Heaven and Earth in New Mexico

Trip Start May 01, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2003

Flag of United States  , New Mexico
Monday, May 19, 2003

Heaven and Earth (Southern AZ and New Mexico)

May 12 Tucson, AZ
We decided to stay for two nights in Tucson, which was probably one night too many. While we had heard about the wonders of Tucson, perhaps it was the combination of apparent urban sprawl and our first exposure to 100-degree temperatures which sapped our enthusiasm. We took the girls to the Flandreau Science Center and Planetarium, a childrens' science museum at the University of Arizona. This seemed like a good idea, but the lack of campus parking started it off on the wrong foot (it has been a while since either of us parked on a college campus). We brought the girls in and were nearly trampled by the bus loads of school kids coming for field trips. We watched the behavior of these kids with horror, knowing our toddlers would someday soon evolve into this species. We thought taking the girls to a planetarium show might be better than the hands-on stuff, so we went to the counter to buy tickets. "Your little ones will be frightened and are not allowed" said the college girls behind the counter. "Oh let me take my older one, she should be fine" I said. "OK, but no refunds, and please sit by the exit" they came back. I took Jocey in, I explained what we were going to see and she was excited. She sat on my lap, it went pitch black, I could feel her cringe, and then a giant spiral galaxy spun at us from the ceiling and that was that. I sheepishly walked out, the girls behind the counter laughed at me. We did have at wonderful evening with the girls at our hotel in Ventana Canyon, a beautiful warm desert evening with a breeze we have not felt anywhere else. The girls chased jack rabbits on the golf course as the light faded.

May 13 Tucson-Saguaro NP-Tombstone-Benson, AZ
Today begins a very interesting stretch of sights and lodging for us. We had little driving to do today, as the old mining town of Tombstone is but 90 minutes from Tucson. We first drove a quick eight-mile loop through the eastern section of Saguaro National Park, just outside of Tucson. Here grow forests of centuries-old cacti, up to 80 feet high. These plants do not even sprout branches until they are 75 years old. You get a sense of their majesty in an environment which does not support anything growing much higher than your knee. From there dropped to within 20 miles of the Mexican border on AZ-80, visiting Tombstone. As we approached, we realized that the peaks looming on the horizon were well into Mexico. Tombstone is an old mining town that has transformed itself into a tourist mecca on the coattails of one very famous gun fight that happened there "The Shootout at the OK Corral". We paid our requisite 10 bucks to take a creaky stagecoach ride around the block to see the corral, Doc Holliday's house and the saloons and bordellos that blossomed in the mining days. The dirty, grizzled stage driver looked and talked like he had been teleported from the 1880s, and had us all convinced. From there, we went to the SkyWatcher's Inn in Benson, which was a wonderful surprise for us. This thematic B&B is famous the world over to astronomers. If you enjoy astronomy (Chris does) this is heaven. The B&B is combined with an observatory, so you step out of your room into domes with serious telescopes. Speaking of our room, we had a 15 foot planetarium built into our ceiling, backlit shots of galaxies on our walls, and stars, comets and moons everywhere you looked. Our astronomer for the evening, Olivia, first gave the girls a more child-friendly planetarium show IN OUR ROOM. When the girls were sleeping, Olivia took us to the next room to teach us how to read a star chart (using right ascension and declination, of course) and then some star gazing. Despite occasional clouds and a full moon, we were still able to see star clusters, Jupiter and its four visible moons and the whirlpool galaxy. The next morning our stellar experience ended with pancakes the shape of comets, and fruit carved into stars, moons and rockets.

May 14 Benson-Kartchner Caverns-La Mesilla, NM
Our primary objective today was to see Kartchner Caverns, a "living cave" just outside of Benson. It is "living" in that water is still dripping in the caverns, forming new structures and feeding the living organisms there. Little did we know "reservations are required." SO we went standby. We were there at 9AM and they squeezed us in on the 12 noon tour. So we killed three hours in and around Benson, AZ. This is a VERY difficult task, especially if you have ever been to Benson. Finally, the tour started. First, no strollers or child carriers (Chris carries our 35-pound sack of potatoes named Jocelyn for 1 hour). Second, "if your child touches anything in the cave, you will be escorted out immediately" (did I mention Isabelle was with us?). Oh, and as we walked into the visitor center, Jocelyn asked "are there bears in this cave?" to which I said "absolutely not". What is the first thing we see in the visitor center? A diorama of a 15 foot long "cave sloth" (looks just like a bear to me). My credibility is shot and now I am telling the girls to follow us into a hole in the ground. We go through three airlocks with vault-like doors which preserve the integrity of the atmosphere inside the cave at 98% humidity. Down a nicely lit corridor and guess what? The girls love it! They are saints! Maybe the bejesus was scared out of them and they thought a cave sloth was behind every turn...this cave was magnificent...curtains of translucent calcium, 20 foot "soda straws" which looked exactly as named, and 60 foot tall, 10 foot thick columns of stone (which Kirsten said resembled Chinese ivory carvings), sculpted one drop at a time over 195,000 years. It took our breath away, the lighting was magnificent and a soundtrack of "adiamus" by Enya made the whole thing an emotional experience. Alas, no photography allowed in the cave. Go see Kartchner Caverns!!! (but make reservations). We then drove the 240 miles to La Mesilla, NM.

May 15 La Mesilla-White Sands NP-Carlsbad, NM
La Mesilla's claim to fame is that the Gadsden Purchase was signed there (Anyone? Anyone?). For those of you who did not know, the Gadsden Purchase gave the southernmost 30 miles of New Mexico and Arizona to the United States in 1859, allowing a southern railway route to be established. We stayed at the Happy Trails B&B (Kirsten's out-of-the-way find of the trip so far). Happy Trails is sandwiched between Pecan orchards and alfalfa fields and our guest house was a converted stable with bright-colored cheerful Mexican murals and a long-horn steer skull mounted over the bed. La Mesilla is on the outskirts of Las Cruces, and is quite poor. However, the people were happy and friendly, the food was excellent, and the quaint plaza and turquoise-silled adobe homes held much charm. We left La Mesilla behind and made one of the most interesting transits of our tour so far. We are two weeks out of Mill Valley, have traveled over 2,000 miles as of May 15. We have another 250 miles ahead of us today. It was pleasant as we headed up AZ-70 towards Alamogordo, although we were stopped for 30 minutes on the highway just short of White Sands for a MISSLE TEST! Cool, we thought. We asked "where will the rocket go? Can we see it?" The officer said, "sure, it will be right in front of you". Just then another officer came by and said, "launch scrubbed". DARN IT. We drove on, had one more stop on the highway for a Border Patrol inspection and then approached White Sands National Park. It was there that WE MET THE NEW MEXICO DUST STORM, which stayed with us for the next 250 miles. It blew and blew and blew...and it did not stop (40-50 mph the whole day). We entered the park, and saw a towering white cloud over the horizon. We asked the ranger "is the park open?", she gave us a funny look and said "if the wind wasn't howling and blowing the sand, the park wouldn't be here". We opened the door at the visitor center to take the girls out and clothes, bottles, maps, and books started exiting the car at 50 mph. Despite this, we drove into the park and came upon a most wonderous sight. Dunes hundreds of feet high, made of brilliant white gypsum the consistency of talcum powder. The wind blew, but the sand did not hurt. I found myself instinctively tapping the brakes thinking I was on hard-packed snow, this was how complete the illusion extended. We stopped in the middle of the vast, blinding whiteness, got the girls suited up, and played! We ran up, they crawled up, we jumped down, they slid in mini avalanches head-first down 50 foot inclines. The slope and consistency of the sand made it impossible to get hurt. Kirsten wanted to stay longer, commenting that a moonlit walk among the dunes would be magical. Alas, we headed to Carlsbad, up AZ 70 to Alamogordo, across 82 to Artesia and then down to Carlsbad. Let me say this: most of this is godforsaken country, with the exception of the Tahoe-like mountain passes in Lincoln National Forest around Cloudcroft on 82. In general, Alamogordo is a dismal dustbowl, Artesia is worse, and I think Carlsbad is at the end of the earth. To prove this point, when we drove up to the 200 room Best Western Cavern Inn, we were the ONLY CAR in the entire lot (no joke). I drove ONE HOUR to a Pizza Hut for gourmet cuisine. I asked the local woman behind the counter "does it always blow this hard here?" "Usually, harder" she replied, "but at least we don't get any of them thar tornaydees". I walked out shaking my head. These caverns had better be worth it tomorrow.

May 16 Carlsbad, NM (Carlsbad Caverns)-Fredricksburg, TX
Well, the caverns were beyond our wildest expectations. While not as pristine as the Kartchner experience, the sheer scale of the cavern takes your breath away. 30 miles of caves explored and still going. The National Park Service has made this a very accessible cavern, a 750 foot elevator down to the "Great Room". Great Room is an understatement. Think of the largest cathedral you have been in, then multiply by 15 or 20. The loop around the perimeter of the Great Room was 1.5 MILES. We have included some canned pics of the caverns, as the lighting was so low our camera struggled and words just cannot do this justice...the most incredible thing for us was, we were the first ones in the cavern by 15 minutes, and we had the entire Great Room to ourselves. The silence was deafening as we stood alone in this room. We reluctantly left as we had 480 miles across West Texas that day, arriving in Fredricksburg around 7 PM. Kirsten went back to roots here, as this town in the Texas Hill Country has significant German history. We resided in a wonderful turn of the century residence, had a traditional German dinner to the sounds of live oompah music and strolled the quaint Main Street as the sun set. More on Fredricksburg in our Texas segment.
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