Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Gila Cliff Dwellings

Gila Cliff Dwellings was on my top four tourist destinations for our instate travels while living in New Mexico.  It seemed to get pushed further down the list of travel priorities, as we found so many other interesting things to do, so it was January before we headed there. 

Mapping the route was cumbersome because snow had already hit the mountains and one route had a low bridge we wouldn't fit under. We decided to play it as safe as we could and drove south to Deming and then back north up the winding roads to the Mesa Campground. We decided to stay here because of the steeper road grades closer to the Gila National Park and after driving there in the jeep - it was the right decision. Turns out we timed our trip just right as the snows from the previous day had melted off roadways and remnants lined the shadowed forest.  When we arrived, we disconnected and set up camp.  There were only 3 other campers in the campground, which overlooks a beautiful reservoir. 

Turns out we timed our trip just right as the snows from the previous day had melted off roadways and remnants lined the shadowed forest.  When we arrived at the park, we disconnected and set up camp.  There were only three other campers in the campground which overlooks a beautiful green reservoir.  

Our site had one small issue. When we turned on the water, the knob got stuck on and we could not shut it off.  I hopped into the jeep and drove to the camp host site.  No one was there and hadn't been there for some time.  It spooked me a little.  I drove back to the site, got the tool box out and ended up fixing the spigot ourselves.  The valve ball had become rusty and got stuck.  

That evening we took a family walk around the park, which we had to ourselves.  Keila, our thirteen year old Labrador, was tired and walked slowly while Frances, our four year old toy poodle, wanted to run through every site and sniff everything.  

We had an early campfire and the dogs enjoyed staying outside with us, as the air was cool and crisp.  As we headed in for bed, Frances freaked us both out.  As Kathy was trying to come into the door, Frances saw a raven that she decided was going to kill us all.  She lept out of the RV and started to chase the raven. She ran about a block in the blink of an eye. Kathy went after her, trying not to show any hint of panic, even though she was.  We knew Frances was a runner and that once she locked onto a target her hearing suddenly became disabled.  Luckily, after becoming satisfied that the raven was no longer a deadly threat, she to Kathy's calling voice, quite pleased with herself.  It was the first time since leaving Houston that Frances had sprung herself.  Unfortunately, it would not be the last.  

After a big breakfast, we headed north to the national park in the jeep.  While driving the winding roads, we realized it was good that we didn't try to camp closer.  The roads were magnificent motorcycle roads except for the culverts on the corners but would have been treacherous in a 31-foot motor home. The drive was absolutely beautiful and the photo opportunities numerous.

After passing through the little location of Gila, we finally got to the park headquarters.  We went inside and got Kathy's Passport America stamp and information about the park.  A guided tour of the caves started in an hour or so but we could climb the path on our own and walk through the caves and explore.  We did just that.  

The climb was moderately strenuous and we took several breaks.  We chatted with one of the volunteers as we climbed.  He was an older man who told us he lived in the park's staff and had just completed training.  He would be helping the ranger on the guided tour and invited us to join him as he rushed ahead of us on the steep incline.  

The trail turned across the river and the temperature changed as we moved from the cool snow covered ground to warm, and then hot, barren rock walls.  When we finally saw the man-made pueblo in the natural cave openings it was awe inspiring and I felt I had come home.

I have always had a connection to Native American culture and the dwellings seemed familiar and the comfortable to me.  The southern openings allowed warm winter sunshine to heat the cave where early man had lived.  I looked through stone portholes and imagined life with a hundred or so neighbors.  Soot from long forgotten campfires stained the ceilings and rear wall while handmade bricks walled areas for rituals and privacy.  I really do think I could live in a place just like this but convincing Kathy might be a challenge.   

After our mental time travel, we made our way down and found the warmth had melted more snow and the stream was running fast and cold.  In the little town of Gila, we visited the local store and shopped for local jams and jellies.  Of course we bought green chile jam made by local native americans.  We learned of hot springs in the area and made our plan for the next day.  

Our second night in camp we skipped the fire and played cards.  We'd become avid Spades players thanks to our friends Fay and Mary, fellow volunteers at Bosque del Apache NRW. We needed to practice, though, because they had been winning too many games.  We played a few hands and discussed playing strategies before bed.  

The next morning, we grabbed our swim suits and headed back up to Gila.  This time we turned toward the Gila River.  We knew we found the right place when we happened upon naked man putting on a pair of jeans next to his motorcycle.  Luckily, he and his friends had finished their soaks and were leaving.  

We checked out the self pay box, found the restroom to change, and selected a natural stone-lined hot spring pool to soak.  The temperature was about 105 while the other two pools were a little cooler.  We stayed in the pool closest to the road, where signs asked people to be family friendly, aka WEAR CLOTHES.

It was a wonderful pool except it needed to be cleaned.  The algae on the river rock bottom released with our movement and began floating in the water with us.  After realizing this, we tried to not stir anymore up.  After a long warm soak while watching the Gila River amble by, we were refreshed and ready to head back to camp and then home. 

We saw several javelinas scramble up the rough terrain on one corner of the road and wild turkeys on another as we drove back to the campground.  We decided to stop at a historical marker which boasted of an native american camp in the area.  We actually found many pieces of ancient broken pottery just laying in the grass.  It was nice leaving them for others to come and discover as well.  

The drive down the mountain seemed easier than the one up, but the sky was clouding up and we needed to watch for an incoming winter storm. We decided to stop in Demming for lunch.  It was just a mile or two off our route home and gave us time to check the weather. Kathy found us a little restaurant in a historical old downtown building. In fact, it was a garage in an alley that advertised soul food.  Sure enough, it was real southern cooking with ribs, greens, and pecan pie.  Yummy!

Back on the road, we opted to go back through Hatch, the route we had come.  The storm seemed to go south, but as we got to Hatch it was obvious the snow had come through this area too.  Luckily, the roads were not icy and the snow was light.  We made it back to the refuge to find a wonderful white blanket of snow.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

White Sands, Black Lava

Situated in south central New Mexico is the white Sands Missile Base.  The site for the base came not long after the Trinity testing of the first atomic weapons.  The desolate area covered in clean silica dust runs for over 100 miles south of the volcanic remnants of the Valley of Fire.   

Kathy and I had visited the Valley of Fire several years prior to our volunteer commitment at Bosque del Apache.  One Friday afternoon after Thanksgiving, we drove from the Ruidoso area just to see what we could see.  This was a lovely family trip from Texas with Kathy's mom, Evelyn and Sandy, a dear family friend.  We borrowed a friend's cabin for the holiday and would be borrowing it again sometime during this adventure in New Mexico. Thanks again for the great memories, Colleen and Jerry!

The Valley of Fire is a wonderful black lava flow frozen in time.  Trails go through the black rock, allowing you to feel like you might be swallowed up by it.  On this trip, the valley was a welcomed restroom break for our day trip.  We'd planned the trip pretty much as soon as we got to BdA because Joy discovered a blue sliding saucer in the lounge area of free stuff. She latched on to it and waited for the appointed time and day.  

We decided on a day trip because other volunteers had made it a day trip instead of camping so we knew it could be done.  Our friends Mary and Faye volunteered to walk Keila so she could stay home and remain comfortable so this would be the first time traveling with Frances as a solo dog.  We knew it would not be the last.  Keila's old muscles and bones were tired and her hips hurt when she climbed the stairs into and out of the RV.  We had to pick her up to put her in the Jeep and the bumpy ride was never something she enjoyed. Frances is portable as a nine pound dog and she loves the adventure of travel although she prefers to ride in a lap rather than the back seat area.  

We arrived at the dunes and took turns peeking in the visitor center as one of had to stay outside with the dog.  The visitor center had warnings about people getting lost in the desert just a few miles from major roads.  Often people don't realize how dehydration sets in so quickly because the temperatures don't seem all that severe.  Unfortunately, we just read a few weeks ago about a couple who died hiking in the dunes because they simply weren't prepared.  Luckily, their son survived but what an awful tragedy it was.

The center also had interesting information about the flora and fauna in the area that had mutated to adapt to the beautiful white sand.  One type of lizard had muted pigment so that it match the lighter color sand while just a few miles away a genetically similar lizard was darker in color.

We drove into the park and sure enough the white dunes of sand glistened like snow.  We passed ten or eleven other vehicles and saw families and teens enjoying sliding down the hills of sand.  We found a secluded inlet and parked near a picnic table.  There was an abandoned sliding disk near it.  It had a crack but Joy figured she'd give it a try.  We waxed the little saucers, thanks to our friends Mary and Fay who gave us wax after their trip to the park previously.  We climbed the hill with our disks and Frances. Kathy went first with Frances in her lap and slid down.  I followed. The yellow saucer's crack was troublesome as it caught the sand and stopped forward momentum.  We had to go back and share the blue disk.  A few more climbs and slides and we were nearly exhausted.  We had forgotten how much exercise you get sledding - you know, what comes down must first go up!

We sat at the picnic table for a few minutes and watched a young family who parked near us.  Their young children squealed with delight!  Although our trip was short we had a long drive back.  Our friends who had made it a day trip had more modern cars then our four cylinder Jeep and could cover more roadway faster than we can.  

On our way back to the refuge, we stopped at a local rock vendor who sells the only known samples of Trinitite.   He obtained them from a man who literally went out to the Trinity site a few weeks after the testing until they closed the area.  The man picked up pieces of rock and sand that had melted and fused together with other materials in the area of the blast. He named these chunks Trinitite after the site.  He later died of cancer from his repeated exposure.  The store is located just over a hill from the Trinity Site and we wondered how much radiation still remained in the area.  

The store had all kinds of geological samples including fossils.  I did not purchase a piece of Trinitite as it was priced higher than gold per ounce but I got to see and touch it. So far - no indications of radiation exposure. Ha ha 

As we drove home we stopped to watch a spectacular blood moon rise over the lava beds of Valley of Fire.  The desert I all her glory is such a wondrous sight and so far we were really enjoying living in it.