The Very Large Array, New Mexico

For years I’ve driven down I-25 in New Mexico and noticed the sign that says “The Very Large Array,” pointing off to the west. Each time I’ve reluctantly continued on down the highway because time wouldn’t allow the 55-mile detour to go see whatever it was. This time, we made time, and wow— we’re all really glad we did.

It was worthwhile for two reasons. First, Rt 60 through northern New Mexico is a quiet, fast, and scenic drive through the upper elevations. In the afternoon the light makes the yellow grasslands glow, and mountains all around keep the scenery interesting. Second, the Very Large Array (VLA) is abso-freaking-lutely awesome. (That’s a scientific term, the first of many you’ll encounter in this particular blog entry.)

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You really have to see this thing to believe it. It is a giant radiotelescope, made up of 27 big parabolic dishes, each measuring 25 meters. All of them point to the same place at once, and the radio signals they collect from the heavens are combined (“correlated” in scientific language) using a big supercomputer into a single radio image. The effect is that the array acts like a single gigantic radiotelescope measuring 22 miles in diameter!

The array is placed far up in the New Mexico hinterlands, safely away from the radio signals of cities like Albuquerque, and high up on the plains (7,000 ft elevation) so that the signals have less atmosphere to pass through. Driving west on Rt 60 we could see the array from three miles away. It is so sensitive that visitors are require to turn off cell phones while in the area. I almost forgot to turn off the Airstream’s Internet until Eleanor reminded me. The VLA could detect a cell phone from Jupiter, half a billion miles away.

Very Large Array New Mexico-7Somebody thoughtful added a Visitor Center to this installation, which is easily accessed by RVs. Approaching the VLA, you get the sense that there should be barbed wire and armed guards anywhere, but in our entire visit (starting at about 4:30 p.m.) we didn’t see a single person other than a few other visitors. The staff works 24 hours a day but they are hidden inside buildings with the WIDAR supercomputer.

You just walk right into the Visitor Center, press a button to watch the movie, tour the exhibits, and then take a self-guided walking tour around the facility. The tour brings you right to the base of one of these behemoth dishes, close enough to see it move (which it did without warning, twice, while we were there), and hear the “cryogenic refrigeration compressors” keeping the radio receiver at -427 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Kelvin). That’s not a typo.

Very Large Array New Mexico-4Of course, not the entire installation is open to the public. You can’t walk around to the other antennas, and you wouldn’t want to anyway, since they can be spaced out as far as 21 miles. A rail system is used to transport the dishes as needed, changing their configuration in four different ways according to the needs of the scientists who are using the system. Yep, these 100-ton dishes are portable.

Very Large Array New Mexico-2The magnitude of the array is just astounding. It’s easily visible on satellite imagery if you care to look. But walking around the place is much more fun. I can’t count the number of times Eleanor and I kept mumbling, “COOL!” as we wandered the grounds and Visitor Center. It’s a real geek-fest, but even non-geeks will find this place amazing—and recognize some of the installation from movies like “Terminator: Salvation” and “Contact.”

Very Large Array New Mexico-5Very Large Array New Mexico-3There’s also some interesting bits of geek history, like the pillars that famous scientists have inscribed their names on, and if you look closely you might even spot some interesting insect life. Grasshoppers were practically a plague in the roadway by the grassy fields, flinging themselves out of the way of the Airstream as we slowly towed down the entrance road.

My only regret about the visit is that the tour does not include a peek at the supercomputer. I can understand why, but still I’d love to get into the room with a machine that can do 16 quadrillion processes per second.

Very Large Array New Mexico-1Overnight parking is not allowed, otherwise we might have just parked right there for the evening, since it was six p.m. when we were done. We hauled the Airstream another 15 miles or so up to Datil Well BLM campground, which turned out to be a very nice spot at 7,200 ft amongst juniper trees and rolling mountains.

For $5 a night this spot is really a bargain. The sites have no hookups and they aren’t level, but you get repaid for that in beautiful scenery and quiet. There’s even a tiny cabin that serves as a visitor center with information about the cattle drives that used to come through this area, and unbelievably, free wifi inside the cabin. I don’t know how they’re providing that. My phone reports one bar of Verizon or “No Service” and is unusable for calls. However, our Airstream Internet is working very well thanks to the booster and rooftop antenna, so once again I’m very pleased with the tech upgrade I did last spring.

We had a freezer incident yesterday. Somehow the door did not fully close the night before, and some of our food defrosted, including two of the steaks we bought in Capulin. So last night Eleanor cooked them in a cast-iron pan, and also roasted green beans, onions, mushrooms with red wine & garlic, and white beans with rosemary & garlic. It was a late night dinner followed by the last slices of almond cake with apricot cream that she made to celebrate the Harvest Moon a few nights ago. I imagine people in campsites nearby were wondering what the delicious smells were at 8 p.m., far up here in the New Mexico boonies.

Valley of Fires State Rec Area, NM

As we continue our march toward home from Lake Meade State Park in Kansas (spot “A” on the map), you might notice that we haven’t exactly plunged headlong toward Tucson. KS-NM route map New Mexico is really drawing us in, in a way it has never done before.  The last time we were so enchanted by this state was in early 2000, when Eleanor and I flew in (pre-Airstream) with Emma due to exit the womb in a month or so.  Eleanor was so visibly pregnant that the ranger didn’t want her to climb ladders at Gila Cliff Dwellings, but Eleanor did it anyway (and all other challenges that came her way). Every time we come to New Mexico I think of that trip.

It’s a great place to tour, made even greater by the truly amazing great late-summer weather we’ve had.  Yesterday’s drive took us a mere 80 miles to Carrizozo and an island in the middle of a 40,000 year-old lava flow, upon which a campground has been built.  This is the Valley of Fires State Recreation Area.  (Not to be confused with Valley of Fire State Park near Lake Mead in Nevada.)

Valley of Fires SRA NM-4This campground is unique, in that your campsite sits atop a literal island, surrounded in all directions by tortured black lava rock and a few hardy plants and animals that have managed to colonize it.

 

Valley of Fires SRA NM-2

The centerpiece of the rec area is a fantastic walking path that winds through the lava field and offers interpretive signs along the way.  You can walk on the lava if you want, but it’s sharp and deeply convoluted, so it’s really more of an effort than you might expect.

 

Valley of Fires SRA NM-3The only negative we found about this park is the gnats.  Strong winds yesterday kept them at bay but in the morning they were back, and a few snuck into the Airstream as we were getting ready to go.  The park volunteer camp host showed me a bottle of 100% deet and a headnet that we wears when running the weedwacker.

I wouldn’t let that dissuade you from a visit.  You can always come in the winter months if you really can’t stand the thought of bugs. Keep in mind that this spot is at 5,200 feet elevation so it probably gets pretty cold.

Tech report:  Verizon signal was fairly good thanks to the ground elevation of the campground/island above the surrounding lava flow.  Most of the sites have water and electric, too.  Overall, a very nice place and we were glad to have stopped there.  If we were planning to do some serious hiking out on the lava we would have stayed a second night, but alas, our trip is winding down so it was just a one night stand.

Valley of Fires SRA NM-1The trip plan from here is even more vague than before.  We have two more stops in mind, and after that we’re just going to see how we feel about things.  Tonight’s stop is designed to keep us away from populated areas since it’s Saturday night (and popular campgrounds might be full), and that’s perfectly fine with all of us.  Se we have headed to yet another remote part of northern New Mexico.  I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.

 

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.)

Salinas Pueblo-1

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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Salinas Pueblo-8

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.

Salinas Pueblo-9

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.

Salinas Pueblo-7

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.