bathroom!” He was shouting and shaking. Brave and afraid at the same time. He looked as if he wanted to run but another boy inside the stall, younger I judged, by the size of his worn sneakers, held him fast. I lifted my hands in surrender and backed slowly out the door. He slumped in relief. I looked around the shop. It is one of those brand new operations with polished floors and banks of brightly-lit coolers stuffed with Tall Boys and Mickey Big Mouths. Racks of beef jerky crowd the service counter. What’s up with all the jerky? Stone-faced Indians crowd the aisles. Their arms filled with six-packs and bags of the dried meat.
We headed to
Decked out for Chinese New Year.
a Motel 6 looking to put down for the night. The parking lot was empty save for a single pickup truck. Two small Indian boys played outside the manager’s office. Inside, their Mother smiled brightly as I walked in. I asked her what her best rate was for a bed. She told me $89. I took another look at the rows of tenantless rooms, smiled, and told her I’d look elsewhere. As I walked away she called out $79 and the number decreased in $10 increments with every step I took towards the car. Regardless of what The Eagles say I don’t see myself ever standing on a corner in this sad, quirky town.
We ended up in Flagstaff at a Knights Inn for $45. Had a great dinner at the Central Railroad Restaurant on Route 66. We asked our young waitress, Kayla, how business was. She shrugged. Told us that she was lucky to make $60 on a shift. Just two years ago crowds of diners ran her ragged and filled her pockets with tips. She plans on going to college to learn to be a forensics technician. She loves to watch CSI.
In the morning we
headed to Vegas on a whim and were treated to beautiful scenery at every turn. High gorgeous mountains clad in conifers. We passed billboards advertising a spot called Bearizona, a sort of safari park where you cruise amongst marshmallow addicted bears. We turned north on 93 at Kingman and climbed towards Lake Meade. We stopped along the way for a bathroom break. I saw a family living in a Winnebago pulling a horse trailer which sheltered a stick-ribbed pinto pony. An elderly woman played with a small white dog on the dashboard of the RV. A man and a small girl in pink sweat pants foraged hay in a field for the pony.
This was our 4th
trip to Vegas. Traffic was thin. We stopped by the Excalibur and asked for a room. They gave us one on the 21st
floor facing the Strip for an astounding $58 per night. Far below the rates normally charged. Occupancy at the hotel was at less than 20%! (MISSING)The casino had been turned over to penny slots and a single craps table was open for business. Men who looked as if they had just come from a shift at a construction site
5-minute ride from the Strip.
made boisterous bets with red $5 chips.
We had dinner at the Aria buffet in the brand spanking new City Center complex. This project, the largest of its kind in US history was originally budgeted at $4 Billion and ended up costing $9.2 Billion. A joint venture between MGM and Dubai Investor Group it has succeeded in sucking the economic wind out of Las Vegas’s sails. Nearly 1,500 condominium apartments originally priced at nearly $1 Million per unit sit empty and 4,000 hotel rooms only add to the crushing overhead burden. It is a marvel. The public areas are a visual delight of rare hardwoods and imported marbles. Bored fidgety salesmen stand in front of high end shops trying to snag a rich fish. The restaurant we ate in is designed to seat 400 people. There were approximately 60 while we were there. The story was the same at the Bellagio, Paris, MGM, Luxor, Flamingo and Mandalay Bay. Locals told us things were even worse on the north end of the Strip. We didn’t bother to look. The famous Sahara Hotel is shuttered. Its equipment is being auctioned off by the foreclosing bank. When we checked out I asked
the desk clerk how their weekend bookings looked. He said that they were expecting a forty-percent occupancy rate which, for them, was very good.
We headed back to Flagstaff stopping by the Grand Canyon. Still as amazing as ever. A wonder of the world. As sparse as crowds were during my last trip with Noah there were far fewer visitors this time around. We stopped in an empty park restaurant for a cup of coffee. At the bar a group of employees were clustered together watching a televised basketball game. The air turned cold. We watched the sun set while we drove south out of the park. Swirling clouds rendered in shades of red, orange and pink calligraphied the indigo sky. Karen and I tried for a few moments to come up with a name for the rare and beautiful color. We settled on Arizona apricot.
We’re back in Alamogordo for a few days. We stopped off to see Jeff's handiwork; a huge model of a Stealth Fighter he spent 600 hours building. It is on permanent display in front of the Alamogordo Historic Center. I plan a last look at Dog Canyon before we pay a return
visit to the Stites family in Houston and then home.
Karen and I have been to many places and when we travel we always strive to get off the beaten track as much as possible. Our opinion is that North America has no equal geographically and the best way to see it is from the ground. This trip opened a lot of old family memories for me and we met some really interesting people. It’s been a fun and sobering trip.
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