The following month, I continued my exploration of the Southwest, this time with Linda. We planned to camp at the Valley of the Fires State Park, outside of Carrizozo, New Mexico, in the state’s southeast quadrant.
I knew very little about Linda’s outdoor experiences. She told me of once fishing with her father, including sleeping in a tent, at Colorado’s Dillon Reservoir. I didn’t get the impression it was one of her more enjoyable outings: cold, hard ground seemed to be the event’s main theme. (Perhaps her future husband was cursing the same cold as he thumbed to his job in Breckenridge, Colorado, on nearby Route 9.)
Yet I did not doubt she had an appreciation for the beauty and wonders of nature. While we were together in Colorado, she proudly introduced me to Colorado Springs’s Bear Creek Nature Center; we once bicycled for a day amid the Rockies on a paved path that linked Frisco, Colorado, to Breckenridge; and we had an enjoyable spring picnic, this despite a raw, misty afternoon, on the shortgrass prairie near Kiowa, Colorado. (Splendor in the grass―my somewhat unusual idea, of course.)
I suggested we visit Valley of the Fires for several reasons. Carrizozo is roughly 100 miles south of Albuquerque, so I figured it had to be warmer than the Duke City, which was still occasionally experiencing the chilly April day. I was eager to pay my first visit to New Mexico’s only classic American desert and North America’s largest, the Chihuahuan, which encompasses the state park. Finally, I couldn’t resist the dramatic, almost Biblical, name “Valley of the Fires,” although I had little idea it pertains to a specific geologic characteristic of the park.
Linda’s fellowship at the University of New Mexico gave her exclusive access to the institution’s “recreation” department, and it was from this that we rented an air mattress for her and a tent for the two of us. (Like me, Linda owned a bulky Sears cloth sleeping bag; no wonder we were compatible.) The smallest tent available for rent comfortably accommodated as many as four persons: fine, I thought, plenty of room.
We began our journey southward on Interstate 25. Never having seen the Chihuahuan Desert, I knew little about what to expect in the way of its flora, fauna, geology, and climate (other than its presumed aridity and warmth). My Audubon Society guide to America’s deserts, which I had purchased just prior to our trek, indicated that the Chihuahuan spreads into New Mexico from northern Mexico in “four fingerlike projections,” with the northernmost projection reaching to “a point just north of” the town of Socorro, which was on our itinerary.
Of course, there was no sign, official or unofficial, along I-25 announcing our entrance into this desert. However, as we passed the town of Belen (Spanish, somehow, for “Bethlehem”), 40 miles north of Socorro, I sensed that the character of the landscape was changing. The Rio Grande, which parallels the interstate to the east, was still bordered by dense woods and the occasional agricultural field greening with spring. But, just west of the interstate, the land was disrobing, beginning with the disappearing junipers. Disappearing, as well, were the bones of the land’s lower elevations, those rock outcroppings so common west and north of Albuquerque; they were now being replaced by mere soils given to erosion. When Sierra Ladrones appeared in the west not far from highway, I could see that the peaks and slopes it presented to the highway were bereft of the dark alpine forests that mantle the Sandia Mountains and the Manzano Mountains just south of the Sandias; instead, the range was dotted with smaller trees and considerably armored with rock. In the far southeast, meanwhile, I saw, peeking above the horizon, a jagged range that appeared to be devoid of dense forests as well.
The land was drying.
As we progressed south of Socorro, now well into the desert, one thing was certain: This was not the Sonoran Desert I had witnessed during my visit to Tucson, Arizona, the previous decade. There were no multi-armed saguaro cacti waving at me; no luxuriant palo verde trees lending their cool green accents to arroyos; no teddy bear cholla cacti with their millions of murderous spines, aglow and threatening misery to the inexperienced Sonoran pedestrian. The Sonoran is a subtropical, and thus a far more diverse, desert than the Chihuahuan; and, many would agree, a lovelier one. Indeed, Erna Fergusson described the Sonoran as having “a beauty no fabled wood ever equaled.” The Sonoran is also known as an “arboreal desert,” one in which, in the artless observation of author and Southwest explorer Alex Shoumatoff, “[s]o much of the vegetation rises over your head.”
Alas, the high-elevation Chihuahuan Desert we were now witnessing is primarily a monotonous one of squat shrubs and cacti, scattered grasslands, and only an occasional tree, usually the elegant desert willow. [F]lat, drab, repulsive, strangely fascinating” is how Santa Fe author Oliver La Farge described the New Mexico desert in 1952. Perhaps no surprise there, given that, as author Tony Hillerman pointed out, La Farge, although a fine chronicler of northern New Mexico, lacked much of a connection to the state’s landscape as a whole.
Yet it was now, for better or worse, our desert. Soon I would learn that it exists in New Mexico for a couple reasons. One is the “rain shadow” effect of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, massive landforms blocking the passage of rain-producing weather systems, condemning the mountains’ leeward expanses to unforgiving aridity. The other is something called the Hadley cell, equatorial atmospheric activity that prevents the production of moisture in southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Mexico.
Linda and I had lunch in San Antonio, New Mexico, the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, according to a historical marker beside the sleepy village’s main street. A more unlikely birthplace of the hotel magnate and husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor I could not have imagined. We crossed the Rio Grande, swelling with spring snowmelt, at the east end of the town, the river’s bosque mirroring Albuquerque’s.
We continued east on Highway 380. Now that we were well into the Chihuahuan Desert, I was expecting miles of nearly barren sand, and thus I was surprised to find ourselves coursing across an upland dense with shrubs and dotted with juniper. Yet the Oscura Mountains to the southeast―climbing to 8,600 feet, barren, burlap-brown―reminded me that this is indeed a land of little rain. Meanwhile, the vegetation wavered in a building wind.
As we neared a town named Bingham, I knew from my reading that some 20 miles to the south of the highway, on the White Sands Missile Range, there exists a place called Trinity, where our country exploded the first atomic bomb. Gazing at the surrounding desolation that somehow supported an occasional hardscrabble ranch, I had to marvel at the contrast: a device of staggering sophistication birthed in a territory so primitive. And I vowed then and there to learn much more about the history of The Bomb.
For some 20 miles the highway ran through rugged, juniper-forested hills. Then it traversed a landscape covered―no, smothered―by the blackest rock I’d ever seen, blacker even than the asphalt of the highway. Most of the rock, which crested and troughed like waves on a tumultuous sea, was jagged, bladed, pointed, and coarsely textured. Yet there were occasionally patches of the same rock that whorled and rippled and had a creamy smoothness that emitted a sheen beneath the midday sun; in their structure and luster, I couldn’t escape their amusing resemblance to the piles of fresh cow manure I’d recently seen in southeast Utah. A planet’s peristalsis revealed. Meanwhile, this seemingly impervious blanket of rock accommodated vegetable life, and abundantly so. Grasses, shrubs, and cacti throve upon it, their roots having somehow divined life-giving soil.
After three miles, we exited this landscape that, were it not for the paved highway, would have been utterly unfit for human travel, including by foot. Soon afterward we arrived at Valley of the Fires State Park.
The park’s campgrounds overlooked the expanse of rock. After choosing a parking space serving a small campground of hard-packed earth, we strolled―as the wind blew harder than when we motored Highway 380―to the do-it-yourself “pay station” at the park’s entrance. Occupied now by only a couple other visiting parties, the park was a modest affair with some 15 campgrounds and a cinder block structure containing flush toilets and sinks. We walked by two faded, dusty trailer houses, one of which had a padlocked door, that appeared to serve as administration buildings. In the window of the locked trailer there were posters bearing photos of “missing” children last seen in places far removed from Carrizozo. Affixed to the outside wall of the trailer was a bulletin board. Enveloped in clear plastic and tacked to the board was a newspaper photo of “Jumbo.” Wording beneath the photo explained that Jumbo was a 214-ton steel “bottle” that was placed 800 yards from the Trinity explosion and survived the blast intact. Tacked next to the story of Jumbo―ironically somehow, I thought―was a list of Carrizozo churches.
At the pay station (we’d yet to encounter any park personnel), we placed our cash in an envelope provided by the park and dropped the envelope through the slot of a steel cylinder that would likely have survived the Trinity explosion as well. From a lidded wooden box, parched and splintered, beside the cylinder we took a pamphlet that explained the park. The sea of rock was lava that originated from a now-dormant volcano not far north of 380; the lava field ran south for 44 miles. The field was known in Spanish as a “malpais,” or badland.
Holding hands, we walked back to our campground, I several times securing against the wind my black and orange Gallup High School cap, purchased during my return from Utah. Asphalt, trailers, several automobiles, a state park pickup truck, picnic tables, tents, and rusted grills: No, this was not the wilds of Utah. Still, owing to its distance from a major city―Albuquerque, 100 miles; El Paso, 135 miles―and the fact that it was a weekday, there was a pleasant tranquility to the place. And visual splendor existed in nearly all directions: the bed of lava that stretched south to the empty horizons of the Tularosa Basin; the Oscura Mountains, just beyond which brooded the birthplace of the Nuclear Age, to the west; and the Sacramento Mountains, culminating in massive, forested Sierra Blanca, its array of commercial ski slopes still glowing with snow, to the east.
I hadn’t camped in a “state park” since the summer of 1964, when, as a 13-year-old member of a YMCA group of a dozen boys and two handsome, young, bearded honchos―looking back, I suspect they were among the original admirers of the murdered John F. Kennedy―I spent the night in southern Vermont’s Ascutney State Park. This was in preparation for a canoe trip down the Connecticut River through Vermont and Massachusetts―seven days of sand in my sleeping bag, constant hunger, and constipation. (Thoroughly accustomed to nesting in complete privacy upon a flush toilet, I sadly discovered―as I clutched in futility, merely for appearance, our expedition’s trenching shovel―that the body mechanics of eliminating in woods and fields did not come naturally to me, and my bowels froze in confusion and hopelessness.)
With the afternoon waning and the wind unrelenting, Linda and I decided to establish a camp quickly, with the erection of the tent our first priority. I removed the large bag containing the tent from the hatchback of Linda’s Celica and dumped its contents―the rumpled bolt of nylon, the clanging aluminum poles, the tangle of guy ropes, the dirt-encrusted metal stakes―onto the patch of packed ground beside the car. I didn’t know what was going on in Linda’s mind; for myself, looking at this mess that lacked any instructions, I tried to recall when I had last erected a tent of similar size and sophistication, and could not. But Linda didn’t flinch, and I, having so far sold myself as a man of the outdoors, dared not, so we began by unfurling and unfolding the nylon and spreading it thoroughly over the ground.
Or rather attempting to spread it over the ground. We quickly realized that the wind was invading every square foot of the state park and intent on re-bundling the nylon. Unsure of the tent’s four corners in the mess, and thus reluctant to drive any stakes, we searched our campground and the unoccupied ones nearby for some hefty rocks to act as temporary anchors. We found none, so I descended into the lava field, where I eventually came up with four of them. After weighing down what we presumed were the corners of the tent floor, we came to understand the shelter’s basic mechanics. It hung from two arches fashioned from the aluminum poles, so we assembled one of the arches and attached it to the still-flattened tent. However, when we hoisted the arch with the optimism of an Amish barn-raising, the tent, its door flaps unsecured, immediately filled with wind and decided it would be the mainsail of a catamaran instead. It yanked itself from Linda’s grip and, while I continued to hold on, threatened to deliver me into the black cutlery that was the lava field just to the west. I somehow managed to deflate and wrestle it to the ground like a roped calf.
Eventually, despite the bluster, we erected and secured the nylon shelter. The tent was far too big for our needs, but after four hours in the little Celica, we rather enjoyed its roominess. Its stakes were tight, its walls and roof taut. We were proud of our first home in the desert.
Except for trips to the park restrooms, we spent the remainder of day huddled in the tent against the ongoing wind, weary but, of course, in resilient love. After unfurling our mattresses and unpacking our sleeping bags, we prepared our supper. It was a joint effort: Linda whipped up the appetizer, Crunchy Cheetos, and I got under way with the main dish. A plate of beans, often my fare on solo trips, seemed a bit too bland―and, for a relatively new couple sharing a tent, potentially embarrassing―for the occasion, so I went with that other reliable for the humble camper: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Then, our expedition faced its next challenge: the Svea stove, perched on our picnic table, refused to light in the wild wind. So, somewhat reluctantly, for we were aware of the extreme flammability of nylon, we brought the little stove into the shelter of the tent, established adequate ventilation, and prepared our meal.
The mac and cheese cooling rapidly with the disappearance of the sun behind the Oscuras, we ate quickly. Dessert was the dependable Fig Newtons and mugs of a satisfying hot beverage from the laboratories of General Foods.
After supper, we bundled up and went for a walk through the campground. The wind, now clearly coming from the east, continued, roiling the darkness. To the north, the occasional headlights of motor vehicles crept east and west on 380. To the east, the town of Carrizozo was a meager string of lights punctuated by a beacon of some kind whose light alternately blossomed and then disappeared every few seconds. (Prior to our departure, a co-worker had informed me that Carrizozo was a “party town.” Perhaps, but those few crumbs of light did not exactly suggest revelry.) After a final trip to the restrooms, we bedded down for the night.
Which was pure pandemonium. The wind had increased in velocity. Staring into the tent’s total darkness, I was hoping and praying for Mr. Sandman to deliver me into any degree of slumber, yet he refused even as he spattered against the tent’s walls―remember, this was the desert. Meanwhile, I was certain Linda was staring with me, could practically feel it. Every 60 seconds, a wave of wind came roaring from the east, crashing over Carrizozo, over the state park trailers, over the Celica, and finally over our tent, ballooning inward its east wall, tugging at its door flap, straining at its eastside stakes. And in the diminution of each wave, an air current engaging a flap of some kind on the peak of the tent created a sound that could only be described as a Bronx cheer, as if the desert night were expressing outrage at our meek presence. This went on until the wee hours. And so the two newcomers to New Mexico demonstrably learned that wind is an inevitable element of springtime in the state. (“Arizona blows and Texas sucks,” is how one Santa Fean would eventually explain it to me.)
At an immaculately still sunrise, I crawled out of the wreckage that was our tent. Three of the four corner stakes were extracted, thus allowing the aluminum arches, designed to scissor, to over-scissor to the point of near collapse, and the tent to resemble a giant pile of melted candle wax. Obviously, the weight of our corpses had been the only thing that had prevented the tent from being air-mailed to the Trinity site overnight. Exhausted, our hairdos spiking in all directions, our tympanic membranes frayed, we had a cold breakfast of freeze-dried granola-and-blueberries and more General Foods.
After we packed the tent, our bedding, and the remains of our food, Linda―curious, I guessed, in her scientific way to the bitter end as well as apparently determined to get our money’s worth―surprised me by proposing that we partake in the park’s self-guided “nature walk” through the lava field before leaving. So we stumbled over the 100 yards or so of the crude trail, variously composed of dirt and old, crumbling asphalt, that dipped and rose through the waves of lava. A nature walk for the walking dead.
Thus, our first morning in New Mexico’s classic desert. I had expected the desert to appear as disheveled as our dawn tent, our breakfast coiffures. Yet the grasses and yucca stood upright and apparently intact.
Yes, it was a miserably sleepless night, and I didn’t know how I would remain awake throughout the long drive back to Albuquerque. But my sweetheart and I had survived the night’s fury, the black gusts born in the Sacramentos―the revenge of the Mescalero Apaches?―and we wouldn’t have traded it for anything.