Road Trip–TX+AZ

Austin – Lubbock – Roswell – Carlsbad – Fort Davis – Austin

There are also photos from this trip.

28 June 2002: Friday

They say “Happiness is Lubbock in your rearview mirror.” That saying now has a visceral immediacy for me.

The drive into Lubbock on US 84 is utterly desolate. Not as bad as the Salt Flats, but pretty awful. No trees. No variation in terrain. You have to wonder what made some settlers look around and decide “This looks good. Let’s stop here!”

The town of Lubbock itself feels like a pathologically orderly suburb. All commerce is conducted in shopping malls, almost exclusively through chain stores. All lawns are meticulously manicured, watered, and chemically treated to the point of making astro-turf seem realistic by comparison.

While in Lubbock, we played putt-putt golf with Gwen’s family (her sister and was visiting, daughter in tow). Putt-putt is my least favorite variety of miniature golf. The courses are completely bare. No amusing features–no windmills, no lumberjacks, no Mt Rushmore dioramas…

On our way out of town, we stopped to try to get gas at a Citgo at the edge of town. The gas station itself is defunct, but misleadingly busy: it has taken on a new life as a venue for drug deals. We drove away quickly.

After Lubbock, we passed through the improbably named town of Meadow (pop. 658). More flat nothingness. It is a little north of the aptly named town of Brownfield, which tells you all you need to know about that place.

Sign spotted on a church in Brownfield: “To be almost saved is to be totally lost.”

The town of Artesia NM proclaims the motto “the sweet smell of success” on a billboard at the edge of town. In case you were wondering, success smells exactly like an oil refinery.

Roswell’s downtown is predictably tacky, with lots of silly alien-themed businesses and touches on non-alien businesses. The furniture store has gray aliens in the window. My favorite schtick: the old-timey streetlights have those big oval alien eyes on them. The rest of town (based on an inexhaustive drive-through) doesn’t pick up the alien theme at all, providing a bit of relief to the locals. Roswell seems to be the town people from the surrounding area visit when they need to go into town.

One aspect of the whole UFO schtick that I wonder about is the people who take that stuff really seriously. The downtown has a couple of libraries and museums of ufology that cater to them, but even they have their goofy gift shops attached. I wonder how the serious ufologists take that. Inwardly, they’re probably shaking their fists and screaming “You people just don’t understand!”. It must drive them nuts.

Spending Friday night in Carlsbad, a ways south of Roswell and a little north of the caverns, which we will see tomorrow. We’re down the road from a drive-in, where we plan to take in a show. (Regardless of the show–it’s just for the opportunity to go to the drive-in!) Our motel, the Carlsbad Inn, is a shabby place that seems as if it has never been new. It’s not unclean (indeed, the toilet had one of those “sanitized for your protection” straps), it’s just creaky and cheap.

We wound up seeing Starwars Episode 2 at the drive-in. I had previously seen this in digital projection at the Metreon, so seeing it at the drive-in was an amusing contrast. Each has its merits.

29 June 2002: Saturday

Saturday was the day of highs and lows, though both were high points.

We started the day with a visit to the Carlsbad Caverns. Spent about two hours walking down the natural entrance and through the big room. Really amazing. Sort of like visiting an endlessly ornate cathedral. It’s a shame that so many parents obviously think of the caverns as a good activity for kids, most of whom seem to stay interested for about 20 minutes, and then try to race through as quickly as possible. For that matter, there were a number of adults who seemed to be going through the motions. And as Gwen observed, almost everyone apparently felt obliged to fill the silence with chatter.

Entering the cave, there’s a huge colony of swallows, which I noticed fly a lot like bats, and could be mistaken for bats in flight. Since they both eat flyinh insects, and fill a similar ecological niche, I guess that’s not too surprising.

From there, we pushed on to our next destination. On the way, in Pecos, we bought some famous Pecos canteloupes. Three for a buck. What a bargain. One had a slightly odd tang to it, one was truly excellent. Haven’t eaten the third yet.

On the drive between Pecos and Balmorhea, we passed an amazing number of dust-devils. There were a few in sight at all times.

On our way through Balmorhea, we drove right past “the cutest restaurant in Balmorhea” without even slowing down. I should have gotten a picture.

Our destination for the day was the Davis Mountains State Park. This is a nice park, with all the amenities you’d need and almost 100 campsites of various types. There were a lot of big fifth wheels on one loop, and the owners had set up various patriotic paraphernalia for the upcoming 4th festivities. I guess they were there for a long-ish campout. There were a few big RVs, some trailers, and a number of people camping in tents (including a few guys who rode in on motorcycles). There’s even a pretty cool hotel on the grounds (though with a disappointing restaurant) that was built by the CCC back in the 30s, with massively thick adobe walls.

The park has a very dramatic landscape, and a lot of birds. A lot of buzzards and swallows. I noticed that there weren’t any dragonflies, but that swallows probably took their agile-flying, bug-eating place in the ecosystem. Dragonflies must not be able make it in the desert because they need standing water to lay their eggs (I think). We spotted a bird that’s apparently uncommon in those parts, the phainopepla. We identified it only with the help of a birder at a nearby site–we saw him studying a bird guide, and he let us flip through it until we found the bird in question. When we did, he was deeply envious–apparently he’d get bragging rights among his birder friends for spotting one.

Saturday night we went to the star party at the McDonald Observatory. They have a very nice visitor center there. For the star party, they have a couple of telescopes with 22″ mirrors available for viewing, plus there are a number of volunteers there who set up their own 6″ or 8″ scopes and point them at something interesting. I got a decent look at Venus, a globular cluster, and a pair of colliding galaxies (M51, I think). Apart from the telescope viewing, the naked-eye viewing is also pretty incredible. The observatory is at 7,000 feet, in a desert, far from even a small town, so the air is thin, clear, and with almost no light pollution. We got there at dusk, and watched the stars come out. It was great. Afterwards, we drove home in silence.

30 June 2002: Sunday

Sunday we hiked out along the park’s trail, covering a good few miles out and back. It was a nice, well-marked trail that seemed to get very little use–though on the bright side we didn’t see a single piece of trash. Back at camp, we saw the phainopepla again, hanging out in a nearby tree apparently with his mate, occasionally flying up to snag a fly (apparently). We dragged our birder neighbor over so that he could get a look for himself.

We were thinking of trying for the Marfa Lights on Sunday night, but after getting cleaned up and napping, it was still the early evening, so we headed into Alpine in search of food. Sunday night is not a big eating-out night in Alpine (it’s not a big night for much of anything, apparently). We did see a store selling rocks and books that was open, chatted with the proprietress briefly, looked at rocks, and marvelled at the extremely idiosyncratic selection of books she had on offer. We eventually made our way to a miserable diner called Penny’s, where everything was reheated, reconstituted, or otherwise prepared and prepackaged. Even the iced tea was made from a mix. Gwen asked me “Who makes iced tea from a mix?” “Yankees.” We both cracked up. The high point of this outing was picking up a copy of the local rag.

Plenty of time left, we headed back towards camp. On the way, we passed a small place claiming to have the largest live rattlesnake exhibit on the planet. And it was open! You can bet we were excited to discover something that was open. We swung around, got out, and paid our $3 admission. The place is run by an aging hippie who told us he was once the snake curator at the Fort Worth Zoo, but moved to Alpine 22 years before to get away from it all. He also mentioned having a Chinese wife, leading us to wonder “what does she think about living in Alpine, TX?” He had 16-20 different varieties of rattler and copperhead, many quite pretty, as well as a few gila monsters, tarantulas, horny toads, and kangaroo rats.

Having exhausted the entertainment potential of desert wildlife, we went back to the park, in search of real food at the restaurant in the Indian Lodge. This was less bad than Penny’s, but hardly great. It did have real iced tea and pie (which Gwen was hankering for). Afterwards we watched the swallows. We decided to bag the Marfa lights in the end and hit the sack.

1 July 2002: Monday

Monday we got up and got moving pretty early. Got packed up efficiently, fueled up with coffee (Gwen’s french press made camping vastly more civilized), and hit the road. It’s a long piece of driving from the Davis Mountains to Austin, but if you’ve got a car that can cruise comfortably at 80+ mph, it goes by a lot easier.

On that long drive back, we passed by an enormous wind farm strung out on a ridge in the Sonora desert just north of I-10, stretching out across Pecos County. The sight of all those giant 3-vane turbines turning slowly in unison is both appealing and eerie at the same time.

We drove into rain, which is pretty unusual for Texas in the summer, and which seemed especially so after the dry time we spent in the desert. Rain is certainly welcome–Austin was about 8″ behind in rainfall for the year. When we got past Fredericksburg, we bought a bucket of peaches and some fresh-made peach ice cream. Yum.

Pushing on into Austin we encountered really heavy rain, a weird welcome-back.