Last updated on Friday, April 20, 2007
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 Jordan Hot Springs, in the Gila
Wilderness of southwestern New Mexico, I lie full-length in the warm
water. Ringed by ferns and lush vegetation, this deep pool is sheltered against
a massive rock covered with spongy moss. The water temperature is about a
hundred degrees. Tiny yellow wildflowers bloom at the pool's edge. I look up at
a sky patterned in racing clouds and sycamore branches. A swallowtail butterfly
circles the stalk of a purple bull thistle. Somewhere, anxiously, a brown towhee
trills. A blue jay scoffs. I sink and slide and dream deeper.
If I listen closely - in this dreamy state - I can hear the wilderness
whispering around me. Up and down the Gila River comes the murmur of secret
lives: caddisflies, dragonflies, damselflies, trout, suckers, tadpoles,
toads, lizards, snakes, mice, muskrats, foxes, badgers, bobcats, peccaries. The
rare coatimundi drowses in the trees. Further up the canyon, mountain lions and
black bears live discreetly. At twilight, after supper, we will surely see deer
or a herd of elk.
The dirt road south from New Mexico Highway 12 is rough and dusty. Eventually, we turn east and approach a ranchhouse where the road vanishes at a corral filled with cattle. I stop and wait a respectful time for someone to request that I stay out of the corral. Even though Bat Cave is on public land, I prefer to notify the rancher of my presence. On an earlier visit, permission was freely given. This time, no one from the ranch appears. I make my way through the corrals and cattle to the other side of the corrals and a primitive road scored with deep ruts. A vehicle can easily become stuck on the high center. To compound the difficulty of reaching Bat Cave, the lowest point of the entire Plains of San Agustin is near. In wet weather, this road borders a playa and should be avoided. We continue east, skirting the edge of steep hills that flank this southwestern edge of the plains.
Off in the distance I spot the Tres Hermanes mountains, lit up by the now high moon. They seem to appear three-dimensional under the clear light and much closer than they really are. I gaze about me; there doesn't seem to be cloud anywhere, which is a comforting thought.
Recently I wriggled my way, not into a cave, but into a goals-setting retreat of Carlsbad Caverns National Park staff - three long days trying to articulate the park’s mission, renew its vision, turn sweeping desires into measurable goals, tasks, and work assignments. We were 24, nearly a quarter of the park staff, including superintendent, division heads, rangers, maintenance men, administrative aides. We talked much about team building, but the underlying theme is how we balance the contradictory mandates of preserving the park’s fragile caves with that of encouraging tourist visitation.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park runs five guided off-trail tours. They are so different it’s hard to imagine they are in the same park. Spider Cave delivers an intimate caving experience, wriggling into the hidden underworld, coming face-to-face with earth’s inner secrets. Lower Cave is back stage at the opera.
The road heads north, from the pass of El Paso to the cross of Las Cruces and farther to the spot where you turn west and leave the Rio Grande's fertile sides. As you travel towards Hillsboro, the road rolls and twists, breaking the straightness and monotony of the Interstate. Now it's time to pay attention; driving becomes work and fun, a test of your attentive ability. It takes effort to escape; the efforts can test your reactions and the fitness of your vehicle. Small trees start to appear. The feeling of going upward gradually becomes obvious.
Bonito Lake outside Ruidoso in the Sacramento Mountains of Southern New Mexico is a small man-made body of clear water reflecting the blue of the sky behind a dam at the end of a road that follows the Rio Bonito through forested canyons. It lies peacefully in a high country basin north of the sacred Apache peak of Sierra Blanca. It is a fine place for teaching my girls to fish.
For those who like to avoid the Interstates and travel the narrower, more quiet highways, New Mexico Route 28 is a lovely, relaxing trip. Begin your trek on this highway at Old Mesilla southwest of Las Cruces. The highway is east of the Rio Grande at this point, but a few miles south it crosses the great river and you are on the west side of it . . . Designated as the Oñate Trail, it is part of the route Don Juan de Oñate took into New Mexico 400 years ago.
One of the great outdoor joys of my life is to simply meander through the countryside. That means to hike along with no particular place in mind as my destination, and to do it in a very slow manner. I do my best meandering while hunting. A good example of what I'm talking about happened during my last elk hunt.
For most of us, Labor Day fills a primitive need for a special day to mark the change of seasons, the end of summer and the beginning of fall. In New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains on Labor Day, summer still held the land in her dark green grip. Only the sunflowers and asters crowding the highway hinted that fall was squeezing in.
Flatlanders need not apply. The road to Mogollon, known as the Bursum Road, climbs 2,080 feet from the San Francisco River Valley to the old ghost town, nestled in the Mogollon Mountains. “That doesn’t sound so bad,” you might say, but the climb is seven miles in length - over 2,000 feet in seven miles, and not one of the switchbacks has guardrails.
Museums are history lessons for those who have lived through that history and those who are too young to have experienced it. When you see how our ancestors lived it doesn't give credence to the term "the good ole days." It is, however, a window through which we can view the past. The Roswell Museum and Art Center provides that window in the Rogers Aston Gallery of American Indian and Western Art. That art includes clothing worn, implements, tools and other artifacts used during that era.
As I drive, twisting through mountains and leaning around curves, having turned westward at Hatchita towards Animas on N.M. 9, which then leads to Rodeo and to Portal, Arizona, I bask in the warmth of an autumn day. I am taking a one-day vacation to leisurely revisit the sites of Old West tales in the boot heel of New Mexico.
Separate from the crowd. Exit Interstate 25 and find yourself on New Mexico's own Highway One, a slower, quieter route. The road hugs the topography, its narrow, low bridges and sweeping ridgetop climbs reward those taking the alternate route from Elephant Butte to Socorro.
I’m flat on my belly inching through the crawl space into Spider Cave. My head lamp casts a shadowy glow into this twisting channel, but I can’t raise my head far enough to see where I’m going. The cave ceiling scrapes my back. The cave floor is rocky as a mountain stream, and jagged stones nip into my chest and thighs. I’m dragging myself - there’s not enough room to crawl - trying to follow the soles of the size ten boots ahead of me. The boots disappear around a corner.
In 1878, Billy the Kid was capturing headlines across the American West. Three years later he was dead, shot down by lawman Pat Garrett. Even before his brief life played out, the Kid had become legendary, as either brutish murderer or daring avenger. To this day, the controversy continues. Was Billy the Kid simply living up to the code of the frontier? Or was he a lethal hot-head embellishing his own legend?
In the realm of travel, nothing can approach a successful river run on good water, with the opportunity for some gamefish along the way. Okay, maybe if we could work some hunting into that river run, too. That should be next.
I had flown into Albuquerque, rented a vehicle and driven down to Carrizozo through Sorroco and across the Stallion Station. Severe thunderstorms had moved through the area that day, providing some incredible sights of distant cloud formations with rain shafts and lightning displays. As I drove across Stallion Station, an oryx stood by the fence chewing his cud, a sight that made me do a double take as I had only seen one in a zoo before and had no idea such a critter existed in this country otherwise. I commented to myself that after having read about the Trinity Site bomb test, it was probably just a radioactive mutated range cow deceiving my eyes.
It is late winter, a Monday afternoon, in New Mexico's Middle Rio Grande Valley. The temperature outside hovers at sixty degrees. For one person, the temptation to remove his coat and tie and play hooky from work is too compelling to resist. From Socorro, our adventurer drives south on New Mexico Highway 1 toward the entrancing and renowned Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge. He must, for obvious reasons, remain anonymous.
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