Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Downtown El Paso

One day, on a beautiful day in spring 2012, I decided that that it was time to explore other parts of the Southwest that were within easy driving distance from the city of El Paso. "Easy" is a relative term in the Southwest. Two to three hours driving time between destinations is normal here. Just be sure that you have a reliable vehicle. Being stranded in the desert with a busted engine is no picnic. I rented a car from Enterprise ( a  2012 white Toyota Corolla). I loaded into the trunk a tent, a sleeping bag, and from Wal-mart, two 24-packs each of Coke Zero Lime and bottled water, a baked chicken, cheddar cheese, whole-grain bread and a jar of my favorite spread, Nutella. Armed with these essentials, I drove out of El Paso, took the 1-10 with a left on Yarbrough and a right into Montana. Montana  morphs into the 180/62 freeway. This highway  brings you out into the desert towards Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the object of my trip, Carlsbad Caverns, awaited me.
     Some people say that there is nothing in the desert. I say that driving through a desert plain like this, the Chihuahuan plain,  makes you immediately feel how insignificant you are in the larger scheme of nature. And when you realize that this whole flat landscape that you are speeding through used to be the bed of a large inland sea millions of years ago, your sense of time and place in the universe becomes even infinitesimally smaller.
Outside El Paso on Highway 180/62
      After two hours on the highway, I slowed down to a stop at a US Immigration/Customs checkpoint. There are several of these checkpoints going into New Mexico, as well as into Arizona and  California. A young, burly thirty-something officer told me to turn off the radio and asked for my identification. I gave him my ID.
Officer: "Sir, where you headed for?"
Me: "Carlsbad."
Officer: "And what would you be doing in Carlsbad?"
Me: "To see the Carlsbad Caverns(?)"
Officer: " And how long will you be staying in Carlsbad?
This question stumped me for a few seconds. I knew that, aside from the caves themselves, there must be something attractive about Carlsbad that perhaps warrants a month-long stay. However, I knew for a fact that I wasn't going to that famous namesake spa in Europe but to another desert city in the same desert plain as the city I came from.
Me: " I am staying for the night in Carlsbad, then make a loop through Roswell, Cloudcroft, Alamogordo and Socorro."
Officer (returning my card): "Thank you sir, have a good trip."
Nice bloke, but if you gave the wrong answer, even in jest, or if the German shepherd that sniffed through your car started getting wildly excited, you will definitely find your trip interrupted and turn unpleasant. These US Border officers mean business. Understandable, with Juarez nearby.
     Past the checkpoint, the landscape became even flatter, bordered by mountains on either side of the plain. To the left, the  mass of the Guadalupe mountains with the distinctive peak of El Capitan loomed ever nearer as I drove along. As if to remind me that this plain used to be a sea , and that those mountain ranges used to be ocean reefs, the Salt Flats slid into view, stretching to the foot of the Guadalupes and beyond.

About forty minutes from here, the land rose close to the mountains themselves, and soon  I was treated to a view that told me  I was  definitely in the Wild (South)West.
      It was not long before I saw a turn-off and a sign that read: "Guadalupe Mountains  National Park".  Like most motorists on automatic, I sped past,  but then I stopped, turned my car around and followed the road leading into park. Best decision I ever made. It turned out that this was a place where you could park your RV or pitch a tent. It was a park with toilet amenities and drinking water from fountains on the campground. Most importantly, it was uncrowded. Paying your tent fee of $8 involved the honor system. You put your money in an envelope, took a stub with the number of your tent location and your car registration number, and placed the envelope into a slot. If you didn't pay the fee, the park rangers will find out, because towards sunset, an officer drives around checking license plates and your stub on the dashboard.
I chose a tent location just a few feet from the gravel road.  A  convenient picnic table under a leafless tree came with it. It took me a while to set up the tent. When I finally succeeded in assembling the tent, I realized how ingeniously designed it was. The tent was all of a piece, which I spread onto the ground and threaded collapsible steel frames through. Some effort was required to bend the frames but when I had secured the tent with stakes and further weighted down the corners with heavy rocks, I had a waterproof, well-sealed, comfortable plastic igloo that could withstand strong winds, as it did later that night. And since it was made in China, at $29, it was cheap.
Tell me if there's any better location for a tent than this!
     At dusk, I saw a deer cross the road outside my tent. That night, the stars came out and talked to me, in their silent  way. I had worried somewhat about mountain lions, but a park ranger assured me no critters would molest me. Well, maybe apart from javelinas, creatures that looked like wild pigs but were actually related to the hippopotamus. Or a skunk or two. That night I imagined I heard the padding of soft feet on the gravel outside my tent. I didn't check what it was. I slept fitfully, listening to the winds that howled and keened outside like the lost souls of the  Mescalero Indians that used to roam the plains below, harvesting the cacti whose juice they fermented into potent brews. There were other campers nearby. I could hear their muffled conversations through the brush and rocks and wind early in the night. Then, save for the wind, everything fell silent. I had no internet, or electricity, or even a ready toilet nearby, but I felt that I had gone back to my roots.I felt alive, warm within my sleeping bag,   clasped into the bosom of Nature.

Southwest Night Sky
(Next post: Carlsbad Caverns)

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