Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Roswell, Smokey The Bear, Petroglyphs and Lava, Oh Boy!

Beautiful New Mexico

From Guadalupe Mountains National Park we headed north on U.S.Route 285 bound for Roswell, New Mexico. The meteorologists continued to forecast warm dry weather. We stopped in Artesia at a car wash that was large enough to accommodate the Mary Joan. It was mid-day and we thought that we could get away without drying her with towels since the car wash had a wax mode and we thought that as soon as we got back on the highway the drops would blow off. Since she was sorely in need of a wash due to the accumulated dust that made he dull and shabby looking it made sense to us. That was a bad decision. The water was hard with lots of calcium which dried and left her covered in flaky white spots. We weren't sure which was worse the dust or the spots. We won't make that mistake again.
Big Mistake?

We stayed at Bottomless Lakes State Park that is just a 20 minute drive from downtown Roswell. The park encompasses a number of sink holes that are popular for swimming, fishing and scuba diving. They are formed by groundwater dissolving the porous limestone that underlies the area. 

Roswell, New Mexico is famous for and likes to flaunt its status as UFO capital of the world. It was here in 1947 that an extraterrestrial space ship and its passengers are supposed to have crash landed. What actually happened here is still seriously debated and studied. Many of those who believe that such a space craft did indeed crash here, also believe that the incident was covered up by a massive government conspiracy to hide the truth from the American people and the world. I'm not convinced.
Little Green People Everywhere

Visiting the International UFO Museum and Research Center (http://www.roswellufomuseum.com/) clearly was an obligatory stop while in town. The museum is on the North Main Street in an area that clearly had seen brighter days. In addition to the museum there are a number of gift shops selling alien related paraphernalia and souvenirs alongside closed up storefronts. Inside, the museum is essentially a collection of enlarged, poster sized, replications of documents, newspaper clippings and photographs from the period immediately surround the July 1947 incident plus anecdotes and speculative writings that have appeared since then. 

We also visited the Roswell Museum and Art Center (http://roswellmuseum.org/) that is several blocks further north on North Main Street. Sarah and I were delighted to find this gem. In several galleries this little museum presented a wonderfully eclectic assortment of fine art, thoughtfully arranged and documented. Most of the artists represented were from the southwest, especially New Mexico. In addition to the art, the museum has a dazzling collection of western art, sculpture and memorabilia such as Native American dress, cowboy clothing, saddles, and firearms from its benefactor Peter Hurd, Roswell native.
Only us trailer trash could appreciate this piece.
(The Last Emperor by Tim Prythero, 1968)
Cattle Kings of the Pecos ,blazing the trail of 1867
 Kim Wiggins
Hurd collected wonderful pieces of native American clothing

As if the art weren't enough, there is a large section dedicated to the father of modern rocketry, Robert Goddard. I was particularly drawn to this due to the fact that Worcester, Massachusetts is where he was born, studied and eventually taught. And, it was in neighboring Auburn that he achieved his first successful launch. Unfortunately, Auburn, Massachusetts was not a good place to be experimenting with liquid fuel rockets given their predisposition to start fires when things went wrong. So it was to Roswell, New Mexico he moved to continue his research. 
Robert Goddard's Workshop 
Robert Goddard monument

After Roswell we drove west on New Mexico Rt. 70 bound for Mesa Campground in the Gila National Forest. Our route took us through the town of Capitan and the Smokey Bear Historical Park. The real life Smokey Bear was found orphaned in the aftermath of a major forest fire that happened here in the spring of 1950. This small but informative center tells the true story of Smokey Bear in a well designed museum with lots of memorabilia. Smokey lived for 26 years in the National Zoo in Washington, DC. When he died he was brought back to Capitan where we visited his grave. A pleasant path leads through a garden that, while there were no flowers blooming while were there, must be stunning in the springtime. 
We both had a good time visiting Smokey The Bear Park
Smokey's Final Resting Place

The small gift shop next to the park doubled as a small museum

Leaving Capitan, we drove the scenic Rt 48 south through the bustling tourist town of Ruidoso then rejoined Rt 70 where we continued west then north on Rt 54 to reach Three Rivers Petroglyph Site (http://www.blm.gov/nm/st/en/prog/recreation/las_cruces/three_rivers.html). Once again, we found a little known hidden gem. Maintained and protected by the Bureau of Land Management, this little park has over 21,000 petroglyphs dating between 900 and 1400 AD. Because these petroglyphs are not as old as others we have seen, they were still relatively "fresh" and clearly distinct. The most impressive examples are easily seen by walking a one and a half mile loop trail. But, the ranger encouraged us to go off the trail, explore and discover the many others that were to be found. 
Clear well defined petroglyphs in Three Rivers Petroglyph Park
One of my favorites

With lots of sunlight left in the day we decided to push on to the Valley of Fires Recreation Area and  Campground (http://www.blm.gov/nm/st/en/prog/recreation/roswell/valley_of_fires.html). The area here is the site of one of the latest lava flows (as opposed to volcanic eruption) in North America. The lava seeped from the ground some seven miles north of the campground filling the valley with molten lava and leaving small islands of limestone poking through. We camped for the night on one of these islands and enjoyed a nice stroll the next morning on the trail through the lava flow. 
The lava flowed like cake batter for more than seven miles and 160 feet thick

Sarah is loves to be on the trail

It was interesting to observe that we were adjacent to the White Sands Missile range and only about 40 miles east of Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated nearly 70 years ago. We would like to have visited, but tours are available only twice a year, the first Saturday in April and October. Nonetheless, it gave us pause to think about where we were and what significance this place has in world history.
Google Earth view of ground zero; Trinity Site
First Atomic Bomb detonated here

Next stop is the Gila National Forest and the Gila Cliff Dwellings. 

Stay tuned.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We continued to enjoy fine weather in West Texas and with a favorable long term forecast, we set our sights on Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The results of my research told me that the weather could be severe in these mountains, with high winds and cold temperatures being the biggest threat at this time of year. Most of the information was pertinent to the largest and easiest approachable campground Pine Spring Campground, on the southeast side of the park. However, I found that there is a much smaller campground on the north side, Dog Canyon Campground. Dog Canyon is reached by driving north, past Carlsbad, New Mexico then driving another 60 odd miles southwest to reach the campground. While the number of hiking trails accessible from this campground were much more limited. The weather was generally milder than on the southeast side owing to better protection by the surrounding mountains.

As with Big Bend National Park, there are no Disneyesque amusements surrounding the entrance to the park. This park, even more than Big Bend National Park, requires that the visitor explore it on his or her feet, hiking into the mountains to gain the reward of spectacular scenic vistas.
Guadalupe Mountains
To reach the park we drove about a dozen miles north of Carlsbad on highway 285 then turned south onto state road 117. Sarah and I both become apprehensive about the choice of our destination. Very soon after driving on route 117 we encountered a landscape strewn with drilling rigs, pipelines and signs warning of the potential for lethal levels of hydrogen sulfide gas in the area and to evacuate immediately should one smell the gas. The gas is found with the oil and some believe that fracking has the potential to release greater quantities that could be deadly than older drilling techniques did. We learned that several homes in, Artesia,  one of the towns we passed through had to be evacuated and roadblocks erected when a fracking well blew out in the town. Despite our fear we pressed on. After about ten miles, we entered the Lincoln National Forest and the landscape once again become the beautiful rolling hills we have come to appreciate in the foothills of the other mountains we have approached here in the southwest.

We could see the Guadalupe mountains in the distance and the popping of our ears told us we were constantly gaining elevation. In this part of the Lincoln National forest we continually passed from areas of private onto public lands then back again with areas of open and fenced pasture land. At one point I remarked to Sarah that we had seen a lot of open pasture land with cattle but this was the first where we saw horses. I no sooner finished expressing my thoughts than a horse stepped onto the shoulder right in front of us. Fortunately, neither of us were going so fast that we could not stop. Otherwise, there would have been a lot of damage to a horse and our tow vehicle.

It was late in the afternoon when we reached the campground. The small National Park Office was closed so we drove into the Dog Canyon campground, which is really nothing more than a gravel parking lot next to a small horse corral with space for four RVs and a place for tent campers to park their cars. There were no other campers when we arrived, just a small herd of deer browsing on the dry grass and juniper trees near the horse corral where they found drinking water in the stock tank. The deer didn't seem too startled, they just loped off to another grazing area about 50 yards away and continued to graze all the while keeping an eye on us.
The deer were not too upset

We hiked each of the next two days into the mountains on the southwest side of Dog Canyon. The first we hiked the Bush Mountain Trail, a moderately difficult continually rising trail that brought us high onto a ridge separating Dog Canyon from South McKittrick Canyon to the west. We were rewarded with spectacular views in every direction. As this is not a loop trail, we intended to return by the same path we had come. But, upon climbing to a knoll just to the south, I could see another trail descending into Dog Canyon. I presumed this to be the Tejas Trail that we hoped to explore the next day. So, Sarah and I followed the ridge about half a mile to Lost Peak, elevation 7,830.  The peak was only about 100' above the trail we had seen and there we had our lunch while enjoying a stunning vista that overlooked the beautiful Guadalupe Mountains. It was the Tejas trail and it took us on a quick descent back to our camp.
Ridge at the top of Bush Mountain Trail
Sarah at Lost Peak, Dog Canyon. Guadalupe Mountains National Park

To descend from the peak back to the trail we had to bushwhack a couple hundred yards through a dense stand of short spruce trees. It was slow going because of the loose rock scree. But we were delighted by the presence of a large number of mule deer that we surprised, including a magnificent large buck with great rack of antlers.
The buck took his time following the rest of the deer

We descended the Tejas trail and reached our campsite in time to meet the ranger before he closed his office for the day. The ranger, Jon, was very pleasant and seemed pleased to have company. He told us that in addition to the deer we had seen, there was a mountain lion active in the area. He shared with us photographs of the cougar taken with a wilderness camera he had set up at a watering hole some two miles distant. The photos showed three different cats, a large male, his mate and a yearling they had produced. Jon also showed us pictures of other mammals caught on camera. They included, fox, coyote, skunk and what he described as his nemesis, a Barbary Sheep that he had been trying to eliminate for at least two years. Barbary sheep were introduced to Texas after WWII onto hunting preserves. Unfortunately, they escaped and have successfully reproduced to the detriment of the native mule deer of Texas with which they compete. They are now considered a nuisance and invasive species that should be eliminated.
The deer came everyday in the late afternoon

The next day, Sarah and I ascended the Tejas trail. The weather was perfect for hiking, clear skies, little wind and temperatures in the upper 50s. As soon as we gained a few hundred feet of elevation after leaving the campground, we could see a solitary peak with only a few trees and a prominent limestone outcrop, the highest point on McKittrick Ridge. We agreed that we should try for that peak. We passed the peak we had achieved the previous day and continued onto the McKittrick Canyon trail that took us higher and deeper into the Guadalupe Mountains.  The McKittrick Canyon trail continued on the same ridge we had traversed the day before but after about a mile then it turned abruptly to the northeast and as we rounded the bend, Sarah and I both stopped in awe at the view. In front of us the land dropped away for about a thousand feet and about three miles away was a majestic cliff that formed the norther terminus of South McKittrick Canyon. Both of stood looked with wonder on this beautiful scenery. Another hour and we were a hundred feet below our destination. Because none of the trails in these mountains go the peaks due to the dangerous winds and lightening strikes, we had to bushwhack this final distance. Thankfully, it was mostly scrub oak with few thorn bearing cacti or shrubs to contend with. Once again, we jumped a magnificent mule deer buck with the finest antlers we had seen yet. We started out at 8:30 AM and made the summit of this ridge on the north side of South McKittrick Canyon just in time to enjoy another lunch while enjoying the most amazing scenery one could wish for. We finished our lunch and retraced our steps. I had underestimated how long this trip would take and had not brought enough water to be completely comfortable, for on the way down with still one third the distance to go we ran out of water. Luckily, there was still snow in the shaded places high on this north facing slope. I found a pristine area and filled my water bottle. In my black back pack it quickly melted and Sarah commented on how fine it tasted.
We had water available
We returned to camp at 3:45PM, tired, sore and very pleased. 

The next morning we hitched up and said our goodbyes to Jon and thanked him for sharing such a beautiful place. We told him where we had gone the previous day and he nodded in approval, seemingly pleased that we had put in such an effort. I told him I thought I had smelled cat urine on the trail and asked if mountain lions mark their territory just like domesticated tom cats. He smiled and assured they most certainly did. He then said, that since we were leaving he could share with us the fact that one of the cougars made a kill a few week earlier just a few hundred yards from the campground, near the trail that we had been hiking. Even though we never saw the magnificent animal, we felt lucky to have shared its mountain. 
Guradalupe Mountains National Park

As we continued on to our next destination, not even passing through the area despoiled by the drilling rigs could dampen our appreciation for this remarkably handsome landscape and mountains of West Texas and Southern New Mexico.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Marfa Texas

The decision on what road to take to get to our next destination is usually not really made until the morning we set off. One of our goals is to not have hard and firm dates for being in any particular place in order to change plans as we discover places where we want to linger along the way. This time, however, a frozen pipe and flooded basement required one of us to return home to coordinate with the insurance company and the contractors that would be doing the initial repairs. Because we are traveling with Dot, the cat, the other would stay behind rather than subject the elderly Dot to the trauma of air travel.
Welcome to Marfa
Marfa Town Hall
Yes, the beer was cold. 

Waiting while his cowboy to finish his beer outside the Lost Horse

We knew that Marfa and Alpine, Texas were two towns we wanted to visit. These two small towns in far West Texas have drawn a large number of artists there to live and work. Each one has quite a few art galleries and a lively community. The decision for Sarah to stay in Marfa at the Tumble In RV park was easy. We spent two days together exploring Marfa then Sarah took me to Alpine, 25 miles to the east, to catch the Amtrak train to El Paso from where I would fly home.
One of the colorful murals in Alpine

Marfa has been a place of interest for a very long time. It earned special attention when people began seeing odd lights in the night sky. Beginning in the nineteeth century several times a year these lights, variously described as floating orbs that would magically appear then disappear. Early observers dismissed them as distant campfires. Later they were thought to be some sort of bending of the light from automobiles just beyond the horizon. Over time all plausible explanations have been eliminated. Now, the most widely accepted, yet unproven explanation is that they are a phenomenon that results from a particular atmospheric condition found only here in Marfa. No matter what the cause, the lights draw enough curiosity seekers that a very nice viewing area has been built just east of town where people can park and safely watch and hope to catch a glimpse of the lights. Sarah did watch for them and believes she saw them one night. She described them as short streaks of light that hovered then moved off to one side or the other than vanished only to repeat again shortly thereafter.
An art installation just west of the Town of Marfa

To occupy her time while I was away, Sarah volunteered for the local public radio station, KRTS. The Tumble In RV Park was just a short walk from town and was convenient for Sarah to get to without having to drive. She worked as a receptionist, answering the phones, greeting visitors and taking music requests from listeners. 
Sarah at work for Marfa Public Radio

When not at the radio station she visited the nearby town of Alpine to stroll the art galleries and talk to other artists. She also visited the studio of Tom Curry, and artist whose work we both admire and who has been featured in Yankee, Newsweek and Atlantic Magazines. We saw his work at the CatchLight Art Gallery (http://www.catchlightartgallery.com/tomcurry.htm) in Alpine.
While we knew his work as painter, Sarah discovered that he is also an accomplished sculpture. She was able to visit with him at his studio/gallery.

Gates by Tom Curry at his studio. He uses a technique called papercrete.
The Mary Joan as seen from the Amtrak train on my way to El Paso from Alpine
This is the second Border Patrol Blimp we have seen in our travels near the
Mexican border. This one was between Marfa and El Paso

Sarah met me in El Paso and we are now continuing our journey.

Stay tuned.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Far West Texas - who could have known?

I apologize for the long lapse since my last post. But, a frozen water pipe and a monumental basement flood forced my return to the farm to coordinate the repairs. During the time I was back, I couldn't bring myself to add to the blog. Dealing with the insurance adjusters and mold remediation people was all consuming and frankly, very depressing. While nothing irreplaceable was lost and it was all just stuff, the tedium of cataloging each item left me with no desire to write. However, I am back with Sarah and the  Mary Joan.
This actually is beginning to look pretty good. 

After leaving Big Bend National Park, Sarah and I visited the town of Terlingua just west of the park. A dusty, former ghost town, it is now an eclectic amalgamation of free-spirited individuals. There are a couple river rafting guides and desert ATV tour guides along with a few bars, a gas station and two grocery stores only one of which was open the few days we were there. 
Terlinqua "Ghost Town"

We see many old aluminum trailers left to decay, so sad.

We were told by someone we met in the hot springs at the park that it would be possible to just boondock anywhere in the old ghost town. However, the sign welcoming us asked that we not park our RV overnight. As we were leaving 'town' Sarah saw an old Airstream motor-home and another trailer in a small dusty parking area. There appeared to be an empty RV utility post next to the trailer and a small box trailer a short distance away. We approached the man next to the box trailer (which we found out later he was living in) and asked if we could park there for a couple nights. He said we should talk to the owner, Jack, who was just down the hill. Jack told us the spot was available and didn't we see the sign advertising his RV park. Somehow we had missed that. It was hand-painted on a small sign that also advertised his veterinary practice and his wife's gift/antique shop. But, we were happy to have a spot within walking distance of the Starlight Theater Restaurant where we planned Sarah's birthday dinner. 
The RV park in downtown Terlingua Ghost Town

While hiking in Big Bend National Park the previous day, we met a couple from Terlingua, who upon learning we would be there to celebrate Sarah's birthday, invited us to their home for margaritas and to watch the sunset. Dan and Tana gave us excellent directions to their home, which when we had settled into our camping spot we could easily see about a quarter mile away just across the highway. Dan and his wife Tana made us feel welcome and at ease in their beautiful home looking out over the desert landscape with a perfect view of the Chicos mountains to the east. Here we learned that in Terlingua, one looks to the east to watch the sunset. The glow of the setting sun reflected from the mountains is different everyday, but it is always beautiful.
Looking east at sunset from Terlinqua toward the Chicos mountains in Big Bend National Park
The view from Dan and Tana's

Before leaving, we inquired as to where would be the best place to watch the football playoff game the next evening. They told us that we would not be happy at any of the bars, since there would be a lot of smoke (smoking is still allowed in bars in Texas).  They said we should return for dinner and watch the game with them. We agreed only on the condition that we cook and bring dinner. 

When we arrived at the Starlight, I observed a small group at the bar that were engaged in friendly and animated conversation. What struck me was not only how different their appearances were from each other,  a cowboy, new-age hippie type, business suited straight, cocktail waitress wannabe pin-up and resurrected goth-girl, but also how they defied the stereotype of their appearance with their choice of beverages. The cowboy was drinking a white wine, the business suite some brightly colored concoction reminiscent of a tequila sunrise and the hippie was drinking a martini. The women had just arrived, so I didn't want to stare to see what they were drinking. Assuming their worldviews and political opinions were as disparate as their stereotypes, it was hard to believe I was in Texas, much less West Texas. It made me wonder if the euphemism, gone to Texas, still meant hiding out from the law or other entrapment. This is a place where you don't ask questions about people's past or appearances.  
The Starlight Theatre

The next day we rejoined Dan and Tana for another wonderful evening. We learned that Dan had been an successful National Park Service Ranger for many years and his wife Tana had taught in a private school. Because of his connections, Dan had the opportunity to meet celebrities and dignitaries in the park at which he served. His stories about his experiences were entertaining and revealing. 

On our last day in Terlingua we joined Far Flung river expeditions for a day floating the Rio Grande. Despite the river being quite low, it was still possible to float though Colorado Canyon. We had a wonderful guide, Erika, whose energetic lectures on geology, anthropology and history were very informative and entertaining. Far Flung allowed us to boondock in their parking lot the night before and after our river float. This made it very convenient for us.
Erika, our guide, was very enthusiastic and informative.
Colorado Canyon, Rio Grande River

Just west of Terlinqua is Big Bend Ranch State Park. The roads are gravel and though well kept have a lot of wash board in some places making the 20 mile trip into the park quite slow while towing the Mary Joan. The camping areas we found were primitive and the road into first one we came to didn't look too friendly for the trailer. However, the next one turned out to be a diamond in the rough. The quarter mile lane from the main road to the campsite was narrow and we had to stop to trim the branches of the shrubs that threatened to scratch the skin of the Mary Joan. 
Trimming branches and prickly pear cactus at the cattle guard

The campsite itself was at the base of a windmill that was still supplying water to the tank adjacent to the parking area. The campsites we found were designed for single occupancy. Due to the miles separating one from another, this produced a wonderful sense of privacy and isolation. A hiking trailhead was at our campsite and we enjoyed a two hour trek into the hills behind us. We saw deer and lots of birds.
Our campsite in Big Bend Ranch State Park (the Mary Joan is in the lower right)
Sarah has never lost her love of climbing
Sunset at our camp site in Big Bend Ranch State Park
We have both been surprised by the beauty of West Texas. Neither of us had ever imagined the diversity of shapes and colors to be found here. The people we have met are open and welcoming. They are proud to show us their home and share it with us. We cannot wait to continue exploring this area.

It was while leaving the park and driving to the town of Marfa, that I got the call that our basement was ruined.  Once in Marfa, Sarah and I settled in at the Tumble In campground. We decided that Sarah should stay with Dot, the cat, while I went home. Sarah could not have been 'stranded' in a better place. 

Stay tuned to find out why.