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A memorable day of discovery along Highway 54

By Jim Reed

Last updated on Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Santa Niño de Aturha. Photo by Jim Reed.
Santa Niño de Aturha. Photo by Jim Reed.
The article on New Mexico's Three Rivers Petroglyphs, I must admit, was difficult to write. For several days now I have gone over it and found that the facts, the sequence of events, the history and overall "flow" of the story have been tasking. Perhaps it's because I honestly didn't concentrate on the actual petroglyphs as there was so much going on in my mind during the day trip to Three Rivers. From the time we left Tularosa until we arrived home, I encountered a constant sequence of pleasant experiences to absorb and enjoy.

It began with our stop at Three Rivers Trading Post at the junction of Highway 54 and the road to the petroglyphs. It was obvious that the trading post had been there many years, had undergone many revisions and had been a very important crossroads, railroad stop and social center for the area. Behind the trading post stood the brightly painted red and white schoolhouse, its charm and antiquity begging to be released from its overgrown surroundings and to once again serve a useful purpose.

At the petroglyphs site we again found charm in the persona of Mr. Daniel Potter with whom I established an instant friendship. He is personable, full of life and information, and an amazing eighty-four years young. When asked who are the most interesting visitors to the site, Mr. Potter quickly responded, "Germans - they ask the most questions and want to know more about it than any others." Indeed, Germans come a long way to satisfy their curiosity and fascination about "Amerika."

Herr and Frau Coloma of Koln, Germany. Photo by Jim Reed
Herr and Frau Coloma of Koln, Germany. Photo by Jim Reed
Not thirty minutes from leaving Mr. Potter at the entry to the petroglyphs, my wife and I met a family from Germany, Herr and Frau Coloma of Koln, Germany and their two teenage children. The Colomas are traveling America by car and not missing a site, no matter how small, along the way. Both spoke excellent English as they are hoteliers, have lived in England and managed a hotel in the Channel Islands. Frau Coloma was using a video camera to film each petroglyph along with the scenery of the surrounding area.

Oh, did I mention the scenery? It is awesome to say the least. From atop the petroglyph hill you see to the east, the Sacramento Mountains gradually rising above the Three Rivers Ranch, outward and upward. To the west, the glow of white-yellow gypsum reflections rising upward to greet the horizon from White Sands National Monument. Westerly you look over the Tularosa Basin, a series of four distinct mountains rimming the area. As recent as 2,000 years ago, volcanic lava flowed twenty miles to the northwest, as thick as 100 feet deep and covering 125 square miles. The tablet explaining the Tularosa Basin states, "One can only imagine what the prehistoric inhabitants thought of such an awe-inspiring site."

Along the Sacramento Mountains a dense, dark monsoon storm was inching its way northward, spewing bolts of lightening and creating a variety of cloud formations. To the west, clear blue New Mexico skies; above us, soft, billowing white clouds - a stark contrast to the solid blue far above them. The edge of the storm came close, rained a few drops upon us and continued its northward journey.

On our way eastward to view the nearby campgrounds, we discovered a small man-made lake, obviously used to water the herds of range roaming cattle who were grazing everywhere. The lake created a new environment; flowers and lush cacti bloomed near it. I took pictures - desert dwellers worship every bit of color you find. The memorable view across the small lake into the Tularosa basin was also captured on film.

Shortly after turning east from the petroglyph site, you will pass a small road leading to Santa Niño de Aturha, a small adobe white church built in 1911. Turn left and after one mile you will find the "Holy Saint of Aturha," as quaint and rustic and picturesque as any you will find in New Mexico. The adobe church with its red tile roof, bell tower, and hand-carved sign, adorned by bordering trees and billowing clouds, formed the composition for one of the most beautiful pictures I have ever taken.

Monsoon clouds. Photo by Jim Reed
Monsoon clouds. Photo by Jim Reed
On our return to the main road, we stopped and had a talk with Casey and Kevin at Three Rivers Trading Post. They also know a wealth of information about the area and graciously allowed us to have lunch under the shade of a huge cottonwood at the side of their establishment. Kevin told us the history of the little red schoolhouse and the unique tree placed inside.

The day of fascination was not complete. On our way home, southward on Highway 54, we encountered more summer monsoon thunderstorms, some heading straight toward us near Orogrande. Lightning, hail and huge raindrops were just a few hundred yards behind; I drove faster and managed to outrun our pursuers. That night they managed to catch up with us; it rained so hard in my hometown of El Paso that the local fireworks displays had to be canceled. It mattered little to me - the Fourth of July had been a fascinating and memorable day of discovery and ended with the fireworks of nature.

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