On the day we were married, part of my vows to Sarah included a statement that even with a lifetime I wouldn’t have nearly enough time to show her what she means to me. That no matter how much we pack into the space of our shared life together, it will never be enough time to fully contain what I feel for her. Time is bearing this out, as early January witnessed the second anniversary of the fateful weekend when she slipped on a rock in Zion and broke the ice between us. Two years may not seem that long, but having lived it, trust me, it feels even shorter.
Sarah and I decided that in 2012 we wanted to spend our quasi-anniversary somewhere special (quasi because now we have a wedding anniversary too), and somewhere we hadn’t been before. It was the perfect opportunity to say hello to New Mexico! At this point in my life I feel pretty well-versed in western places (and western deserts), but New Mexico (and the vast Chihuahuan which spreads deep into Mexico) still stuck out like the hole in a sandy donut. So, on the morning of Friday the 13th (of January) we loaded up the Xterra, grabbed bagels for the road, and started pushing south, out of the Salt Lake Valley, past Moab, Four Corners, and into a new state of adventure.
After 11 hours of driving, we arrived in Albuquerque shortly after nightfall. The sprawling lights of the city and interstate were a stark contrast to the dusty road we’d taken in, which had led us through a depressing tour of reservation lands and towns in varying degrees of polluted squalor. The lay of the land in Albuquerque doesn’t seem that different from my hometown of Salt Lake. Both are sprawling places with plenty of horizontal space to grow. Both sit in the shadow of impressive mountain ranges (the Wasatch Front in SLC and the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque). Night is a good time to gauge the contours and borders of a city, when the city lights give clear indication of its limits (or in some cases its lack thereof). Built partially on the huge amount of federal spending that has been poured into the area (including the Kirtland Air Force Base), my first impression of Albuquerque was one of surprise for just how large it truly is.
I am blessed by the fact that I am married to a patient woman who tolerates (and actually encourages) my flights of nerdery. My latest has been entrance into the world of the atomic, as that surreal world has become the basis of my master’s degree (currently in progress). When we first decided to celebrate our anniversary touring New Mexico, my mind immediately jumped to all of the potential opportunities I might have to get my atomic nerd on in the state where the first atomic weapon was both devised and detonated. Our first stop on the atomic road trip came Saturday morning after a fitful night of sleep in the local Motel 6 (on the heels of too much Mexican food and on-draft Negro Modelo at a sketchy nearby restaurant).
Waking up early we navigated our way to coffee and the doors of the National Nuclear Science Museum. This was my second trip to a museum of this type, having toured the National Museum of Atomic Testing in Las Vegas with Sarah and Molly last October. Holding the two up in comparison might not be that fair, since their missions are only tangentially related, but in my honest opinion the Vegas museum was more enjoyable. This very well might have to do with the fact that its focus is on the Great Basin desert (and atomic tests there) that are closer to both my home and my heart. The Albuquerque museum offers a trip through both the unlocking of the atom as well as the application of that knowledge for both war (BOMBS) and peace (ENERGY). In addition to a variety of bomb replicas and gutted missile casings, the museum also has an outdoor area that houses a number of airplanes and vehicles designed to deliver the bombs payloads in the event of nuclear war. Sobering stuff, to say the least. Another valuable (if underdeveloped) exhibit deals with the effects of the atomic age on popular culture. I say underdeveloped, because it is this phenomena that interests me most and an area which could (and should) have a museum of its own completely dedicated to exploring how in the hell humanity has attempted to psychologically deal with the fact that we have literally devised an efficient means for our own annihilation. With the final portion of the museum dedicated to issues of nuclear waste storage and the “benefits” of nuclear energy, I was left with the same questions I had walking out of Vegas, namely whose money is pulling the strings and presenting these atomic tales for national consumption. This isn’t meant as paranoid condemnation of either place, just that both rely on sources of revenue that might have some impact in helping shape the narrative.
After our foray in Albuquerque we began the next leg, linking back onto the Interstate with our final destination for the day being White Sands National Monument, near Las Cruces. Having just purchased an atlas for the state, Sarah and I were having fun attempting to identify the various mountain ranges and assorted topography appearing on the shifting horizon when all of a sudden she lit up with excitement. Apparently we were nearing the turnoff for the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, where our friend (and her coworker), Gary, had captured some amazing bird shots on assignment a few years prior. Since we are all about adventure (and not adhering too rigidly to plans on a road trip) we made an executive decision to take the turn off and see what migratory birds had also fled south for the winter. Almost immediately we were rewarded by the sight of a pond in which an enormous flock of thousands of snow geese had congregated. We stopped to watch them eat, squawk, play bird politics with one another, and periodically make space for other flocks who would descend and dive bomb on the pond like runaway kamikaze pilots. Unfortunately that initial introduction to the refuge ended up being the highlight, as our trip along the dusty loop roads that surround the area turned up little aside from a barren corn field currently overrun by the awkwardly graceful presence of sandhill cranes. Our unexpected stop at the Bosque del Apache did come at a small price however, as the logistics (and current tilt of the Earth toward the sun) pretty much ensured that we wouldn’t make it to White Sands until dusk. Initially the plan had been to backpack into the Monument to camp, but with every minute that ticked by on the suddenly compressed drive between Bosque del Apache and Las Cruces, those hopes began to evaporate in the dusty desert sun.
Traveling south on I-85, the sense of passing into a new environment increases with every mile. Having grown up on the eastern rim of the Great Basin desert I am used to the high country of basin and ranges, complete with rolling fields of low sagebrush and mountain islands in a sea of dust. The Chihuahuan desert of New Mexico, West Texas, and Mexico is high, but the scenery comes much closer to mirroring the common conceptions of desert held in the collective unconscious. Moving south we began to see more cacti and more sand.
When the U.S. government proceeded with plans to build the world’s first atomic weapon, they stationed operations in northern New Mexico town of Los Alamos. Sequestered in that mountainous region, some of the world’s greatest scientific minds focused all of their attention on the basic units and forces that govern the physics of the universe. When they had reached the point where theory was ready to be turned into actual practice, they needed a space that was close enough to Los Alamos to transport a massive amount of infrastructure, while also being removed enough from civilization to maintain the shroud of military secrecy that permeated the project. They settled on a vast space of white desert south central New Mexico called White Sands.
When we first decided to visit New Mexico my immediate thought was that we needed to schedule a trip to the Trinity site located at White Sands where the first atomic weapon was detonated on July 16, 1945. After some online research I learned that the site (which is located on government land used for missile testing to this day) is only opened for atomic tourist traffic two times a year (in April and October). However, not all of White Sands has been relegated to getting blown up, as a large portion has been given over for public use as the White Sands National Monument.
Flying south on the highway, we arrived in Las Cruces late in the afternoon as the first long shadows began to bend off the peaks of the nearby Organ Mountains. We arrived at White Sands with enough time to play on the sand dunes as the sun slowly sank in the West, but too late to get a permit to backpack in and camp. The sands sprawl on seemingly forever, looking very similar to rolling fields of snow. At first glance they reminded me of the sand dunes that we had explored early last year in Death Valley. However, the gypsum of White Sands has a very different consistency than the sand found in the southern Mojave, and at this time of the year it has solidified to the point that it feels more like hard-packed dirt than sand. As the sun sank in the west, spilling a trail of atomic reds and oranges past the Organ Mountains, the lights of nearby Alamogordo began turning on to the northeast. Positioning ourselves with our backs to the north, Sarah and I made our own mushroom cloud poses in homage to the silent site not far away where the world was forever changed by a particularly warped sense of human ingenuity. As we made a mad dash back to Las Cruces (owing to the fact that we were running dangerously low on gas) my mind periodically flashed to thoughts of how human conceptions of the desert have led to particular uses of this space. As if the desert doesn’t have a value of its own independent of human beings. As Cormac McCarthy writes in No Country for Old Men, this is a hard and violent country, a place that is hard on people. In any event, I hope to make it back in October for that much-desired trip to Trinity.
Arriving back in Las Cruces (literally on 0.1 gallons of fumes) we decided to dine with the locals at the only brewpub in town (High Desert Brewery) before making the hour drive even further south, to El Paso Texas. Say what you will about Utah and its draconian liquor laws, but after visiting breweries like High Desert I find myself even more grateful for the emerging beer culture present in my home state.
When we crossed the border into Texas it was quickly decided that this close to the border (and Juarez) we wouldn’t be taking any chances with camping out or sleeping in the truck. I was immediately struck at just how massive a city El Paso is. Rolling in at night it was difficult to get a completely accurate lay of the land, but having read my share of Charles Bowden (one of the few American journalist/writers with the balls to document the horrors currently taking place in Juarez) I did have something of a mental topography for the place. Driving east on the interstate through El Paso we could see the lights of Juarez far off, across the trickle of Rio Grande that divides the cities. That night we took up temporary residence at another Motel 6 where I got even more into the spirit of things by reading Cormac McCarthy’s highly resonant The Crossing. In case you can’t tell, I have a HUGE literary boner for that guy…
The plan for our third day of adventure called for stops in Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks. These plans were quickly scrapped, however, when we arrived at Guadalupe and saw that the 8,749’ summit was mostly free of snow. Like the good little boy scouts we are, we had come fully prepared for any adventure contingency and after a brief chat with the rangers on duty we decided that our vacation would become exponentially more awesome if we randomly climbed the highest mountain in Texas. So we did.
The hike up to the Guadalupe summit wasn’t overly difficult, and with the aid of our micro spikes (to help get over the north-facing packs of snow on the trail), we reached the summit in only a few short hours. In addition to the marvelous memory of looking out across the broad, flat plains of West Texas and Mexico, my other memory of the hike will be the insane wind that periodically picked up and made vigorous attempts to push us off of the mountain. Arriving back at the trailhead shortly before dusk, we decided to make our next push to the town of Carlsbad. We’d planned to camp at Guadalupe, but with 60 mph winds, that didn’t seem like much fun. Another motel in Carlsbad sounded better, where we could rest our tired legs in comfort before tackling Carlsbad Caverns the following morning.
For the most part I found every town and city we visited on our journey friendly, accommodating, and charming… except for Carlsbad. The place is truly a dump, though we did luck out in finding the one bakery/coffee shop/café in town that was above average.
Heading out early on the morning of Martin Luther King day, we grabbed a mediocre breakfast at a local café before heading to Carlsbad Caverns. Our bodies were feeling the pain and anger of having just climbed a mountain the day before, so when we arrived at the park we decided to take the elevator usually reserved for the aged and/or lazy. Plummeting over 750’ into the Earth we were soon treated to views of the guts of a mountain chain that we had successfully climbed to the top of the day before.
Carlsbad Caverns is simply stupefying. It is cave work on a monumental scale, stretching the length of several football fields. At one point Sarah stopped to talk to a ranger who was delicately brushing a rock with a small brush, and we learned that over time the lint from people’s clothing has been slowly building up on certain spaces in the cavern (lending further evidence to the case that we are active agents perpetually altering our environments). Another interesting item of note from the underground, such places are incredibly humid. By the time we had finished our tour of the Big Room I was drenched in a clammy sweat and found myself shedding layers like a fat guy on a treadmill. Yet another interesting tidbit about Carlsbad Caverns is that, in addition to an elevator, they also managed to build a gift shop/dining area (and bathrooms!) into the place. In the event of nuclear holocaust I say everybody go there… we can live on Gatorade and Snickers until the fallout storms end.
Being the hiking maniacs we are, Sarah and I decided that instead of taking the elevator back to the world above we would make the trek back out through the winding entrance tunnel that most tourists descend. Being sore from hiking the day before is most noticeable when descending. Sarah’s legs simply wouldn’t allow her to hike downhill, but that girl can plow upward like an ox. We received some skeptical looks and comments from people passing us on their way down, including one gentleman who told his grandson that we were “working out, training for a bat triathlon.” I suppose this has to do with the fact that the natural mouth of Carlsbad Caverns is an active bat cave. In any event, his words were awesome, and we were indeed ready for our bat triathlon. We made the “hour-long” hike to the top is 25 minutes.
Wrapping up our morning in Carlsbad Caverns we began our push north (now on the more eastern side of the state) with a final destination of Santa Fe (where we would be spending the night at a B&B Sarah had found online). On the way we made another stop in the town of Roswell. While having all of the alien kitsch and corniness I was expecting, we were both genuinely surprised at how nice Roswell was. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to move there or anything, but compared to the shithole of Carlsbad, it was definitely a step up. Our alien adventure in the town included stops at the UFO Museum and Research Center (surprisingly depressing and lame) and the Alien Zone (an embodiment of everything that is tackily right about the town). We took the requisite pictures of ourselves hanging out with alien buddies before hitting the road again where a powerful prairie wind pushed against us on our trek towards Santa Fe.
Pulling into Santa Fe at dusk, it didn’t take us very long to completely fall in love with the place. Much like Flagstaff, Arizona and Durango, Colorado, it is one of the unique ecotone environments that rest wondrously between high mountains and stunning desert. We made our way through town to a fancy little B&B that Sarah had found online. Since this was technically our “anniversary” we had splurged on the place and, for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. Our major complaint was that, arriving late, we didn’t really get to maximize our time there (which was unfortunate given the cost). The owner recommended some nearby restaurants that we could walk to (being centralized in the historic downtown area), so after getting settled we headed out for dinner at the Blue Corn Brewery and Cafe. The combination of heavy New Mexican cuisine, beer and margaritas, and a day spent in the car (with periodic jailbreaks for caves and aliens) soon permeated our bones and we decided that any further exploration of Santa Fe would have to wait until morning.
The next morning we awoke and fueled ourselves on the complimentary breakfast (a green chili breakfast pizza… more commonly known as quiche). As an aside, I probably ate a lifetime’s worth of green chili in New Mexico, and the southwest cuisine is probably a primary reason I fell so madly in love with the place. After breakfast we decided to pack up the car before making an abbreviated tour of downtown Santa Fe. Our walk took us to the nearby post office (to mail a handful of postcards out to family and friends) and a random shop we passed called “The Rainbow Man.” This place was incredible, filled with all kinds of folk art, including Dia de los Muertos novelties that I am always drawn to. We ended up buying a painted ceramic coyote (to replace our ceramic cactus that Jemma broke last year) as well as some hand crafted gifts for my mom and a friend with an upcoming birthday. As we stood in line waiting to pay, I noticed some (admittedly terrible) paintings on the wall, with an identification tag that listed the painter as “Tom Russell.” I asked the store owner if it happened to be Tom Russell the singer, to which he responded with a happy “yes!” before shuffling off to the backroom to get me a copy of Tom’s new album. Days before, on our trip to Carlsbad from Guadalupe Mountains, we had listened to Mr. Russell sing about cowboys and Indians and the borderlands, so this new album was a welcome soundtrack for our upcoming trip home, skirting the San Juan Mountains.
With shopping bags in tow we left the Rainbow Man with one final destination in mind, the Basilica of St. Francis Assisi. We may not be Catholic, or even religious for that matter, but we both happen to be big fans of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals. When we arrived at the Cathedral it came as a surprise that they had a gift shop in the lobby. We decided to check it out, and soon we emerged back into the sunny world of Santa Fe with a 2-foot tall St. Francis sculpture carved from a piece of wood. We have wanted a sculpture of the animal-loving priest for some time, and this one (carved by the hands of a local artist) is pretty much perfect!
Before rolling out of Santa Fe completely we made quick stops at Trader Joe’s (to restock our wine and spice supplies) and the tasting room of the Santa Fe Brewing Company (which I left with multiple six packs of beer, including canned Java Stout!). Initially our plans had called for more stops in Los Alamos, Bandalier National Monument, and the Jemez Hot Springs north of Albuquerque, but as often happens at the end of road trips, the best place of all sounded like home. We began our trek north, through the northern mountains of New Mexico, early in the afternoon. The idea was to hit Moab, finally get in a night of sleep in the truck, and beat an oncoming snow storm scheduled to hit Soliders Summit the following afternoon. As the day wore on, and its shadows lengthened, we flew over mountainous country that I know I need to return to as soon as my schedule will allow. There is still so much of this new world I want to see and explore. By the time we arrived in Moab the thought of sleeping in the truck was less appealing than staying on the road for another four hours, so we agreed to push through, arriving back in the familiar confines of the Wasatch Front at almost 2:00AM.
And that is the story of our New Mexico/West Texas adventure. Could have been summed up in fewer words (atomic + desert + green chilis + mountains + caves + beer = FUN!), but there you go. See you again (hopefully in October), New Mexico… thanks for making me fall in love with you!