Travelogues from TheTraveler
Tales of exotic adventures, humorous anecdotes, and musings from The Traveler... The adventure awaits...
A thin sliver of light shoots up toward the heavens and bursts into a blossom of green, red, purple, and white, twinkling against the night sky as tendrils of shimmering color fade back toward earth and disappear. We stand on a gentle rise above the valley floor, the base of the Sandia Mountains behind us to the east. Below us, to the south and west, stretch the lights of Albuquerque, and in the sky in front of us, the fireworks soar into the night sky, celebrating the conclusion of the world renowned Balloon Festival.
The twinkling in the sky is fantastic, but to me, the twinkle in Jayne's eye as we watch the light show is more gratifying...
Our first few hours in Albuquerque had not exactly gone as planned, and the prospect of missing the fireworks was making Jayne sad. I like fireworks as much as the next guy, but for Jayne, it takes on a deeper importance. Fireworks should never be missed if at all possible.
We almost didn't make it. I think of how, only moments before, the plans for our short stay in Albuquerque lay in shambles...
We arrived around two o'clock, retrieved the luggage and the rental car, and made our way into downtown Albuquerque for the "newly renovated" Silver Moon Lodge....
Perhaps it is less of dump than it used to be, this seedy little motel along Route 66 (which is Central Avenue through Albuquerque). But new (toxic smelling) carpet and a big TV do not make this place any more than it ever was... A dump. It's the kind of place that motivates you to keep moving. So after a fifteen minute catnap (something I am particularly good at), we move on to the Balloon Festival in plenty of time for the very cool sounding "Balloon Lighting" at dusk, and then the fireworks afterward.
I'm ready to hand the ticket taker the ten dollar admission for two adults and learn that they don't want my money...
Hmm... What gives? My attention is directed to the stiff breeze coming out of the Sandia Mountains. With the wind kicking up so much, it is doubtful that any balloons will be going up this evening - even the fireworks are in doubt. It's impressive how much money the balloon festival promoters are willing to sacrifice in the name of doing the right thing (several thousand people multiplied by five equals "taking a bath"). Thus, we wander the grounds, enjoying the county fair flavor of the booths, arts and crafts, questionable food, and blowing dust. Out in the grassy balloon launch area it looks more like a kite flying festival than a balloon festival; kites of all shapes and sizes dance wildly on the wind, like huge insects darting about. Amongst the kite action sit large wicker baskets. This is, I fear, all we will see of balloons at the world famous balloon festival. Still, the wicker baskets themselves are interesting when considered closely.
The blowing dust finally wins, my eyes just can't take it anymore; A price to pay for the vision provided by contact lenses. So we take a chance on plan B, leaving the festival grounds for a four mile drive up the base of the Sandia Mountains east of the festival grounds. We'll take the tram that operates to the top of Sandia Peak, 2.7 miles away and 10,300 feet up; from sagebrush to pine trees.
A forty-five minute wait puts the plan of viewing the fireworks from the top in question, and a thirty degree temperature with twenty mile per hour winds (think "wind-chill factor") makes me take pause, dressed in only a light shirt, jeans, and no jacket. I kick myself for not having brought one, but we abandon the effort, even though we love trams and are eager to go...
I'm feeling a little dejected; my eyes are sore, and I'm beginning to fade. We need a decent meal, and reluctantly decide to head back down into the valley toward the lights of Albuquerque, not at all keen on returning to our seedy motel.
Suddenly it's right in front of us. The fireworks we feared we would miss.
Back in town, a mile or so from the hotel along Central Avenue, our luck continues; we wander into a happening looking place called "Sauce" for dinner. Actually, it's three different places in one complex, sharing kitchen and staff resources. I vaguely notice the people in front of us being encouraged to stay in the bright, chaotic café instead of the more inviting bar area beyond; darkly lit, with thick wooden tables and oversized leather seats. The gentleman that just sent the party in front of us into the frenzied and raucous café immediately seats us in the bar area. Since we are close to the door, Jayne sees the way in which people are sized up and ushered to the appropriate place. We are, apparently, in the room reserved for the young, cool, and hip of Albuquerque. Why we are ushered in so easily is a mystery. We are the oldest people here...
Old can still be hip, I guess... Groovy, man!
Thanks to the free Balloon Festival, (still fun even if there weren't any balloons), fireworks, and being chosen to dine with the hip crowd, our night in Albuquerque was just fine after all!
Even if we do have to go back to our seedy room on Route 66.
The license plate says "The Land of Enchantment".
The problem with such platitudes plastered to hundreds of thousands of license plates is that it loses its meaning. You see it over and over and a little voice says "yeah right, the land of enchantment... ho-hum"
Cynicism is cheap and easy..
But then you find yourself standing high on a ridge top watching the sun and clouds perform miracles of light, color and shadow as the fading evening light brings an end to a near perfect day. The infinite sky, the cool mountain breeze, the air tinged with pine and wood smoke....
And you find yourself enchanted with this land...
Our nearly four hundred mile loop around the southeastern corner of New Mexico takes us through high desert, flat plains, mountain passes, pine trees, hillsides ablaze with the golden glow of autumn, white gypsum sand dunes stretching to the horizon; petroleum towns, ranger towns, air force towns, and a town called Hope that appeared to have little else. We walk through an other-worldly underground cathedral of rock, exquisitely decorated creating an unimagined world.
We have returned to Ruidoso with one day left to explore before going north. We plan to head west to the town of Carrizozo and the Valley of Fire, and south to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Recreation Area... A lot of driving so far, the biggest road trip I've had in awhile. My "road dog" instincts have been awakened... The lure of the open road is a powerful one here in the broad expanse of southern New Mexico...
So tonight I wish to report to my fearless readers two things...
Enchantment; yes, as corny as that sounds, I cannot help but think that the license plates have it right - notwithstanding the mild culture shock of running around on a little spit of land called San Francisco too long and then finding yourself in the heart of Bush country... Something I'll talk about in more detail at a more appropriate time.
Secondly and perhaps most importantly, is gratitude. I am grateful, first of all, that nature is such a wonderful creator of beauty of such rich and remarkable variety... Things unimagined and unseen for millennia I walk through, aided by smooth pathways and theatrically designed lighting... And for that I am grateful for the National Park Service. Some of the best places I have seen on this earth are inside National Parks... It is one of the things, in my mind, that makes this a great country. If I thought it would save a national park, I'd stick a flag in my car window and drive around with it... I am grateful for the opportunity to travel and change my perspective, if only for a brief time.
"UFO Parking Only" the sign says; "That's us", I declare and turn the car into the lot.
On the road early, we make Roswell by 9:30 a.m., thirty minutes before the UFO Museum and Research Center opens, so we make our way instead to the Roswell Museum and Art Center. Admission is free and we are, apparently, the only visitors present. We enjoy the recreation of Robert Goddard's workshop and the many exhibits pertaining to this pioneer of modern rocketry. I had not realized that Roswell was home to much of his career. There are also exhibits of western art and artifacts, and three modern art exhibits.
But time is of the essence; we have two hundred miles to cover to make the Star Hill Inn outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and before that is our original reason for stopping in Roswell - tales of alien encounters!
I am dubious when I see the converted movie theater adorned with images of alien eyes, green plastic men, and window displays full of "alien" t-shirts and all manner of UFO tourist junk.
It is a pleasant surprise to find that admission is free; you are, however, told to place a pin on a large hanging wall map to indicate your home. Briefly, I toy with the notion of saying, "Ma'am, this map is only of earth"...
Such is the tongue-in-check atmosphere of the place.
There are plenty of things to read amongst the exhibits; numerous affidavits from eye witnesses of the "Roswell Incident" of 1947. There are also exhibits that appear only to take up space - An anthropomorphic dummy circa 1947... Yeah, so? Or a mock-up of the radio station that conducted an interview with rancher W.W. "Mac" Brazel, who collected parts from the now famous crash of either a weather balloon or an alien spacecraft, depending on whom you choose to believe. I just don't get it.
The place is mildly interesting, and I am told that something besides pandering to curious tourists goes on in the "research" section of the facility, but I am skeptical.
There is an audio tour (a walkman) available for one dollar, but I don't recommend it. Most of what is valuable here is the stuff to read. My head almost exploded trying to listen to the tape and read the exhibits at the same time.
Of course, the final stop is the gift shop, full of screaming seven-year-olds wanting an alien necklace, or glow-in-the-dark pencil eraser head, or some such tripe. There are a selection of books on UFO's, space, and the Roswell Incident; the impulse to buy another book always near, I move back amongst the screaming seven-year-olds until I am thoroughly disgusted and finally leave... Disappointed but no poorer for the experience.
Did a UFO crash near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947? That's a question that the UFO Museum and Research Center doesn't answer. Could be, who knows? Something did crash, and the military clearly did attempt to cover something up... Hmm... The military trying to cover something up - now there's a novel idea!
I do know that those little green plastic men hanging around downtown Roswell would surely scare away the real aliens if they came back today!
I suppose it's just fine to spend a short time here, but to make your visit to Roswell even better, check out the very nice - and very uncrowded - Museum and Art Center.
Little green men to modern art; don't let anyone tell you that Roswell doesn't have it all!
But, alas, Jayne and I realize that our goal of alien abduction while visiting New Mexico isn't going to happen in Roswell, so we head North to the Star Hill Inn -
Awakening to a bright blue morning sky and crisp autumn air, we set off for a morning stroll. We head out to "Maggie's Valley" and then back past our cabin down the dirt road to check out the observing area and small library (also known as the "warming room") used for the nightly star gazing sessions.
It is all so quiet and peaceful, as if we are the only two people on earth.
After our morning exploration we head back to the cabin for a light breakfast and then... a nap. I drowsily listen to the golden silence. The only sound I hear is the wind cascading down the hillside through the tall pines and the occasional raindrop-like "tat" of pine needles on the slanting roof. I drift off into blissful sleep...
This is, thus far, the major accomplishment as we enjoy our first full day at the Star Hill Inn, about ten miles north of Las Vegas, New Mexico. After a week of being on the road throughout southeastern New Mexico, it is nice to slow down.
We arrive in Las Vegas the previous day, Friday, around two in the afternoon. We stop for a brief walk through Old Town (where most of the buildings date to the nineteenth century), have lunch, and then head north on route 518 for Star Hill. The drive through town takes us down tree-lined streets, past handsome, cozy houses of brick and wood, with front porches and gabled roofs.
At first, I blow right past the little country dirt road that leads two-and-a-half miles into the countryside and the entrance to the Star Hill Inn. Jayne gently suggests that we have gone too far, but, of course, being the Road Dog that I am, I feel it necessary to drive several miles further before convincing myself that she is right. I may never learn...
We do eventually make it to the entrance of the property and drive down a gravel and dirt road to the "office", situated to one side of two-story wood frame family home. The family run quality of the place is apparent as we follow a sign toward the office, walking through a small wooden gate guarded by two jack-o-lanterns. The place is locked up tight and we haven't yet seen a soul on the property. Jayne notices a sign next to the office door with the name "Schueneman" prominently displayed along with a note apologizing for not being home but to make ourselves at home with directions to our cabin.
We have the "Sunflower"; a cute little one bedroom bungalow. The red porch light is on (red light is protocol for sky watchers - to help preserve night vision), as well as several of the quaint lamps inside the cabin. Though it is only four-thirty in the afternoon, this "light touch" makes the little cabin beckon invitingly...
It sure looks like people have been here, but we have yet to see anyone. The door to Sunflower is unlocked and we proceed to do as instructed - we make ourselves at home.
Soon we are out on the path leading to the "meditation garden" and labyrinth (which, interestingly enough for this writer is modeled from a kit provided by Grace Cathedral in San Francisco... Hey! I work there!)
The labyrinth is actually in need of some mowing and trimming, and since accomplishing this task will currently involve Jayne and I - we appear to be the only ones presently on the face of the earth - we move on to the meditation garden. The garden consists of four low wooden boxes, painted blue, arrayed around a large rock. Apparently the idea is to contemplate the rock in order to "lose yourself" in these beautiful surroundings.
All well and good, but I am inclined to lose myself in the towering pines and golden aspen, softly whispering, "Hello and welcome"...
On July 16, 1945, at five-thirty in the morning, the world changed forever. A rhetorical phrase too often used perhaps, but on this day, it was more than mere rhetoric. Every person on that lonely mesa knew; every scientist, military man, technician, and worker... Everyone knew in that instant that the world had entered a new age and would never be the same. For it was in this instant, with a blinding flash brighter than the sun, a shock wave felt hundreds of miles away, and a cloud mushrooming forty thousand feet into the atmosphere, that humanity, with an unimaginable BANG, let the atomic genie out of his nuclear bottle, never again to be put back. A power unleashed so awesome that even the men that had labored for years to create this explosion were awestruck by its immensity.
Early that morning in the southeastern New Mexico region known as the Jornada del Muerto - translated as "Journey of Death" to reflect the desolation of this high desert - the secrets of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project became known to the world. Soon, Japan would be the first, and thus far only, country to have a nuclear weapon used against it as an act of war. But it was here in New Mexico that the world first witnessed the mighty power of the atom... And began to wonder if, perhaps, mankind had gone too far...
It was here, also, that the consequences of nuclear fission, radiation, and fallout slowly became evident. To be sure, the scientists, engineers, and administrators of the Manhattan Project took very seriously the possible outcome of an atomic explosion. These were some of the most brilliant minds of their generation, and they tried to conceive of every possible contingency; even such concerns as the possibility of the explosion igniting the atmosphere and really mucking things up. But the fact was that prior to July 16, 1945, no one really knew what would happen, or what the after-effects would be.
Fifty-five years later, we turn off interstate 25 and head east down the lonely state route 380 toward the town of Carrizozo and beyond that the Capitan mountains and our final destination of Ruidoso. About thirty four miles along route 380 from interstate 25 there doesn't seem to be much going on; flat land, grazing cattle, and miles of desolation. But about twenty-five miles to the south, protected by a high fence, sits an obelisk-shaped monument commemorating that fateful day in July, so many years ago. Here is what is called "Trinity Site", the site of the first atomic bomb explosion.
Things are quiet now; radiation levels, while still slightly elevated above the natural background radiation, are very low. But, of course, that was not always the case. In the immediate area, the soil around ground zero had been blasted into a glassy, green substance that came to be known as "trinitite". A large swath of New Mexico experienced fallout radiation, Carrizozo, Roswell, Vaughn, Las Vegas (New Mexico), and even as far away as Durango, Colorado, showed substantially elevated levels of radiation. But the levels fell off fairly rapidly and at the time the effects of sustained low-level exposure was little known. So some folks took to collecting little bits of trinitite; storing it in shoe boxes in their closets and under their beds. Some New Mexico businesses even took to giving away chunks of the "hot stuff" as souvenirs for their customers. Eventually the military advised people that it perhaps wasn't a good idea to handle trinitite.
Thus was the combination of naiveté amidst the awesome power unleashed by the mind of Man in the last half of the nineteen forties...
this area and learn of all that has gone on - and is still going on
- missile tests, atomic bomb explosions, space shuttle landings (one
time), general weapons-of-mass-destruction, hush-hush type stuff...
Wait a minute... UFO crash landings? Do I really believe little green men have been visiting the New Mexico countryside, and even crash landed in 1947?
Well, let's consider this question for a minute. Let's assume, for the moment, that out there in the immensity of space, there is not only life, but intelligent life. Let's assume that they're not only intelligent, but really, really smart - Space travelers...
Unless they're coming from Mars (ok, let's be serious), or perhaps one of Jupiter's moons (a tad more plausible, but not much... wouldn't you think we'd of noticed?) they have come a great distance and have therefore mastered what seems nearly impossible to us now - interstellar travel. This is a pretty big assumption for us to make, because we have to also assume that these little fellas are subject to the same laws of physics that we are - especially since they can screw-up and crash land, as some believe happened near Roswell in 1947. Therefore coming from even the nearest star would take four (earth) years to get here traveling at the speed of light; something we mere humans consider next to impossible, never mind all the time contraction issues and such that occur at light speed...
Let me interject here that I am fan of Star Trek and always thought all that inter-galactic travel (never mind mere inter-stellar travel) was pretty cool... But warp drive engines, gravity generators, transporters, and phasors are, alas, only products of a fertile imagination (though I would be inclined to bet that somewhere in New Mexico, some secret lab is working on a phasor...)
I don't find the idea of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe so far-fetched, but the reality of getting here from the vast, unimaginable distances of space does seem a little problematic... But what do I know?
Let's just assume for the moment that all this is possible. Humor me.
With these assumptions in place, I offer the following theory.
Any race of beings capable of the kind of travel we are assuming is probably a race that is not only vastly superior to humans technically, there's a good chance they've overcome many of the dangers of intelligence and technology that we grapple with every day (and I use the term "intelligence", in regard to humans, loosely). They've learned to live and flourish and spread out into the cosmos.
Perhaps, long ago, in their distant past, they too struggled with the problems of advancing technology without the commensurate advance in the wisdom to use it. At one time they let the genie out of the bottle, and, instead of destroying themselves, they learned understanding and peace - the greatness of their technology matched by the greatness of their wisdom.
And so, this ancient and wise civilization moved out into the cosmos curious about other cultures they might find.
If all this were somehow true, it would also make sense to me that along about the time that we humans started playing with the fundamental powers of the universe in an effort to devise the ultimate weapon, these inquisitive people would be watching... An atomic explosion in New Mexico would be like a huge cosmic flare...
And so they came to the skies over New Mexico and observed; curious to watch this backward race of beings, apparently on a headlong path of self destruction, wondering if we'd manage to get beyond it or if we'd go up in flash of technologically fueled ignorance and hate, never to be heard from again (a question, of course, that is far from being resolved)...
So maybe one of them did have some mechanical problems (even really smart beings can have break-downs after all) and crashed on some ranchland outside Roswell, New Mexico...
I mean, it's possible, isn't it?
New Mexico is a land of contrast. The oldest European settlement in North America is here, the state is a historic blend of three distinct cultures. Harnessing the atom, UFO crashes, little green men, and space shuttle landings, with Billy-the-Kid museums just down the road... In the south, there are cars with American flags sprouting from their trunks, and local eateries with pictures of President Bush hanging over the counter, the local high school football team looking on from an 8 by 10 glossy nearby. In the north, die-hard liberals decry the evils of our "cowboy president".
Traveling here takes you through miles of parched high desert; gentle rolling valleys with ranch houses and tall trees, ringed with autumn color; high mountain passes clinging to the side of steep, rocky cliffs and surrounded with towering pines; underground cathedrals of rock, it's beauty - and immensity - hidden from view for millennia; an eerie desert landscape of white gypsum dunes, the mysterious silence broken by the sound of a war jet screaming overhead; the charge of static electricity in the dry air, the sharp, extraordinary quality of the light, and the vast drama of the twilight-sky enveloping your senses.
There are more exotic places to roam in this world, perhaps, but New Mexico is like no other place, and its enchantment is undeniable...
to adobes, New Mexico stands waiting with secrets and wonders - and
yes, even enchantment - there for all that care to look.
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