On Wednesday, Gwen and I took off on a trip to White Sands. We’d been planning this for a little while, since we wanted to get out of Austin during SXSW. After euthanizing Oscar, which was hard on both of us, we also felt like getting out of our usual routine would be a good idea.
Hit the road a little late in the morning. We weren’t good for much the night before, so didn’t pack until the day we left. We wanted to make Alamogordo by the end of the day, which basically means get on I-10 and hang a right at El Paso. That wound up being about 670 miles of dull, flat driving. We were surprised to discover that I-10 is signed as 80 mph, and were more surprised when we got pulled over for doing 86 mph. The cop let us off with a warning. On the one hand, he was friendly enough, and didn’t make a stink over the fact that my license doesn’t have my current address or reflect the fact that I’ve had my eyes fixed. On the other hand, he mentioned smelling something “funny” coming from our car. My gut reaction was “what, like oil burning?” He said, smiling, “something like cannabis or patchouli.” This was clearly a fishing expedition, as we’ve never had anything like patchouli or pot in the car or on our persons. I guess something made him think we’re a couple of dirty hippies, but somehow he managed to satisfy himself that we were clean without demanding or even suggesting a search.
We pegged the cruise control to 80 for the rest of our travel on I-10.
We pulled over in Van Horn, TX to call Gwen’s dad, who has travelled extensively in Texas for business since the late ’60s. We wanted to know the best way to get to Alamogordoâ€”we thought it might be best to avoid El Paso, even though that would make the trip longer. His advice was to drive into El Paso and make our turn there. As long as we were stopped, we had a little picnic in Van Horn’s city park, which apparently had both of the trees in town. Van Horn was desolate, a strip with a bunch of shuttered roadside motels. Not that there would be much reason to stop there for the night.
We forged on. El Paso turned out to be navigable enough, and we made it onto the highway to Alamogordo with minimal confusion. We reached Alamogordo well after dark, and had a little trouble finding our way around because there were two highways with the same numbers running parallel to each other. Fortunately we had a good enough map, and the sign for the hotel was obvious enough from a distance for us to get our bearings.
We checked in at about 8:30 local time. The town mostly shut down at 9:00, so by the time we were ready to head out for dinner, all of the local places were closed for the night. We wound up eating at Chili’s. We decided not to check out the no-doubt-hopping nightlife in Alamogordo and went back to our room. The advertised “free high-speed Internet” turned out to be two-thirds true, but that was OK. We watched some TV and sacked out.
Driving around town the night before, we had espied a coffee shop, the Olive Branch, so we made that our first stop of the day. The coffee was pretty good; Gwen’s breakfast bagel was not bad, my scone was pretty bad. Then on to White Sands National Monument. US 70, passes right through the White Sands Missile Range and is occasionally closed for missile testing. A sign on the road advertises the missile range _and its gift shop_. I really wanted to go to the White Sands Missile Range Gift Shop, just so I could say I’d been there, but I’ll content myself just knowing that it exists. The town of Alamogordo also has a space history museum, and if we had shown up two weeks later, we could have visited the Trinity site, which is open to the public only two days a year, April 1 and October 1. So there’s some interesting stuff going on around there. It’s where humanity lost its innocence, or as Oppenheimer put it, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Anyhow. We reached White Sands National Monument late in the morning. The photos I took there scarcely convey the blasted austerity of the place. The sun was so bright, and the sand reflecting almost 100% of it back, that I composed most of those pictures by guesswork, since I could barely see the viewfinder of the camera. Though we saw a variety of animal tracks, the only fauna we saw live were birds. We walked a nature trail before we got to the main part of the dunes, and this had comparatively dense floraâ€”though even that was sparse and barren. Once we were in the main part of the dunes, nothing grew in the dunes at all except for an occasional cantankerous yucca; there would be more growing in the flats between dunes. We walked barefoot for miles through the dunes, following guideposts without which we surely would have become disoriented, and managed not to get too badly sunburned. Once we got back to the road through the dunes, we had a little picnic and Gwen borrowed a kid’s sledding saucer, but couldn’t get enough momentum to actually sled down a dune.
Having exhausted the recreational opportunities afforded by trekking through waves of powdered gypsum, we headed back to our hotel, and then wandered the town’s old main drag, where Gwen bought some table linens at an antique shop and we found (but did not buy) some truly bizarre religious LPs at a Salvation Army. Back to the hotel for a siesta, and then to dinner at a place in the middle of town called El Camino. This was a cheap, good Mexican joint. Everything made to order, including the tortillas and chips. NewMex-Mex is notorious for being extra-hot, and this didn’t disappoint. I had chili verde, she had a guacamole taco, and we had sopapillas for desert. Gwen observed that if they moved to Austin, they could make a killing.
Alamogordo felt like my stereotype of New Mexico: poor, flat, hot, dusty, and Hispanic, with falling-apart trailer parks and an absence of trees. It felt vaguely incomplete, with streets that petered out into dirt roads and not enough sidewalks.
Onwards to Cloudcroft, which is only about 20 miles distant, but is at 9,000 ft elevation in the middle of the Lincoln National Forest, and feels like half a world away. Muddy rather than dusty, Caucasian rather than Hispanic, self-consciously cute. There were some run-down spots, but there was also approximately one realtor per hundred residents, and a huge, handsome, spanking new high school. It reminded me more of Cicely, the fictional town where the show _Northern Exposure_ was set. We checked into a falling-down roadside motel that reeked so strongly of floral air freshener that shivering with the door and window open was preferable to being warm but cooped up with the smell.
We headed out to the ranger station and got a map to the local hiking trails. My allergies were in maximum overdrive (they had actually started acting up in White Sands and just kept going), so I wasn’t especially keen on hiking, but I wasn’t keen on doing anything else either, so hiking seemed like as good an activity as any. After some hemming and hawing, we decided on a trail and walked to the trailhead. And walked. And walked. It was supposedly 1.9 miles from the ranger station, but that was the longest damn 1.9 miles I’ve ever walked. We eventually got to the trailhead, and the trail led off in two different directionsâ€”one being back the way we came, running parallel to the same road we’d been walking on. At my suggestion, we went that wayâ€”I was concerned that if we went the other, we’d be that much farther from town when we got sick of hiking. This was an OK idea in principle, but in fact, the trail still had knee-deep snow in spots, for which we were poorly equipped. After a while we got sick of galumphing through snow, so we climbed up a precipitous declivity of mud and snow to get back up on the road. A few hundred feet later, the trail came almost level with the road. We found another leg of the trail and got on that going into town, eventually coming across some picnic tables that leaned drunkenly, where we had a snack and lay in the sun.
Eventually we got back into town, and back to our motel. Genuinely tired of walking at this point, we drove back to a coffee shop where we fortified ourselves and hung out for a while. The sun was at exactly the right angle to give my face a good, red sunburn that is still with me as I type these words. My allergies were getting the better of me at this point, so I headed back to the motel room, where I could lie on my back and let my sinuses drain, while Gwen wandered on her own. (From Gwen — both Cloudcroft and White Sands were childhood spots for me. White Sands was exactly what I remembered, though it’s disappointing that at my adult size I can’t fly down sand dunes on a piece of plastic. Alas. Cloudcroft was less magical, though the air smelled as magnificent and crisp as I remembered and it was cold at night. It’s no wonder that as a 10-year old coming from El Paso it would be a bit of nirvana.)
Despite the warning from the woman at the coffee shop that there were no good places to eat in town, we had dinner next door to the motel, at a place called Big Daddy’s. Typical diner stuff. Sadly, all “typical” diners seem to use some sort of plastic substitute for both filling and grilling their grilled cheese sandwiches. The lone vegetarian stand-by is now…uh…lesser.
Next stop Lubbock. US 82 is the main drag through Cloudcroft, and it runs more or less straight to Lubbock, so after getting our morning fix at the coffee shop, we got on the road. The longer we drove, the lower the hills got, and the lower the trees got, until we were passing through barren flatlands. Bizarrely, much of US 82 was signed as 55 mph, though this limit was respected by nobody. Aside from some ranches and a ghost ranches, there was almost nothing.
We reached Lubbock without incidentâ€”then again, how much could happen on a single, straight stretch of road? This is where Gwen’s parents live. Her father was out shooting golf, so we went with her mother to an antique mall at the edge of town where we had previously picked off an amazing Masonic chart, and where I vaguely recalled they had some wood type. It turns out they did have the wood typeâ€”and metal typeâ€”but it wasn’t especially interesting and it was priced by the slug, making it completely impractical. We left empty-handed.
Spent the rest of the day at home with Gwen’s folks, meeting the neighborhood cat Gwen’s dad dotes on.
Get in the car. Drive. Drive. Drive some more. Stop in Santa Anna TX for gas, where we see some kind of old delivery van that’s been converted to an RV, piloted by a guy who looks like Willie Nelson’s big brother. We had talked with Jenny Nazak just before leaving, who told us she’d be leaving on Sunday to bicycle to New Mexico. We said “Maybe we’ll pass you on the way in to town!” In fact, we did see her on Highway 183, but the stretch of road was not at all conducive to a quick turn-around to follow after her and say hello. Bon voyage, Jenny! And now, we’re home. One thousand four hundred and fifty miles later.