Thursday. February 6th. 2020
The American Southwest: Where bushy white mustaches and cowboy hats go together like the red and white stripes of an American flag.
Seconds into New Mexico's southwestern town of Silver City, I watched two cats having a stand-off on top of a tin roof. Paul Newman move over, these are cats on a cool tin roof! Silver City is really a unique and happening city. It’s got great restaurants, tons of coffee cafés and a lot of importance put onto small, local farming.
I decided after all the woodland and desert camping I’d done in the past five days, I would treat myself to a nice dinner at one of these unique eateries. I selected Revel for its local variety of food and drink items. The cold wind was being funneled down into the streets of this town and I had to bundle up just to walk the few steps out onto the main drag. I came in through the crooked and heavy door with a whoosh of cold air and sat down for the final moments of their happy hour. I tried out a local porter and a bowl of fresh, warm artichoke dip with a side of house-made sourdough bread.
I got to catch up on some of the writings from the past experiences and within the hour, a couple of female musicians by the name of Moonshine started setting up their sound stage. They harmonized together incredibly and would smile at one another while they played, indicating a soft and friendly connection between the two. They both drank water from enormous mason jars and wore their moccasins with pride. I couldn’t tell if they were sisters, twins or just tightly bonded friends, but regardless of their electric connection, their guitar playing and singing was acoustic.
(The natural formations Gila Cliff Dwellings)
GILA CLIFF DWELLINGS
Friday. February 7th. 2020
From Silver City, my next major site to visit would be the Gila Cliff Dwellings. There was only one way up to it, and that was from route 15. It didn’t continue on, so you either went back down towards Silver City or could cut over on route 35 and travel along the Black Ranges towards Hillsboro.
I only had to go ten miles up the fifty-mile route before finding the Cherry Creek Campgrounds. It was late, so they would do just fine for the night. It was equally as cold here as it was in town, except being within the shade of the mountain range. Snow and ice were abundant. The creek flowed heavily behind the spot I pulled into. With 0 camp work done, I hopped into the back of the shell and went right to sleep. At dawn, I had heard another car start up and leave and I wasn’t too far behind.
The GPS said it was a two-hour drive up to the Cliff Dwellings due to it being a lot of vertical, mountainous switchback travel. Seeing as I was at just about the closest point, I would be well ahead of any crowds on this start to a soon to be sunny and warm weekend. The park didn’t open until 9 AM, so my 7 AM departure would be perfect timing. Turns out, winter hours had the visitor center not opening until 9:30 and the Dwellings themselves not until 10. I was the first car at the visitor's center but could see a couple of guys inside. The door was unlocked so I went in, unaware of the posted winter hours. I asked if they were open and as they were still shaking the sleep from their heads said sure, it was fine. We got to talking about the dwellings and I started sharing my assessment of the Ancestral Puebloans. I was relieved to hear that my understanding of their history was corroborated by the two gents. I was at least on the right track towards unraveling the most ancient mystery I've ever encountered.
I had shared what I thought were some of the more radical theories on what would encourage a group of settlers, at the height of their cultural history, to abandon open and resourceful valleys fit for agriculture and transcend into primitive, arduous and perilous cliffside dwellings to live and operate from. I asked, "That’s not a normal progression for most ancient cultures, right?" And the ranger agreed it was not common in the timetables for most ancient groups. I went out on a limb and said that perhaps due to the abundance of resources, this also led to increases in greed, in-fighting and thusly the fracturing of larger tribes. Evidence of cannibalism emerged and well, I think that would be reason enough to land you and your family within a cliff fearing for your life. He said, “Oh yes, that's not an uncommon theory actually,” and pointed to a thick book sitting along the bottom corner of their bookshelf. It had skulls on the front and was called, Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest. "Not your best seller," I said with a smile and thumbed through the pages of bashed-in skulls and sawed apart limbs. He says, "I'll make you a deal on that book. $1." He said he's never sold a copy yet and since I was the first person to bring it up, he'd give me a deal. I did not pass on this amazing and shocking offer and purchased it along with a state park patch.
I walked through the museum and took notes on different things like the migrations of Apaches from the Alaskan tribes in the Northeast to the names of the different and overlapping Ancestral Puebloan tribes. There was also the mentioning of a man’s name I’d never heard before, and that was, Aldo Leopold. Most all of the work done towards protecting and preserving these lands and on into the Black Ranges was done by this person in particular. His words regarding these subjects really resonated with me, and I found it as shocking and similar to the readings of Benjamin Franklin and the forefathers predicting the shaping and future climate of the nation long before these things had ever occurred. In the early 1900s, Leopold was already witnessing the rapid destruction of a natural and pristine environment.
Leopold writes: Like wind and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth the cost in things natural, wild and free. For us, the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.
(Sun shines brilliantly inside the cliff dwellings)
The day was heating up, and while I still had the empty park to my advantage, I said some goodbyes to the rangers and moved up the road towards the dwellings. Out there, I met another ranger who greeted me by complimenting and asking about my truck. He told me about the trail leading up to the dwellings and explained its natural formations. I went into what seemed like a very similar site to Bandelier, minus the extensive pit homes laid out in the valley below. This was purely a stopping point for nomadic tribes reaching as far back in history as we can imagine. Though, it was the Mogollon natives that decided it would be better than just a stop-off and set up life here in the cliffs. Once again, at the height of their cultural time period...
There were very good strategic points to these cliffs, as they faced into the southern sky at the most preferred angle during the winter to warm the caves during the day and during the summer months it offered shade from the sun as it moved northward. Lots of wildlife ran through this area and there was also access to running water.
Adding into my understanding of their history, was a 24-year drought that likely contributed to most of the strife these ancient groups faced and caused them to change their living habits so drastically. Migration was already written into their culture, so upon sensing a disruption in their newly settled agrarian lifestyle, packing up and moving on was probably still readily accessible in their anecdotal memories.
On the way back I talked with the ranger a bit more. With the frequency I saw people in my days spent at dispersed campsites, a friendly conversation went a long way for me. With the warm weekend fully engaged now, cars were starting to pull in by the twos and threes. We had enough time between visitors to resume our conversation, but I could tell he was starting to get busy. He had worked the oil fields on the North Slope of Alaska and even a solo-enterprise in North Dakota. He would be the first of two persons that described for me life within an Alaska oil field. I said my goodbyes and went on down the road, ready to catch that scenic road towards Hillsboro by recommendation of the lady from the VLA observatory.
(Clear skies open up the views on Emory Pass)
The road through the Black Ranges was as impressive as any switchback I’ve been on. And the glowing weekend sun had things teeming with activity. I got up to Emory Pass, which is one of the most amazing vistas I’ve ever been to. With the clear desert atmosphere, I could see endlessly across the varied and distant landscapes. Cars were pulling in with a good frequency here too, and a couple of folks and I got to chatting.
Two separate persons, both of which, life-long locals to the area, mentioned taking route 35 towards Hillsboro and the Lake Valley route. They had each stopped at a point there on the corner of the connecting highways called, Nutt Corner. Not a big stop off, but couldn't be missed. I figured two separate people mentioning this couldn't be by any dismissable coincidence, so I would continue to trust the local information. It would be the best decision of my trip yet.
(A sunny Saturday on Nutt Corner)
CHILLY WILLY & THE NUTT BAR
Exactly as everyone had described I followed the road out towards Hillsboro and when seeing the signs for Lake Valley, peeled off towards rolling cattle-filled countrysides. At the end of this road is the intersection with Highway 26, a cut-through between Deming and Hatch, and upon its corner was the Nutt Bar.
During this route, a check engine light had turned on while wheeling around in a gravel part of the road. I thought maybe a rock went up and perhaps struck a tire sensor. So, after pulling into the gravel lot, I got out and started crawling around beneath the truck inspecting things. I couldn’t find any signs of disrupted sensors, so I shrugged and walked up towards the front porch. Clustered together in a pile was a group of friends that turned out to be the only persons there, including the tenants to the bar. Though, I think they all take turns tending to that role. They were no doubt enjoying the warm sunshine like everyone else was in the state. One lady went inside to fetch for me a cold beer and a chair to sit on as well.
After we get finished introducing ourselves, the lady sitting next to me says with a beguiled look, “Sorry I sucked you up my tailpipe earlier." She was referring to speeding past me on Lake Valley road as I was underneath the vehicle investigating what could have caused the check engine light to turn on. “Yeah, lot of help you were,” I said with a laugh. We all got to instantly liking each other, and I continued to make them laugh with the answers I had to their questions like, “Where I’m going... Oh here and there. What do I do... You know, look for dolphins in the ocean.” They thought I was a hoot and I thought they were top-notch too. So, I stuck around for a few more beers and got to know them and find out about the area I was in. They too got to find out things about this peculiar stranger in their parts. In fact, I even got the nickname of, "stranger" written on my bar tab by one of the ladies as she couldn’t remember what I had said my name was.
They would tell funny stories of chasing people off their land when they’d think it was a parking lot or public hunting lands. I thought how could such a wide-open space have so many instances of people crossing into each other’s land. I’d come to find out, it wasn’t as big as I thought, and everyone certainly knew everyone. They’d often allow their lands to be hunted on for the deer that roamed around freely. Antelope too, for that matter. I think there’s a song about those two getting together to play.
And while we sat here swapping tales and information about ourselves, in pulls a sharp-looking SUV. From the vehicle out walks a kind-looking pair of characters who I'll never forget. Chilly Willy and his wife, Ester. Willy was instantly recognized and with his gloved hands starts making his way around to shake all of ours. I stand up to greet him and give his wife Ester a sideways kiss on the cheek.
Willy would look at me and nod his head a few times, pausing before he cracked a well-timed and on-the-spot joke that I was defenseless to not laugh and smile at. He was absolute humor and his wife Ester would laugh and look the other way, as I'm sure she's seen this sort of routine far too often.
Willy was known around these parts because a long while back he built a restaurant despite the better advice of everyone else. It was all done to fulfill a dream he had and to get the girl of his dreams that he was here and now seated next to.
He wanted to create a burrito shop and implant his mother's recipes into the stomachs and minds of Hatch's residents. He saw an opportunity where only one other person in town was doing it and despite the other burrito guy trying to sway him against the idea by telling him what a good farmer he was, Willy stuck to his plan and sought out the funds to make it happen. He was, in fact, a very accomplished farmer, but it was because of all this hard work he had done around town since he was a boy that one of those persons listened and respected his dream, providing the loan he needed to make the down payment. He purchased the vacant lot next to where the town's high school was and this would be the site for the, "B and E" restaurant still 41 years later.
Like most restaurant stories go, their secret to success was in the usage of old family recipes passed down by Willy’s mother. Their salsas are sold all over the state and even online, but he is truly known for his home-grown Hatch chilies. A puréed blend of the local pepper variety that gives this town, and by large this state, its reputation as the chile capital of the world.
Willy’s life story is one of the picturesque tales of the iconic trials and tribulations as well. His 50-year marriage to Ester is a love story that everyone in life wants to imagine as a real and attainable thing. I asked him what allows a marriage like that to go the distance and he said immediately with determination in his voice, “Hard work!” And it would be hard work that defined every moment in this man’s life.
Without any formal training, he built the restaurant from the ground up in just eight months. Within the second month of service, they were already in need of a remodel to accommodate the growing crowds. He would be up at dawn every day getting the place ready for its customers. The B and E’s reputation would start to sweep across the state, and tomorrow morning I was invited to go along with a few of the Nutt Bar friends to see for myself what it was all about.
Some of the group had already gone home, but Willy, Ester and the bar owner’s, Susan and Thomas and I hung out a while longer sharing in stories that brought many more laughs to the table we’d now moved inside to. Willy had a lot of great stories that all went towards the very likable community man that he was. A funny musing went like this: One time, early on in the time of the restaurant, the apartments behind the restaurant had caught fire and all but two were burnt to the ground. He obtained these apartments in the purchase he made for the land, and when he started to level the two, still standing units, there inside one of the walls was a first edition, like-new edition of a Roy Rogers comic book. It had somehow remained untouched by the smoke and fire of the other buildings and by today’s standard would be worth thousands of dollars. Well, they took it with them to their house and either can’t remember where they had put it or it disappeared as if it had never existed in the first place. Sort of like my found crystal, I reckon. They both reserved a bit of optimism for it simply being tucked away someplace in their house that they just don’t know about.
Thomas didn’t really sit with the group at all, but now and again would walk out from the back and go into the kitchen for something and then quietly slide off to be unnoticed in the back again. They kept saying he’s back there working on his sticks, which I could make no guesses at what that meant. Until finally he came out to show us what he had been working on. They were hand-carved walking sticks made from the very light, but extremely sturdy wood taken from inside a tall, dried out Saguaro cactus. These iconic cacti only grow in Arizona and can further only be collected by natives, as they are a part of their cultural traditions.
The sticks were totally cool and both Willy and I desired to have one. I think Willy wanted to have it for his truck so he could use it as a weapon against anyone that should get unruly and need a respectful, yet necessary whack. Thomas held it out in his hand and said you could whack someone pretty good with it and it not break. I really admired it for its lightness and wide grip at the top, which was actually down at the base of the cactus. Its shape and size resembled that of a rifle with the butt of it as the handle and the body being the barrel. The one he was showing us had a natural split at the bottom, which I thought gave it the exact appearance of an over-under double-barrel shotgun. We went through another series of one more's in both cervezas and tales before the night was finally ended.
Since I was going to breakfast with them over in Hatch, they said I could park my truck in the gravel lot there and stay overnight. They even suggested I come in for coffee in the morning, if that’s something I’d like. I slept like a baby in what normally would be uncomfortable, mid-thirty degree night, but from encountering blizzard-like snowfall and frosted-over 20º windows most nights, this was a balmy and sleep-replenishing night in comparison.
Saturday. February 8th. 2020
In the morning I’d gone into the bar where Susan had the TV on watching the Andy Griffith Show. They got me a cup of coffee and she started telling me all about her life and the history of how they came to be part owners of the bar. Almost every account of what brought people to the area of Hillsboro was that they had been passing through, liked it, and the rest was history. A lot of folks out here have houses in a few different places and Thomas and Susan were no different. But as the bar owners, they spent most of their time there on Nutt Corner in a motor home that Thomas had fashioned for them. Every so often they'll both make a run back to Tuscon, but Susan goes for two days out of the week, every week without exception. They also still enjoy taking the occasional road trip either on a motorbike or with the trailer attached.
Thomas said I should just ride with them and we were off to Hatch to see Willy’s establishment. The hit item there was the bean and onion enchiladas with a fried egg over top and covered in the hatch chili liquid. Upon first bite, both Susan and I got hit with an unexpected flash of heat from the chilis, but with the beans, brown rice and steamed flour tortilla, it settles down quite well as a complete melody. I got introduced to a few more locals and even Willy himself stopped by with Ester. It was only in passing, as they had baseball games to get to for their grandchildren.
Willy #4 was a top prospect for Arizona University’s baseball program and did quite well playing in the shortstop position. Willy 4 had a good background in baseball, as Chilly Willy considered himself a real home run hitter. We chatted there for a while and then drove back. All along the way, I was taught the various family history of each section of land. Ranching in this area went back at least five generations for most. The Hatch Valley hosted fertile dairy lands but was also a hub of agriculture, namely the Hatch Chili Pepper, that is sold worldwide.
When we got back to the Nutt Bar, Thomas asked what I was doing for the rest of the day. I had heard Susan was making her fry-bread the next day at the Nutt Bar and it sounded like something I shouldn’t miss. I said, “Nothing really.” And he said, “Well, come with me, we’ll go up to Hillsboro and see the pickers.” I had heard folks mentioning these pickers, but I didn’t know if they meant tomatoes, noses or what! Turns out, on Saturdays, a group of musicians get together on a particular corner and pick stringed instruments: Mandolins, stand-up bases and guitars.
Thomas and Susan also had a house in Hillsboro and they offered it to me as a place to take a shower and could also run a load of laundry. I was humbled by their generosity, but I think from being grandparents themselves, caring for youngsters just came naturally to them. But to overlook what was happening all around me would be a true disservice to the story. This was also the way of life here. People just looked after one another and I would start to collect my evidence through every single person that I came to be introduced to. That it was a town full of generous and kind individuals. Everyone was so warm to me and within those three days, I wrote down each of their names to remember for when I came back.
Phil & Westie... an enjoyable pair, Westie was one of the best ropers in the Southwest.
Betty & Steve... I talked with Steve for hours and Betty was sweet as pie.
Jean Thorton... A pilar within the community, I had the chance to visit his ranch.
Nance... She's the lovable one who sucked me up her tailpipe.
Alice & John... I met them on the first day, but lovely folk as well.
Adolf & Josie... Adolf was an equally charming character and had lots to say.
Mark Hartman... I had the chance to walk around on his ranch. A real cowboy!
Chilly Willy & Ester... The endearing and triumphant couple from Hatch.
Mary & Ike... The owners of the Hillsboro leather shop where I got a new hat from.
Brian & Nikki... Owners of the Hillsboro Wine Bar who even grow their own grapes!
and who could forget my generous and kind hosts... Thomas & Susan!
(Hopi Fry Bread)
Sunday. February 9th. 2020
Come fry bread day, when I said I would be available to help out, I had been officially adopted by the Nutt Bar. They even announced it publicly to everyone that came in! It was a hoot for some of them to have met this stranger a day prior and here I am in the back working on fry bread, taking orders and fetching beers for the growing crowds. I loved every second of it. After having spent the day in Hillsboro learning everyone's names, I felt as familiar as if I’d known them all for ten years.
The action point of the day came when, due to the warm sunshine of the past few days, an Eastern Diamondback crawled itself up to the concrete blocks of the front porch and curled itself up for a sunbath. It was thicker than my wrist and after it was shot and hung on the back fence, it extended out to be the length of four rows of cattle fencing. I continued to meet more and more folks that day and one in particular sat and asked all about where I'd been and where I was intending on going in New Mexico. Being sure to give plenty of tips of what not to miss and particular routes to travel along. He and I sat there until we closed down the joint.
The fry bread was a huge success and despite saying we’d stop serving around three, I insisted we keep going until we plum ran out of dough a little after 6 PM. I made quite an impression on Susan and Thomas and they said whenever I come back, I always have a spot there. They’d let me bartend and certainly could find work with some of the ranchers in the area. I said I’d like to not be involved with any saw work on the heifers, but could certainly do other odds and ends around the properties. They said, “Oh sure, but just be aware, they’re all gonna want you working on their fences!”
(Ranchers in Hillsboro)
Thomas is a good ol’ boy just like everyone else here. A former Marine serving in the Vietnam war and now spends his day helping Susan with the bar. He enjoys taking trips on his Indian touring bike, spending time with the grandkids when they visit in the summertime and mixing it up with the locals. Susan, who went through the foster program herself, became a foster parent of her own and continued to work for the state in social service programs, like CPS for many years. Her Hopi ancestry is still a part of her life and she has her foster family relatives as well as her own native lineage back in Tucson. Thomas said that woman is always ready to go and they had a long list of travels they'd taken over the years as well as some really interesting tales of when they were kids. Susan was one of the most caring and intelligent persons I’ve ever met when it comes to how to effectively raise children. The tools and resources she gave to parents to become better at raising their children and by large, becoming more effective members of society was worthy of a medal. Nearly all of her social program work with children in distressed families ended in success. It was a 5-year program that the parents entered into voluntarily. In the later years, when it became CPS, it would sometimes be involuntary and they didn’t have the same success as it did when things were done otherwise.
NEW MEXICO PART 3: Cosmic Campgrounds to Hillsboro (VIDEO)
Monday. February 10th. 2020
Monday and Tuesday the bar doesn’t open, so I had figured before I was on the receiving end of much more of their generosity, ought to hit the road. Thomas, again offered me coffee and even made a three-egg omelet, loaded me up with two six-packs of beer and tried to stick a second cowboy hat on my head before I left. Thankfully Susan had already left early that morning or I might have cried saying goodbye to her. She took to me like a grandmother I haven’t had around in a very long, long time.
So, I waved goodbye to Tom and was out traveling towards Hatch. Now able to recognize the names and history behind the farmlands I traveled past. By recommendation of Chilly Willy, they had a tire shop I could stop in with regards to that check engine light. No issues showed up and for the cost of a burrito, I had the light cleared and was headed towards White Sands National Monument.
(White Sand National Park)
THE WHITE SANDS OF ALAMOGORDO
White Sands is an anomaly in the desert and anything weird always catches my attention. I can remember when I had first come to Florida, I purchased a book called, “Weird Florida,” and it served as the backbone for my thorough exploration of that state. Well, White Sands NM, which shares its space with the White Sands Missile Range (often closing down the adjacent park) is just that kind of oddity. Its a smattering of stark white, finely ground gypsum that has been wind-blown into dunes that nearly made me think I was back in Florida. It's in a valley between the Organ Mountains, a series of rugged, spiked towers and the Sierra Blancas, a snow-swept range obscured by clouds. Below those, in this 4000’ valley, the clouds encircle it and the blue skies cast down brilliant rays of light onto the white, reflective dunes.
It's a very busy place and I’d heard of sledding on the dunes. I stopped in the gift shop which was at the bustling entrance to the park, but was displeased to see they only sold the plastic, circular disks and did not rent them.
When I asked the lady in the gift shop who sold the sleds, she replied, “Well, sometimes we have used ones, but as you can see we have none.” She points to an empty space on the floor with a sign behind it saying USED. I said, “So no used ones, eh?” She says again matter of factly, “We only have ones for purchase that are yours to keep. If you bring it back, we buy them for $5.” I said, "And they cost $18?" She nods as if this was not her mountain to die on. I said, "Well, I don’t want this giant, bright-colored plastic disk riding around in the truck with me. Do you expect any used ones to make their way back anytime soon?" She repeated robotically, "We buy them back for $5 and I cannot guess at when one will be returned." I thanked her for the information and decided to not lose out on $13 and go see the park for myself.
It turns out the dunes aren’t super tall, but I certainly would have ventured off one on a sled just because you could. The park is about a two-mile road into the center of the dune field and then you either loop back out or get out and explore on foot. There’s a couple of walking trails, but it is not open 24-hours and you had to be out by 7 PM. Really, it's all the same thing, with a lot of cars, people and noise from a uniform height that only allows you to see about three hundred yards in any direction, with exception to the surrounding mountains.
(White Sands National Park)
I walked around and enjoyed the warmth to this 50º day, but decided I could move on and not feel that I’d lost any from the experience. By recommendation of Steve from the Nutt Bar, I thought about going into Cloud Croft to camp amongst the serene beauty of a mountaintop village. But once I got over the 5000' vertical climb into its city limits, all around me were the sites of piled up snow and what basically looked like a ski resort town. Inside the gas station, the tenant was crying out emphatically that she hopes it doesn’t snow again tonight, she has to get back down the mountain tomorrow. I looked around a little worried about what I’d gotten myself into and asked about a particular camp area I had in mind. The lady working the register said, “Oh yes, it’s nice there, but I’d be careful!” I didn’t ask what for, but I imagine it was something along the lines of getting stuck.
Once I broke out onto the perimeter road that went along the ridge, I was seeing the same signs of camp closures as I’d seen while visiting the Jemez mountains outside of Santa Fe right after a big January snowfall. Finally, I found one road that had its access point still open, and I ventured on into the daring Russia Canyon pass.
The snow was piled up a third of the way on the tires and I had a few old snow ruts to drive in, but it had been laid flat for some time. I saw two or three mule deer that jumped out and crossed in front. I went on another half mile before coming to the end of the dated tire tracks I was using. I tried to go past this point but was instantly met by spinning tires. Even in 4H, I realized I could really get stuck in this stuff and more snow was coming. I backed up, now in 4L, until I could plow myself around in a three-point turn and head back in the direction I’d come in from. I checked out a few dry spots I’d seen just to ask myself the question of, “It might be cool, you could probably get away with camping here." There’s clearly a lot of amazing wildlife in this area, but ultimately knowing I was at 9200’ feet and remembering that blizzard on Elk Mountain Peak within the Gila, I decided to get out now while I still could.
The issue with making these kinds of decisions and attempts is that now I am behind schedule on making it to another town/campsite before sunset. All of the areas I could search for in the area were similar in elevation and I would undoubtedly be stuck in the same, hours-from happening snowstorm. So, I said let's just wheel it over the top of the mountain and back out onto the high desert roads where I can hopefully find a patch of secluded land to pull-off on for a quick night's stop.
What ended up happening was, I entered onto a stretch of privately-leased BLM land and the last thing I wanted to do was take my chances camping here and find myself awoken by a rifle tapping upon my window. So, I kept trucking. I tried a few more dirt roads, just to get a feel for the lay of the land, but even despite seeing a very friendly bus driver waving at me as she bounced down the road, I saw nothing but signs stating, “Private Lands: No Hunting or Trespassing.” Rather than venturing any further and wasting more precious daylight, I doubled back and kept moving towards the next town. And the next town after that one. I decided let's just get to an area with cell reception, check for the next nearest BLM campsite and make my way there. I know what those campsites look like, daytime or not, and I was still moving towards my intended destination, Carlsbad Caverns.
After all of that driving, I was getting pretty tired, but at least I could count on what to expect at these primitive sights. Unfinished roads, which usually meant little to no campers and public land so I don’t have to worry about being somewhere I shouldn’t.
The only part that gets to me is not being able to visually get a good feel for the area I’m camped at or the towns I passed through. They often tell you a lot about the state of affairs in that area. I did know that I was less than an hour's drive from the city of Juarez, Mexico, known for their unrivaled displays of butchery and savageness. Because of this, I felt I ought to air a bit of precaution. I don't know why, but for some reason, I imagined zombie-like droves of blood-thirsty cartel escapees coming over the rugged hills and flooding into my encampment. Needless to say, I slept with a loaded revolver beneath the bedding as I've done at other times when not able to fully decipher my surroundings. The obscured logic had turned to vivid fascinations.
Tuesday. February 11th. 2020
Speaking of rampant wind and gusty imaginations, I awoke to a driving 35 mph wind that blew straight across the campsite. Before the sun had fully cleared the horizon, the sideways mist had turned to sideways snow. I looked at the weather report a few times making sure I was seeing it right as the temperatures from this morning to this afternoon were getting lower. The good news was, I was less than five miles from Carlsbad and ten miles to the start of Guadalupe National Park. All that driving had really paid off and I couldn't have positioned myself any better for the next few days activities. As the idea for Mammoth Caves had come, so too did the one for Carlsbad.
When the weather gets sour.. head underground!
Carlsbad Caverns was a must-see site for me after having already visited Mammoth Caves on this trip. Carlsbad boasts the deepest cave in the United States at over 1600 feet below the surface. While Mammoth Caves, at over 400 miles, is the longest explored cave in the world. At the time, only the main room was open, but that is by no measure a disappointment.
The Main Room extends 4000 feet and is wider than two football fields. It took me a solid thirty minutes to walk from one end of it to the other. When I started to make my way back, I met with a couple of rangers for some Q & A at the end of the tour. Its asked that people not speak loudly, but limit themselves only to a whisper due to the amplification sounds receive in this enormous, echoing chamber. To be there at the closing hours and have a space of this size practically to myself with no sounds except the steady drip of cool, hydrogen-sulfide-enriched waters was a genuine experience. It was hard to believe places like this exist all on their own. Sure, stream beds and mountain scenes are impressive in their own right, but to compare this underground spectacle to the above-ground wonders was literally night and day.
I carried on, capturing images, now wiser to use a slow-shutter on a steady tripod and marveled at the variety of formations. The occurrence of its magnificent features is because Carlsbad Caverns was formed in a much different method than Mammoth and most the other karst systems. Karst is the process of carbonic acid dissolving beds of limestone and an ensuing network of underground rivers continues the process of erosion, dropping further and further down as the millennia's speed by. Often, a hard shale cap covers the limestone keeping the cavern intact, but due to continual sub-surface erosion, it's very common to have sinkholes and cave-ins at these sights.
Florida as a great example of this as the entire state is one giant limestone bed.
While Carlsbad's formation still falls under the umbrella term for cavern creation called, speleogenesis, it also shares a similar timestamp with Mammoth by beginning its geological processes inside the Permian time period. Speleogenesis simply refers to the general process of dissolving calcium carbonate (limestone) by a solvent. Where the two cave systems differ drastically, is in that Carlsbad does not follow the usual karst system of carbon-dioxide enriched water dissolving its way down from the surface, but rather formed by an upwelling of hydrogen-sulfide gas emerging from large, naturally occurring petroleum beds that exist beneath the limestone. When this gas meets water, the oxygen from the water creates sulfuric acid and this bottom to top dissolution created the caverns we see today. If you'll notice, almost all of Carlsbad 120 caverns exist at a similar depth of roughly 500-1000 feet below the surface giving evidence to the location of where the water table was at that time.
But what gives Carlsbad those iconic formations that draw in half a million visitors each year? There is only one known entrance to the caves and the air that can enter the cave naturally, carries with it moisture and more calcium carbonate. It adheres to the roof like condensation in a tent and drips its way to the bottom. Deposits also accumulate on the bottom and the combination of this is what gives the caves those fabulous speleothems. It was a bit like a scavenger hunt to try and find and identify the soda straw, popcorn and drapery formations, but it was impossible to miss the giant columns and stalactite/stalagmites all around.
During my stroll out, I found myself in front of a pair of rangers who were in charge of ensuring all the guests had left and would turn out the lights in progressive order as we exited. I walked and talked with one who goes by the name of, Dave in the Cave and he answered a lot of my questions and provided much of the information you see above. When he first asked if I had any questions I, of course, went to what had been on my mind this entire time, "When and where do we meet for the dance party?" I thought it was comical and got the desired, quiet, chuckle from Dave, but he took it a step further and went on to explain to me the history of a ceremony that took place in the caves during its exploration era called, "The Rock of Ages." People would gather in this great spectacle and sing popular hymns from their day. A long period had passed where this tradition became dormant, but recently it has resurfaced again with an annual ceremony taking place and the fabled song, "Rock of Ages" is sung once again.
Dave was really kind in his demeanor and actually came from a family of cave enthusiasts and lineage of rangers. He pointed out for me a few fossils embedded in the rock and also shared with me the peculiar duties of their clean-up efforts in order to help preserve the park against the influx of visitors they receive each year. First, people like to toss coins into the standing water, which causes a chemical process not natural to the caves. So, they use a long extended spoon to fish those out. Second, apparently lint is a real problem there and they make regular sweeps to pull out 40lbs of it a year. I can't imagine how much they don't find in the endless pockets of dimly-lit, craggy hiding places. There isn't the same level of species that exist in Carlsbad as there is in Mammoth (due to the lack of natural entrances), but they do still try to monitor and regulate the environmental conditions inside it.
Aside from the enormous spaces and magnificent formations, Carlsbad is also known for a daily mass exodus of bats at the hour of sunset, but since this species of Mexican free-tailed bat is migratory, it only takes place May through October.
My own exodus from the cave pitted me back into the grips of a frigid and opaque weather system. Two systems had moved through that day, one from the Southwest and a Gulf-originated system coming in from the South. Both of which carried heaps of moisture and in these temps meant more snow. I got back up to the campsite and hunkered down for the night. I had to move a little higher up on the range as my spot from the night before had been sequestered by a van capable of making it up the steep, rutted incline. It made no difference as the winds in the desert run unimpeded.
(Sunrise over the Chihuahuan Desert)
Wednesday. February 12th. 2020
After two nights in the Carlsbad area, I was ready to explore more of the Chihuahuan desert region. Eager to collect a new park patch, I took a long route out towards the Guadalupe National Park visitors center which had me back in Texas. The winds did not lighten, in-fact they went up 10 mph. I held onto my clothing pieces as I walked the short distance into the visitor's center. I found out there was no camping within the park except by paysites ranging $15 a night. I was left with the choice to either spend the rest of the day exploring here or start making my way back onto the other side of the range where I'm once again within the freedom of BLM land. I paid for the patch, thanked the ranger and made my way down the road a few miles to get a glimpse of El Cap straight on before it became obscured by clouds.
The winds were absolutely ripping through this area at a ferocity I've only encountered in tropical storms. In fact, winds can reach hurricane status (75mph+) at a pretty regular occurrence. It's eerie to think of 70-100 mph winds on land. I shot a few time-lapses as they work really well with rapidly shifting skies, and was back in the truck. I wheeled it up over the median, by instruction from the ranger and started heading back up the way I came. I would circle to the backside of the Guadalupe Mountains towards a site called Sitting Bull Falls. From there, I would read the land and determine where I wanted to camp at.
Sitting Bull Falls was an iron box paysite, which I was openly upset about. I thought about jipping them the $5, still disgruntled by the $18 sled scam, but decided any effort to preserve nature would be worth the money to me. It was a very clean site too with original shelters built by the CCC in 1930 still in existence. It had nice wheelchair access, which is worth some concrete being laid down so all could enjoy. I wasn't pleased about walking up a paved walkway, but there was a non-paved hiking trail that one could take to the top of the falls. I also later discovered a non-paved natural entrance to the falls, which could be discovered with a short hop of the metal railing.
It seemed really scenic upon first look, but I felt because I didn't really have to work hard to get there, that it was somehow less attractive. I jumped around and explored the small, enclosed space taking pictures of the falls from different angles. The more time I spent there, the more I started to really appreciate this space. I had read that natives would use this site to do negotiations with the white-folk. And that narrative really resonated with me the entire time I was there. I felt awash with a sense of peace instilled upon me by the beauty of it, and the rejuvenating power felt from the falls could surely give someone the encouragement to do hard things.