Valley of the Fires State Park’s campgrounds overlooked the sea 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 set out on Highway 380―to the pay station near the park’s entrance. The park, now occupied by only a couple other visiting parties, was a small and 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, New Mexico. 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 was a list of Carrizozo churches.
At the unattended “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 due south for 44 miles. The pamphlet explained that 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 recent return from Utah.
I hadn’t camped in any state park since the summer of 1964, when, as a 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 (Sears) sleeping bag, constant hunger, and constipation. (Thoroughly accustomed to nesting in 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 hopelessness.)
Gazing at the asphalt, worn trailers, several automobiles, state park pickup truck, picnic tables, tents, and rusted grills of the state park, a part of me longed for the solitude and wildness that I had recently enjoyed in southeast Utah. Yet I suspected that Linda, given the choice, would have preferred the relative comforts of the state park. 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 an enjoyable tranquility to the place.
And visual splendor existed in nearly all directions: the ocean 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.