We were sad to leave Arizona so soon, but if we let desire dictate our schedule, we’d be on the road forever. We would have happily stayed another two weeks, but New Mexico was calling.
The landscape seemed to calm itself as we drove east, its heart rate settling down. The scrubby and scaly silhouettes of the Patagonia and Santa Rita mountains gradually gave way to long, flat valleys punctuated now and then by a single hill or bluff. The few radio stations we could pick up were dedicated exclusively to Mexican fiesta music and Rat Pack christmas tunes. One hour east of Bisbee, Arizona, we stopped for a quick restroom break at a small picnic shelter along the road. It wasn’t until we had taken several photos of the scenery and were ready to climb back in the vehicle that we read a plaque on a small rock spire and realized we were standing at the site of Geronimo's final surrender to Gen. Nelson Miles in 1886.
After passing through Las Cruces and Alamogordo, we landed after dark at our first destination in New Mexico: Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. The five or ten mile stretch between the highway and the park itself was dark and only partially paved, and until we passed through the gates we were not at all sure we weren’t taking a dead-end road into the heart of the Chihuahan Desert. With poor lighting in the campground, and strangely shaped campsites, it took us several tries to back Elsie in appropriately. Too tired to appreciate the lights of Alamagordo in the distance, we quickly retreated into the trailer and fell asleep.
In the morning, we woke to a view we couldn’t have imagined in the dark. From our bed, we could see the Sacramento Mountains right behind us, and the San Andreas Mountains across the Tularosa Basin below. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park is almost entirely treeless (though it is filled with a variety of cacti and desert shrubs), which means that no matter where you stand in the park, you have a view that stretches on for miles. We spent our first day in New Mexico catching up on work, and later drove to the Busy Bee laundromat in Alamogordo to catch up on some much needed laundering. (Note: In a strange way, we've come to enjoy doing our laundry in these random laundry mats. It's a perfect excuse to sit back and sink into a good book.)
Our second day in New Mexico, December 19, was my birthday, and we celebrated it by waking late and slowly making our way to the nearby White Sands National Monument. After watching the informational video (I kid you not, it was inspiring), we bought a sled and this happened:
After White Sands, Mel took it upon herself to find us the best Mexican restaurant in the area. She landed on a place called Casa De Suenos in Tularosa, a 30-minute drive from the park. I am not exaggerating when I tell you it changed my outlook on Mexican food. Prior to eating here, I’d always liked Mexican food, but it all sort of tasted the same to me, and it always tasted about as good as the $5-10 I would spend on it. At Casa De Suenos, I ordered the pork chimichanga and rice, which is not nearly as sonically pleasing as it tasted. Anyway, I think you get the point: it changed me. It changed…everything. For this, I owe Mel and Casa de Suenos my life.
The following day, we woke up early and hiked the Dog Canyon Trail. To me, this is the huge benefit of staying at state parks. There’s no doubt that our national parks are wonderful and aesthetically unbeatable. But along with the designation of a national park comes the crowds and the development. State parks, on the other hand, often offer similar vistas and adventures without the hassle. Nobody online or at any point in our trip mentioned the Dog Canyon Trail, but it was easily one of the best parts of our stay in New Mexico, as fulfilling to me as White Sands or Carslbad Caverns, which we would tour later.
The trail - which cuts through the Lincoln National Forest - was strenuous at times, and provided amazing views and quiet meadows and streams and wildlife and everything you want in a good hike. Four miles into the trail, we turned around and saw White Sands in the distance, the wind lifting up the fine white gypsum from the park and scattering it around the Tularosa Basin. To have just toured White Sands on the ground, and to now view it from across the basin, felt incredibly gratifying.
After our hike, we returned to the campsite, drank a beer and slowly prepared Elsie to hit the road again. By late afternoon, we were well on our way to our next stop in New Mexico: Brantley Lake State Park, not far from Carlsbad Caverns.
Pulling into the campground at Brantley Lake State Park is akin to pulling directly off the highway and into a pasture. There are no trees. There are no mountains. Instead, there are rocks. There is unattractive desert scrub. There is the unsavory stench of the natural gas rigs dotting the horizon. And there is Brantley Lake, the result of a dam (aptly called the Brantley Dam) on the Pecos River, which looks about as attractive as a tailing pond. Signs posted across the park warned of dangerous algal blooms and contaminated fish in the lake.
This is all to say that a 48-state road trip isn’t entirely rosy and Instagrammable. Sometimes, the lake you’re staying at smells like shit, and the park looks the same in use as it would abandoned. One of our fellow campers, a perpetually leather-clad man, was formerly a member of the Minute Man Civil Defense Corp, a group that voluntarily patrolled the border searching for illegal immigrants. He ran a diesel generator throughout the night. He scared us. For more on Richard Shuman, see our post, “Freedom for $9/mo: The Life of a New Mexico Drifter.”
The saving grace of our time in southeastern New Mexico was Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a roughly 45-minute drive from the lake. If White Sands National Monument felt otherworldly (and it did), the caverns felt...underworldly? It’s hard to gather a sense of perspective in the caves, which of course are only artificially lit by skillfully placed floodlights. On the day we arrived, the elevator that normally takes you into the heart of the cavern was broken, so tourists had to walk both into and out of the cave. We brushed that off, assuming we would have done as much anyway. But not far into our descent, we passed dozens of people who were huffing and puffing and really struggling to walk their way out of the cave. After another two hours or so hiking deeper into the caverns, we understood the struggle. The caverns are massive and steep, and the trails blazed to enjoy them zig zag the whole way. Most people who visit the caverns walk in, and take the elevator out, skipping the climb back up.
As we climbed deeper into the cave, both Mel and I were in awe thinking about Jim White, the man who first discovered the caves and decided, “yea, sure, I’ll put my body in there.” Without the paved trails and lights and signage throughout the caverns, we certainly would have lost ourselves. To think of those early pioneers exploring the depths of these caves with nothing more than ropes and torches—it boggled our minds. It still does. We finished the tour still marveling at the formations in the caves, and thinking about how fortunate the state of New Mexico is to have two National Parks that are so unique and well preserved.
On December 23, we waved the stench of Brantley Lake State Park goodbye, and headed for Texas.