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Published: August 8th 2007
Motorhome News from North America 39 25th March - 4th April 2007
From the Texan Heavens to the Depths of the Earth in New Mexico
We have been ‘on the road’ in North America for 450 days now, yet each day is still too short and each week not long enough for all we set out to achieve. It now becomes clear that we will never see it all; we cannot absorb all of the dramatic short history of this continent’s rapid change, but perhaps at least we will have satisfied our curiosity about some of the American myths we English cling to.
Our week started in Davis Mountains State Park, a delightfully wooded area set amongst the southwest Texas hills, with magnificent mountain walks on rocky paths where mule deer grazed peacefully amongst the cactus and knots of big-horn sheep scattered before us as we approached from downwind. The historic town of Fort Davis developed around the old Fort, established in 1854 to protect mail and early settlers from Comanche and Apache raids along the trail from San Antonio to El Paso. In my book, that’s recent history - our present house was built thirty years before that,
in 1823 in fact, and it serves to remind us that the West was indeed Wild here in relatively recent times. More on that later.
Teased by our recent brief encounter with the stars at Big Bend, we drove into the high Mountains one evening to visit the McDonald Observatory and join in their Twilight Programme and Star Party! Seated around the circular amphitheatre under open skies we sat in silence with a small gathering of robust folk, listening to ‘the basics of the planets’ from a well-versed presenter as the sun fell below the mountains and Venus joined the Moon in the deepening blue of twilight. A number of powerful telescopes were set up for us to experience the deeper side of astronomy, little queues of inquisitive people waiting their turn in the chilly mountain wind to ogle in the darkness at Beehive Cluster, Saturn’s Rings, Orion Nebula, Pleiades, and the Moon at close quarters. What an amazing experience! Janice has caught the stargazing bug. Armed with her $9.95 CD, it’s now possible for her to see the stars and planets on her new laptop - as seen from anywhere in the world as we speak, including our
local town of Thetford, back home.
Our Observatory tickets gave us discounted admission to see the real big stuff the following day, when clear bright skies gave us good views of the sun, sunspots and flares, relayed by computer into the theatre. The McDonald Observatory has two enormous telescopes housed in sparkling white domes on the mountaintops nearby. Hobby-Eberly, the biggest, weighs in at 80 tons, has a 432” mirror made up of 91 honeycomb segments, and is currently the fourth largest telescope in the world - which must pain the whole of Texas. It sits at 6659ft atop volcanic Mount Fowlkes, peering into the crystal clear skies. I can assure my birding friends it’s not at all suitable for bird watching.
The bleak arid desert continued. The featureless flat road marched ever onward through scorched grass and cholla, an occasional nodding donkey or gas rig to break the monotony, and not a dwelling in sight for fifty miles until we reached Van Horn, off Interstate I10. Van Horn is a straight mile of motels, gas stations and a handful of shops, but there are few homes to be seen and little evidence of other homesteads for miles.
One must assume the people all work in those dreary motels, the gas stations and shops, spending their lives supporting each other.
As the miles rolled on the scenery changed, the road rising and falling in steady rhythm, out towards the distant Guadalupe Mountains; great limestone peaks on the horizon, sparkling under a flawless cerulean blue slab they call sky here in Texas. The limestone peaks are sedimentary, formed on the bed of an ancient sea and now at 8749ft, the highest mountains in Texas- higher even than the volcanic Davis Mountains! Now, that’s somewhat difficult for me to get my head around. Whilst Janice considers her future as an astronomer, I think I might opt for the fascination of geology! Two cars were parked beside the road and several guys were looking through binoculars into the rocks above with great interest - surely a rare bird! We stopped to ask.
“Only rocks,” he replied with a grin. “We’re geologists. We get excited by rocks.” And there are those who think birdiers are daft!
There were few people on the trail along McKittick Canyon that morning. We left early to avoid the midday sun, hiking
up into the hills on the line of a dry gulch. (what a lovely word gulch is - do you mind if I use it again?) We followed the line of the dry gulch through riparian woodland of bright spring maple, oak, tall junipers, and ash and walnut we had not expected, the heady perfume of red-barked madrone pervading the air, its white flowers in the form of pearly droplets. An underground stream feeds into the richly vegetated canyon from the mountains above, emerging above ground for a few brief moments before vanishing once again. With the coming of summer rains and spring snowmelt, the valley will fill with a raging torrent, carrying rocks and debris before it. There was a sense of excitement in the air as we climbed, sunlit mountains topped with powder-puff clouds, a striking change of environment, we were surrounded by mature trees for the first time in months, and a scintillating breeze brushed through our hair from the flat desert plains that stretched out to the horizon below us.
After many weeks and many miles, it was Goodbye Texas, the 'Lone Star State', Hello, New Mexico, the ‘Land of Enchantment’. The limestone Guadalupe Mountains
on the border hold the enchanting secrets of Carlsbad Caverns within their bosom, a destination to dream of if you are a caveaholic like me. The Caverns are not the biggest, deepest, tallest or the longest in North America or the world for that matter, but that is not important now we’re in modest New Mexico. We first learned of Carlsbad in a TV programme back home telling the story of the hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats which swarm from the caves to feed each evening - from late spring through October. Sadly, like so many other dreams before - the monarch butterfly swarms in California for example - this is another spectacle we won’t get to see. We arrived whilst the bats were still wintering in Mexico. Undeterred, we took the elevator 700ft down into the bowels of the earth, to wander through the mile long trail of subterranean chambers, agog at the sheer scale and creativity of this natural gift to man. The Big Room, as it is known, covers an unbelievable 14 acres; a great cavern of awesome scale formed by seeping acidic water slowly dissolving the limestone aided by hydrogen sulphide gasses from oil
and gas deposits beneath the Guadalupe Mountains.
If you have a moment, let your mind dance a little. Enter this grand hall designed and commissioned by Tolkien, look above you at the dazzling clusters of golden stalactites, over there at those stately stalagmites, the giant columns, draperies, helictites, soda straws and popcorn, and in the distance, on the dimly lit path, other visitors, tiny dots, staring in amazement at the awesome spectacle. Carlsbad’s deepest chamber is 1,037 feet below the surface; way, way below the Big Room where we were standing. It makes me quite breathless just to tell you about it. We chose the self-guided tour to make the best use of our time, but it is possible to take other excursions, crawling through narrow tunnels on your belly and hanging freefall from ladders with a torch in your mouth. You pay extra for the privilege. There are limits! Such is the fascination of geology. Here, the stars, the planets and earth’s formation are close bedfellows. Here is a spectacle to bring tears to the eyes. Perhaps I’m getting soft - or purely mellow, but tears come more freely and embarrassingly these days. It may be nothing more than
passionate music, great literature, a good film, a fine spring day or a thing of great beauty. “Pass the tissues, sweetie.”
A long drive west took us through flat arid pastureland to the town of Artesia, standing over vast underground reservoirs, pumped to the surface to irrigate the surrounding fields of pecans, chilli peppers and onions. There’s no need to ask where the town’s name came from. Winnie was put to the test once more, climbing steadily upwards over the ski-slopes and down, endlessly down, the dangerously steep incline running sixteen miles into the Chihuahuan Desert, stretching before us once more for thirty miles, from the Sacramento Mountains to the distant San Andres Mountains to the west. We arrived at White Sands National Monument with the intention of staying overnight. White Sands describes it well, though somewhat inadequately. The sands cover 275sq miles of desert, as white as the snow on the mountains, spectacular rolling hills of dazzling white, swathed in ripples of a desert island tide, waves of dunes rising and falling, sharp ridges carved by the wind, great ivory hills sweeping across the horizon to meet the startling blue desert sky. The sand originates in the mountains
where gypsum crystals dissolve, running with the snowmelt and summer rains to the valley floor.
The first Atom Bomb tests were carried out just to the north of here on July 16th 1945 and an important Missile Range still exists there. Stealth aircraft from Holloman Air Force Base flew overhead as we drove through the area and the news is that there are plans afoot to build the world’s first public space travel centre nearby. A local paper sported the headline, ‘Virgin Galactic agreement signed!’
As with much of the US this far south, mobile homes dominate the suburbs, dwellings seemingly scattered randomly across the shallow slopes. Ancient villages slowly surrender to the march of time, spreading their wings to greet their neighbours with new developments of adobe style homes riding the crests of tiny hills, a touch of Greece for northern retirees, come to soak up the 350 days of sunlight each year. Nearby stands the picturesque town of Mesilla, the grand Catholic Church looking out over the plaza and beautifully preserved adobe buildings, now mostly scrumptious restaurants with a Mexican flavour and irresistible shops, Aladdin’s caves of artistic trinkets: belts, buckles, beads and bracelets.
Bosque del Apache
A mixed flock of Snow Geese and Ross's Geese
would not be expected to recognise the name Mesilla - or its association with a certain William H Bonney. The town of Mesilla once stood as the capital of New Mexico and Arizona Territories before it became part of the USA in 1854. William Bonney was incarcerated in the local prison and sentenced to death in the town’s courthouse. Billy the Kid as we know him, escaped from gaol before they were able to carry out the sentence, but he was eventually shot and killed by the sheriff some three months later. It’s fascinating that such names, so well known to us, were real people - and not just storybook characters. Our travels allow us to bring these people and their true stories into our hearts and minds from thumbed old books and the silver screen, through squeaky hinged antique doors - if we care to push them gently ajar. Mesilla and nearby Las Cruces are both delightful. They are growing with the influx of the 55-plus brigade but they are pleasantly clean and tidy, and working hard to maintain their Hispanic, historic and artistic heritage.
To reach Albuquerque and Santa Fe we followed the Rio Grande northwards, along
the flat valley bottom, a meandering ribbon of emerald green, bright cottonwood trees flushed with spring, goats and steers feasting in the fields and checker-board squares of alfalfa and onions bordered by neat lines of bare pecan trees.
Buried somewhere deep in the brain is the memory of yet another TV nature programme recording the wintering of thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve. We just had to go there, though rather saddened by the knowledge that the birds had left for their summer breeding grounds before the end of February, further compounding our ‘spectacle of nature’ misfortune. That said, our day on the reserve proved exciting and invigorating: a skein of snow-geese flew overhead, a flash of white wings in the sunlight, a flock of white-faced ibis called to us as they passed, black silhouettes against the deep blue sky, and a pair of elegant Clarke’s grebes courted immediately in front of us by the boardwalk, oblivious of our presence. It must be spring. Sad not to have seen the reserve in all its birding glory, but we now have the picture firmly embedded in the brain.
The road climbs
almost unnoticed towards Albuquerque, bordered by desert plains and distant rolling hills dotted with juniper like raisins in a bowl of breakfast porridge. Albuquerque stands a mile high, a large town spread across the valley at a major crossroads of road and rail. We chose the mountain route from there to Santa Fe, taking a short diversion to climb the winding road to 10,678ft at Sandia Crest, a pine forested ski area, still flushed with snow, overlooking the Albuquerque plains from a cold windy lookout yet another mile higher! I have a vague idea we might qualify for some sort of Boy Scout’s ‘Mile High’ badge or something. I seem to remember that aeroplanes come into the equation somewhere, but my memory is not what it used to be.
Out on the same road we came eventually to Madrid (pronounced, Mad - rid) a winding row of shack-like dwellings converted to small touristy shops and artisans’ workshops in the shadow of a disused coal mine. The community settled here when the local mine finally called it a day in the '60s and a shack on a plot of land along the main street went for a dollar or two.
“It’s fast changing under the pressures of modern commerce, but I like the creative energy here,” a young lady recently arrived from New York told us. They’re holding on to those hippy notions of individuality and locally made goods by the skin of their teeth in a closely-knit society I would fight for and creatively thrive on. Madrid is tomorrow’s Sedona at a guess, so get your pocketbook out and buy a piece of the action whilst you can. The sooner its soul is ruined the sooner we’ll recognise it as America.
Santa Fe is New Mexico’s State capital. It has a long history of Spanish settlement and Catholic heritage dating back to the 17th century, preserved as much as one can in today’s society, with well-maintained adobe buildings. Artists came here too, though it seems, somewhat earlier. They came as free spirits to escape the trembling earth of the industrial revolution and the social disarray following WWI. They came for the free open skies and the magical spectrum of colours in the hills, the wide horizons and the sweet clean air. And they stayed, lending (and I do not use that word lightly) a bohemian flair and culture
to what was already a peaceful and engaging landscape. Today’s people are friendly and direct, willingly offering a welcome handshake and exchange of names, but their bohemian days are numbered. Shops on three sides of the Plaza bear the scars of modernism, commercialism and escalating costs beyond the comprehension of those who arrived thinking of a peaceful and sedate artistic living. Lavish window displays adorn the shops empty of customers, their un-priced exclusive merchandise scaring away all but the deep-pocketed tourist with a need to impress. Tourism is big business here in Santa Fe. More than a million visitors come each year to ogle at the art in the 250 plus galleries and absorb the luxuriant atmosphere. Art is big business here in Santa Fe too. The Plaza’s stores carry a monotonous selection of jewellery and artefacts, all variations on the same Southwest American Indian theme in turquoise, mother-of-pearl, lapis, coral, agate and jasper in silver settings, cowboy gear, spectacular paintings, sculptures and pottery.
The third side of the Plaza houses local Native Indians offering their wares laid out on the floor along the length of the shady front porch of the Palace of the Governors as they have
done for more than eight decades. Many tribes are represented here: Hopi, Navajo, and Apache, New Mexico Pueblo groups. Their jewellery and local crafts are all made within their families under strict local controls.
On the assumption that all this jewellery is produced somewhere here in the south by Native Americans, the profiteers must surely soon be looking to shift production to China along with everything else ere long. America’s love affair with goods made in China is surely a match made in heaven. The low cost war engineered by WalMart over the years has led the US into the disposable society trap placing the mighty workhorse of China in the driving seat of world production; unstoppable now, thriving on the lessons of our beloved Hong Kong and Britain’s once dominant role in low cost markets in Victorian times.
Santa Fe’s saviour is its spectacular efforts in maintaining its adobe architecture, its museums and galleries and an efficient, cheap and friendly bus service. It took a while to become accustomed to the altitude; at 7,000ft the air is a little on the thin side, but you do get used to it. Our favourite museum was, of course, the Georgia
O’Keeffe. Much of her more creative landscape art was born of her relationship with New Mexico’s mountains and deserts. If there can be any form of justification for our blog, these few words from Georgia O’Keeffe might serve us well:
“Where I live now and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”
My brain hurts with all the newfound knowledge collected on our travels - it must be full.
David and Janice. The grey-haired-nomads
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