Monday, April 21, 2014

More fun in New Mexico

After failing to drive the Rialta up a dry, sandy wash to a BLM site, we wisely and carefully turned around and went back, again being taught the same lesson about washboarded gravel roads and sand. We do not like!! I was sweating bullets and begging Thayer to turn around at the first opportunity. Getting stuck in the soft sandy riverbed would lead to a more serious problem if it rained! The only casualty was the muffler to the generator which rattled loose and was damaged as we maneuvered our retreat. All else was well as we pulled into a nice boondocking site near Belen, NM. 

Fortunately our nice host, Rex, had a shop with the extra tools and grinder Thayer needed to fix the parts up so that they could be welded back together again. Finding a welder to do the job was trickier than we expected, Rex drove us around to some places near his place but no one dared to try welding the lightweight stainless steel parts. Ultimately, we ended up in Albuquerque, chasing around all day until we finally found a custom welder dude who had the skills. Thayer reinstalled the muffler and we were back in business. (He's so handy, I'm glad I brought him along!)

We spent a short time at Petroglyphs NM, just outside of Albuquerque, but these petroglyphs were not quite as awesome as the ones in Three Rivers so we moved on. We overnighted at the Sky City Casino, our jumping off place to visit Sky City, the Acoma Tribe pueblo. The next morning we drove the short distance to the visitor center where we bought our tickets for the tour, which is the only way to see the pueblo up on the mesa. They also have a very nice museum, a fantastic pottery exhibit, and several videos demonstrating pottery techniques and the culture of the Acoma. 

We rode a bus up to the mesa, 375 ft above the surrounding area for our 1.5 hour guided tour. Sky City is off the grid and the only full-time inhabitants are the spiritual elders of the tribe. Tribal members can drive their cars up the road to deliver food but no one else is allowed to drive to the city. Porta-potties ring the edges of the town but they are slowly replacing them with modern communal composting toilets. The city comes alive with activity during their festivals and celebrations several times per year. Sky City dates way back, possibly being one of the oldest continuously lived in cities in North America – dating back to around 1100 AD. Along our tour were tribal members selling pottery, jewelry, crafts and food. 

They have a heart-breaking history, as have all Native American tribes, but the Acoma Massacre involved some particularly hideous treatment from the Spanish. After being attacked and provoked, the rebellious Indians were punished by cutting off one foot of every man over the age of 25 and enslaving the women and children. Today they are a very organized and successful tribe, using their casino profits to improve their community and keep their traditions alive. I was surprised to see that alcohol was not allowed in their casino, I thought that was a staple in the casino world. It was a very educational experience and we enjoyed our knowledgable and gracious tour guide sharing her culture with us.

Thayer and I decided to descend from the mesa by following the ancient foot path that is cut into the rock. Note the hand-holds to keep from falling. This is the means that the Acoma used to bring all their food, daily water and other materials up to the top!

Continuing down the road and heading south we turned toward El Malpais National Monument. Well, if I thought the lava flows at River of Fires was impressive this flow was staggering! The ranger station was closed so I wasn't able to get the brochure so I'll do the best I can with the facts. The flows came from the south, filling the valley; the mountain range to the west is a chain of 100,000+ years old volcanoes and cinder cones; while the mountains to the east are sandstone formations dating back millions of years. Mt. Taylor, to the north, is an old composite volcano like our NW volcanoes, dating back about 3.5 million years. We found a good BLM campground, did a few short hikes, taking in the lava flow itself, a sandstone arch and beautiful sandstone cliffs. This state is just full of interesting and surprising landscapes!

Next up was the VLA Radio Telescope located on the vast Plain of Augustin, west of the town of Socorro. VLA stands for Very Large Array and when they named it thusly they spoke the truth. This telescope doesn't capture the visible spectrum of light, it captures radio waves from planets, stars and galaxies. They needed a broad, flat, quiet, plain to set up 27 large telescopes in a Y shape, away from terrestrial radio interference. Using a dedicated rail system and lifter, the telescopes are portable, even though they weigh in at 200 tons each! Each telescope is 25 meters across and really tall. Because they can adjust the spacing between each dish, they can configure arrays from <1 mile across to 22 miles across. Four times a year they change the size of the array using the railroad tracks and specially designed hoists to lift and move the telescopes. The farther they are apart the more detailed the pictures they can produce. It can see 26,000 light-ye
ars into the universe! 

Where's Thayer?
The VLA is one of the most productive telescopes in the world, operating 24/7 and scientists can access the data via the internet. It has one of the world's most powerful computers that can combine data from the 27 telescopes into a single images, save the data in huge data banks and make it available almost instantly. It was an amazing place, once more a small visitor center just packed with astounding information. It included incomprehensible (to me anyway) videos about the minute technical aspects of the telescope components and computers. And, if the VLA wasn't enough to blow my little mind, the VLBA just about did me in. The Very Long Baseline Array is a string of 10 giant telescopes stretching from Hawaii, across the continental US and ending up in the Virgin Islands. Working together, these telescopes give even more astonishing images of black holes, quasars, and galaxies. The technology involved with these instruments is mind boggling but really fascinating!

We continued along a very scenic drive southward toward our next big destination, Gila Cliff Dwellings N.M. The drive up into the Gila NF was a harrowing, twisting, climbing, dropping, convoluted 40 miles of coiled asphalt. Even using low gear, our brakes were just smoldering by the end. Turns out that this whole area is composed of ancient volcanic calderas, now very eroded and erratic!! Our first night we spent in a NF campground but quickly realized that this was the party campground for the weekend younger crowd. We decided to walk up the road to the Hot Springs to see what it was like and ended making friends with Martin (aka Jack, Jackass) who drove us up to the springs, stayed the day with us soaking and telling stories about treasure hunting. He also drove Thayer back to the NF campground so we could retrieve the rig to stay at the Hot Springs.

We need one of these in the RV!
The owner of the springs made us promise not to tell a lot of people about his campground because he doesn't want too many people showing up. I will say that it was a wonderful spot along the Gila River and, as you can guess, had some very nice hot springs. 
We met more really great people, including Erica and Gabe in their transformed school bus. They had purchased it in North Carolina, put lots of work into the bus, and are now on their way to the NW. They are doing a great job on the bus and were lots of fun to talk to, as Thayer and I have often discussed the merits of remodeling a school bus. 

The next day we met the Polaha family from California with 3 young boys and lots of energy. Turns out that Kris, the dad, is a successful TV actor who has played in quite a few recent TV shows. Since we don't ever watch TV, we didn't recognize him or know anything about the shows. A tad embarrassing to be so out of touch but he thought it was cool that we aren't tied to TV. They had just rented an RV and were on their way to Graceland to celebrate their 7 year old's birthday. They were having quite a steep learning curve in RVing but were doing just fine. We built a fire for 'smores and the next day toured Gila Cliff Dwellings with them. 

Gila Cliff Dwellings are a series of seven caves that were built between 1268-1287'ish and probably housed two clans of the Mogollon peoples. They were only occupied for about 30 years. They are located high on side of a ravine that drains to the Gila River. They were farmers, hunters and gatherers, growing squash, corn, beans and sunflowers in the fertile lands downstream of the dwelling site. It looked like a beautiful place to live with good water, soil and resources. It is a bit of a mystery as to why they moved on after such a short time. One ranger speculated that they were searching for their place of belonging and didn't believe that they had found it yet. To see the site you follow a very pretty and shady mile loop up the stream and the cliffside.

Our last stop before leaving New Mexico was the City of Rocks State Park, located SE of Silver City. Another volcanic surprise to explore! This area is an eroded, exposed flank of an ancient volcano that sticks up out of the surrounding flatlands. The rock is glassified ash and debris from the old volcano, quite soft and easily eroded into fantastic columns, hoodoos, and shapes of all sorts. The campground is immersed into the outcroppings with camping sites snuggled into rocky enclosures. We went clambering through the site for quite a while, eventually losing each other in the maze of rocks (this is not unusual for us, we generally lose each other within 5 minutes of entering a visitor center or museum). In one section there were about 8 -10 holes that had been ground into the soft rock by Native women grinding their corn. The spots were clearly located where they had a nice view, shade in the summer, or sun in the winter and having a nice rock to lean against. It was easy to imagine them sitting there, chatting with friends, minding the children and grinding their corn. A few of the holes were very shallow and I could imagine a young girl sitting and learning from the women. 

We had a beautiful sunset and moonrise, though the moon was not as red as we expected during the several days of eclipse. 

I was sad to think that our time in New Mexico was running out, there was still so much to see! We didn't even touch the northern part of the state, though everyone we talked to said that it was fantastic. I just kept looking at the below freezing nighttime temperatures and so we decided to stay in the warmer areas. New Mexico is definitely at the top of the list for a repeat trip. Now on to Arizona and California and increasing heat (and gas prices)!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Camping in New Mexico


This has got to be the greatest deal in the U.S.! Free or very low cost campgrounds in spectacular county, hiking trails abounding for the restless, corrals for horses, sun shelters, fire pits, odor free pit toilets, garbage, even electricity in some of them. The water is a bit more scarce but we've had no problems with that. We spent 4 nights in a Lincoln NF campground called Argentina Campground. I went on several long hikes, climbing up toward 9000 ft. and the local peaks, just seeing the forest coming out of winter. There were still some patches of snow but the trees are starting to leaf out and a few dandelions were attracting butterflies. Lower down the fruit trees are blooming and grasses are greening up.  We had some fun photographing the small waterfalls and building rock sculptures. 
They must have some terrible forest fires around here, evidenced by the many burned slopes we've seen in our travels.  Along with the fires go great floods in the small creeks coming down the mountains. The road crews keep pretty busy moving sand, gravel and rocks off of the roads. In Capitan you can tour the Smokey the Bear Historical Monument. The original bear cub was rescued after a fire, right here in Lincoln NF, and was the inspiration the Smokey the Bear "Only YOU can prevent forest fires!" campaign to educate the public about forest fires. The museum displays the founding and history of fire fighting and the stages it has gone through over the years.  Smokey ended up living in the National Zoo in DC but is buried here in the monument.

White Mountain NF
White Mountain NF

Got my camos on!

Rock people
Lazy day fun

FYI, Teddy Bears are not the same thing, they were inspired by Theodore Roosevelt who was on a hunting trip in the south someplace. They were having trouble finding Teddy a bear but finally their dogs found one and the locals tied it to a tree to wait for Roosevelt to come and shoot it. Roosevelt spared the bear, not finding it sporting to shoot a bear tied to a tree. Well, that is a nice start to the story but the sad part was that after Teddy left the scene the other hunters went ahead and killed the bear. In one of the many books I've read on this trip, several about T.R., the author related how the Teddy Bear stuffed toy became an overnight sensation and of course we all know of it's continuing popularity. Someone came up with a brilliant follow up to the Teddy Bear and a chance to honor the new President of the US, William Taft. They chose the lowly opossum for the next stuffed toy! Needless to say the idea didn't take off quite like the Teddy Bear.

A short tour of Lincoln, NM taught us all about the rowdy nature of this place back in the 1880's. It was a lawless land, everyone settled their disputes with guns. There were too many conflicts for me to remember but it was a very violent period of history in this area. Fort Stanton, built in 1855, was built to protect settlers from the Apache Indians who were not at all happy about being displaced. The economy of the surrounding areas were dependent upon selling goods to the fort, mainly cattle. There were family feuds, business battles, assassinations, scheming, plotting, cattle and horse rustling, drunken brawls and silly squabbles that were fought to the death. Billy the Kid escaped from the Lincoln jail by killing two deputies on the way back from the outhouse. We have been following his trail for several hundred miles it seems. The Mexicans in Lincoln built their own circular fort to defend against Indian raids and to protect their animals. A lady we talked to said to imagine being shut up in this little fort with 50 of your neighbors surrounded by all the animals, with no water or toilets for several days.... not nice. This same lady was spinning wool at a little shop and took the time to show me a crochet pattern for a scarf. 
Mexican fort protecting against the Apache
Getting our colors!
 We've stayed in 3 BLM campgrounds lately: Fort Stanton, Three Rivers Petroglyphs Site, and Valley of Fires. Fort Stanton was free and the other two very inexpensive. River of Fires even has nice bathrooms with showers! Happy day! I have been getting plenty of walking, each site has miles of trails. The Petroglyphs site was amazing, over 20,000 pictures spread out on basalt boulders  along a ridge. The last inhabitants of this area were the Jornada Mogollon and about 1000 years ago they vanished mysteriously leaving no trace or heritage that anyone claims today. They also have the remains of the village with several dwelling styles present. We spent a lot of time photographing the rock art and imagining what inspired each artist. It has been very hard to choose the photos for this site, it was all so spectacular.
Three Rivers Petroglyph Site
Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site
Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site
 River of Fires is an interesting site, 125 sq. miles of lava flow dating back only a few thousand years. It came from a shield volcano, simple fissures in the crust that oozed out gobs of molten rock. There are the usual lava tubes, pahoehoe, aa, and other cool volcanic features. What I find interesting is that there are more species of plants growing on the lava than there are in the surrounding desert! The convoluted surface is good at protecting plants, moderating temperatures and conserving water. There is also abundant wildlife, mule deer, bats, desert squirrels, tarantulas, and rodents of various kinds. Evolution is hard at work here, the same species that we saw down the road at White Sands in light shades are here as well, except they have much darker coloring to blend into the black lava. It is quite astonishing to see this volcanic site in the middle of this desert country. It is a very small site compared to Washington's  "biggest on the planet" Columbia Plateau Basalts but New Mexico is very proud of their volcano. 
Ancient Pinon Pine
 The last activity for this post is visiting the Trinity Site at the north end of the White Sands Missile Range. Trinity is the site of the world's first atomic blast on July 16, 1945. It is open only one day each year, down from two days in the past. We were glad we arrived early because by the time we left several hours later there was a huge line up at the gate. The site consists of a very shallow "crater" and a memorial oblisk to the event. Outside the fence were informational stands and vendors. We eavesdropped on a tour group to get some information, talked to a few guys who were enthusiasts, volunteering their time to answer questions and tell stories. It was interesting how casually the project was put together in the final stages. Most of the work was done by the scientists at Los Alamos to the north of Trinity, and the folks at Hanford who were creating the uranium needed for the bomb. Pieces of the bomb were delivered to Trinity in trucks and the uranium arrived in a car. They were assembled into the complete bomb in the farmhouse not far from the site. There were many observation sites around the countryside at varying distances. Unfortunately the farmhouse was closed for this one day affair so we were not able to see that part. This was the only bomb set off above ground in New Mexico during those early years of testing. The second and third bombs built were the ones dropped on Japan. The site has been cleaned up but you can still find plenty of trinitite, the glassy, green rock created by the intense heat of the bomb. Just for the record, I did not collect any. It was a great history lesson and a very interesting morning.
Trinity bomb casing
Trinity site memorial

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

New Mexico Outback!

Our first camping spot was Aguirre Springs campground just over the mountains from Las Cruzes. It is a BLM campground with about 30 some sites and pit toilets. If you have a National Park annual pass the camping is free. There is no water or power at the campground but water is available 4 miles away at the host's site. With a 20 gallon tank we can go for a long time without water. The campground is nestled up under the cliffs of the Organ Mountains, with spectacular jagged peaks reaching into the sky. The sunrises are fantastic! There are two very nice hikes from the campground, one a loop hike through the rocks and cactus, the other going up to Baylor Pass to see the valley on the other side of the range. Both are about 4+ miles round trip. We met some nice people, one couple from the Netherlands who regularly come to the U.S. for RVing, renting a rig and spending a month at a time. They say there are good deals to be had if you do a delivery for the rental company, with rates as low as $10/day in some cases. 
Organ Mountains
Aguirre Springs BLM Campground
Organ Mountains

Big trees even in the desert!

Sunrise, Organ Mountains 

Sunrise, Organ Mountains


Organ Mountains
the tough life!

White Sands National Monument was our next destination, just a few miles from the Springs. The dunes are simply amazing! We felt like we were driving up in the mountains in winter with piles of snow along the road and a hard packed dirty ice surface on the road. They also allow sledding on plastic disks on the dunes near the road so we saw crowds of people racing down the dunes on snow disks! These dunes are by far the largest gypsum dunes in the world, dwarfing other sites, with it's 275 square mile expanse. The next biggest is a mere smear 10 sq. miles in Mexico. The gypsum comes from the surrounding mountains which are just full of the stuff, dating back to the ancient sea beds that are the reason for most of the landscapes in this area. Gypsum is quite soluble in water, so it gets washed down the hills into the Tularosa Basin where it forms shallow lakes. These lakes have no outlet so the gypsum accumulates and concentrates. During dry periods the water evaporates leaving the gypsum which then crystallizes to form selenite, a soft mineral. For 10,000 years wind and weather have been breaking down these soft crystals and blowing them around to form dunes. The secret to these dunes is the water that exists right below the surface of the area. This high water table anchors the base of the dunes and keeps them from blowing away entirely. There are several kinds of dunes and they move at different rates and have different shapes. The youngest dunes romp along at up to 35 ft. per year, the older dunes get slowed down by plants anchoring themselves in the sand. As you can imagine, the plants and animals here have some pretty amazing adaptations which enable them to survive in a very harsh environment. The plants have varied and interesting ways of anchoring themselves and getting access to water. The animals have changed over the years to be light colored in order to blend into their blindingly white environment. The lizards actually have quite a blue tinge to them. We went for a nice long ramble in the dunes and did a very informative walk with a ranger at sunset, where we learned all about the adaptations of plants in the dunes.
White Sands NM
White Sands NM

Looks like snow, eh???

White Sands NM

White Sands NM, interdune area

Special camouflage

Not easy being a plant in a moving world!

By this time we were about ready for a real shower, so we found our way to Oliver Lee State Park, not far from White Sands. Showers, laundry by hand, charging up the batteries and some fabulous views were all available. Everything but trees! Fortunately it was not overly hot since there was not a lot of shade. I wandered around the historical areas of the park, enjoyed the cactus garden and scoped out the hikes for the next day. We got up early enough to beat the sun as we climbed the hill to get up Dog Canyon, topping out on a series of benches that wind up the canyon. We were treated to lovely canyon views and rugged cliffs all around.  It was about a 3 mile hike into an old stone cabin built by ranchers in the 1930's. It is very hard to imagine cattle ranching in this country but when they started doing it here it was during a wetter climate and there was more food for the cows and water for orchards and farming. Dog Canyon still has spring water running down it, not a lot, but enough to create pretty pools, sculpted rocks and seeps filled with ferns and water plants. The original settlers built quite a large dam and irrigation canals to water their crops. One of the settlers built long primitive fences made of the stone blocks that are everywhere. 
Oliver Lee SP
Sunset Tularosa Basin

Spring from Dog Canyon

Spring from Dog Canyon

Pretty springs in the desert

Sunset over Frenchy's homestead

Sunset in Dog Canyon


We spent some time in Alamogordo, getting caught up with life on the internet, shopping, and getting organized. We visited the Space History Museum and spent a good part of the day there. I was quite impressed with how pivotal New Mexico was in the development of rockets, bombs and space exploration. Thayer showed off his piloting talents by landing the space shuttle, at the most difficult level on the simulator, on his second try. It is a very good museum! It was a lot of information to process.
History of Space Museum


History of Space Museum

History of Space Museum


Next, we found ourselves heading up into the Sacramento Mountains east of Alamogordo, the first stop being the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, NM. They have a good visitor center with the most difficult information packed into the smallest space I have yet seen. It was very dense and took a long time to get through. They play a NOVA video which was very informative and had spectacular footage of the sun and it's wild and crazy activities. I'm not so worried about asteroids anymore, one giant burp from the sun and we'll all be toast. We then were able to see two of the big telescopes that scientists from all over the world come to for their research. Their most impressive telescope is the Dunn Solar Telescope, weighing in at 200 tons and measuring 136 ft above the surface and 228 ft. underground! The main part of the scope floats on a pool of mercury weighing 10 tons, this allows for smooth and easy movement of the scope as it tracks the sun across the sky. It was pretty amazing! The observatory is located on the top of Sacramento Peak, about 9200 ft. above sea level, still pretty chilly this time of year. We spent the night just down the road in a Lincoln NF campground.

Dunn Observatory
Other Sunspot Observatories

control room
Masses of electronics!

We are high up in the mountains around here, the campgrounds are at about 7800 feet. Presently we are near the White Mountain Wilderness Area, lovely camping and great hiking. More on this in the next post!