Saturday, April 04, 2020

A Trip South - Part 1

In twenty-five years of visiting, and almost three years of residency, we had never gone farther south in the state of New Mexico than the Albuquerque Sunport Airport. So we eagerly accepted when Connecticut friends D &  P invited us to join them and their Las Cruces NM friends (S & Pt) for a few days of R & R in that part of the state. Even better for us who do not like to plan such things, the offer came with a well-organized itinerary including eateries and lodging.
We knew that the lower part of NM was not like Santa Fe. By our deeply ingrained CT distance standards it is far enough away to be another state – or two. (In Wethersfield a four hour drive got us to Cape May, New Jersey – Exit Zero on the Garden State Parkway.) 
And in fact south NM almost was another sovereignty. Prior to the Civil War, while still a territory that then included Arizona, it tried to secede and join the Confederacy. They were stopped by the powers-that-be in Santa Fe. 

That division continues today – for example.  Our state has an 180 mile border with Mexico the safety of which is often a point of disagreement between those living nearer to it, and those not. A "charade of border fear-mongering," said Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham as she withdrew most of the National Guard troops deployed at the state's Southern border. “You don’t hear about this stuff unless there’s a significant seizure of drugs or a lot of people are injured,” according to Hermanas, NM rancher Russell Johnson.

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There are three congressional districts in New Mexico. The top one (CD3), where we live, is blue as blue can be. The 1st (in the middle and the smallest in area) is blue. And the lower one (CD2) had been reliably red since 1980. (Don’t ask us to explain the numbering scheme.) 
In 2018 there was an election for the then vacant 2nd district seat between Republican Yvette Herrell and Democrat Xochitl (SOH-cheel) Torres Small. (The first name is Aztec and means “flower”.) Herrell’s message was, “I am pro-Trump, a Christian, and pro-life.” She chose not to debate. Torres Small cast herself a moderate who would “work across the aisle.” She was quietly pro-choice. Both however agreed it was muy importante to appear in a plaid shirt and skinny jeans toting a rifle. Xochitl won by around 3,000 votes and is up for reelection in 2020. Herrell has a primary opponent, Claire Chase, who not only carries a gun but shoots up a red flag with it to show her disdain for the recently passed eponymous state gun control law.

Up here in deep blue country one of our Democratic congressional hopefuls is outed former CIA operative Valerie Plame – who may have actually packed heat on her former day job but is now struggling to convince voters that she has the district’s issues in her sights, and is not just after bigger game.
But we digress. You go on vacation to get away from things – like politics. We knew the south would be different – and that was why we wanted to see it.

Business-wise it is home to much of NM’s more than 2,000 oil and gas fields. And also where most of the 23,800 farms and 44 million acres of farmland that produce beef cattle, pecans, hay, sheep, onions, chiles, cotton, and corn are located.

Plus lots of seemingly open spaces – 3,200 square miles of which make up the US Army White Sands Missile Range and White Sands Test Centre. The geological feature from which the area gets its name is 275 square miles of wave-like gypsum sand dunes that were recently upgraded from National Monument to Park – and upon which we hoped to walk.

As mentioned above, this motor trip to NM’s second largest city  (98,000) was our first venture south of the state’s largest  (547,000). Here is how author Michael McGarrity described the same drive in “Tularosa” – the first of his Kevin Kerney novels.
“South of the Albuquerque corridor, Kerney began to enjoy the drive. Santa Fe’s unrelenting growth spurts were bad enough, but Albuquerque was pure ugly clutter alongside the interstate highway. After the city, open desert country undulated in waves, broken by the Rio Grande valley and an endless parade of mountain ranges to the west and east. The small villages bordering the river were enclaves anchored against the expanse of open space, surrounded by green fields that dappled the stark landscape with color. The high country of northern New Mexico was beautiful, but it couldn’t hold him the way the desert could.”

Like the novel’s protagonist, we also “gassed up on the main drag in Socorro, a somewhat shoddy town that paralleled the interstate.” Unlike the fictional Santa Fe cop however we then drove into the town’s visitor center in search of information about nearby Apache Bosque National Wildlife Refuge – winter home to thousands of Sandhill Cranes and other birds.

When we got out of our car we were approached by the former Chamber of Commerce Head who was mentoring the new, young, first-time-at-this-kind-of-job Info Center Director. He enlisted us in an “ambush visit” (Jim’s term) that he would observe and, with our input, critique the new guy. New guy did well. Based upon info we got, we decided to plan a visit to the Bosque in November/December while spending a night in Socorro.

Then it was on to the neighboring town of San Antonio, NM. Our goal was lunch at the Owl Bar & Cafe (featured on Travel Channel's Burger Land, and recommended by future guests V & D, who heard about it from a friend.) The eatery is across from The Buckhorn Tavern (featured on Food Network's Throwdown! with Bobby Flay), next to a gas station. That’s downtown. That day we did the Owl. On the trip home the Buckhorn. Two mighty good patties!


 What is now Las Cruces was previously inhabited by the Manso Indians with the Mescalero Apache living nearby. Spain colonized the area beginning in 1598, when Juan de Oñate claimed all territory north of the Rio Grande for New Spain. Oñate followed an ancient Indian trail north creating what became known as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road of the Interior Lands.) It began in Las Cruces and continued across ninety miles of flat, waterless desert – Jornada del Muerto ("journey of the dead man") – before continuing north to Santa Fe.

In 1821 the Mexican took control from the Spanish – while Texas asserted its own claim on Las Cruces and its surroundings. At the end of the Mexican American War in 1848 and after the 1854 Gadsden Purchase, the United States took control of southern New Mexico. A rush of settlers looking to claim a portion of the un-deeded land poured into the new territory, forcing local leaders to call upon the U.S. military for assistance. The Army sent Lt. Delos Bennett Sackett and a team of men to help protect and organize the emerging communities. Sackett and his men laid out eighty-four city blocks, each with four plots of land, and residents were required to draw for their new home site.

The coming of the railroad in the late 1881 brought more prosperity, and by 1900, the town population had tripled to nearly 3,000 residents. It was formally incorporated as a town in 1907. Most historians agree that the town’s name – El Pueblo del Jardin de Las Cruces (the City of the Garden of Crosses) – came from the abundance of crosses (death markers) left along the Camino in memory of either: (1) a massacred party made up of a bishop, a priest, a Mexican Army colonel, a captain, four trappers and four choir boys; (2) a group of forty travelers from Taos, NM; (3) lots of victims of Apache raids; or (4) all of the above.

We met up with D & P who had arrived at the hotel from their flight to, and drive from El Paso, TX just prior to our own check-in. Shortly thereafter we four drove to a local brew pub to for a meet, greet and eat with S and Pt.  From that point on we were guided through our itinerary by the locals who knew the terrain, or Siri (aka “the woman in the box”) who learned it quickly.

Next day, our first stop was White Sands National Park, about thirty miles from home base. This field of dunes, formed 7,000–10,000 years ago and about thirty feet deep, were created from exposed gypsum left after the shallow seas of the Permian Period withdrew. These crystals gradually eroded into gypsum grains, and were then transported eastward by prevailing winds. 

Driving into the Park we were quickly immersed in the sheer whiteness of our surroundings. We parked and walked a short distance on the “Interdune Boardwalk” with explanatory signage. The silence was deafening – especially for us former Cape Cod visitors who expected to hear the breaking waves of the Atlantic Ocean in the background.

The real treat however was farther up the road at the Alkali Flat Trail – a strenuous five mile round trip which is in fact not flat at all., told us “Follow the red trail markers with a diamond symbol through the heart of the expansive dunefield. Look carefully for the next trail marker before continuing. If you cannot see the next trail marker because of blowing sand or because the trail marker is knocked down, do not proceed—return to your car. Strong winds, especially in the spring, can reduce visibility to a few feet, making it easy to become lost” There are no visible landmarks, and people have gotten lost and died hiking these dunes. 

“Nothing is more difficult than noticing the subtle changes in something unchanging, like the desert,” as Argentinian Tomás Eloy Martínez put it. We went about thirty minutes in, and returned. An awesome, out of this world, one of a kind experience!


Our afternoon destination was the Museum of Space History in Alomagordo, but lunch beckoned and P spotted a small billboard for “Can't Stop Smokin' BBQ",  which “the woman in the box” efficiently delivered us to. Bueno! Bueno! – proving once again, when in doubt, eat local! And don’t pay attention to the neighborhood.

New Mexico Museum of Space History contains artifacts and displays about space flight and the space age, along with the International Space Hall of Fame – giving all of us a chance to geek out on some of the technology and heroes of the 20th and 21st centuries. (And an opportunity for a shout out to the North American Reciprocal Museum (NARM) Association  – 1,137 museums, etc. providing free admission to card-carrying members of any of its affiliate institutions – including Space History.)


Dinner was a relaxing meal of heavy apps at S & Pt’s house after which Marsha, D and S showed and talked knitting, while P, Pt and Jim discussed what they perceived as weightier matters.

Our first day “down south” was in the books – and no sign of any gun-totin', Santa Fean huntin', plaid-shirted secessionists. We went to bed tired, relaxed and looking forward to the rest of our adventure.

To be continued…

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