Salinas Pueblos National Monument

A few days ago when Eleanor and I were talking about our options for travel west of Kansas, we got a bit stuck.  So we did what we often do: we opened up the map and just looked around for things that were unfamiliar and interesting. I regard that exercise as a real privilege, because it means we’ve got time to explore whatever we like, and that doesn’t happen as often as it used to.

After a few minutes of map searching I noticed a tiny green speck in northern New Mexico indicating a national monument we’d never heard of: Salinas Pueblos. We immediately got on the NPS.GOV website and discovered that it comprises three separate units: Abo, Quarai and Gran Quivira, each containing the ruins of pueblos that had been occupied for hundreds of years, but not much since 1667.  We were already sold on going there, but it was even more interesting to see that the pueblos were in an area of New Mexico that we’ve never seen (or even heard of).  So Salinas Pueblos became the centerpiece of our route home, and we made our other routing choices (like Capulin Volcano) around it.

We wanted to stay at Manzano Mountains State Park, but found (upon arrival) that it was closed. The official reasoning is severe fire danger, but locals told us it hasn’t been open for three seasons because of budgetary issues.  So we ended up at the only other spot within 50 miles: an RV park in Mountainair, NM.  And it was across the street from a very busy freight rail line.  Oh well.  At least we had a full hookup.

I hadn’t expected cell phone service in this part of the country so I wasn’t disappointed.  Cellular voice service was hopeless, but Skype on the iPhone running over the campground wifi allowed me to make a few calls anyway.  Interestingly, the new rooftop antenna and amplifier I installed last spring for Internet service worked amazingly well.  (I was able to get online with the router reporting a virtually non-existent signal strength of -101 dBm, but used the RV park wifi most of the time.)

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The fine weather continued for the most part, which made touring the ruins a picturesque experience.  They are all around 6,700 feet elevation, surrounded by grassy plains and ringed by mountains in the distance. Puffy cumulus popped up each afternoon to dot the sky.  Eleanor likes taking pictures of clouds, sunsets, and wildlife more than photos of ruined stone foundations, so she was practically wearing out her camera while I judiciously composed shots of the landscape.  When we compared notes later it seemed she shot about three for every one of mine. But we both got great pictures. It’s hard not to, in such a majestic and historic place.

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There is a very sad tale that surrounds these pueblos, which is well documented at all three sites.  Since our recorded history basically begins when the Spanish attempted to colonize New Mexico, there’s not much known about the pueblo Indians life in the 800 years or so prior to the Spanish arrival.  But we know all too well what happened when the first Spanish friars showed up, and it’s a classic story of outside influence destroying a culture.

Salinas Pueblo-2The natives were forced to adopt Christianity and abandon their traditional beliefs, work as virtual slaves for the Spanish crown, change farming methods, and abandon trading with other tribes.  It wasn’t long before these settlements that had survived for centuries were suffering from starvation, unrest, violent raids, and ultimately complete failure.

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By 1677, the pueblos were abandoned: the natives migrated elsewhere, the Spanish decided New Mexico would never be profitable, and everyone lost.  Other than a brief occupation by Hispanics in the 19th century, nobody has ever lived at these sites since. What we know of them today comes from records by the Spanish and archaeological study. There’s a lot more to the story, but you’ll need to visit Salinas Pueblos yourself to learn it.

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Emma helped us out by doing the Junior Ranger program at all three sites.  You get a pin plus a ribbon for each site, and she collected all of them over the course of a day and a half.

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If you come here I recommend two nights minimum to be able to explore all three sites, if you can stand the train noise at the RV park. (My solution was to get very poor sleep one night, and sleep like a log the second.  Huge thunderstorms on the first night helped with this.)

I know Montana owns the slogan, but this is really “big sky country.”  On a clear night the stars and moon are worth a look, and it seems like the land goes on forever without a city in any direction.  (Albuquerque is on the other side of a mountain range, effectively invisible from here.)  There’s not much here beyond the salt lakes and the ancient pueblos, so it’s no surprise that tourism is minimal (cattle ranching seems to be the big business), but it’s a beautiful spot nonetheless.

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Our trip “plan” at this point called for us to head to Silver City and then up to Gila Cliff Dwellings, but the recent rains in New Mexico caused the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument to close.

It’s open again as of today, but with the warning that the trails may close in the afternoons as thunderstorms build up.  Given that, we’ve decided to head over to Valley of Fires State Recreation Area in Carrizozo NM for a night and then figure out the rest of the trip from there.  We’ve still got five days to play with before we have to be at home base, and we want to make the most of every day we have.

Capulin Volcano National Monument, NM

We lucked out.  Not only did we manage to miss the rain that has plagued the western states, but we hit this part of northern New Mexico in time for some flawless late summer weather.  That made our visit to Capulin Volcano a huge success.

We have moved up in the world, literally, climbing to a base elevation of about 6,800 feet here at the RV park, and that means a big change in climate.  Days are sunny and in the 70s, but come sunset the temperatures plummet and anyone outside is quickly reaching for a warm layer to wear.  Those humid days in Jackson Center only a few days ago seem far off now.  We’ve gone from air conditioning to furnace in no time at all.

The town of Capulin is quiet and tiny, just a few houses and one small store, an RV park, and not much else.  There is no grocery store, no night life, no downtown.  Our host at the RV park is also the rural mail carrier.  Up the road is the equally tiny Folsom, made famous for the “Folsom man” discovery which proved that humans lived in north America at least 10,000 years ago.  Otherwise, this area is all wide open landscapes and grassy cattle ranches punctuated by volcanic remains like cinder cones and lava fields.  It’s stunningly beautiful on a clear day.

Capulin NM E E rim trailFrom the summit of Capulin volcano it’s a million-dollar view in all directions, and the best way to get it is to drive to the top and hike the one mile Crater Rim Trail, which of course we did.  Here’s a hint: it’s a lot easier if you go counter-clockwise.

We also hiked into the shallow crater on the Crater Vent Trail, and along the Boca Trail (2.0 miles), for a total of about 3.5 miles of hiking.  Not having done much hiking lately, and also acclimating to high altitude again (about 7,800 feet at the rim), we all felt like total couch potatoes, but we plowed ahead anyway.  We all need the exercise. Being winded is just part of the experience.

Capulin NM ladybugs

One feature of the volcano that we did not expect was ladybugs.  Apparently they are quite prolific, for reasons we did not learn today.  If you look closely at the bush in the picture, you may be able to see that the red dots are ladybugs, not berries. Eleanor purchased a souvenir pin for the park, which features a ladybug, and now we understand why it’s there.

I mentioned that this is cattle country.  The RV park sells “premium beef” from one of the local cattlemen, which is all organic, grass-fed, beef with a long list of perceived benefits.  The brochure even mentions that they “use animals of a gentle disposition, and always handle gently and quietly.”  It’s expensive stuff but we couldn’t resist three steaks from their freezer, so now they are in our freezer. Our best souvenirs are always the edible ones.

Since we slowed down, life in the Airstream feels exactly like it did when we were full-timing—except that our daughter, who was once so portable, now requires a chunk of the dinette table for her ever-present laptop computer.  But otherwise it’s very familiar, comforting, and just feels right to be out here. I would be happy to extend this trip for a few weeks if we didn’t have obligations back at home base.

Capulin NM E E hikeEmma has of course done the Junior Ranger program, so we’ll turn in the completed booklet and get her badge tomorrow.  I could easily see spending a few more days here, touring the backcountry outside the National Monument, but that would have us in the car even more and that’s not terribly appealing after 30+ hours of driving in the past week. We have decided to move tomorrow to see some native American ruins further south in New Mexico, and camp in the Cibola National Forest for a couple of days.  We’ll probably lose Internet connectivity for that period so I’ll update the blog when we emerge.


A slow roam through Kansas

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote the advice to aspiring Airstreamers that they should “make a [trip] plan, then plan to change it.”  That’s exactly what we’ve done, and it has worked out nicely.

In the previous blog entry I noted that we were watching the storms in Colorado and trying to time our arrival to miss the rain.  But once we got onto the road in Missouri (departing Stevyn & Troy’s place) Eleanor suggested we just slow down and forget all the interim goals I had in mind.  I thought about it for a moment as we were chugging west on I-70, then agreed.  We would just take it one day at a time.

This led to another decision: forget about Colorado this time.  The rain on the eastern side of the Rockies was persisting and we were just going to end up mostly re-tracing routes we’ve driven before.  Looking at the map, we saw lots of routes and stops in New Mexico that we had never explored, and suddenly we heard New Mexico calling to us.  One spot led to another, and soon we had a list of potential places to visit.

So we are still winging it with a rough plan that changes daily as events (weather and interest level) warrant.  We’ve abandoned the Interstate for “blue highways” across Kansas and that decision alone has made the trip significantly more interesting.  There was one long day in there on I-70, ending up in a restaurant parking lot for the night, but since then we haven’t seen the Interstate and certainly haven’t missed it.  It may seem strange to slow down in Kansas, a state that usually causes people to speed up, but a slow meander across the countryside does reveal a lot of rural charm (and occasionally interesting mid-century architecture) for those inclined to see it.

Lake Meade KS Airstream After that overnight in Junction City KS, we wandered southwest past Dodge City.  Eleanor has begun training as a driver of the Airstream, and this relatively quiet route gave her a good chance to drive 120+ miles, for which I am proud of her.  She didn’t enjoy it much, especially the construction zone … and the rotary … and a few other things … but she did very well.  The Airstream has no damage and I found it so relaxing to have her drive that at one point I nearly fell asleep.

Quite a while later, with Eleanor recovering in the passenger seat, we ended up at a remote oasis in amidst the sorghum fields called Lake Meade State Park.  Whoever thought of damming this little valley and making a park out of it was a genius, because it’s just a wonderful thing to find a lake nestled amongst tall shady trees after hundreds of miles of flat vast dryness.  We celebrated with a turn on the swingset by the lake shore.

Lake Meade KS swingAnd better still, since it’s off-season we were virtually alone in the place.  You have to want to go here, since it’s many miles off Rt 54.  Put it this way, it’s about mid-way between Dodge City and Liberal KS, and if you want to go get a quart of milk you need to drive about 16 miles just to get to the highway. Sometimes the places that are incredibly inconvenient are great.

Today was another long leg, but we’re already slowing down.  While at a fuel stop in the small town of Hooker, Oklahoma, we encountered the principal of the high school.  Emma was snickering at the sign across the street which identified Hooker as the home of the “Horny Toads” (a sporting team), and he said (good-naturedly) “Are you making fun of our town?”  I thought it would be a nice ice-breaker to ask where we could get lunch in town, and he not only directed us to a good spot, but actually led us with his truck to a place on we could park the Airstream.  I wasn’t entirely sure we needed to stop for lunch, but this was a local recommendation and a red carpet to boot, so we had lunch in town and ended up killing over an hour of the day.

Hooker KS Airstream

After lunch we cruised through Oklahoma’s panhandle and toward the continental divide to Capulin, NM for a visit to volcano country.  There are supposedly something like 200 extinct volcanoes here, but the best known is Capulin Volcano National Monument.  The plan at the moment is to explore this area for a while and then meander down into New Mexico further.  That’s as far as it goes.  We’re all cool with that.

By the way, if you are in Tucson in early October, check out Tucson Modernism Week.  It’s a relatively new event, only in its second year, but already growing and full of interesting talks, architectural tours, parties, and exhibits. I’m not one of the organizers (friends are), but I will be speaking at the event on Oct 5 on the subject of “Amazing Vintage Trailers,” and I helped them get started on a Vintage Trailer Show too.  (If you have a trailer that might be good for the show, check their ad on Craigslist to get an application.

Steep learning curve

Roadtripping is never great when you’ve got too many miles to cover, so I had not expected much from our day on the road from Jackson Center OH to New Florence MO.  Usually I arrived bleary-eyed and cramped, fatigued from too many hours of staring at striped concrete, and wondering how the long-haul truckers do it day after day.

But this road trip was a little different.  Even though we started late (9:10 a.m.), and despite intermittent rain for the first two hundred miles along I-70, things proceeded smoothly and eventually I was pleased to find that we were in St Louis right on schedule.  Sixty miles further west was our goal: an offer of courtesy parking with our friends Stevyn and Troy.

Like a lot of courtesy parking offers, this one was over a year in the making.  It takes a while to swing by any particular spot in the USA, and even though Stevyn had tempted us with colorful descriptions of a bucolic country paradise, I wasn’t sure when we’d next by driving through Missouri to take advantage of the stay.  But it was well worth the wait, because we found pleasant hosts at a peaceful little homestead atop a hill surrounded by forests and fields, and a grassy spot to park the Airstream (with 30-amp power nearby).

New Florence MO steep driveThere was only one problem: getting up the driveway.  Stevyn had advised that there were two hills along their gravel driveway, and I thought it rather odd that she suggested All-Wheel Drive or 4WD might be helpful.  How bad could they be?  We soon found out.

The photo really doesn’t do it justice.  You have to look closely to see that there’s a point at which the road disappears from view because of the first drop-off (I can’t call it a hill, since it seems closer to a cliff).  It was so sudden and shocking that I tried to brake the Airstream to a stop, but it slid over the loose gravel surface and continued down the hill anyway.  There was nothing to do but release the brakes and keep steering as we plummeted down what I later estimated at a 20% grade.

It was a mistake to lose the momentum, because at the bottom we faced another hill of equal steepness.  The AWD system in the Mercedes was flashing yellow warning lights on the dash to let us know that the highway-oriented performance tires were slipping in the gravel, but fortunately the diesel engine produces great torque and with four wheels pulling we still climbed steadily to the top.

(A side note here: Anyone who still thinks our car’s 3.0 liter V6 turbodiesel is “underpowered” is invited to pull a 7,500 pound trailer up this hill from a stop with your tow vehicle.)

At the top of the hill we found Troy waiting by the side of the road with words of wisdom: “You have to drive it like you own it.”  Sage advice indeed, since ahead of us was yet another nearly identical slope, and I immediately knew what he meant.  Full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes.

New Florence MO Airstream courtesy parkWe climbed the second hill as well, and found ourselves in a tiny paradise.  Again, the photo doesn’t do justice the scene.  Imagine being parked on an 80-acre hobby farm, on grass and beneath a large shady tree.  Nearby is a vegetable garden overflowing with produce.

New Florence MO Emma chickenChickens and peacocks are roaming around.  To the east is a pasture with a dozen or so head of furry cows.  A lovely house is across the driveway, with an outdoor patio that has a view to the ponds, and a firepit.  Trails head off across the meadow and into the woods, and the sun is shining on a perfect late summer day.

It has been quite a while since we had weather so perfect that every window and vent in the trailer could be opened.  The vent fans blew out the hot air that had been trapped in the Airstream during our low tow, and filled the interior with clean country air.  We slept with the windows open, and I even opened the one by my head just so I could hear the crickets all night long.

It didn’t take much to convince us to stay two nights instead of just one.  This morning we had breakfast with the entire family (nine in total counting us, which consumed quite a bit of the egg-laying output of the hens).  I got some desk work done in the morning, and then while Eleanor and Emma were working on school I got a tour around the property from Troy in their 4WD utility vehicle.  I also popped into the car to store this location into the “Favorites” of the GPS.  The rest of the day we just spent talking, petting the farm cat, playing with the dog, and chilling out in the shade of an oak tree.  Eleanor used the opportunity of the afternoon to make up a huge and complicated salad for everyone to share at dinnertime.

New Florence MO friends


We could stay here very comfortably for a while, but we know we need to get moving west.  The big rain system that has flooded parts of Colorado will be here in a couple of days.  After considering the options we’ve decided to drive through it (via Kansas) and arrive in Colorado hopefully around the time the storm system is exiting. So in the morning we will hit the road just to cover some miles, and leave this lovely stop behind, at least for now.

Two days in JC

Trundling over to Jackson Center, Ohio, is a pretty routine experience for us these days.  We get here every year, and sometimes twice a year.  And yet, it’s still sort of exciting to visit the home base of Airstream, talk to the people, watch the guys working in the Service Center, and see all the Airstreams coming and going.

Sixty miles out from the plant we started to see other Airstreams along the road, and pulled over in convenient spots for lunch.  By the time you get to Jackson Center, which is a small village far from city lights, the Airstreams seem to become as numerous as the soybean & corn fields.

Airstream Yes

Coming here this week has been quite a different experience from our annual Alumapalooza week.  For one thing, it’s very quiet.  Only about eight Airstreams are in the Terra Port, and there’s no line at the service center parts desk nor anyone in the Wally Byam store most of the time.  I liked it.  But still, we never fail to run into someone we’ve met before in the Terra Port. This time it was Jim and Linda and their two cats.

The other thing that is different is communications.  Verizon and AT&T are terrible here; non-existent inside the metal buildings and marginal everywhere else.  At Alumapalooza we rely on professional-grade handheld radios to keep the staff in touch, but during this visit we’ve just had to act as if it’s 1980 and cell phones haven’t been invented.  I haven’t been able to successfully receive a call since I got here, although I can place them if I stand outside in the 93 degree heat (with plenty of humidity).

Ah well, technology will find a way. In this case I discovered that I could make very good Skype calls from the air conditioned Service Center lobby using their wifi, and the rest of the time I just told people to email me instead.  That’s good enough for a couple of days.

Airstream Service pano

Our primary purpose in being here was to have a few meetings with Airstream staff, but also to pick up some parts.  The Safari’s silver beltline and propane tank lid look just awful as a result of UV exposure, so I bought replacements for those as well as a few of those small parts that are so necessary but you can never find on the road when you need them, like various sizes of rivets.

(I got up early this morning and installed the replacement propane lid before the heat built up outside. The job involves drilling and riveting, and took about 30 minutes not counting the run to the parts dept. to get another size of rivets.)

Airstream Wallys Gold TrailerOne of the Airstreams I spotted here was Wally’s “gold” Airstream, a semi-famous trailer that we wrote about in the Summer 2006 issue of Airstream Life.  It’s a 1957 tandem axle custom that went to Mexico and Africa on some of Wally’s last caravans.  The anodizing process used to give the trailer its gold color was never really ideal, and would deteriorate periodically leaving the trailer looking pretty awful, so this time Airstream decided to paint it gold instead.

The new paint job looks just spectacular and should last quite a long time.  If our trailer starts to look ratty (many years from now) and we want to keep it longer, I’d seriously consider a silver paint job on it.  I’ve seen other ones and if it is done well it looks great.

Jackson Center is a very quiet little village these days.  There’s not much here to do, but people are still making an effort to keep the village alive.  The Elder Theater just successfully completed a Kickstarter to raise $25k to get a digital projector and so the town’s one-screen old-school cinema will be able to continue.  The Verandah, the best restaurant in town for years, was closed but now is advertising for staff again, so we have high hopes for its return soon.

This may be our last night in a convenient full hookup spot, so we’ve made the most of it.  That means running the A/C, watching a movie on the TV, taking long showers, using the microwave, making repairs, and even a late-night final laundry run.

Jackson Center laundryWe’re done with work now, so it’s time to move on.  Tomorrow we are going to make the major sprint of our trip, hopefully ending up somewhere past St Louis MO by the end of the day (over 400 miles).  That’s a big one for us, and we’ll be starting early to make the most of the day.