This is the first time I’ve experienced White Sands on a cloudy and rainy day and it made for a completely different kind of beautiful out there in the sand. I ran into an Alamogordo native on the dunes who told me that it’s the first time in his life that he’d been out in the gypsum dunes when it wasn’t “sunny and hot as hell.”
Being out in the clouds and sprinkling rain was certainly nice, but when the thunder started, all I could hear was my mother’s voice telling me to get in the car.
One of the great things about Carlsbad Caverns is that you don’t really have to worry too much about the outside conditions. The caverns are always cool and damp. You do; however, have to worry about time. I arrived this time just as the last tickets were being sold for entrance. This forced me to elevator down rather than taking my preferred path – the hike down into the natural entrance of the cave.
Elevator ride aside, there was still plenty of time to explore and I was among the last people out of the caverns at closing time, which was nice. It’s very quiet when there isn’t anyone down there.
Pictures don’t do this place justice. They just don’t.
Note to self: it’s time to renew your National Parks Pass.
What do most people think of when they think of New Mexico? It’s always interesting to hear the opinions and, sometimes, misconceptions of the people I meet across the country.
I’ll admit, when we moved to New Mexico in 1982 I thought my mother had lost her mind and moved us to the surface of the moon. New Mexico is….different. I don’t mean that in a negative way. While the state has its challenges, just like every other state, the fact that New Mexico is different is what makes it special and there is no other place to notice the different than in the land itself.
Most people don’t realize that New Mexico contains such a wide and varied landscape. I suspect most people think of the desert when they think of New Mexico and we’ve got desert – plenty of high desert to be precise – but we also have prairies, buttes and mesas, red rocks, canyons, and mountains. New Mexico mountains are the southern end of the Rockies, you know. The sunsets in this state will blow your mind…
We’ve also got sand and rocks. Hear me out.
Last week in Southern New Mexico, I visited one National Monument where I’ve been many times before and one state park that I’d never visited. Sand and rocks.
Sand comes in the form of white gypsum at the stunning White Sands National Monument located just outside of Alamogordo. As the website claims, there really is no other place like it on Earth.
White Sands is a gypsum dunefield. Gypsum is a fine, white sand and that sand has been deposited in the Tularosa Basin over hundreds of years to form what is now the national monument. I’m no geologist so if you’re interested in actual detail of the formation of these sand dunes, check out the White Sands National Monument website.
The dunes encompass some 275 square miles and the monument preserves the majority of those dunes. You may have seen sand dunes before. The Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is beautiful, but it isn’t White Sands. As the name indicates, part of what makes White Sands so stunningly beautiful is that the sands are white – duh.
You need sunglasses while visiting – believe me. The New Mexico sun bouncing off the bright white sand is akin to being out on a snow covered mountain in the sun. You can’t squint enough so break out the giant shades before you start rolling into the park. (And water. Please take water with you.)
You can drive through the park and take in the beauty from the car, but if you really want to experience the monument you need to park the car, get out and climb a dune (yes, really!). It’s the only way to experience the magnificence of this place and it’s a great quad workout. Stand a top a dune and take it all in. Sit or lie down in the sand. It’s like the best beach in the world (minus the water). Bring a sled (or rent one at the visitor center) and hike up a dune and slide down. I had fond memories of sledding here as a kid. A friend and I visited White Sands a couple of years ago and we brought our sleds. You don’t go as fast once your butt has reached adult-sized proportions and it’s a little scary staring down the side of a dune, but we sledded any way and laughed our adult rumps off in the process. On this visit I saw an older couple with sleds, sliding slowly down a shorter dune with huge grins on their faces. That’s what it’s about. Get the sled – you won’t regret it. (There is an entrance fee of $20 a car. Or, do as I tell you and get a National Parks Pass already).
In the southwestern corner of the state, nestled between Deming and Bayard lies a little state park called The City of Rocks.
My colleague and I decided to stop on a whim after some meetings. I had heard about this place from a friend of mine who has family in the area. “Stop there,” she says. “It’s really beautiful.” Really? Rocks, beautiful?
She’s right. As you drive into this park you see….nothing. Nothing at all until you come to a small vista at the entrance of the park and then you’re pretty blown away.
The City of Rocks is just that. An outcropping of volcanic rocks standing high in an otherwise flat portion of New Mexico land. (Again, not a geologist so check out the website for in depth rock information). There is a $5.00 day pass fee here or you can camp at the site for the incredibly reasonable amount of $14.00 a day.
We took a spin through the visitors’ center and then headed out to hike among the giant rocks. You can’t really get lost as the rocks are all centered in a small area, but you can run into rattlesnakes in this area so be aware. As most places in New Mexico, please take a hat, some sunglasses and water. (I can’t tell you how many people I encounter hiking in the desert without water. Get a backpack and take it with you. Every time).
For those of you that have a hard time gauging the size of states, New Mexico is the 5th largest state in land mass. The Land of Enchantment encompasses 121,365 miles. On the flip side, New Mexico is the 36th largest state when it come to population with approximately 2 million people. What that means is that there is lots of space in New Mexico and parts of the state are incredibly remote – I mean like nothing on the AM dial remote.
I’m the worst blog writer ever. Seriously. I never write. I thought about writing pretty much all of the summer and fall of 2018. Even jotted down some phrases, ideas, sentences that stuck out in my mind as pretty good and then…..insert crickets chirping here…nothing. I can’t even find the notes where I recorded my thoughts.
I spent most of the second half of 2018 figuring out my professional life, leaving one small company with a great group of coworkers to eventually return to the large company that I left three years ago. It has great coworkers too.
Business travel isn’t new to me and I knew there would come a year in my life where flying for work upwards of 4 times a week every week would get old (or I would get too old for it). It turns out that year was my 44th on the planet.
I’m still traveling but now I get to drive the great state of New Mexico more often than I’m on a plane. And that’s been nice. It also got me thinking that I rarely haul my nice (and expensive camera) out of the house. You know, the camera I bought myself as a treat several years ago with a promise that I’d indulge in (and improve) my photography habit.
My work territory is the state of New Mexico. The entire state. For those of you that have a hard time gauging the sizes of states, New Mexico is the 5th largest state in land mass. The Land of Enchantment encompasses 121,365 miles. On the flip side, New Mexico is the 36th largest state when it come to population with approximately 2 million people. What that means is that there is lots of space in New Mexico and parts of the state are incredibly remote – I mean like nothing on the AM dial remote.
Because our population is so small as compared to our land mass, the population in New Mexico is mostly concentrated along the Interstates. Albuquerque is by far the largest city followed by Las Cruces, Santa Fe and a handful of other cities. After that, the population drops off sharply and you’re left with a series of towns and villages.
In the fall of 2018, I visited all 89 of the school districts in the state (these are my customers). It took several weeks but I finally finished crisscrossing the state.
The highways of New Mexico are littered with abandoned and run down homes, farms, and towns, remnants of days gone by. Scattered along the interstates, highways and state roads are also hundreds of roadside markers. Now, I know a lot of you just go blowing by those markers, but there’s some really interesting history to be found there. I highly recommend this book: Roadside New Mexico: A Guide to Historic Markers. It was recommended to me by the park ranger at the Abo Ruins (worth a stop) and it gives the extended history of all the roadside markers (past and present) in New Mexico. Talk to the park rangers at your National Parks and Monuments…they know a lot of cool stuff.
Those of you that know me well know I’m fascinated with ghost towns, abandoned buildings and the like and there are plenty to see in New Mexico. In some cases, towns were left to die after I-40 overtook Route 66. Others, like Cedarvale, were farming meccas where drought eventually came, ruined the crops and drove the population out.
(Cedarvale was once home to the country’s largest pinto bean producer. All that’s left now are the remnants of a WPA school). Others stopped flourishing after the railroads came and went or the mines were exhausted.
What is even more amazing are the changes in these towns or the quirky ways they are keeping themselves on the map and what one can find in these little towns if you just look a little bit more deeply.
Let’s take the Village of of Mosquero. Mosquero, in Harding County, lies way, way, way out in the middle of….well, nothing. Depending on which census you look at, there are somewhere between 90 and 120 residents in this little village. Sitting so far off the beaten path, not much would bring your average traveler to Mosquero, but it’s a quaint little village where the residents have transformed the sides of almost all of their buildings on the main street into beautiful murals. I’m voting Mosquero the friendliest town in all of New Mexico. I think every resident of the village waved to me as I was exploring the streets and several stopped to chat with me, asking where I was from and could they help me find something – or someone.
In fact, I am starting to miss the friendliness and politeness that is present in most small towns and that sometimes feels largely absent in our bigger cities. I guess you get used the absence of niceties when you live in a larger city (and Albuquerque isn’t really that big…it’s the biggest small town you’ll ever encounter). I mean, sure, you have a handful of people in cities that are friendly and polite, but it just seems that in the smaller towns you see niceness on display in larger and more frequent ways. More kids hold school doors open for me in small towns. More kids call me ma’am in the smaller towns. (Note to small town kids: I don’t really love being called ma’am. I get it’s polite, but could we shoot for “miss” instead?) Maybe as cities grow and grow, we lose the desire to be nicer because we don’t really know our neighbors any more…
The whole point of going down that rabbit hole is to tell you that heading off the beaten path to a small town or village sometimes really pays off. And, perhaps I’m just less vigilant than some of my acquaintances, but I’ve seen some really incredible stuff in parts of my state that other people tend to avoid. “You could get killed out there.” “I never go way out there.” “That’s a weird town.” I think these are all just ways to say that the people in this town aren’t exactly like me and therefore I’m going to react with fear.
Now, I’m not advocating that you go out and behave like an idiot or intentionally put yourself in a situation that looks/smells/seems/feels dangerous, but I am saying: maybe don’t judge a book by its cover.
In addition to the friendliest village ever (Hey Mosquero, hey!), I might have missed all the following if I hadn’t ventured out a bit:
Shiprock and the graffiti art of the Navajo Nation. A lot of people I know are hesitant to visit Shiprock and/or the far Northwestern part of our state. Don’t be! If you do you will miss out on one of the world’s most interesting geologic sights and some incredible art. Shiprock is the erosional remnant of a volcano and it’s incredible. (As a side note, one of my customers told me that New Mexico has more volcanoes than anywhere else in the country. Thank goodness they’re all not actively spewing lava.) You can visit and photograph Shiprock a million times and get a stunning and totally different looking picture each time. If you’re brave and you have a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, you can drive out to the Shiprock. (Don’t go climbing it. It’s a sacred site to the Navajo people.) My other favorite thing in Shiprock (the town) is the incredible graffiti art left on some the buildings in town. I got out of my car on this past trip and really spent some time taking a good look. There’s a lot of talent on these walls.
Art is scattered around the state in some of the most unlikely places you can think of: the painted highway barriers on the Mescalero Apache land, a stilt walker in Albuquerqe, a sculpture of St. Michael that looks almost like animation in Pecos, the Basket Array in Grants, the cowboy sculpture in Jal, murals in Mosquero and Corona and on the walls of Ft. Selden, the painted burros in Carrizozo.
St. Michael and the Devil in Pecos
Mural in Mosquero
Shiprock graffiti art
Basket Array in Grants
Burning of El Kookooee
Mural at Fort Selden
Cowboy Sculpture in Jal
Mural in Corona
Also scattered across the state, merely a stone’s throw from wherever you are….old churches. Mostly Catholic (occasionally another denomination sneaks in) the old churches here in New Mexico are some of my favorite things to photograph. Many have been in use for centuries and lots of them make you feel like you’re somewhere deep in Central or South America. Whether you’re Catholic or not, religious at all or not, these little churches are always worth stopping for.
Shrine at El Santuario de Chimayo
Chapel at Fort Selden
Baptist Church in Corona
St Joseph Apache Mission
Nuestra Senora de Refugio – Puerto de Luna
Chapel of Santa Rosa de Lima
San Felipe de Neri – Old Town Albuquerque
St. Teresa del Nino Jesus – El Turquillo
St. Gertrudes – Cleveland
Our Lady of Light – Lamy
Abandoned Presbyterian Church in Taiban
And, if you’re like me and you geek out over abandoned buildings of any kind, we’ve got those too, including several grist mills. The one in Cleveland, NM has been turned into a pretty great museum.
Old trucks in Carrizozo
Freelove’s in Cuba
La Cueva Mill
Silver Creek Inn – Mogollon
Outside of Portales
Cleveland Roller Mill
Bison at Loma Parda
This year I visited two interesting (and funky) ghost towns…well, semi ghost towns. Both Loma Parda and Mogollon have a handful of eccentric, year-round residents. If you want to see the really good stuff, make friends with the locals, trust me. It turns out that the main streets in these abandoned towns are just the surface of what’s actually out there to see.
Loma Parda has a pretty seedy history. Located not too terribly far from Fort Union, it was the place that military officers most often found the men that had deserted the fort and they found them drinking and spending time in the company of “women with loose morals.” Today you can wander the streets with a herd of bison.
Mogollon is a placed I’d long wanted to visit. The road to get here is perhaps the scariest, one lane, mountain climbing roads I’ve ever driven. Watch out for the UPS driver flying up the road from the opposite direction. Mogollon was a mining town and much remains…see if you can pick out the actual abandoned buildings from those built for movie sets. The Silver Creek Inn is being worked on and you can actually stay in Mogollon in the summer months. (If anyone has stayed, let me know!)
Don’t be afraid to take the dirt road and venture out a little bit. You almost always find something worth seeing, someone worth talking to and some food worth eating.