Sunday, December 9, 2012

Something Old, Something New

Socorro, New Mexico
December 7, 2012

 This is our third early morning at Bosque del Apache.  Even with long underwear, multiple sweater layers, a down parka, hand warmers in my gloves and toe warmers in my boots, you can see that I am not feeling comfortable standing around out here with a temperature of 25 degrees.  Fortunately, once the brutally bright sun is up for a couple hours, the temperature starts to soar to somewhere in the 60s, and we can shed most of our many layers. 

Although we can’t seem to get enough of the birds, we are also taking time in the heat of the day to explore a bit around the town and countryside.
Something Old
Our base of operations for our Bosque adventure is a Super 8 Motel in nearby Socorro, New Mexico. “Socorro” means help in Spanish.  The town was given this name by Spanish explorer Don Juan de Onante back in 1598 when the Piro Indians here were kind to him and his men, providing them with corn and shelter when they were cold and hungry in 1598. 

Two Franciscan priests from Onante’s party stayed behind with the Indians, and eventually built a mission here from 1615 to 1626, when they renamed the village Nuestra Senora de Perpetual Socorro (Our Lady of Perpetual Help). 

 This Mission church was rebuilt on the site of the original mission in 1821. Its adobe walls are five feet thick.  The story is told that shortly after its completion, Apaches were advancing to attack the Mission. They saw an angel with a brilliantly shining sword hovering over the church, and retreated in fear.  The Mission was then renamed San Miguel to honor St. Michael the guardian angel.  It is still very active today.

Something New
Our little group of five photographers took an afternoon field trip to the Very Large Array  Radio Telescope (VLA, to those in the know), way out on a 7,000 foot high desert plain fifty miles west of town.  The telescope has 27 antennas, each with a dish as large in diameter as a baseball diamond.  The dishes sit on railroad tracks that are in a Y configuration--two of the tracks are thirteen miles long and the other is nine miles long.  Depending on the research project, the antennas can be placed far apart or close together.  On our visit, they were spread out about as far as they could go--with about a mile between each antenna.  When they are spread out that much, they equal the power of one antenna with a dish seventeen miles in diameter!

The VLA has collected radio wave information that helps scientists understand cosmic objects as close as our own sun and planets, to galaxies billions of light years away.  Hundreds of astronomers use the VLA every year. The data they collect is sent to an analysis center on the campus of New Mexico Tech in Socorro where the radio waves collected are processed by computers and turned into images that help to solve the mysteries of the cosmos. 

As we were leaving the VLA, the antenna dishes all slowly changed position in unison. Cosmic! 

Refocussing us from the extraterrestial to the terrestial, a herd of antelope were grazing on the grassy plain around the VLA.  


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bosque for the Birds

December 4-7
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
The Crown Jewel of  our Winter Wonderlands Tour
There are 52,500 snow geese, 27,800 ducks, and 6,890 sandhill cranes spending the winter in the ninety square mile Bosque de Apache National Wildlife Refuge.   Just about all of the geese and the cranes roost together overnight in two ponds on the refuge.  

In addition to the birds, there are hundreds of photographers on the refuge.  Just about all of them gather before sunrise along the muddy shore of the pond where the geese roost. The prime view spots are precious few, and they go quickly to those who arrive well over an hour before the sun rises.  The photographers shiver in below freezing temperatures, long lens cameras poised on their tripods, waiting for the magic moment known as "the blast-off," when the geese all decide to fly out together.

This is our reward for getting up at 4 a.m. each morning.

(What these pictures cannot capture is the intensity of the moment when the geese begin to fly, as their random burbled calls rise to a unison babble, and the beating of their wings is percussive in the air.)

After the geese are mostly gone, the photographers rush to the pond where the cranes roost overnight, to photograph them leaving to forage for food in the fields throughout the refuge and the nearby countryside.

As the sun is getting low in the sky, the photographers are back around the ponds, photographing the birds returning for the night. 

Then they all return to their hotel rooms to download their hundreds, or thousands, of pictures from the day, to sort through them, to recharge batteries and prepare for an early wake-up call the next day.

Dick has wanted to photograph the geese and cranes here for years--Bosque del Apache is a pilgrimage site for bird photographers.  We feel fortunate to be sharing this wondrous experience, and to have such "mild" weather and dramatic sunrises during our little window of time on the refuge. 

P.S. Four of the pictures above are mine (Gayl's).   I love my little Panasonic camera with its big zoom, and I love Dick's post processing talents. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Just One Mistake--A Chili Shake

Day 10: Sunday, December 2
Las Cruces to Truth or Consequences
This looks like a typical winter wonderland, doesn’t it?

 Until you notice some of these sledders have no shoes on.

 Here at White Sands National Monument, sliding down the dunes is a year-round activity, and there are an endless number of dunes to slide down--at 275 square miles, this is the largest gypsum dune field in the world.  The unique qualities of gypsum make for powdery soft sand that does not get hot from the sun, and that packs hard with a bit of pressure or moisture--perfect for barefoot walking, dune sliding, and for creating roads that drive like pavement.

There are many amazing aspects of this park.  These dunes have formed over just the last 4,000 to 7,000 years, just infancy in geological time that cast the mountains around the park in about a million years.   Animals have adapted to the desert in amazing ways--brine shrimp larva can lie dormant in the sand for up to 100 years, waiting for the moment that rain water gathers in a small pool and brings them to life within hours.

 All these mind-blowing geological and biological idiosyncrasies are fascinating, but, really, the best part is just messing around in the sand.  There are no set trails and no rules about not disturbing the dunes--in fact the rangers here encourage you to get out there and have fun (just don’t pick or collect anything).  We walk up and down and all around the dunes in search of spots where we cannot see evidence of anyone else’s passing.  It ends up being quite a lengthy walk--clearly there has not been major wind or rain rearranging the sand in a long while.  We don’t see any animals, not even bugs or birds, but we find lots of animal prints in the sand, evidence that this place is naturally hopping when the sun goes down.  We wax up our saucers and race each other down a steep slope, then picnic in a nifty shady shelter at dune’s edge.
We are having so much fun we can almost forget that we are playing in the middle of a nuclear missile testing facility.  That’s right; White Sands Monument is in the Middle of the 100 mile long 40 mile wide White Sands Missile Range.  A Nike Hercules Missile draws curious drivers into a roadside turnout overlooking the range.  There displays tell the story of the missile (a cold war defense weapon tested here 650 times between 1955 and 1967) and of the range (with over 45,000 missile launches to its credit and still active).  Sometimes they have to close down White Sands Monument to visitors for a short time while they test missiles.  The coexistence of such great family fun with the horrors of nuclear war makes us a bit dizzy (or maybe it is the altitude).

Heading north to Truth or Consequences, we make a slight detour off the highway to stop at Hatch, which bills itself as the Chile Capital of the World.  The main road to and through Hatch is lined with shops selling every kind of chili product imaginable--dried chili ropes and wreaths, chili preserves and jellies, powdered chili spice mixes, and more. 

We stop at Sparky’s World Famous Barbecue Burgers and Espresso in Hatch, where a huge fiberglass Uncle Sam out front holds a big old chili pepper in his hand. In the spirit of the moment I order Sparky’s chili shake (which has lots of diced green chili pieces suspended in it and a generous scoop of diced green chilis garnishing the whipped cream on top), while Dick more wisely chooses a vanilla shake (which merely has pretty multi-color sugar sprinkles on top of the whipped cream).  No worries about the number of calories in the chili shake--three spoonfuls confirm it is a gastronomic nightmare, and I fail to consume it.

 On to our final destination today--Truth or Consequences.  Originally called Hot Springs, the town was home to forty hot springs spas before World War II.  The city changed its name back in 1950, when Ralph Edwards, host of the radio quiz show Truth or Consequences, announced he would air the show live from the first town to rename itself after the show.  Hot Springs won, and Ralph Edwards continued to visit here during Cinco de Mayo weekend for the next fifty years. 

 Now there are only ten hot springs spas in Truth or Consequences (or TandC, as it is known hereabouts).  We are staying at the only one with spa tubs along the Rio Grande River, Riverbend Hot Springs. Originally a bait shop, the current owners saw potential in the property, and turned the three tanks that held live bait into spa tubs now known as the Minnow Baths.  We prefer the two large stone pools built riverside, where the water is a bit cooler--just 100-104 degrees--and the view of the mountains silhouetted against the evening sky is bigger.  One notable quality of the mineral water here is that it has no sulphur, so it smells great as well as feeling great. 

Ahhhh, this is a grand relaxing way to end another very full day.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Blast from the Past

Day 9: Saturday, December 1
Big Bend to Las Cruces, NM
Early risers eating breakfast in the Chisos Basin Lodge can watch the mountains around the basin catch the sun’s fire as it rises and paints them bright russet and gold for a few magic moments of morning glory.

We revel in the beauty of early morning high in the mountains, then must be on our way to Las Cruces--it's a long drive north, mostly on two lane roads through desert and cattle country.  


Settled into a kind of pleasant reverie of monotony, cruising at 78 mph on the lonely two lane highway, far from any town, we pass a little Prada shop. WHAT? Dick squeals to a stop, and we turn around for another look. 

Yes, there are what appear to be lovely Prada purses and shoes displayed inside, visible if you press your nose right up against the dusty display windows.  Later research reveals that the store is an art installation--the original glass windows had to be replaced with plexiglass when cowboys shot out the glass, repeatedly.

Texas has beautiful county courthouses.  This is the courthouse in Marfa, which, of course, sits resplendent on a square in the center of town.  The jail house across the street is fashioned in the same high style, almost like a guest house for the court house (although it seems to no longer be in use, at least for its original purpose).

 When we pass the stadium of University of Texas El Paso, Dick begins to reminisce about his past pole vaulting prowess--he broke the stadium record here back in 1960.
The memories flow on as we settle into our hotel in Las Cruces, and the desk clerk recommends that we dine at La Posta.  Dick has dined there before--over fifty years ago, when the team bus stopped there on the way home from that track meet in El Paso where he vaulted so well.  But the restaurant’s history runs far deeper than that.  The building dates back to the 1840s, when it was stage coach stop.  Later it became a hotel and restaurant--a sign in La Posta proudly claims, “This building is the original La Posta.  For more than a century and a quarter, these ‘dobe walls have withstood the attack of elements and man, have sheltered such personalities as Billy the Kid, Kit Carson and Pancho Villa.  Now Mesilla sleeps, but La Posta still offers its traditional hospitality to all.”

La Posta has had a number of expansions and additions since 1960, but we are seated in the original dining room, maybe even right where Dick sat before (although he doesn’t remember the details clearly enough to verify this, but I would like to believe it could be true.)



Day 8: Friday, November 30
Big Bend National Park
Glorious hikes--up a mountain and along the Rio Grande into a slot canyon with sides towering 1500 feet above us. Winding drives with inspiring--often surprising--vistas around just about every hairpin curve. 

Words are too small--here is our day in pictures.

The next three pictures are of the Rio Grande--with Mexico on the left shore and the United States on the right.  There are many spots where it is shallow enough to wade across without getting your knees wet.

Sunset through "The Window" at Chisos Basin.  It would be more dramatic with some clouds, but we aren't complaining.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mostly Texas Tedium

Our Southern Winter Wonderland Adventure
Day 7:  San Antonio to Big Bend National Park
“The plains-the wonderful great big sky--makes me want to breathe so deep that I’ll break--There is so much of it.”  So wrote Georgia O’Keefe in a letter to Alfred Steglitz.  Oh, if only we could feel such rapture driving across the arid plains of Texas.

There is not much happening for miles and miles. Not many trees, not much wildlife, just lots of brush and barbed wire fences.  We can’t even find roadside attractions, because we can’t pick up a Verizon signal most of the time.

One exception is in the town of Comfort, home to the only monument to the Union erected in a state south of the Mason Dixon Line (except in National Cemeteries).  Comfort was settled by German immigrants in 1854.  This monument marks the grave of 38 German immigrant farmers who were chased and massacred by their non-immigrant neighbors in 1862, after they refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Confederacy and left town in a group of about sixty men intending to join up with Union troops camped nearby in Mexico.  The massacred men’s bodies were left unburied, and their remains were reclaimed by their families in 1865, to be buried here in a mass grave.  The words engraved on the monument are German--“Treue der Union.”  Some historians estimate that as many as 150 citizens of Comfort were killed for failing to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.  The lucky ones just had their homes or farms burned.

Back on the road, by afternoon, the land began to roll, and then we came upon an expanse of mesas hosting a forest of wind turbines stretching for miles. Mountains in the distance began to huddle close to the plain.  Now we are at the very tip of West Texas in Big Bend National Park, staying 5,000 miles up in the Chisos Mountains. We got here just as the sun set, washing the peaks around us with warm russet tones, then leaving them as dark silhouettes against a deep pink sky.  Tomorrow we will see the mountains in a new light--literally.

A Day of Aesthetic Appreciation

Our Southern Winter Wonderland Adventure
Day 6: San Antonio
We awake to the sounds of little Eddie cooing and gurgling in the kitchen while Madonna fixes our breakfast--baked strawberries topped with cinnamon rolls, and a second course of skillet potatoes topped with an egg and bacon.  Needless to say, this is more calories than we should eat all day, but we adore it--a classic B&B overindulgence. 

We spend the morning visiting four of San Antonio’s five historic missions.  We skip the Alamo, which is front page news today, because the Texas Attorney General just issued a 38 page report that is very critical of the practices of the daughters of the Republic of Texas, who have been responsible for managing the Alamo for over 100 years.  He accuses their leadership of misappropriating and commingling funds and failing to take appropriate care of this Texas treasure, but he also takes care to praise the 7,000 volunteer ladies in the organization who generously donate their time to historic sites and causes, providing an invaluable service to Texas.  Custodianship of the Alamo has been transferred to a state agency, and the Daughters are in turmoil.  

We have been to the Alamo and the other missions before, done guided history tours and read the historic plaques, but today, we are just enjoying them as an aesthetic experience (and maybe a bit of a spiritual one, as well). 


Online it seemed like it might be worth an hour or two visit, but the McNay Art Museum turns out to be an extraordinary place where we spend the whole afternoon and are the last out when they lock up for the day.  The McNay Museum was the first museum of modern art in Texas, founded by local artist/school art teacher/art collector Marion McNay in the 1940s.  She turned her large home into a museum where she displayed art from her impressive collection of over 300 works (a lot of it from periods we wouldn’t consider modern).  When she died in 1950, she willed the home, her artwork and 23 acres of formally landscaped grounds around the home to a foundation that she generously funded to maintain the museum.  There have been multiple wings added to the home and thousands of pieces of art acquired since then.  Photography is allowed.  We are smitten.


The final aesthetic treat of the day is dinner at the Culinary Institute of America restaurant Nao, dedicated to introducing diners to the finer flavors of Mexico and South America. 

 Food is served in small exquisitely presented tasting portions--like tapas, but smaller--priced at $9 per plate.  Just about every dish includes ingredients we have never heard of. Our server recommends three to four plates per person--we end up sharing seven courses, including one sampler of four different ceviches. 

 Our taste buds are going wild trying to decode the flavors and handle the heat.  This is recreational eating on a very high plane.

 San Antonio’s famous Riverwalk is all lit up for the holidays and is supposed to be quite beautiful, but by the time we finish dinner we agree that we have reached our capacity for aesthetic stimulation today.   And, tomorrow a very long drive across Texas awaits us.