Friday, January 8, 2016

Days 3-5 : Albuquerque to Las Cruces and White Sands... and Back Again!

Hundreds of snow geese take wing at the El Bosque de Apache Wildlife Refuge. We avoided armed takeover of buildings there.

"To be seen fully by someone, then to be loved anyhow--this a human offering that borders on miraculous."
                        --- Elizabeth Gilbert

Sorry to stack up the blog, but I have been a bit ill the last few days, so I haven't been staying up late to get it written. But for those would-be travelers to New Mexico, vicarious sojourners and the just-plain-nosey amongst you, rest assured, I will give you the 4-1-1 about what there is to do in the neighborhood.

Wednesday morning, we began our excursion toward Las Cruces with the ultimate goal of hiking in White Sands National Monument on Thursday. Las Cruces is a four hour jaunt straight down I-25, so to break it up a bit, we decided to meander through the El Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge. This was about 1/3rd of the way into the journey and a very welcome diversion. Currently, in addition to many sandhill cranes snowbirding for the winter, there were thousands of snow geese (which the ranger said was not typical), Canada goose and numerous duck species. The wildlife refuge has a double loop scenic drive that you can take on hard pack. As you see below, it's quite a lovely surrounding.
El Bosque del Apache Wildlife Preserve
There are numerous small bodies of water and additionally a large field where corn generally grows. Most of the snow geese and ducks were on the water. The cranes were hanging out with the corn.

One of many small canals.

Canada goose in the forefront of this shallow pond, Cranes in the rear. We were told elk were often in this area as well but the only large mammals we saw were Paul and a couple of snowbirds in an RV from Ontario. As you can see, no shortage of birds for watchers. Apparently, there are also bald eagles, but again the only baldie we saw was ...Paul!

Bald Eagle scout
We really enjoyed the drive. Ordinarily, we would have walked this pathway, but I didn't feel well enough to do it. It ended up being a good thing, because while we were there, a bit of hail began to come down.

Yes, that's hail or at least, grappel.
We would highly recommend this refuge as worth your time if you are passing through. There is also the Servilleta Refuge which is a little further off the freeway, but apparently much larger and may offer even better viewing. With all the birds we saw, it's hard to complain.

Southern New Mexico near sunset.
The rest of our drive was uneventful-- gandering at the changing New Mexico landscape which alternated between nearly barren desert, mountains of all descriptions, including snowy ones and the watery expanses off the Rio Grande. Paul got really excited when we passed Truth or Consequences, the only city we are aware of named after a game show. I'm surprised Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune haven't followed suit!  He ate at a little Mexican cabina called Carmen's Kitchen. Whenever Paul eats in New Mexico, the words "green" and "chile" most be spoken. 
Paul's lunch stop. Not sure what he had except that it was probably green chile!

We discovered that Truth or Consequences looked from a superficial standpoint to be somewhat inconsequential. As Paul likes to say, "There's no a whole lot of there there."

Some of you may know that I like silly signs so here are a couple of ones that floated my boat.

Seriously? Couldn't you just name the town Pleasanton or something? This town was big enough to be approached from exit 59 and 51, giving me two big laughs!

Okay, it's not spelled the same, but really? Why not name the store Jim's or Bob's? For added fun, it was right across the road from Dick's (sporting goods). As far as store size goes, Dick's won.

The food porn section is unfortunately suspended, because I wasn't eating. Paul enjoyed yet another pepperoni pizza. No New Year's resolution to eat less pizza for Paul!

The next morning, we headed out to White Sands National Monument. It's not a monument at all, as are nearly all the government "monuments."  It's more or less a preserve for the gypsum sands of the New Mexican desert and their sparse inhabitants. 

On the way there, it is possible to visit the White Sands Missile Range Museum. The Trinity Site, which is where the first atomic bomb was exploded is actually open twice a year on a Saturday in April and October, but obviously we missed that rare opportunity.  For future travelers, entry to the range requires a valid driver's license, car registration and proof of insurance to get a pass at the entrance. In the month of January when visitors are scarce, it took about 15 minutes. I would think it could be more in the summer.  Since Paul worked for so long at Oak Ridge (and his mom worked there when she was in high school), it was an interesting experience to see the hodgepodge of stuff they made the museum out of. Frankly, it's not all that organized or well kept, but there is an occasional treasure amongst the lot. 

Rockets have their own slide rule. Who knew???

A "portable calculator" from the 40s. Probably weighed 40 lbs.

Various missiles

The V2 rocket

This is a collection of devices tested on the site that is outdoors at the museum.

A patriot missile. It says SCUD BUSTER on the side.
This museum is really out of the way, so you wouldn't likely just "happen onto it." But it was worth the sidetrip of only a few miles off HWY 70E toward Alamogordo, if you are headed to the White Sands National Park. Entry fee is free.

A couple of interesting sidebars in this museum are: 

(1) an exhibit about surviving nuclear fallout which includes survival rations and a survival sanitation kit with 10 rolls of toilet paper and a makeshift potty and 
(2) A room full of paintings made by a survivor of the Bataan Death March. They are heartbreaking but fascinating as well. 
(3) Photos of the original ranchers, the McDonalds, who owned pretty much the whole valley there (tens of thousands of acres). Apparently, they sold most of the land to the feds, but some family members are still living on the retained property.

There is a picture of the K-25 plant in Oak Ridge in the room which talks about the Trinity test. Paul said it was odd because the K 25 plant didn't exist at the time. They didn't picture or mention Y-12. There were numerous photos of Robert Oppenheimer and Brigadier General Leslie Groves everywhere. 

If military weaponry isn't your cup of tea, however, nearby is the White Sands Monument. This place is really fascinating. The New Mexican landscape is an ever-changing thing anyway, but this location is spectacular. Right in the middle of what is essentially a big brown plain, sits an area of brilliant white sands (they weren't using their creative brain when they named it!)

White sands, black clouds
The whole area of the preserve is only about 10 acres, but the white sands consume 275 square miles of desert. White sands is one of only a few gypsum sand fields on earth and is by far, the largest one. Interestingly enough, gypsum is water soluble, but there's so little water in this section of New Mexico that even if dissolved, it will eventually reform sand.  And the water table is only about 12 feet deep here, so it's a unique situation. 

Paul enjoys his lunch at the Monument in the windbreak picnic area.
There is plenty of recreation. As you can see, just looking at it is pretty entertaining. But there are many picnic areas and people sled and surf on it just like it was snow. Paul kept saying his mind was registering "snow" even though we were on sand.

Paul feeling small in the white sands national monument.
We decided to hike the Interdune Boardwalk Trail which was short but easy and then the Alkali Flats Trail. The Alkali Flats was rated as strenuous and was approximately 5 miles across the desert in a loop fashion. We didn't think it looked all that challenging, but after climbing up and down 60 foot dunes for about 2.5 hours, we learned to respect the landscape. We couldn't imagine doing this in the summer. It was around 50 degrees out when we did it with a wind pretty much blowing 10-20mph the whole way. We were always happy to get off the top of the dunes and out of the bluster. But in the summer, this area would be downright dangerous. We read that a French couple died out here last August and the woman, who had left to go back to her car, was only about a mile and half into the 5 mile loop. The husband collapsed later. Fortunately, their 9 year old son survived, but this is a real tragedy and teaches us to respect the warnings NOT to hike here between 10 AM and 4pm April to October. It was manageable for us. I know I wouldn't do it in the heat.

Last night, we returned to Las Cruces which isn't a very big place and tried one of the local breweries.

I wished I'd felt well enough to enjoy the beer sampler. Paul did most of the work and went bonkers for one particular beer: You guessed it--the green chile!
The Pecan brewery apparently has a signature pecan based beer, but Paul liked the green chile. No surprises there! He ate the short rib tacos and appeared to enjoy them. I tried to eat some stew, but my stomach objected. Oh well. It's making dieting in the New Year easy!

Today, Paul had an appointment for work, so we moseyed back up I-25, enjoying the scenery. We only had about an hour to play, so we went to the Rattlesnake Museum. Okay, snake phobics, there will be some snake photos so feel free to skip this!

This museum is in the Old Town section of Albuquerque and is the largest rattlesnake museum in the world....and it's pretty tiny. But for $5 and a gander at some snakes close up, who is to complain? No handling required.
The location in Old Town.

The Eastern diamondback. Not my first encounter with the animal...

Timber rattler

Albinism amongst snakes.

The western diamondback.

There were some gila monsters, tortoises and horned toads for your pleasure as well. 

Not sure where we will eat tonight, but you don't have to look at pictures of it! Surely, it won't be snake.

I have to thank my wonderful husband for such a great anniversary trip--hikes, snakes, sand, mountains....quite varied and all completely enjoyed.

"Marriage is not 50-50. Divorce is 50-50. Marriage has to be 100-100. It isn't dividing everything in half. It's both parties giving it everything they've got."
                                                                                ----Dave Willis

Paul's Ponderings:  Quite an eventful few days in New Mexico.   Driving around here makes you appreciate how big both the western US and US in general really is.   Massive valleys with mountains and long stretches of road with nothing but scrub and tumbleweeds.  And the clouds and shadows really compliment the natural vistas.   The wildlife refuge was incredible, with the flight of 100s of snow geese being worth the trip alone, never mind the sandhill cranes, ducks, and more in large numbers.   Who knew New Mexico had so much wetland?

I've always wanted to see White Sands and was not disappointed -- it's otherworldly in a way that only remote desert can be....unlike much of New Mexico, this is largely free of plants so you are just looking at huge hills of white sand.   It's all quite stunning and remote.   

Something I had not seen was that the US Immigration Service had set up roadblocks here and there on the road and diverted all traffic into an inspection of a sort.   Ours amounted to "are you both US citizens; have a nice day".   

Even though there were several winter storm like events out here while we were in the area, we dodged pretty much all of them, although it is snowing lightly as I write this!   

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