Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Maybe I'd overdosed on UFOlogy the previous day, but the entire valley below us looked as if it were taking flight. From our view from the tower of The Lodge we could see all the way to White Sands, where we'd hoped to camp. I didn't like how the landscape was spreading vertically as well as horizontally.
Down the mountain in Alamogordo, we stopped at a rusting antique shop that had a special attraction. For a quarter, the proprietor would extend a balloon on a stick into a pit of rattlesnakes. I'd read that he did it, but today he offered to let me do it myself. I leaned over the rim of the pit, looking down at a couple dozen dozing rattlers. Reading my previous work, it is no surprise that I'm terrified by snakes. I really wanted to become familiar with the sound of their buzz, see the speed of their strike, but I couldn't work up the nerve to do it. I asked Miki, but she didn't want to either. Slightly embarrassed, we got back into our car and drove off.
Alamogordo was a much bigger town than I'd imagined. But even a town of this size looked on the brink of extinction. The older part of town was shuttered mainly, with only a few shops hanging on. But the parallel strip that marks the main highway was bustling with chain shops. Surely, the money in this town is flying away faster than all that white sand now high on the wind. Why aren't the locals angry about this? How is it possible that centuries of local history can be inundated within a couple of decades? Before heading out of town, we stopped at a local deli for picnic sandwiches. The girl on the other side of the counter handed mine to me in a bag written with the name, "Tedd." While waiting, I noticed an Air Force Sergeant standing behind me, and asked him about the weather. After all, who knows better about wind than the Air Force?
We passed his base on the way to White Sands National Park, then asked the opinion of a couple rangers there. They said that camping on the dunes would probably be a bad idea. So too was our planned hike out across the dunes to the flats beyond. There was no trail to speak of, the usual path being marked with stones that would disappear in strong winds like these. Miki and I settled on a drive. The gusts had blown inches of sand across the road, and when my tires hit these, I'd flinch as if expecting to slide. The world outside was all snow and ice, at least to the mind. We stopped at a small picnic shelter for lunch, our backs protected by the high curved walls of the shelter. All national parks were free this week, and White Sands was quite busy for a weekday. In front of us, a family flew kites, while the dog and the youngest son flip-flopped in the dunes. Miki and I too walked to the top of a tall dune, then lay on our backs and looked out at the blue of sky and purple of far off peaks beyond all this white. The contrast of color where the blue met white blurred in the movement of wind. In places, all the dust in the sky looked like fog, the sand rising a mile or so up, up, up...
Forfeiting our ideas about camping, we headed north to Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. This land was barren desert, with a single hot walk through the afternoon up a rock outcrop decorated with over 21000 petroglyphs dating back to 900 CE. Miki and I shared our stories about what we thought these all meant, what the shapes were trying to say. It was not so different than the Art Walk on Canyon Road in Santa Fe. I liked our speculation that all of these were all part of a single story, rather than the individual statements of different artists. In that case, neither Miki nor I got the full story, she seeing glyphs that I missed, and vice-versa. Further on, my eyes were distracted by the slopes of Sierra Blanca dominating all out here.
We moved north along the eastern edge of the Tularosa Basin. Small cyclones broke the flat monotony of the landscape. Just past Carrizozo, we found our Valley of Fires campsite. But we weren't alone. There appeared to be some kind of Airstream gathering this weekend, dozens of curved silver forms clustering 6 or 8 to a campsite. It was slightly annoying, but luckily the tent sites were further down in the valley. We set up just beside a lava flow that towered and wrapped around us, giving good protection from the wind. All those holes in the porous rock was prime real estate to snakes, so I never felt relaxed the entire time there. Once camp was set, we hiked the nature walk at sunset, throwing long shadows across gold yucca and black stone. After a shower and supper, we made a small fire, which we watched diligently due to the winds. Ours was the only site that didn't have an actual fire ring. It looked as if someone had previously made a fire nearer to the lava walls, which would've given off good reflected heat. But the grasses along the walls and the low overhanging tree limbs worried us. We eventually found a good spot between some rocks nearer the road. The winds had died considerably but still threw the odd gust our way, so we smothered the fire early. It was a warm night and we didn't really need the fire anyhow. What followed was probably the best sleep I've ever had camping...
...The morning was still, but I knew the winds would return once the sun came up. As it rose behind the long smooth walls of Sierra Blanca, the desert floor turned gold. With the features of the world once again coming into view, it was time to get back on the road. In the rear view mirror, the campsite looked like a small city, all those Airstreams glimmering in the sun. We welcomed the absence of tourists at Bosque Apache. It was the wrong season to see hundreds of birds simultaneously take flight, but we found enough reward in the quiet of morning, and the variety of forms and colors seen through the binocular's lens.
Just north, we had lunch at the rustic Owl Bar and Cafe, a place I hadn't been in 30 years. I'd always remembered their hamburgers, considered them the best I'd ever had. But today they seemed thin, a little lacking. It's as if they've chosen to rest on their reputation. Bobcat Bites in Santa Fe has now set the bar. After lunch, Miki chatted up a Danish woman who ran a small shop next door. Again, we neglected to ask her how she'd wound up in a town the size of San Antonio, NM.
Our final stop was in Socorro, a town I'd lived for a few weeks after moving to New Mexico back in 1981. We drove up to the campus of NM Tech, where my father had had a long teaching career. I'd done a weeklong course here the summer before my senior year in high school. Strangely, I don't remember a single moment in the classroom, nor what I had studied. My only memories of that time are of sitting out on the cool grassy lawn at night, talking to friends long forgotten, and sneaking into the darker shadows of trees to kiss a girl with the intense passion of 17. Later, Miki and I went to Socorro's beautiful town center. I sat looking across the town square, at the old buildings hugging it on three sides. The humidity was up. Rainclouds were building, with the rain falling but evaporating before touching earth. We were ringed in by dark curtains, but never felt a drop.
We finished out Easter weekend up in Belen with my mom. Her birthday had fallen a few days before, so we took her to Luna Mansion. This too was time travel for me. After a wonderful meal for Junior Prom, my date and I had returned to my car locked with the keys inside. This Saturday, the bar upstairs was busy with those who've bought houses out by the highway, within commuting distance of their jobs in Albuquerque. Being Easter, I noticed no Latinos other than the staff. These moneyed white newcomers probably had no family here, currently building a history of their own, seeds germinating in new soil.
I found a major dose of the missing Latin element at Mass the next morning. Tome Church was packed. We sat on the rickety old balcony, looking down on the priest as he ran through his rites. It was an interesting perspective, behind the scenes somewhat, catching a glimpse of the little gestures and tics that keep the mass going smoothly. I love the folk element of mass here, the feeling of community. I looked forward to the lunch that was to follow. I'd finally get the Red Chile that I'd missed all week. Hard to do in New Mexico. But this trip had surprised me in many ways. I finally got to see many of those places I'd only known as names on the TV weather map. And passing through the eastern parts of the state, I'd come to a new understanding of its residents. I'd always thought that New Mexico is one of the more effective melting pots in the nations. Sure, there is the occasional racial tension, as there is everywhere, but here the races seems to mingle pretty well. Yet on this trip, their segregation became apparent. New Mexico is striped. The eastern half is the white of Texas. The middle strip, along the Rio Grande is brown, mainly Latin outside the freckle of Pueblos. And the west is red, the land of the Navajo, the Zuni, the Apache. Striped. The edges are porous, the colors do run together. And where they do, there is where you find New Mexico's magic.
On the turntable: Steve Winwood, "Arc of a Diver"