25. Driving Down to New Mexico, Colorado and Utah

March 29, 2011 - Moab, Utah, United States

We drove along Highway 10 and left a dusty Arizona and entered the even more barren New Mexico, our fourth state on this road trip.  (Not counting our separate trip to Hawaii).  We noticed that the terrain seemed to be getting more barren and the temperature higher, the further we drove along, as we entered the Chihuahuan Desert. It is not like the deserts of North Africa, as there are a few shrubs that populate the parched surface, as well as the odd tumbleweed that blows across the roads.

Our first destination was White Sands National Park which is in the mountain-ringed Tularosa Basin.  The National Park sits next to a missile testing area but fortunately they weren’t testing the day we were passing through.  However, before we could reach the park we had to go through a Border Crossing Check Point, which we found rather strange as we weren’t near the Mexican Border!  Still, being British we had to show our passports before we were allowed to proceed.

White Sands National Park engulfs 275 square miles of glistening white, very fine sand which is largely made up of gypsum.  It was certainly an amazing site to behold as we climbed a dune to look at the impressive landscape.  The stark contrast of shade on the dunes gave it an almost moon like appearance.  Afterwards we drove to the nearby town of Alamogordo to rest overnight. 

The next day we headed further east and into the heart of New Mexico.  We covered quite large distances as apart from the scattered pecan and walnut orchards, most towns are far apart.  We headed for the Carlsbad Caverns which are still in the Chihuahuan Desert but in the Guadalupe Mountains.  We were keeping our fingers crossed that these caverns would be more interesting than the Kirchner Caverns, which had proved to be a little disappointing. 

There were two ways to enter the cave system.  Firstly by the natural entrance and a one and half hour descent by foot, or the quicker option of an elevator that descended 755 feet below the surface to the caverns below.  Now dear reader, we would loved to have told you that we strapped on our best walking shoes and walked down.  Unfortunately, due to lack of time we cheated and took the elevator!

When we reached the bottom, our earlier apprehension of being disappointed completely evaporated as we entered the first part of what is known to be ‘The Big Room’ cavern complex.  The sheer size of the cavern was jaw-dropping and the pathway twisted and turned through the 8.2 acre cave.  It was filled with stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flowstones and columns.  There was also a bottomless pit, well ok, it dropped another 1,037 feet, but nonetheless, you wouldn’t want to drop down into it!  It was a great trip and we were glad we had made the effort.

We took the elevator back up to the surface and emerged back into bright sunshine.  It was then time to get back in the car and head north to the town of Roswell to rest our weary heads.  However, as it was past lunchtime we headed into a Subway en-route and Paul went to get lunch.  When Paul asked for a sandwich he was surprised by the young lady’s response behind the counter.  She went all dreamy and said she loves an English accent.  So, she insisted on making the whole sandwich, so she could hear Paul speak to complete the order.  It is a good job Clare is not the jealous sort, otherwise it could have been awkward. 

We arrived in Roswell and checked into a motel as it was early evening by the time we arrived.  Roswell was made world famous by the alleged crash of a UFO in 1947 which has always been denied by the US Government.  The next day we visited the official UFO Museum and Research Centre in the middle of the town, (going past alien headed lampposts!).  The museum covered the story of a farmer who had found some wreckage that he couldn’t identify.  He showed his family and then went to the Sheriff with his finds.  The Sheriff was also stumped and so contacted the local US Air Force Base.  The US Air Force immediately confiscated the finds and insisted the farmer show where he found the pieces.  The area was then sealed off and no-one was allowed to enter.  Also the farmer’s family and the Sheriff were threatened not to say a word.  However, the story still leaked out and within a couple of days the US Air Force explained that it was a test aircraft that had crashed.  However, the next day they changed their story to say it had been a weather balloon that had crashed and even got US Air Force officers to pose with some weather balloon wreckage.  It was interesting to see the story unfold and after a while, people who had worked at the site admitted that it wasn’t a weather balloon or a test aircraft and was a UFO with three aliens on board.  Whether any of this is true or false is probably down to the individual.  Do you believe in Aliens?......

We then headed out of Roswell, towards Fort Sumner which was mad famous as the site where Billy The Kid, the famous Wild West outlaw, was shot dead by Marshall Pat Garrett.  The town itself is fairly small except for the Billy The Kid Museum which has a significant amount of items from the Wild West of the 1880’s and also a rifle that belonged to the outlaw himself.  There were also some extra items that seemed to have been added onto the collection including old farm equipment, vintage cars, sewing machines, toys and other odds and ends which seemed out of place in a Billy The Kid Museum. 

We then drove a short distance to the gravesite of Billy The Kid.  The grave itself has now been bolted into the ground and an iron cage erected around it, as twice the gravestone has been stolen.  The most recent occasion was in 1981 but thankfully both times the police have tracked the perpetrator down and the headstone recovered.

It was then time to head westwards and we stayed overnight in the unremarkable town of Albuquerque.

Before we continue with our journal, being in America for some weeks there are a few interesting things that we have noticed about American life in the 21st century and thought this would be a good juncture to share them with you.

Firstly, we have noticed that virtually no-one walks anywhere.  There have been many occasions when we have walked a couple of blocks to a local restaurant from our motel and we have been the only pedestrians walking along the pavement in settlements ranging from villages to large towns.  Even in cities at night most people seem to drive, on one occasion we left a restaurant to walk the one block back to our motel at the same time as another couple who were staying at our motel got into their car and drove the couple of hundred metres. (Guess who got there first!). 

This mentality has been helped with the expansion of drive through options for your average citizen following on from fast food drive throughs. There are now drive through coffee shops, bank atm’s, chemists to get your prescriptions and even drive through post boxes at Post Offices. We are currently in Moab, Utah and looking at the restaurant menus, 90% of them do take away food!

Anyway, enough of that, back to our travelling.  The next day we continued our journey westwards and slightly north and left the interstate highway to take a much less busy route on Highway 53, as we had read about a couple of interesting places that we wanted to visit. The first of these was a place high in the Ramah Mountains and was the Bandera Crater which was the largest volcano in the New Mexico area.  It erupted 10,000 years ago, leaving a giant cinder cone and evidence of a lava flow, over 23 miles long.  We walked a track upwards to a point where we could view the cinder cone which is 800 feet deep at an elevation of 8367 feet.  We could also see evidence of lava tubes and volcanic rock that juts up through the fir trees.  As it is, vegetation finds it hard to grow in the volcanic rock and the fir tree branches have a twisted look.

There were also a number of smaller cinder cones and sink holes as we walked back through the Ponderosa Pine forest.  Our next port of call was an ice cave that never raises above 31F and where the natural layers of perpetual ice, glisten blue-green in the reflected sunlight.  Part of this colour is also caused by Arctic algae.  The ice cave thickens during winter when rain water and snow seep into the cave.

We then left Ramah and headed further along the Highway 53, stopping for a quick lunch at a roadside cafe and onto a Wolf Sanctuary at the amusing name of Candy Kitchen.  The sanctuary houses over 50 wolves and wolf-dogs that have been rescued from people who have tried to raise them as pets or from zoos that have closed down.  They are a non-profit organisation and also run education programs for students and local schools.

Our guide, Robin, who actually hailed from Oxfordshire in England and was working as a volunteer for three months, explained that the sanctuary takes these animals in as a last resort.  This is mainly due to the fact that they are at full capacity.  As wolves are social animals the sanctuary actively pair them off although they are spaded to avoid wolf or wolf-dog pups.

Robin also explained that in most cases wolves and even a number of wolf-dogs can’t be kept as pets as they become too aggressive.  We were shown most of the wolves/wolf-dogs except for a few who are very shy of humans and kept out of sight at the back of their large pens.  The one other animal they have is a Red Fox called ‘Romeo’ who doesn’t mind coming out of hiding to show off to any visitors, especially as Robin had some beef jerky to tempt him out with.  What was funny is that he would take some of the jerky and bury it in the ground, to eat later.  This was completely different behaviour to the wolves as they would eat their jerky immediately!

Afterwards we headed back onto Highway 53 and turned northwards, entering the town of Cortez in the south-west corner of Colorado.  The temperature in this town was much cooler than the much warmer climes of Arizona and New Mexico, so we were clambering for extra layers.  As we had been driving quite large distances we decided to have a day’s rest and catch up on e–mails, downloading photographs from the camera and plan the next stage of our trip.

After two nights in Cortez we left the town and visited the nearby Mesa Verde National Park which is not known so much for its natural beauty but more of the discovery of an ancient civilisation called the Pueblo Indians.  They were a community that lived in the Mesa Verde mountains and built elaborate stone houses in the sheltered alcoves of canyon walls.  They farmed crops on the fertile soil that covered the mountains and lived there for 700 years until the late 1200’s and in a generation or two they left these homes and moved away.  Archaeologists are unsure why they suddenly left as no written records were ever discovered.  The stone houses have been left very much as they were when they were discovered and are in a very good state of repair. It was interesting having a look at these little alcove communities especially Spruce Tree House which we were able to get up very close to. The dwelling contained about 114 rooms and 8 kivas (ceremonial places) built into a natural cave measuring 66 metres across and 27 metres deep. It is thought to have been home to about 100 people, about 90% of Spruce Tree House is still intact and no attempt has been made to reconstruct the area.

On our way into the national park we came across a coyote who was calmly walking down the side of the road!  On the way out of the park we came across a couple of playful wild horses who were undeterred by our presence in the car and continued frolicking with each other across the road.  When they had calmed down and we were sure they weren’t going to suddenly run across in front of us, we drove away and left them to it.

We then drove further west and left the south west corner of Colorado and entered Utah, to a very small town called Bluff.  This served as our overnight stopover as it was close to Monument Valley, our next area of interest.

We sped off to the entrance which was around 37 miles away and the road we drove, took us past a local landmark called ‘The Mexican Hat’.  This landmark is a large piece of sandstone that has been weathered away at its base by the wind and therefore looks like a large piece of rock, balancing on a very small support.  We have included a photo of it with this blog if I haven’t explained it very well.  Anyway, after a brief detour to take a couple of snaps of it, we continued to Monument Valley.

Monument Valley is actually in the state of Arizona but is on Navajo Indian land and so is not a national park.  The valley is famous for its red sandstone structures that ascend several hundred feet from the valley floor and were used many times in westerns in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  John Ford who was a famous director of Westerns even has a viewpoint named after him. The park is a 17 mile looped drive through the valley which took us past some very impressive sandstone formations with interesting names such as West Mitten, Totem Poles, Thunderbird Mesa and Thumb Rock. 

We were offered a tour by one of the local guides but even with a ‘special price’ of US$60 each (usually US$75 per person) and would have included a couple of detours of the loop.  However the price was too much for our budget and therefore we politely declined and decided to drive the gravel loop ourselves.

After spending a couple of hours in the Monument Valley which had breathtaking views we drove back the way we had come, through Bluff and then turned north, heading for the large town of Moab which would serve as our next base for some exploring of the nearby National Parks.

 


Pictures

1. White Sands National Park - View of a Dune
2. White Sands National Park - View of the Dunes
3. Paul and Clare at the Dunes
4. White Sands National Park - View of the Dunes
 
 
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