We are back from our little motorised side trip loop throughout New Mexico, hooray!
Where to begin? Well, last Friday our hosts Charley and Kamala were heading out of town for an extended weekend, so they dropped us off at El Paso airport to rent a car, which turned out to be a nifty little red number. We hopped in, made our way out of El Paso and into New Mexico. Stopping for lunch in Las Cruces we eventually made it to Silver City and the road to the Gila cliff dwellings and hot springs. It was a slow drive through snowy but scenic hills to the park where the cliff dwellings were to be found. By the time we got there the park was closed, but we found a campsite a little further back on the road, and Yana made a fire while I cooked up some pasta. When we awoke the following morning the tent was covered in a substantial layer of frost, and we spent some time brushing it off before it had a chance to melt, in an effort to keep the tent reasonably dry before packing it up.
The Gila cliff dwellings are a series of stone structures built into a cliff side by the Mogollon people who migrated down through this area around 1276. The dwellings were only occupied for about 24 years, but it's believed they were used during a drought that made it difficult to sustain a farming lifestyle further north. We got to the visitor's centre, looked at some exhibits, then drove up to the start of the walk to the cliffs. There was a bridge that was out, and was only open to pedestrians an bicycles (the one time we have a car! Oh, the irony!), and a short walk beyond that got us to the cliffs which were spectacular. We met up with a ranger who was giving a guided walk through the dwellings so we got to hear all about what they think the various rooms were used for.
We also met another pair of cross-country cyclists, Adam and Dwight, who are heading east along the Southern Tier bicycle route. Their adventures are being blogged here. After looking at the cliff dwellings we walked back to our car, drove out past Adam and Dwight pedalling eagerly up a hill, and eventually stopped for lunch in Hillsboro. And then onwards, to a place I've wanted to visit for ages, on account of its totally messed-up name. Truth or Consequences.
T or C actually turned out to be a really nice little town, where we found a little organic cafe, had a delicious Italian meal for dinner, and then stayed in a hotel with hot mineral spring baths. We also got to see some episodes of Man vs Wild on the TV in our room, which was highly entertaining, and since one of the episodes was about survival techniques in Copper Canyon, Mexico we now feel all enthused about finding a dry yucca flower stalk and making a fire by rubbing sticks together, just to see if we can! After a good soak on Sunday morning, we drove out north through Socorro to the Very Large Array radio telescope facility.
This is an array of 27 radio telescopes that are linked together to work as a single collector about 20 kilometres in diameter. The dishes can be repositioned to create a larger or smaller array, for greater resolution or sensitivity. It was also the site where significant parts of several movies including 2010 and Contact. Like most Hollywood stars, it looks smaller in real life... But I grew up watching Carl Sagan's wonderful TV series Cosmos, and seeing the VLA as a source of some incredible insights into the Universe we live in, and I thought it was pretty neat to see it with my own eyes, and see that it's not just a special effect, and it made me pretty proud of how clever humans can be that we can build such things.
"Look at me, I'm a radio telescope!"
Following our trip to the VLA we drove back through the evening, past the site where the world's first atomic bomb was detonated, to Alamagordo.
The following morning we headed out to the White Sands National Monument, with a short detour to the Museum of Space History. White Sands lived up to its name - an expanse of gypsum sand in a huge basin that used to be a lake bed during the last ice age, and now sand dunes stretching for miles in each direction, ringed by mountains.
We did a nature walk along the edge of the dunes, where there were various plants, then drove a bit further in and did a walk to the alkali flats, where the gypsum sand blows from to form the dunes themselves (and also a backup landing site for the Space Shuttle). It was scenic, but windy, but awe-inspiring.
As the weather was looking unpleasant, we decided to drive onwards towards Carlsbad and the Carlsbad Caverns. As we headed up through the mountains east of Alamogordo it began to snow, which made the town of Cloudcroft quite pretty, but also slowed us down. Contrary to my expectations it didn't stop snowing as we descended on the other side of the mountains, but snowed all the way to the next big town, Artesia. Yana did a fantastic job of driving on the slippery white fluffy stuff, although it did take us five hours to get to Artesia, whereupon we found a moderately-cheap hotel, and collapsed into bed. The next day we got up and chipped the pack-ice from the wheel hubs of the car, and drove to Carlsbad, and then to the caverns. The caverns turned out to be very spacious and impressive.
The various stalagtites and stalagmites and things are formed from limestone deposits created by a reef that existed in south-east New Mexico and western Texas when the whole area was the edge of a shallow inland sea during the Mesozoic era. Unfortunately, the limestone is dissolved (and hence redeposits itself into interesting shapes) by sulfuric acid that percolates through the rock, so the whole area from Artesia to the caverns smells of rotten eggs.
The caverns were nifty, and impressive for the size of both the caverns and formations in them, although we've both seen stalagtites and stalagmites before.
It would be great to see some more unusual formations like those in Lechugilla. And we didn't get to look around the whole cavern because they were closing off part of the walk, since it was getting close to closing time.
Afterwards we decided to find a place to camp, but the local campground charged $22.25 just to put up a tent, which we considered absurd, and the public land off the side of the backroads was a bit too rocky and rough to comfortably put up our tent. We also encountered a longhorn in the public land, and decided we didn't feel like having our tent potentially stepped on.
So we headed back to Carlsbad. We ducked into a Mexican-Chinese restaurant (which we initially thought was two restaurants side-by-side) for dinner. We dubbed this style of food con-fusion cuisine. After a bit of chatting with the staff about our journey the owners offered to let us pitch our tent behind their restaurant, so we got to turf-surf even without the bicycles!
Come Wednesday morning we awoke, got a free Mexican breakfast at the restaurant, and then drove to Guadalupe peak, the highest point in Texas. We considered going for a bushwalk, but decided we'd be doing this amazing place short shrift if we didn't stay overnight, so instead we headed onwards, through the outskirts of El Paso, and back to White Sands to view the sunset Sunsets at White Sands are supposed to be very beautiful, and since it had been overcast (with impending snow) the first day we went there, we took the chance to see a better sunset as the weather had improved. It didn't disappoint.
Afterwards we headed back to Charley and Kamala's place for a scrumptious dinner, and a good night's sleep.
Then on Thursday morning we returned the rental car, and our hosts drove us around to get a new quick-release axle for my bike, and some groceries so that we could cook dinner for them. Plus Charley provided me with a front panier rack for my bike, so Yana and I are both equipped to get some more of the weight out of our backpacks when next we travel by pedal power.