Linda and I had lunch in San Antonio, New Mexico―according to a historical marker beside the sleepy village’s main street, the birthplace of Conrad Hilton. 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 so 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 was indeed a land of little rain. Meanwhile, the vegetation wavered in a steady wind.
As we headed to a place on our map named Bingham, I knew that some 20 miles to the south, 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 rude. And I vowed then and there to learn 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 oddly crested and troughed like waves on a tumultuous sea, was jagged, bladed, pointed, and coarsely textured. Yet there was occasionally rock that whorled and rippled and had a creamy smoothness that emitted a sheen beneath the midday sun; in its structure and luster, I couldn’t escape its amusing resemblance to the piles of fresh cow manure I’d recently seen in southeast Utah. This was not the dead rock that I daily faced as a miner in Colorado or that bore the pecked images in southeast Utah. These fanciful, frozen whorls and ripples spoke of something, if not alive, only very recently come to a queer standstill. Meanwhile, this seemingly unbroken sea of rock accommodated vegetable life, and abundantly so: grasses, shrubs, and cacti proliferated throughout it, bobbing up and down among and upon the dark waves, their roots somehow clutching nurturing 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.