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.