New Mexico Part One: Beautiful In Spite Of Everything
– Dec. 12 – 17, 2013
“The land has a quality of time which steadies us. When you come to a place, honour her rhythm and her voice.”
– Fredric Lehrman
Where there exists crisis there must also exist opportunity. Whatever our exploits in the past they may be redeemed in the resurrection of their former states of being. A landfill can become a meadow again; it wouldn’t take forever. Each forsaken space of human blasphemy against its own habitat is not excused but at least made bearable by the continuing awesome power of the wild, and humankind’s continued fascination and fear of their smallness and inconsequence in respect to the vast depth and force of the universe. New Mexico, over the course of the next few weeks, would renew our connection to the earth, refresh our minds with its natural beauty, and cleanse our spirits from the toxins of civilized man. Where such sanctuary can still exist, and for however long, hope for her revival can be fostered, protected in the cracks and crevices of the blackness without.
We awoke in Carlsbad, New Mexico, in the parking lot of Sullivan’s, a hardware store where I bought weatherstripping to fight against the cold drafts coming in through the windows of the trailer at night, and some items to make a small shelf between the bed and sink. I was up early in the morning to watch the sun rise and to start to write all about Texas and our expensive but eventual exodus. Carlsbad seemed like it could be any other southwestern town to us. In it were all of the usual sights of our recent past, the same franchise restaurants, the same dusty pick up trucks never yielding to oncoming traffic, the same clashing point where the Old West continually met head on with the distracting fads and decorations of Today in a bleeding of tones which had not relented for the better part of a century. What would set Carlsbad, New Mexico, apart from these other sun-scorched towns existed about twenty miles down the road, and eight hundred feet underground.
We spent our first day, Thursday, December 12th, in a McDonalds, using their WiFi to obtain postal codes for addresses back home, and writing about forty Christmas cards. After about four hours of that, we dropped them all in the mailbox, and headed west towards Carlsbad Caverns National Park. On route to the Park we stopped at the Apache Canyon Trading Post, bought some locally popular cherry cider, and obtained directions to some public land, where we would spend the night. The southwest has millions and millions of miles of public land, governed by the Bureau of Land Management, something that had basically not existed at all to us until reaching New Mexico. One is free to drive or walk or otherwise manoeuvre across such land freely, as long as one camps not more than one hundred feet from any given “road” (ie: vaguely distinguished path of unmaintained rock and dirt), and camps not more than fourteen days in any given spot. We continued on about a half mile from the National Park entrance to the closest town called White’s City. The word ‘city’ in “White’s City” would be a misnomer. In actual fact it is more like a single street, and I’m not sure if anybody actually lives there year round. White’s City exists as a motel and tourist area for anyone visiting Carlsbad Caverns, and seemed fairly desolate, even for the winter time. Half of the dozen or so stores seemed permanently closed, and the motel was mostly occupied by local employees of Haliburton who were only around to maintain the oil derricks. (We would eventually have dinner at the only restaurant in “town”, and the waitress would tell us that we were her second and probably last customers for the day.) At night we slept under the white glow of the full moon and in total silence save the occasional passing truck. There are about two thousand stars visible to the eye in this hemisphere, but what we saw seemed like much much more. The stars as a group have a mysterious quality to them in that the longer one stares at the black sky, a sky such as this one, not spoiled by any unnatural light, the more and more stars seem to appear. They come in layers and depths, and seem to never end.
In the morning we awoke where we had parked, only a few feet off the rocky path of the public land we had found. It was still dark but there was a hopeful glow of dawn coming about, and we watched out our window as the glow persisted and grew until finally we saw the sun provoke the horizon with its orange fire. The entire geography of the area was comprised of jagged rocks with only crunchy yellow grass and no other growth to be seen. The land, everywhere, smelled of oil, which was being pumped out of the ground from something like ten thousand feet below. We drove back through White’s City and entered Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Ansel Adams, while photographing the caverns in the 1930’s, remarked that it was, “…something that should not exist in relation to human beings. Something that is as remote as the galaxy, incomprehensible as a nightmare, and beautiful in spite of everything.” The road up to the natural entrance of the cave ran serpentine through mountains for about five miles, and was in itself a beauty to behold. There exists now an elevator from the visitor’s entrance which takes passengers down eight hundred feet within about a minute to the cave below, where there is a self-guided trail that circles around for a full mile. We decided to walk all the way down from the mouth of the cave on the path which is a mile and a quarter, and took about an hour to reach the cave below. The walk down was too difficult to take in or define, and only proved the limitation of words, ideas, and perceptions. Each turn of the path brought with it a new sense of awe and incredibility, and the only way to really describe the journey would be to say it was beyond rewarding to enter the cave from the world above and walk this mile and a quarter to the new world below, one of black majesty and deep surrealism. The depth and scale, as well as the physical features of the cave, were so unbelievable that we felt like we were in some constructed amusement park, and had to continually remind our brains that all of this was actually real and had occurred, albeit over millions of years, quite naturally. We attempted to photograph certain parts, but to say that those photos did not do the area justice would be a gross understatement. Even the professional videos we had seen of the cave later in the gift shop paled to compare with the genuine article. It seemed that all of the top dollar lights and cameras of our time could not come close to taking in the scope or glory of this natural phenomenon. Arriving at the caves below, after an hour of reaching them from our old world we had left behind and above us, we were once again continually stupefied, at every turn, at every reminder of where we were and how small it made us feel. We were ants in an anthill, exploring a great subterranean reality without the proper terms to relate any of it to anyone, not even ourselves. As we had started this walk rather late in the day, and because the cave was completely closed and empty by 5:00pm every day, we only had an hour to explore below before we rode the elevator to the top – a deflating experience, by the way, to spend such time in awe of the cavern below and then to be suddenly propelled upwards and back to “reality” in only a minute. What no man had ever explored the depths of until less than a hundred years ago, and what had taken years to navigate through and map out after the fact, could now be entered or exited by a small metal shaft, a single button, and a minute’s worth of time. We decided to come back to see it all again the next day.
On the second day, we saw the whole cave in reverse. We rode the elevator down, walked the loop trail backwards (mostly to avoid following and being followed by other sightseers around us), and eventually walked up the mile and a quarter path, which averages about a 20% grade increase in switchback, out the mouth of the natural cave entrance. We had arrived earlier in the day and spent more time below, bringing with us this time better flashlights, and our video camera. I have yet to go through the video footage, which should be better than not having any footage at all, but which I am sure will not compare to seeing the caverns in person. Carlsbad Caverns has a captivatingly alien quality which gives new perspective to life on earth, and is truly a remarkable place to visit.
We drove that night to Roswell, New Mexico. There is really only one reason to visit Roswell, although they also have an arts museum, a military college, and a prison, not to mention the usual attributes which unite most southwestern towns, much like Carlsbad. In 1947 in Roswell New Mexico, something happened. In fact, something happened outside of the city limits, between Roswell and Corona somewhere, but was ultimately familiarized with the town of Roswell, which at the time had no electricity and was only home to ranchers and farmers. But their reports got out, over the matter of a couple days, and in came the federal government with their ever-changing and conflicting explanations of the events in some hurried attempt to sweep whatever “it” was, under the rug. But there were too many credible sources, from too many different walks of life, from too many different parts of the area, with too much to lose and not enough reason to simply invent unbelievable stories of impossible events. As Captain Jean Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise would later phrase, “It’s only impossible until it isn’t”. So something happened in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, something that may have been impossible up until that point but immediately and forever after was made possible. There are many reasons to hide the existence of extraterrestrial life from the collective mind of society, for as long as realistically possible, not the least of which would be to preserve the status quo and keep the order of belief the same way that it has been for centuries. For without the paradigm of human “specialness”, without the notion that we alone were made as the children of God, the supreme and ultimate children of the universe, and the keepers of all dominion, the fabric of our laws and those who uphold them might both come in to question, disturbing ‘life as usual’. We might see the world in a different way, the illusion of lawful providence might be shattered to reveal a greater, truer, reality, and many institutions, both religious and secular, would have to quickly change their tune lest become obsolete. When Galileo Galilei suggested that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, he was required eventually by law to retract his writings; his books (or any future writings of his) would be banned and never published again; and he was placed under permanent house arrest until his death. Neither the Church nor State were ready for such challenges to their faith. But all truth, when discovered, must pass through a primary stage of ridicule and then a secondary stage of fear and retaliation before finally being able to be perceived en masse as evident truth. These things take time.
Roswell at this point, for all of its meaning whether real or imagined, is a campy one-road town littered with smiling cartoon aliens painted on every bank, fast food restaurant, and hotel on the strip, and home to an annual U.F.O parade every fourth of July (is it mere coincidence that the incident occurred on the nation’s day of independence?), as well as the U.F.O. Museum and Research Centre. There is only so much information one can draw from to seriously create an entire museum for U.F.O.s, but this is a worthwhile stop for anyone interested in seeing it all collected under a single roof. We watched a documentary on the Roswell incident and then walked slowly through the museum, reading basically every single bit of material there, and our whole visit was less than three hours. A more cursory walkthrough could easily be made in a single hour, but we were in no rush and wanted to take it all in. As earlier implied, we were only in Roswell for one reason (and not because it was “the dairy capital of the southwest”). After the museum, we perused some of the alien and U.F.O themed novelty stores, but most of them were closed by 5pm, and so we left town that night. We had originally been headed north towards Albuquerque to meet up with some twin brothers we had initially met at the R.V. Nightly campground near Austin, TX, but had to cancel in order to take in another natural phenomenon suggested to us by a few different people: White Sands National Monument.
WSNM was a few hours out of our way in both directions, but we had seen some of the photos and decided it was worth a look in first person. We arrived there at night and slept on the side of the road outside the gated entrance, which was locked. We woke up early, as was becoming more of our custom, and watched the sun rise through the window, which was frosted over for the first time since we left home. New Mexico had been cold, particularly at night, and our parking next to a desert for the night had made this experience colder. I eventually noticed icicles hanging from the ledge of our windows, and when I finally stepped outside, the car too was covered in frost.
We were some of the first people in to the Monument. The gates had opened at 8 and the visitor centre would not open until 9. There is a 16 mile path one can drive out into the White Sands and then back again. After about a mile into it, you can start to see some sand emerging as the rock-and-shrub geography starts to fade away. More and more, the sand dunes accumulate, and growing whiter and whiter, until all you can see are dunes of pure white sand, for miles in all directions. The desert which by then is pure white sand and nothing else, expands well beyond the single road cutting through it, and you can get out of your car and just walk, in any direction, for as long as you could realistically walk, so long as you can remember your way back. Disorientation in such landscape happens fast. It might have been a calming meditative place, were it not completely surrounded by and contained within a military reserve. F-22’s flew overhead occasionally, and two of them surpassed the sound barrier, creating sonic booms which from however many miles away shook any physical objects, including human beings, throughout the Monument. It was said that these booms would occasionally crack the plaster off of house exteriors in Alamagordo, and had even broken window glass – and if you didn’t like it, you could move. They would occasionally close the Monument by military order when the Missile Range surrounding it wanted to blow shit up, and the whole highway would have to be evacuated too. The highway, in fact, could be closed at any time, without warning. The White Sands were definitely worth visiting, however unfortunately surrounded by such doom.
Alamagordo is a military town, and home to the White Sands Missile Range as well as a U.S. Air Force base. Walking through the Walmart in Alamagordo was like being in some near-future dystopian novel where superstores and prisons finally converged to become a single unit, and one is under duress of either being employed by the sinister Machine, or else maintaining its cogs and components as slaves below. I might have literally been the only adult in the store wearing neither a green-grey military uniform nor a blue, third-world-made, tunic with a yellow smiley face pinned to it. (Would the smiley face, too, face the same fate as the ancient swastika? Don’t worry, be happy.) I could not last long enough inside to find the coffee grinds that I was looking for, the radiance of emptiness surrounding it all being too much to psychically bear. There is a sadness to a soldier that compels in my nature to pity him. And pity is a low quality, but lower still are the qualities that compel pity. And piteous are whatever series of events that led him down the broken and spiritless path to a life of order-taking. What horror, the events that eventually break the individual to relegate his free choice and forsake circumstantial decision-making, whose will is given over to make room for absolute law, at any cost, and no matter the given order. And to wonder if it could have happened just as easily to myself…
We had been marooned by the impending darkness to the Alamagordo McDonalds parking lot for the night, and when we awoke, which was not too soon, we washed our dishes using their water, and used their electricity and internet, and paid for nothing, and then left. Such is the solitary benefit of the ubiquitous corporation, whose face shines down on every town, big or small, casting its likeness and influence into the periphery of every social or communal identity. We sail the seas of this dry ocean, its “golden arches” and “smiley faces” our ports of haven for reclaiming whatever small reclamations might still exist in their looming grip: free water, free electricity, free internet access, free bathrooms, free overnight parking… our small recompense for the toleration of their oppressive garrisons.
We drove north all day until sundown, from Alamagordo to a town called Las Vegas, New Mexico. This was a six hour drive, give or take, with almost no signs of civilization save the highway we sojourned. There were perhaps two “towns” (intersections) where we stopped for gas and which otherwise served no purpose to anyone but their inhabitants. Our only points of recognition remained constant, being the train tracks and the mountains; both were as unrelenting as the welcomed silence that persisted for that entire day.
We arrived just as the dark was setting in, and found a place to eat. Las Vegas was a cheery town, an enviable backdrop for any Christmastime film, and here we were on December 17th, seeing snow for the first time this winter in the mountains of the place. This was the first real town we had seen all day since the energy-sucking pit of Alamagordo some six hours ago, and the differences, in opposition to the heliocentric travels of the earth around the sun, were night and day. Snow-crested mountains invited one to look closer, where the magic of small-town Christmas made peace offerings of cozy diners and heritage rail yards and friendly faces and warm meals and general togetherness. We were also only one sleep and an hour’s drive away from spending more than a week in a whole entire house all – well, almost all – to ourselves…