Part 2 — The Southwest (New Mexico)

This is part 2 in a series documenting my grand tour across the US.

Driving East out of Arizona, we entered New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment”. Some of my fondest memories of driving in the US are in this beautiful state so I find the state’s monicker to be quite accurate. Until this trip, this was also the furthest East and furthest South I’d ever driven. Reaching here represented a metaphorical Rubicon for me. I told myself that if I made it past here, then the real adventure would begin.

The National Park Service defines the Southwest to include New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and somewhat surprisingly Louisiana. We ended up driving through all of these, visiting the National Parks of Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns while driving East. We stopped at Hot Springs National Park on the route back West. Timing didn’t work out for us to make it far enough South into Texas to visit Big Bend National Park. This will remain the one asterisk on our trip until we get a chance to return. Along the way, we passed through many of the other amazing public lands managed by the National Park service. These included the incomparable White Sands National Monument, the diverse Big Thicket National Preserve and Padre Island National Seashore, the world’s longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island.

Driving East, our path took the following route:

Our route through the SouthWest

Our first stop on this part of the journey was Silver City, one of the old cowboy towns of the Southwest. Silver City was founded in the late 1800’s when silver was discovered here. It’s rich history of previous residents include William H Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, whose first arrest and incarceration was within the town. Today, the historical district is well maintained and has the occasional surprise of art deco influenced architecture (such as the Murray Hotel, below). Just minutes away are the familiar strip malls hosting the expected Walmart, Family Dollar and Subway. The juxtaposition of old world charm vs modern consumer sprawl was a theme we’d see regularly throughout our travel.

Silver City, New Mexico

Silver City is exceptionally well located for outdoor adventure. Just 90 minutes to its North is the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. This had been on our original itinerary but recent flooding had caused the roads to become impassible. We’d made alternative plans to visit the surrounding Gila National Forest for a hike but the same morning, I heard news of a woman at our hotel being attacked by a Mountain Lion. Fortunately she was ok but her dog had suffered injuries. It was a timely reminder of both the real world danger to be found in these wild lands, and the respect they command.

City of Rocks State Park, NM

Just outside of Silver City was the City of Rocks State Park. Our visit there was one of the many experiences where little expectation was rewarded with unexpected delight. The unusual formations in this particular park were formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago. Although beautiful to look at, they didn’t photograph particularly well during the day. I suspect a night visit would yield better results. Instead we hiked the loop of the park and I was reminded why I love these lands so much.

Truth or Consequences was our next destination. This small New Mexico town would undoubtedly win the award for the coolest named City in the US. Founded later than Silver City and slightly smaller it is now considered a “spa city” due to the presence of numerous natural hot springs. We had many amazing experiences over the seven weeks of our trip. Few were more memorable than spending the morning of New Year’s Eve watching the sun rise over the Rio Grande while immersed in volcanically heated water. These waters have a deep history in Native America where the Apache leader Geronimo was said to have spent time. Knowledge of this only deepens the experience.

One of the themes I tried to maintain during our drive was to listen to or read books that were relevant to the areas we were visiting. One example was When the Rivers Run Dry: Water — the Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century. The author Fred Pearce writes of the US’s great rivers, including the one that I had relaxed to that morning. The “Grande” in Rio Grande means ‘great’, an appropriate name for the 5th longest in American and among the 20th longest in the world. It runs 2,000 miles from its source, starting in the Colorado Rockies and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. It drains a tenth of the continental US and supplies water to over 9 million people.

Rio Grande, Truth or Consequences, NM

However, in the book and in other articles, Peace tells a story of how modern industrialization has broken the back of this great river, syphoning enough of it away through irrigation and canals that it has slowed to a barely more than trickle in some sections. The main cause for this drainage is not household use but farming. The water required to fill our homes with food and merchandise dwarfs other domestic uses such as showering, flushing the toilet and brushing our teeth. All food contributes to this but meat (via livestock feed) is the greatest culprit. It takes 11,000 liters (3,000 gallons) to grow the feed for enough cow to make a quarter-pound hamburger. This is the equivalent to what many households (including mine) use in 2–4 weeks.

I’ve stood at the edge of countless rivers in my life and I rarely give much thought to where they come from or where they go. My experience and thoughts are typically confined to the small section in front of me. Standing at the edge of the Rio Grande was a different. I felt simultaneously in awe of the fact that I was standing on a natural highway of water longer than the distance from LA to Chicago. Yet I also felt sadness at how we’ve been unable to find the right balance between human needs and what the earth is capable of providing. It would not be the first time on this trip that I would feel this conflict, and also wonder the role I could play in helping address this balance.

Old Church, Truth or Consequences, NM

To round out our day on the 31st December, we left Truth or Consequences and took the two hour drive to one of the most visually stunning locations in North America — White Sands National Monument where the world’s largest gypsum dunes sprawl over 275 square miles. These type of dunes are rare because gypsum is soluble and as a result rain water will usually carry it out to rivers, seas, etc. They exist at White Sands because there is little rain but more importantly very few runoffs. So while the sand dunes will shift and morph continuously over the years, it’s always within an area constrained by natural barriers.

We arrived at White Sands about two hours before sunset and had time to walk and hike with our dogs.

White Sands National Monument, NM

At one section, I found an undisturbed set of animal tracks — evidence of nature’s adaptability and the power of specialization even in environments as barren and as harsh as these. Seeing these tracks, probably from a Kit Fox, felt like a symbolic way to end the year. Footprints leading into the sunset, destination unknown.

Tracks at White Sands National Monument, NM

We hung around until the sun set, taking slow deep breaths while watching both the evening and 2016 came to a close.

Our final destination in New Mexico was Carlsbad Caverns. Arriving on New Year’s Day, the park visitor center and caves were closed. Instead, we took our car over the park’s 9 mile gravel loop road. While not as famous as the park’s huge caves, this detour became the day’s highlight. One of the great things about visiting the Parks in winter is the feeling of isolation you can get. You might be within 20 minutes drive of a gas station, a Starbucks or have full cell phone coverage, yet you can achieve the feeling of complete isolation with relative safety. This is how it felt for us. In our two hour exploration, we only saw one other car and more Barbary Sheep than humans.

My final memory of New Mexico was leaving the Caverns for the town of Carlsbad where we planned to stay the night. Driving North along Highway 62 I noticed a huge storm about 20 miles to my left. It had been slowly building during our offroad loop drive at the park and now hung suspended over the horizon, darkening the skies. As the light dimmed, it was easy to see the lightning streaking across the sky. As we pulled into Carlsbad, I had a brief but intense desire to suddenly drive towards the storm and photograph it. Akuri persuaded me otherwise and I instead checked into the hotel. It turns out my desire was both dangerous and unnecessary as the storm had actually been heading in our direction anyway. Within minutes, it was upon us. Every car alarm in the car park erupted and rain carried by the winds hit the hotel walls so hard that water poured down behind the glass. With these kinds of storms, I imagine the scariest thing is that you never know that you’re at the peak of its power until its passed. Every time it ratchets up another level, you’re left wondering “is there more?”. Despite all our adventures that we’d have over the next few weeks, my wife remembers this one as the scariest.

Fortunately, the storm died out and several bent signs, a few damaged cars and a collection of garbage cans misplaced by several hundred feet appeared to be the worst impact. Despite our fears, this hadn’t been a hurricane — just another day in the Land of Enchantment.

Next: The Southwest — Texas & Louisiana.

View over Carlsbad Caverns National Park before a storm set in