I woke up the next morning in southeastern New Mexico, specifically Carlsbad. Unsurprisingly, southeastern New Mexico looks a whole lot like southwestern Texas, and oil is as big a business here as it is in Texas. I had breakfast with Nik, a local roadster guy, and he confirmed that the bulk of the money made in New Mexico is made by the oil industry down in the southeastern corner of the state, and that tax base largely subsidizes the rest of the state. I never really thought of New Mexico as an oil state; all anybody hears about is Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Breaking Bad, but it was obviously big business.
After breakfast, I headed southwest toward something I’d always wanted to see: Carlsbad Caverns. The Caverns are some of the largest in the world, and they’re known for both their size and their beauty. Caverns of this type are not uncommon in petroleum areas, although rarely are they this large and extensive. Around 12 million years ago, back when the water table was a lot higher, the limestone that makes up the bulk of the cavern was saturated in that groundwater, and it sat above some pretty big petroleum reservoirs. Hydrogen sulfide gas (the “rotten egg” odor you can smell with raw tar and other crude oil products) percolated up from the oil deposits, encountered the water on its way up, reacted with the water to form an aggressive sulfuric acid (this is the same way you get acid rain by the way; the reaction just happens in the atmosphere rather than underground), and then this acid slowly dissolved the limestone (calcium carbonate.) The dissolved limestone then slowly washed out, gradually forming a giant underground cavern, and as the water table receded, the giant underground caverns were left behind. About a million years ago, enough of the cavern had formed for a portion of it to break through to the surface, and this interaction with the air (as well as seepage of rainwater and snowmelt through the roof) introduced carbon dioxide. Water plus carbon dioxide makes a weaker acid (carbonic acid), and that weak solution also dissolved some of the limestone where it dripped into the now open caverns. That in turn left calcium carbonate deposits behind where the water evaporated, causing the gradual formation of the stalactites, stalagmites, and other crazy formations in the cavern. The main portion of the cavern is a little over 750’ underground, which you can either get to via elevator or by walking the pathway through the natural surface entrance that formed those million years ago. I opted to do the hike down through the natural entrance, which is also where the nightly exodus of thousands of bats occurs during the warmer months. They’ve even got a little viewing area with bleachers and everything for people to come down and watch.
First off, I have to say that Carlsbad Caverns is another one of those things I’ve seen on this trip that’s pretty much impossible to convey just how enormous and awesome it is with just a photograph, kind of like the giant redwood trees were up in northern California. You really have to walk through the place and experience it for yourself to truly get a feel for just how incredible it is. That being said, I did give it a shot anyway. In retrospect, I should have brought both a wide angle lens and a tripod, because the caverns are both huge and dark. I also had a bit of a problem with the lens continually fogging up, as it was freezing on the surface, but warm and extremely humid in the cavern, and cold glass plus a warm and humid environment equals a foggy lens. I did my best, though.
The hike down through the natural entrance is well maintained and not at all rough or rocky, but it is very steep. You’re going down over 75 stories in a relatively short distance, so the downward-winding pathway is both steep and lengthy. The caverns and rooms that these pathways open into are incredibly large—they’re hundreds of feet wide and high and thousands of feet long, and there are several that you pass through on your way to the main cavern rooms at the bottom. There were some really interesting features, but the main impression that you get is one of sheer size—it’s like parking several aircraft hangars on top of each other, and it’s hard to believe that it was just time and water that dissolved out such enormous spaces.
The real fireworks were down in the “Big Room” and the surrounding areas. If you don’t want to do the hike down through the natural entrance, there’s a 750’ elevator that will take you down to a corner of the big room from the visitor center. Until the Empire State building got built, this was the tallest cable elevator in the world. The exit of the path from the natural entrance empties into the same area, so I was meeting elevator riders as I walked out of the other path, some of the first people I’d seen since I went into the cavern. The Park Service has done a good job maintaining a balance between darkness and lighting that shows the natural color of the cavern—no fancy colored LED lights here, which is a very nice change of pace from the privately owned caverns back east. The features were just incredible. There were whole forests of stalactites on the floor, with huge stalagmites and curtains and other features on the ceiling. In some areas, gigantic columns had formed, with the big ones being over 65’ tall. Off to the sides, other giant caverns opened away from the main room; these weren’t accessible to the public and were still being explored. All in all, this was one of the most amazing things that I have seen on this whole trip, and if you ever get the opportunity to see it in person, do it—you will not be disappointed.
After my spelunking adventure, my next stop was Alamogordo to see White Sands National Monument. In a typical open desert “you can’t get there from here” scenario, there is no direct route from Carlsbad to Alamogordo—you can either go southwest back into Texas and then cut north, or head north inside of New Mexico and then cut back southwest, but those are about the only options. I went for the trip back into Texas, as I figured I’d get some local dinner in El Paso. On the way there, I drove through the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where a snow squall had apparently been through pretty recently. The whole desert had a light dusting of snow on every surface, and the effect was pretty striking. It was just in a small section a couple miles wide, but it was really beautiful.
I got to El Paso around nightfall, and headed downtown for some cheap tacos. It ended up being kind of a long way to go for what turned out to be mediocre tacos, but the place (“The Tap”) made up for it in atmosphere, as most dive bars tend to do. I ate my tacos in the company of a actual cowboy and a Mexican rancher, who were a little confused as to why I’d drive all the way into town for tacos, but we got along fine. Taco’d up, I hit the road again and headed north to Alamogordo, home of White Sands National Monument, where I had a hotel room waiting.
White Sands is part national monument, part military testing range. On the day I was there, it was 100% military testing range, with a big chunk of Interstate 70 being closed for the morning’s testing. As I got to the visitor center for national monument portion, a somewhat ominous column of black smoke was visible on the horizon, with equally ominous police and military vehicles and personnel blocking the path to the park entrance. A sign at the visitor center said it’d re-open at 10am, which was the normally scheduled time once the testing was complete, but 10am came and went and there was obviously something up when they changed “10am” to “Until Further Notice”. I checked the news a little later, and the Air Force had crashed a drone aircraft right into the national monument area, closing the whole place not just for the day, but indefinitely, or until they’re done cleaning up and investigating. As I write this over a week later, the place is still shut down, so I did not get to see White Sands at all. I’ll have to make another road trip down here someday to see it in person.
In lieu of seeing White Sands, I drove north for a hike back to the Three Rivers Petroglyph site, which is a bit off the beaten path, but well worth it if you like petroglyphs. It was an easy hike from the parking area, and while there was a trail, you were allowed to walk wherever you wanted, as there are over 21,000 individual petroglyphs on the rocks all over the area. The trail wound through some of the larger and more detailed versions, but you could see practically as many as you wanted beyond that just by taking a little detour off the trail for a bit. They’re not protected at all, just out there in the open where you can walk right up to them and see them up close. Nobody really knows why the petroglyphs are there or what most of them mean—they could be prayers to the gods, illustrations of dreams, or just doodles by bored Indian kids. They’re over 600 years old, and they were originally inscribed there by the Jornada Mogollon Indians, who are a prehistoric tribe with no modern descendants remaining. It was an unexpected stop for me that was also unexpectedly cool (I’d never seen a kokopelli that wasn’t part of an ad for a southwestern restaurant or a bad tattoo), and while I’m disappointed I didn’t see White Sands, I’m happy that it gave me the opportunity to check these out.
After the petroglyphs, I drove the hour or so back to White Sands to see if it was open (since at this point I didn’t know about the drone crash yet), and obviously had no luck there, so I turned around and headed for Socorro, which was a couple hours north. Socorro is the closest town to the Very Large Array radio telescope site, which was what I went up there to see. If you’ve seen the movie “Contact”, the VLA is where Jodie Foster first hears the signal from the aliens, and it plays a big part in that film. I slept in Socorro that night, then got up early the next morning and drove about an hour west to the site of the Carl G. Jansky Very Large Array.
Like the petroglyphs, the VLA is basically just sitting out in the middle of the desert. It’s a pretty ingenious system, and as the name implies, it’s very large. From a central hub, three big dual railroad track systems extend out 120 degrees apart to points that allow for a maximum 22 mile spread from the hub. On each rail “arm” (there’s the North Arm, the East Arm, and the West Arm), there are nine gigantic radio telescope dishes. The dishes can be arrayed so that they’re either all concentrated toward the middle, all spread out over the 40 miles of track, or somewhere in between, depending on what they’re listening to at the time and how the array needs to be set up for that.
If you’re not familiar with radio astronomy, you may be asking yourself “How do you get an image of the stars and galaxies with a big dish antenna? Don’t you need to look through a telescope for that?” This is a good question, and the answer lies in the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light (the kind that you can see with a regular optical telescope, or just with your eyes) is just one slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. There’s a giant chunk of the spectrum that you can’t detect with your eyes, stuff like x-rays and microwaves and similar emissions in the ‘radio’ slice of the spectrum. If you could see these emissions with your eyes, the world would look very, very different, but since we can’t do that, we use big dish antennas to ‘listen’ for these signals from the sky. Just like with an optical telescope, the dishes can be focused on specific objects to observe, and then the received signals and their relative strength and frequency can be converted by computer into an image, just the same as different colors and brightness of light can form an optical picture. The 27 antennas at the VLA actually act as one big antenna, and in fact their data can be combined with data from other radio astronomy sites worldwide (like the huge new one with 66 dishes in the Atacama Desert in Chile) to make one big planet-sized virtual antenna for unprecedented range and resolution.
After geeking out in the desert with the VLA all morning, I headed up to Albuquerque to meet up with Shannon, a fellow roadster owner and my host for the evening. When I got to his house, there was actually a full-on Datsun welcoming committee there, with several members of the Duke City Datsuns club there in Roadsters, 240Zs, and other assorted vintage Datsuns. Shannon had three roadsters in his garage alone…it’s an addiction. I had exchanged a few emails with him earlier in the week about the sad state of my rusty old muffler and my belief that it probably wouldn’t hang on for the remainder of the trip, so he was kind enough to call around to the local muffler shops and find a place that could do a while-you-wait muffler and pipe replacement for me. We all hit the road from Shannon’s to the shop (which turned out to be a Meineke place with a really good crew), dropped the car off, then headed off to lunch down the road to kill some time while the Meineke guys took care of the muffler. After lunch, we hung out at the muffler shop for a while longer while they finished up, and then everybody headed their separate ways and Shannon and I headed back his place. The shop had done a pretty nice job, and along with a much more mellow exhaust note, a few of the rattles and squeaks I’d had for several thousand miles had also gone away, so it was a good day, automotively speaking.
After resting up a bit, we met up with a couple more Datsun guys at a local Mexican place for dinner, where tales of old Nissans were the conversational topic of the evening. The conversation continued after dinner in Shannon’s garage, where he’s got a pretty great setup, with two four post car lifts that let him store two Roadsters over his highly modified roadster and his wife’s car. His car is an SR20 (non-turbo) conversion, with lots of upgrades and modifications to the electrical system, interior, and other areas…technically, it’d be considered a ‘restomod’, where an old car gets a modern drivetrain and other components to give you the reliability of a new car with the character of an old one. His other two Roadsters are stock.
The next morning brought another get-together with Datsun folks over breakfast, with many of the guys I’d already met returning for more. As wives were present this time, the conversation did expand beyond the merits of the Nissan R16 engine a bit, and a good time was had by all. The hospitality was exceptional all around, Shannon was a great help in getting me fixed up on the exhaust, and this breakfast was a great send-off to get me going to my next stop. Albuquerque Datsun guys definitely represented well above and beyond the call of duty.
My next stop was Los Alamos, home of Los Alamos National Laboratory and the birthplace of the atomic bomb. (The ‘Trinity’ site of the first nuclear bomb test is relatively nearby, but they only open it once a year for visitors.) I wasn’t actually there to see the Labs, it was just a convenient jumping-off point to see Tent Rocks and Bandelier National Monuments, which were my adventures for the next morning.
The first visit of the day was Bandelier, the site of ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings. The weather was fantastic, and there was a great hike back along Frijoles Creek that took me through several old sites. The park service had set up many ladders along the way that allowed access to some of the higher dwellings, and they were fun to climb, as they were replicas of the ladders that the Navajo would have used originally. The longest climb was about 140’ over three ladders. The trail itself was recently restored after extensive flooding after a canyon fire in 2011, but there were still massive trees and other debris everywhere in the canyon, attesting to the extent and size of the flooding. It was pretty amazing that that tiny creek could turn into such a torrent, but after seeing some flash flooding around Las Vegas over the years, I could believe it.
Up on the cliff sides, most of the dwellings were no longer there, with only some of the lower portions of some walls remaining. The recesses and overhangs in the cliffs themselves weren’t the whole dwelling in their original form; they basically used those as the back walls of the rooms, then built rock walls out in front of them to complete the dwelling. The holes in the cliff faces were used to support the ends of logs that then provided support for the roof and/or floor of the rooms in front of the cliff. Some walls showed signs of the old plaster and a few petroglyphs here and there as well. It was a great hike and really interesting to see what was left of these civilizations.
I left Bandelier and headed up to Tent Rocks, which is also a great hike around some amazing eroded rock formations that look like (you guessed it) tents. The ‘rock’ in the area is actually tuff , which is what you get when volcanic ash rains down over an area and is then compressed into a semi-fragile and lightweight form of rock over time. It sort of resembles a form of crude concrete. The fragility and erode-able nature of this tuff is what gets you formations like the “tents”. There’s a capstone or top layer of tougher material at the peak, and this prevents the tuff directly below it from being eroded away by wind and water. The tuff closest to the top erodes first, and the lower layers erode later, which gives you a point at the cap layer that hasn’t eroded, a skinny top where the upper layers of tuff eroded away, and a fat bottom where the erosion hasn’t progressed as far as it has at the top—basically, a huge pointy pylon. There was also a really neat slot canyon that part of the longer hike went through, which closed down to only a couple feet wide in spots. The weather held from earlier in the day as well, and this made for a really great hike all the way to the highest point, where the views of the tents and the surrounding landscape were pretty spectacular.
My stopping place for that evening was Taos, which was a couple hours north. I’d gotten a room at a local “rustic” inn, which was pretty great; very western and a little on the crude side. I also got to sample some great New Mexican cuisine at a local restaurant (Orlando’s), including green chili and posole and a flat enchilada stack. Taos is kind of an artsy retreat, with lots of galleries and gift shops and similar stores. It’s also a sort of base camp for nearby hiking and desert camping as well as skiing in the winter, so there are places for support for that as well. I did not spend a lot of time in Taos proper beyond my rustic room and the chili, but it seemed like a pretty good spot for a visit.
I was headed out of New Mexico and toward Colorado the next morning to start a swing through some of the more iconic southwestern scenery like Monument Valley and Natural Bridges, but on the way I stopped to check out the Rio Grande Gorge, which is a pretty big canyon carved by the Rio Grande on its way into New Mexico. There was a cool little dirt road that wound down into the gorge and eventually down to the river, so I jumped on that to check out some of the local scenery. At the bottom, I met Chance and Rio, two friendly dogs that had taken their owner Paula to the river for some fun and exercise. Chance had talked Paula into throwing a floating toy into the river repeatedly, where he’d then jump in, swim out to get it, and then swim it back in for another throw. Rio, being a bit older, mostly just spectated during this, but he seemed to appreciate a good scratch between the ears while spectating, so that became my job. I had a nice chat with Paula, and she recommended some good places to drive along the river to see some birds, ducks, and other scenery. I took her suggestions and drove along the river a bit more to check it out, and then headed northwest on Route 64 into Carson National Forest. The elevation increased pretty rapidly, and I got into a long, beautiful drive through the forest, checking out the thick snowpack, dense pine trees, and interesting rock formations. It was a little cold, but it was just too pretty to drive through with the top up, so I bundled up a bit, put the car into al fresco mode, and kept going. I stopped to see some old trains in Chama, but mostly the scenery was all natural and really pretty. It was a good intro to southwestern Colorado, and I crossed the border out of New Mexico right around sunset and headed toward Durango.