A soft hint of light makes its way through the roof vent at the top of our camper. I take a deep breath, exhale and see my breath like smoke in the air. Checking my watch it’s about 6:30am and freezing cold. From my sleeping bag I lean over to the window and scan for early morning signs of life, but all is still and silent under a thin layer of frost. At just over 8,000 feet the world up here is crisp with rich green trees covering the mountain sides. It feels like I should be in Colorado or Wyoming, but this is New Mexico. Isn’t New Mexico just desert? New Mexico is getting ready to teach us some big and very surprising lessons.
But First Back to Texas
We spend a few days at a park just outside Junction, about 30 minutes west of a town called Fredericksburg in the middle of Hill Country. We drove through this area a few years ago when it was just beginning to brand itself as a wine destination and now it is a wine mecca in Texas. We pass dozens of wineries, most look brand new. The town of Fredericksburg is crawling with activity as people make their way from trinket shops, to lunch spots and through art vendors. We add to the crowd and stroll through this old Texas town on this bright beautiful day of about 70 degrees. We spend one more night at South Llano River (in Junction) and see lots wildlife roaming through the campground: Road runners doing what they do best. Several armadillos digging under scrubby bushes and even though we shine our flashlights at them they don’t seem to care much. Mule deer greet us in the morning and the turkeys are here all winter to roost and we see them in huge groups.
We are torn, stay in South Llano another night or head north? So we go for the map. Several times a day we pull out the map. The Rand McNally, which we shorten to “The Rand” has been around and really starting to show its age. Some states have come completely loose from the spiral binding while others are holding on by a few counties. There are notes on almost every page, numbers scribbled at random, lines marking off roads for directions, circles around destinations, dirt stains and mystery stains make some states hard to navigate. The cover gave way the other day and now it’s scheduled for major tape surgery. Once it was just a fresh new map and now it’s our travel diary from trips over the last few years. It feels more like an old friend than a map. Retirement may come soon, but for now it is keeping us moving in the somewhat right direction.
The right direction is a relative term. After counting miles and figuring days we decide to aim north through Guadalupe Mts N.P., and into New Mexico. We get there late, the camping is not great (imagine an open parking lot with a few white lines separating one spot from the next) so we think of hitting some of the BLM spots that are highlighted at the visitor center and come back in the morning. We use the restroom and leave in search of better camping. Every spot greets us with dead ends or blocked roads so we continue on. As we drive in frustration, Colin lets me know about the bathroom art in men’s facilities. There was a poster framed on the wall in front of the urinal, whatever advertisement was there had been flipped over and someone took the time to sketch a picture. There is a desert scene: A station wagon jacked up on huge wheels and thick tires kicking up dust. There is a full moon and a few cactus in the background. The driver looks mean holding the wheel with two hands and nasty grin. A coyote sits on the top of the vehicle howling at the moon with a word bubble coming from his mouth, “Bienvenidos!” Sadly, that’s about all we can report from Guadeloupe…
The Road Through Carlsbad
The glow of street lights and gas station signs ahead gives us a clue we are coming into a town. The night air is misty and there is an odd smell we can’t place, it is coming from the outside of the vehicle and not the inside (just to be clear, there are several times the bad smell comes from inside the vehicle). We notice pick up trucks next to us and then all around us. The hotel parking lots are full of trucks. The bar lots have even more. Trucks are in almost every space including the truck wash. Someone must be giving these things away for free and people have come from all over to get one. I pull out The Rand (which lives in the space between my seat and the console) to see where we are; Carlsbad, New Mexico. The smell continues as we get north of town and find a state park off a county road. Almost every camp spot is occupied with RVs and more pick up trucks. It feels damp, it stinks and just as we zip into our sleeping bags the guy next to us (in a pick up) pulls up to his RV, opens the truck door and an avalanche of beer cans crash to the pavement. He swears at this, mumbles to himself, and then stumbles inside. In the morning I head to the shower and notice several announcements on the exterior wall of the restrooms. One cautions of high levels of DDT in the lake so “this is a catch-and-release lake ONLY.” The other sign asks to be aware of human trafficking “if you see anything suspicious…” There is another sign with a bright yellow banner warning of the green algae and then the last one tucked in the corner is another caution, “Be aware of rodents. They can carry HPS (Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome).” As I am taking in all the warnings, an older man walking out of the shower room looks over to his wife and says in an annoying tone that sums up our feelings exactly, “Are you about ready? Let’s get the hell out of here!”
New Mexico Changes
We follow the guys advice and get the hell out. And hit route 82 for White Sands. On the map route 82 looks like a line going in the direction of White Sands, nothing stands out and we don’t expect to see much more than a route to a national monument. We don’t expect the gray stinky mist to give way to blue clear skies about 10 miles outside of the state park. We don’t expect the desert floor to change from golden knee-high grasses sprinkled with pointy yuccas and then climb to rocky hills with deep narrow creeks and cows resting underneath wide branches and silvery leaves. And we certainly don’t expect to climb even higher to lush green mountains combed with creamy white aspen trees. We reach Cloudcroft at 8,600 feet and pull into this cozy mountain town with bakeries offering fresh bread and homemade pies, outdoor shops selling camp gear and warm clothes. We ask someone where we can find the US Forest Ranger station and it’s only a mile down the road. There I learn about Lincoln National Forest (the place we have just discovered) and the town we went through earlier of Carlsbad (they are going through an oil boom, which explains all the trucks and workers. Also the home of several mines including potash).
We are in the Sacramento Mountains of Lincoln NF. There are more elk than deer and they are in the middle elk hunting season now. Bear, turkeys, coyotes…it is a list that a few miles back would not exist. We find a deserted camp spot near Bruce Springs Trailhead that is marked by a waterfall tricking down to a narrow brook below. We gather firewood and notice piles of scat…everywhere. The sun goes down taking the temperature with it. We light the fire and watch the flames crackle and hiss. The sky is clear and packed full of stars which seem endless. For bed we wear hats and lots of layers and play a friendly game of “who gets sprite in their sleeping bag.” She may be small but when tucked in a sleeping bag she can put out a good amount of heat. I wake up to coyotes howling their song to each other and roll back over to sleep. I wake up and that’s where this blog posted started.
From Cloudcroft we head back for warmer weather and down the other side of the mountains. In 17 miles we descend from 8,600 feet to 4,000 feet and shoot through a tunnel. Before our eyes have time to adjust we are in a completely new landscape. The evergreen and aspen trees are gone and the mountains are now rocky cliffs. I keep looking back as if I don’t believe how fast this is changing. We land in Alamogordo thinking that we will go straight for White Sands but find Oliver Lee state park and spend 3 nights. We camp in the shadow of these cliff faced mountains and spend one day (all day) hiking. Instead of trees we are in a cactus garden. Prickly pear, strawberry hedgehog and a crooked plump cactus with yellow fruit called cane cholla. Instead of bears and elk we are looking for rattlesnakes and cougars. Colin tells me that at the visitor center there is a huge poster on cougars and what to do if faced with this fierce cat. He says we need a plan and gives me the run down. He suggests that I need to play dead and he will pick up Sprite and back away slowly. I’m not on board with his plan. The only wildlife we see are a few rabbits and a couple beetles. We meet other hikers on the trail and one guy who is clearing the path to make it wider (which we appreciate since at about mile 3.5 it is not wide enough for two people to pass, and a long way down). I point to a green speckled granite looking boulder and ask the maintenance guy what it is. “That there’s called Leeverite.” I repeat back to him what I think he said and he says it again correcting me. “It’s called Leave-‘er…leave ‘er right there.” We leave it and slowly make our way down. The sun is low and reflecting a pink tint on the mountain sides. We can’t get over the sunsets here, the diverse landscape, the people we meet are friendly and don’t seem at all surprised by our lack of New Mexico knowledge. We are learning. And still here. We are sitting in a hotel room in Taos and after 8 days we are still in New Mexico and I have so much more to write about this incredible place.