Sunday, 25 March 2012

A Few Days in New Mexico

 Heading north from the Antelope Lodge in Alpine, our first stop was Fort Davis National Historic Site in Fort Davis, Texas. It was built in the 1850s to protect travelers along the road from San Antonio and El Paso from the ever-constant threat of Apache and Comanche attacks, and named after the man who was then the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. After the Civil War, it hosted “Buffalo Soldiers,” black troops charged with the task of eradicating the threat of Indian raids from the American West. It was abandoned and partially dismantled in the early 1890s, once the Indian threat was neutralized—through their near-eradication and total defeat—and the advent of the railroad made the El Paso Road, and military protection of it, obsolete.

The troops at Fort Davis were charged with protecting travel along the El Paso Road, including postal deliveries.
Fascinating stuff, no doubt. But our real reason for stopping at Fort Davis was what we have come to call a “cancellation stamp opportunity.”

At the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta, a National Parks ranger gave us the hardest of hard sells to purchase, for $8.95, a National Parks Passport. He said that he only had a few 25th anniversary editions of the passport left, and that once they sold out they’d be gone for good. Ordinarily, Brahna and I would both be pretty opposed to what seemed like such a trite, juvenile souvenir, but since the ranger said it would be a shame for us to cross the country without the passport, and with such a low price, we decided to go for it.

The passport is about the size of a small reporter’s notebook. It’s divided into regions of the country—Southeast, Southwest, Western Region, etc. When you get to a National Park, National Historic Site, or National Monument, there is a small counter in the corner, which we’d never noticed before, with a few stamps, a stamp pad, and some spare sheets of paper to practice on. Each park has its own “cancellation stamp,” a term referring to the stamps post offices place on your envelope indicating where it has entered the system. The National Parks Service apparently started offering these stamps in 1986, and, according to every ranger we meet, the program has ignited a passionate fervor within a certain very small portion of the populace ever since. Brahna and I are proud to be among those special, special few.

Our passport, with some hard-earned cancellation stamps from the Southwest.
One benefit of the passport is that it often convinces us to go out of our way to get a stamp. Such a decision inevitably leads us to places that we previously knew very little about, like the Jean Lafitte National Monument in Louisiana (Cajun history and culture); the San Antonio Missions (Spanish proselytization to natives); and Fort Davis. The passport gives us a tiny extra incentive to visit places we otherwise would miss, and thus adds to what Brahna has dryly commented is already a pretty rigorous curriculum.

After Fort Davis we stopped at Balmorhea State Park, just south of the New Mexico border, which is the location of a massive pool—25 feet deep in some places—built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s around a natural mineral spring. Brahna and I laid out a blanket and enjoyed a pleasant picnic of leftovers before hopping in the pool. Thousands of tiny snowballs floated down from the park’s cottonwood trees, giving the scene a bit of a surreal air.

Fortunately, my memory of that pleasant afternoon was not completely marred by the diagnosis, a few days later, of a doctor in Albuquerque, basically to the effect that the small, red hives-like rashes that appeared all over my body were caused by “hot tub folliculitis,” a non-lethal, merely itchy, condition caused by bacteria often found in hot tubs or mineral springs. Rashes, topical Benedryl, and antibiotics are temporary, but memories are forever.

After crossing into New Mexico and spending the night at a private campground, we headed south toward Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which encompasses an unfathomably large system of caves under the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains. The only cave actually named Carlsbad Cavern is the one most often visited by tourists, and whose most prominent feature is the Big Room, the floor space of which is the size of about six football fields.

The most amazing thing about the caverns, though, when you consider the size of the cave you do see, is just how much of the caverns is not available for viewing. Just three caves are open to the general public. An additional seven can be accessed by your more serious cavers and official, park-endorsed expeditions. If I recall correctly, there are about 80 distinct caves in the whole Carlsbad system, most of which have never been explored by human beings. Only relatively recently, researchers felt wind blowing out of a tunnel off Carlsbad Cavern, and decided to investigate. They uncovered a cave so large it makes Carlsbad look like one of the tunnels my father and I used to dig at the beach. The Parks Service has no plans to open it to the public. 
Rightfully so. Ansel Adams, who photographed Carlsbad in the 1930s (though he disliked those photographs, due to the need for artificial light in the completely dark caves), called the caverns “something that should not exist in relation to human beings. Something as remote as the galaxy, as incomprehensible as a nightmare and beautiful in spite of everything.” The bizarre formations of Carlsbad Caverns—to rehearse it once again: stalagmites from the ground, stalactites from the ceiling—are indeed beautiful, but it is strange to admire the beauty of something that, one could argue, ought to have never really been seen.

One of Ansel Adams' photographs he did at Carlsbad for the U.S. government.
 From Carlsbad we drove into the Sacramento Mountains and passed through the tiny town of Cloudcroft, which I heard described as America’s highest town (in elevation) at about 7,000 feet, though I think there’s reason to doubt that. Our destination was a small campground in what we found out was a ridiculously obscure corner of the Lincoln National Forest. As the sun set we raced around turns of a scenic byway (promising we’d linger to enjoy the views in the morning), down a long dirt road and into the empty parking lot. That the campground was one of the national forest’s few year-round camping options should have warned us that it could be completely covered in snow. Besides that, the air was dangerously cold.

Mortimer at Lincoln National Forest.
Sorry to give up what seemed like the most isolated campsite in America, we raced back down the scenic byway and out of the mountains towards the town of Alamogordo, trying to beat the clock as the only food option in town told us over the phone they’d be closing soon due to a shortage of food. By the time we finished the meal, around 9:30 pm, we still didn’t know where we were spending the night, which is, for good and for bad, always a rush. We ended up finding out that the campground in town was much cheaper than the price listed in our AAA camping book, and called it a night.

The next morning we drove to White Sands National Monument. It comprises a few hundred square miles of pristine white sand dunes, formed from gypsum swept by rain down from the surrounding mountains into a basin, and then chopped into grain-size pieces by the valley’s fierce wind. It is geologically interesting, and it is beautiful, but more than anything else White Sands is just plain fun. Brahna and I treated it like a massive playground—struggling up the dunes and running back down. Doing so doesn’t hurt the dunes at all, since they tend to move a few feet every year anyway, and the supply of gypsum from the mountains is essentially unlimited. Our morning at White Sands was the most plain fun I’ve had so far on the trip.

A concession stand at the park sells sleds for something around $10, but we found a broken one in the garbage and broke it some more.
As we left White Sands and drove north towards Albuquerque, we passed the Trinity test site, where the world’s first atomic bomb was exploded. To skip ahead a little bit, we later also visited Los Alamos, where the bomb was invented and designed, thus rounding out the “nuclear weapons” portion of our Southwest education. The Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos was an especially interesting and accessible museum on what is a pretty uninteresting and inaccessible subject for both Brahna and me—science. It also had something I’ve never seen in a museum before: one corner was set aside as a “public forum,” where public advocacy groups present, with varying degrees of English fluency and command of basic logic, their own parochial opinions on important questions covered (or, in their opinion, not covered) by the museum itself. Topics like the viability of nuclear energy and the necessity of dropping Little Boy on Hiroshima drew particularly heated curatorial debate.

Our first stop in Albuquerque was the home of Ernie Pyle—now a branch of the Albuquerque public library—whose name the older readers of this blog might recognize as that of a famous war reporter who died in the Pacific theatre in 1945. They’d be right, but it was not the house of Ernie Pyle, 1940s war reporter, that I wanted to see, but that of Ernie Pyle, roving 1930s newspaper columnist, that I’d been looking forward to, and talking Brahna’s ear off about, since we left New Jersey. Since finding, in an Amherst bookstore, “Ernie’s America: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s 1930s Travel Dispatches,” I’ve become a bit obsessed with Pyle, and what he got and what he missed in writing about America.

At the Ernie Pyle House and Library in Albuquerque.
 I really wanted to write a long post about my discovery of Pyle and my reading of his American travel pieces, but, seeing as life on the road isn’t exactly conducive to strenuous thought and diligent writing—and this is quite ironic, when it comes to talking about Ernie Pyle—I’ll have to save that more intensive meditation for somewhere else and present here what thoughts I can.

Sometime in the early years of the Great Depression, Ernie Pyle’s editors at the Scripps Howard newspaper chain handed him a dream job. They would pay him to travel around the country full-time, and he would have the liberty to write about anything he damn well pleased. That was the set-up, no strings attached. Pyle was responsible for six columns every week, which is, of course, completely nuts.

Pyle’s columns were famous, at the time, for their down-home folksiness and for their author’s willingness and courage to let his subjects tell their own stories. Pyle is so different from other cross-country road trip authors—Kerouac and Henry Miller, especially—in that the story, for him, is always about America and Americans, and almost never about himself. Pyle would roll into town and just look for interesting characters to write about: he’d check with the local paper, the police department, the bartenders. Then he’d drive out to meet them. His columns, when read in bulk, form a more complex and variegated picture of America during the Great Depression than any other work I’ve seen.

I’ll end this now, since I could really go on for quite awhile about Ernie Pyle. Now that I’ve at least introduced him, though, I’ll try to use Pyle and his writings as a counter-point as we continue our journey west, then north, and finally back east. I’ve been mostly reading his columns on a state-by-state basis, as we pass through them. His reflections on places like New Orleans or Carlsbad, or on traveling in America more generally, hold up after nearly 80 years, and are often better for their age.

"I have no home. My home is where my extra luggage is, and where the car is stored, and where I happen to be getting mail this time. My home is America."

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