Archive for April, 2012
Shortly after I arrived in Albuquerque, I started talking to my dad about all the places he recommended visiting. During this discussion, I was made aware of the very fortunate fact that I was going to be in town for one of the only two days out of the year that the White Sands Missile Range open up their gates to welcome visitors to the Trinity Test site. I’d wanted to swing down that way to check out the NRAO Very Large Array as well as White Sands and Spaceport America down near Las Cruzas. After actually looking at everything on a map, I came to the realization that there was no way that I’d be able to hit Trinity, White Sands National Monument, Carlsbad Caverns, Roswell AND the spaceport, so I had to drop the spaceport off the weekend roster. I’ll have to hit it when I’m swinging back through New Mexico at some point.
I made my plans, strapped mom’s ashes into the passenger seat and headed out. I’d visted the Very Large Array the week previously, so I jumped in the car around 8am saturday morning and headed for the WSMR Stallion Gate down south. There are two entrances open during the days that the Trinity Test site is open to the public; the Stallion gate is for those coming down from the north. For the second entry point, a caravan assembles at the Otero County Fairgrounds and is escorted by WSMR vehicles to Trinity Site. The caravan leaves at 8:00am.
For the Stallion gate, you need government issued ID to gain entrance, then just follow the signs in to parking for Trinity. The base personnel is very friendly, efficient and helpful. The memorial itself is a collection of rough, pockmarked lava rocks assembled into a dark, almost ominous obelisk marking ground zero for the detonation. The event at Trinity involved two explosions. The primary detonation involved TNT, and then a fraction of a second later, the Gadget was to release the nuclear explosion, if the chain reaction was maintained. If the chain reaction failed, the TNT would then scatter the plutonium all over the countryside. In order to try to keep that from becoming a reality, an enormous 214 ton steel jug named Jumbo (originally 25ft long, 10ft in diameter) was constructed, to be placed around the Gadget to contain the TNT explosion. However, they scrapped the idea of using it for the test. Even so, the remains of Jumbo stand at the entrance to ground zero, and you can walk through it. The damage seen on Jumbo is due to eight 500lb bombs that the army decided to detonate inside it. There’s something about being able to put your hands on something that’s survived that much destructive force.
Just outside the ground zero gates is a collection of radioactive items; pottery, marbles, a banana and other sundry items. The event staff would pass a geiger counter over the items to show you how much radiation emanated from them. Off in the corner were a collection of some fairly large chips of Trinitite. Inside the gate itself stands the obelisk. Such a small marker for such an enormous event. Still, it feels momentous to stand beside it – to place a hand upon it. A crowd of people gather around the marker taking pictures, darting in to get their pictures taken standing beside it, one after another. Looking straight ahead from the gate entrance are a collection of images attached to the chain link fence surrounding the ground zero area. Most of them show images of what the base camp looked like back in the day, as well as shots of the bunker, the McDonald ranch where they assembled the weapon, and a picture of the Gadget itself – as well as a newspaper headline and pictures of several of the key personnel involved in the test.
The ranch is equally interesting – walking through each room and seeing part of the process of how everything came together. It’s a short, bumpy bus ride, and provided a great collection of pictures. (PICS)
From there, it was onward towards Alamogordo, out and around the missle range. On the way I found a rock shop that advertised ‘real trinitite’. Yeah, $30 an ounce. Too rich for my blood. Actually, everything in that shop seemed pretty overpriced. I bought a small piece of petrified wood, then got back on the road. It occured to me that if I had left with the convoy that it would have taken half the time for me to actually get to White Sands National Monument, but hey – I’m here to see it all, right? Detours are my bread and butter.
Made it out to the monument about an hour from sunset and drove through the path through the dunes, watching as families and kids ran up, over and around the dunes. (PICS) Lots of people slid down them in these plastic discs you usually see kids using in winter to power down snow drifts. It was like an enormous beach tailgate party, only without the ocean. A very surreal drive, that. If it hadn’t been Easter weekend, I could’ve stayed overnight at the backpacker’s camp area and caught amazing sunset/sunrise shots, but alas, it was not to be. And, I was on a schedule. I needed to get to Carlsbad before I decided to pass out for the night. I wanted to wake up and head right out to the Caverns, so I drove back to Alamogordo to get some dinner, then got back on the road.
The straightest shot from Alamogordo over to Carlsbad is route 82, the first part of which traverses the Lincoln National Forest (PICS) and eventually dumps you off in a place called Artesia that smells like petroleum farts. Unsurprising since the largest refinery in New Mexico is located there, as well as several other large oil and gas businesses. It really does smell appalling. I drove through as quickly as the speed limit would allow.
The trip along 82 is about two hours, and at night, there are no open restroom facilities along the way. It was at this point in the trip that I realized that, for certain points along empty highways, that I should really invest in a Female Urination Device – ALA Go Girl, for those times that I can’t wait any longer and have to pull over to the side of the road and defile the asphalt with liquid. At least it was a temperate night out, and I didn’t literally freeze my ass off. The road that winds through the forest is gorgeous, however – well, what I could see of it initially. The sun fell pretty quickly. Trees seemed to tower over me as I drove along, making me yearn to get out to the northern forests a great deal sooner than planned. I’d love to have seen it in the daytime, but again – schedule to keep.
Arrived in Carlsbad at a shabby hotel at around 11pm, exhausted. Woke up at 7am and got back on the highway, on the way to Carlsbad Caverns, the trip report of which can be seen before this one.
The early morning drive out to Carlsbad Caverns National Park was fairly uneventful, scenerywise – until you get to the canyons along the route to the memorial itself. The road winds through tall, rolling sandy mountains peppered with large swaths of bushes, cacti and trees still blackened by the fire that had closed the caves down last summer. The fire apparently spanned 30,438 acres along Highway 62/180 from Rattle Snake Canyon to Dark Canyon Road. Out of the over 117 known caves within the park grounds, Carlsbad Cavern is the largest and I believe the most well traveled. The lighting is fantastic and the winding way throughout the caverns is well paved. There are two options to get down to the caverns themselves.
One can take the natural entrance – a 1 1/4 self guided tour that is best taken if one is in good physical shape. The switchback inclines all the way down are very steep. There are many signs warning people with heart and respiratory issues or medical problems with their knees to avoid taking this route. STRENOUOUS HIKE is in large letters everywhere. They’re not kidding – but we’ll get to that later.
Along this route is the Bat Cave, a lovely cold, dark home for about 1 million Mexican Freetail bats. If you plan your trip right, you can witness the whirlwind of bats as they exit the cave in their nightly search of food. Sources state that this event can last from 20 minutes to two and a half hours. (sadly, I didn’t get to see this – I was only there for a day trip) Also located along the natural entrance descent are Devil’s Spring, the Green Lake Overlook and the Boneyard.
The second way down is the elevators. According to park personnel, it takes a minute for the cars to get from the surface to 750ft below. Your ears do pop on the way down – several times. I chose this venune when I first arrived, not wanting to tire myself out too early. I arrived at a little before 8am sunday morning, figuring that Easter sunday visitors would be busy at church, then flock out in droves later in the day. The visitor’s center opens at 8, and the self guided tours through the caverns start at 8:30am. I must say, I was VERY surprised and pleased that you can go through the caverns unsupervised and at your own pace. There’s a guided tour later in the morning/afternoon that takes you to the Kings Palace, the Left Hand Tunnel and Lower Cave, but I didn’t have the time (or the stamina) for any of those options. I’m just starting to get back into hiking, so didn’t want to push my luck.
I was with the first group of maybe 12 to 15 people that headed down on the first self guided tour of the morning. As you exit the elevator, there’s a snack and touristy item selling area, along with a set of restrooms, which I immediately used before heading off to the Main Room loop off to the left. With my camera at the ready, I sallied forth and marveled at the enormous dimensions of the chamber as I wandered through. I snapped as many shots as I could along the way, and kept my voice to a low whisper (as had been requested by the Rangers – voice carries VERY well in the caverns) as I interacted with other people wandering through. Two old guys ahead of us were loudly discussing their own photo taking process, which only became more annoying as I went on, so I took a local friend’s advice and went ahead and put in my earphones.
Spent a large portion of the walkthrough listening to the Avatar soundtrack, which opened up the experience in a way that I hadn’t at all expected. It was a very positive, emotional experience, this underground journey. By the time I got to the Top of the Cross, I started up Bolero on the iPhone and just lay back on a bench, looking up at the enormous stone cross that had been naturally formed in the ceiling. It was a complete and total fantastic head trip. At several points along the walk, I started slipping into a trance, feeling almost as if I’d ingested a mind altering substance. Very trippy. From time to time, I’d pause the music and take the earphones out – most of the time encountering loud children trying to make their voices echo or others trying to talk at normal volume. A couple of times, only blessed silence existed. I’d stop where I was and just soak it in, imagining that I was the only one in this almost 4,000ft underground wonderland, and smiling to myself. There was a serenity in the silence underground that let me clear my head and relax.
I tried to stay on my own as much as possible, and most people just wanted to keep going, or stay in their safe little groups as they walked around me. Was totally fine by me. For the most part, I was able to explore much of the cave by myself. The groups of people weren’t getting too heavy yet. It was a completely magical experience. Someday, I’d like to come back to do the Ranger Guided tours of the Kings Palace, the Left Hand Tunnel, the Lower Cave – if not Slaugher Canyon Cave as well.
I spent about 2 and 1/2 hours walking around the Main Room, and by the time I’d finished the main loop I was more than ready for a bathroom break and lunch. I will say that the restaurant has excellent food, which was surprising. And pleasing. Good nom noms.
After lunch, I decided to be brave and try my hand (or legs) at the natural entrance. Before you’re allowed to go down to the entrance, a ranger reiterates the numerous warnings you’ve already seen and heard at this point. They’ve had to rescue people that have gotten stuck on the way down before. I’ll say right now that it wasn’t easy. I sat and rested often, and by the time I got to the elevators in the depths of the cave, I was ready to leave. My body had had enough and was shaky with exhaustion. Granted, a great deal of this was likely coupling this with the earlier activity that morning.
If you like the cave/cavern experience – GO. It’s WELL worth it. Every minute. (PICS)
Over the weekend, visited a variety of places. Friday night, right after work, I picked up and headed out to the NRAO Very Large Array in Socorro, NM (PICS). I’d wanted to check this place out for years, as well as eventually wanting to travel to Puerto Rico see the enormous reflector array at the Arecibo Observatory. At least that’s one crossed off my list. I Arrived at the Array with plenty of sunlight to spare, which was what I was hoping for – access to the facility closes after sundown. On the highway in, the dishes look like little dots on the horizon that slowly get larger as you get closer to the array itself. Pulled in to the Visitor’s center, then took the walking trail out to the antennas.
There were two other guys taking pictures as well – with actual professional looking camera/tripod rigs while I walked around snapping pics with my 4s. One of the guys was over from London – a ‘professional enthusiast’, he explained. He’d gotten there much later than he’d wanted to, and was irritated that he didn’t have more light time available. Both were friendly, but understandably focused on getting their shots. I chatted briefly on and off with them as we all moved around the site, trying to get the best shots we could. I was pleased to find that I was able to get so close to one of the antennas, and was excited beyind measure when the dishes actually moved. Full of glee, I was. I wasn’t expecting to be able to witness that, and apparently neither were the other guys. The dishes in the array moved about five times while I walked around – each time, too quickly to catch on video, unfortunately. Still – mighty geek squee moment.
The drive itself is magnificent – all sandy rolling hills dotted with scrub bushes and other deserty plants. Driving through the Cibola National Forest, I found myself thinking, “This ain’t a forest. It’s a large collection of overly sized, round-ish shrubs.” I’m more used to the Blue Ridge mountains, the Smokeys and the mountains and trees of Northern Pennsylvania. Still, it’s gorgeous countryside. Listening to Bolero on the way back as the light faded and the stars came out capped off the night perfectly. There’s something about listening to classical music as one drives under the stars. It makes the heart sigh.
Headed back to ‘home base’ in Albuquerque, then headed out the next morning around 8 to hit the Petroglyph National Monument (PICS) on the west side of town. On a clear day, I can see the outlines of the tops of the ‘Three Sisters’ volcanoes throughout the site from the back deck, as well as the ribbon of dark slate color that threads along the base. I stayed along the volcanic rock flows, taking pictures as I went. To the right; the rise of the volcanic hills, large rocks with tufts of hearty grasses and small desert flowers, poking almost stubbornly through the sand and ash. To the left; a desert plain, wide and open between the hills. I captured a video of a rabbit as it scampered off, surprising me as it scrambled right up the rock to conceal itself – which it did poorly. It stayed still long enough for me to get a picture of it after changing from video to still image. Cool move, bunny. Thanks.
The trails were easily passable – at least the ones I ventured onto. In my haste to get to the site early enough to keep from overheating, I’d forgotten to eat breakfast, so I wasn’t able to walk around as much as I would have liked. When my energy finally started flagging, I headed back to the car and finally fed myself.
Once I was on more of an even keel, I then headed over to the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History (PICS). Was very pleased about the colorful periodic table of elements imprinted in the marble tiles as you first walk in the door. It’s my intention to drive down to the Trinity test site this coming weekend, so I was gleeful to see a mockup of The Gadget, the implosion-design plutonium device set off on back in 1945 at the White Sands Missile Range near Alamogordo, NM.
The museum is really well thought out and put together. I’d had a chance to see the Enola Gay on exhibit out at the Udvar-Hazy branch of the National Air and Space Museum in Dulles, VA, and it was somewhat chilling to see reproductions here of Little Boy and Fat Man, considering how much destruction both caused. Once through the military applications of Nuclear technology, I headed outside to the planes and the Atomic Cannon.
Yep. That’s a big ass gun. I grinned like a little kid as I walked over to it and snapped a quick shot of myself.
I also spotted what looked like the tops of a couple military submarines, and am wondering if the museum is going to have an exhibit featuring an old decommissioned nuclear submarine or two. It’d be a great addition. There’s a hands on learning section for kids, as well as a small portion devoted to nuclear medicine. All in all, great museum.
Then, it was off to the Bandera Volcano (separate post here), before finally heading back home and crashing for the night, exhausted.
Sunday morning, I was out the door a little after 8am again – this time, determined to spend the lion’s share of the day at the Bandelier National Monument (PICS) up north around Los Alamos. My jaw literally dropped at several points along the drive on route 4. I’d never seen boulders or cliff faces that looked like swiss cheese before. It was also the first time I’d ever driven along the edges of canyons that large before. The scenery was stunning. On the way to Bandelier, the highway goes to the top of the canyon edge and winds around before sloping back down. I poked my way around one of the pull off points at the top and snapped a couple of pictures, engaging in a brief conversation with a very friendly guy about a lake that I simply HAD to visit when I found myself in Arizona (Lake Powell) before heading back to the car.
Route 4 threads through the strangely pockmarked mountains until you finally reach the Vistor’s Center in Frijoles Canyon. Behind the collection of buildings lay the background of the cliffs themselves. I took time to purchase a heinously beige floppy hat (egads) at the Gift Shop. I’d gotten so sunburned the other day that I didn’t want to chance it, and knew I’d be in direct sunlight much longer this time than my hike to the Volcano. I may just have to bedazzle the thing or draw on it to take the beige ‘bite’ out of it.
It took me about two hours to do the entire loop. For the first leg of the loop, I walked through the remains of what might loosely be termed a prehistoric apartment complex, as well as several other buildings that nature was slowly reclaiming. The trail then began winding up towards the cliffs themselves and I could see people walking up and down the steps along the cliff, examining the dwellings carved into the stone itself. I spent quite a bit of time getting pictures and climbing into the remaining houses that had ladder access. There was something almost serene about sitting in a place so organic and cool. It was getting fairly hot out, and it was nice to be in the cool shade, made cooler still by it being an effective man made cave.
At one point, I climbed up into a great Kiva that had apparently been restored. This one had holes in the floor and makeshift hooks in the ceiling that would hold thread, creating a large indoor loom. I then headed to the Long House part of the main loop trail, before realizing that my energy was flagging. I’d started conversing with a nice couple along the trail talking with them about my trip so far, and all the places I wanted to go. They were a lovely, friendly couple, and it was really wonderful to spend the rest of the walk back through the Ponderosa Pine forest at the canyon bottom back towards the visitor’s center. The conversation was very enjoyable; it also kept me from concentrating too much on how much my legs were shaking and my feet aching. If you guys are reading this, hi! *waves* I hope you guys made it back OK!
Throughout the walk, I could swear that I kept hearing running water, but kept telling myself that it was just the wind in the trees. Turns out that the Rito de los Frijoles winds through the bottom of the canyon. We had to cross it on the loop back. Apparently the old walkway had been washed out, and the park staff were building a small bridge across the stream.
I had a quick meal then got back on the road I drove around Los Alamos a little, happy that all those scientists had somewhere to work with really gorgeous scenery. I tried to visit The Black Hole: Atomic Surplus Store, but it was closed, so that was kind of a bummer – but all in all, another fantastic weekend.
The drive out to the Bandera Volcano is a very scenic one. Well, not that this entire place isn’t, but it’s more scenic than usual, I’ve found. Lots of mesas and plains that slowly morph into collections of tall Fir and Ponderosa Pine trees that begin twisting the closer you get to the crater itself. The lava makes it difficult for the trees to establish deep roots, so they grow in gnarled, eldritch shapes. It’s a fairly young forest – supposedly the oldest tree in the area is about 700 years old. As you reach the Old Time Trading Post, where you buy your tickets for the tour ($10 – A BARGAIN. SERIOUSLY), you see two trails on either side. The one on the left leads to the Ice Cave. In the depths of part of a collapsed lava tube, the ice in the pool inside the bottom of the cave itself has an emerald tinge to it. The rocks on the ceiling look almost frostbitten, with rimes of white around the edges of the rocks. The temperature in the cave never rises above 31F year round. The ice itself is approximately 20 feet thick, and according to the guide pamphlet, the deepest ice dates back about 3,400 years.
The walk to the Ice Cave is surrounded on both sides with jagged, broken lava that almost looks like an enormous asphalt truck threw up in places. It buckles up and out from the ground in a jumble. Trees and brush jut out from these flows, proving that nature can grow anything anywhere she damned well pleases.
I chose to take this trail first, wanting to take a moment to get cool before I decided to begin the long trek up to the Bandera Volcano viewing area inside the crater itself. I couldn’t tell you how long it took me to get to either, really. The guide said it was supposed to take about ten minutes to get to the Ice Cave and twenty minutes to get to the volcano viewing point – that taking both walking tours, which you can do on your own, should take about an hour. I think it took me about two hours, what with stopping to catch my breath and taking pictures. The entire site is almost overwhelming. The enormity of the event that occured here is simply beyond my frame of reference. As I walked up along the outside of the volcano – it’s definitely a hard walk for somebody that isn’t used to the altitude, like myself, I could see more and more of the flow that created the valley off to my left. To the right, the almost sheer surface went up at a very dangerous, but beautiful incline, and the extensive root systems of some of the trees growing out of the sides were slowly being exposed by erosion. The surrounding mountains and other volcanoes (there are apparently about 27 in the entire region), made for wonderful imagery and photography.
The viewing area itself at the edge of ground zero is quite breathtaking. Literally, in my case. Yay, adjusting to altitude! As I looked at the severe inclines that comprised the edges of the volcano, I could almost see a ghostly replay of what had happened as I looked out at the entire vista before me. Standing in the presence of nature boldly growing; eagerly splitting through cracks in the surrounding volcanic rock and ash as it reached out to the sun – it was very life affirming. Very hopeful.
From such destruction and desolation, nature always finds a way. As she should, and as she always will.
Well worth your time to visit, if you find yourself in New Mexico.