Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tales of the Southwest

It’s been two weeks since Gilda and I returned from New Mexico. I guess it’s time I wrote about our adventures there.

New Mexico calls itself the Land of Enchantment but a more apt moniker might be Land of Casinos. In a state with just over two million citizens there are 28 legal casinos. By comparison, Pennsylvania’s nearly 13 million residents get to place their bets in just 12 casinos. Arizona sports 23 casinos for its 6.5 million population.

How the New Mexico casinos can make money on an average 75,000 state residents—that includes minors—is a testament to low overhead or very unlucky bettors. Or probably both. 

Getting back to the Land of Enchantment tagline, New Mexico surely does have some beautiful landscapes. But it also has vast stretches of flat desolation. 

We set out for New Mexico from Tucson after attending our grandniece’s bat-mitzvah. Our son Dan advised us to stop at White Sands National Monument (for those who may not know, as I didn’t until recently, a national monument does not mean it’s a statue. Rather, it is any location designated for preservation by the president should Congress, in its infinite wisdom, choose not to ascribe to it national park or landmark status).  

As its name implies, the surface of the national monument are dunes of what appears to be white sand but is in reality cool-to-the-touch particles of gypsum that water and wind erosion have granulated. It’s the largest gypsum dune field in the world, more than 275 square miles. It was easy to think of the sands of Arabia as we drove through White Sands, an image made all the more real when we spotted a camel and its driver sitting passively atop one of the dunes.

White Sands in south-central New Mexico is distinguished for another reason. In the adjacent White Sands Missile Range, on July 16, 1945, the world entered the atomic age with the detonation of the first nuclear bomb at the Trinity Test Site. It’s open to the public just one day a year, April 5 in 2014.

In nearby Alamogordo, Gilda and I experienced our first “pay it forward.” When we went to the cashier to pay for our dinner at the local IHOP (we were desperate for some place to eat at 8 pm) we were told an anonymous person had covered our bill. I didn’t think we looked destitute, but maybe we did appear a little bedraggled after a day blasted by wind laden with 90 degrees of heat. It might have been “dry heat” but it was still plenty hot.

The five hour ride north to Santa Fe was not very picturesque, but we had a great audio book that kept us at the edge of our seats—“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, the story of Louis Zamperini’s life from troubled youngster to Olympic runner and status as a premier miler, his service in World War II, his survival after a plane crash in the Pacific, his capture and internment by sadistic Japanese guards, through his life after the war. (Hillenbrand also is the author of “Seabiscuit.”)

Santa Fe was serene. By contrast, our visit to the nearby Puye Cliffs, the ancient ancestral home of the Santa Clara Pueblo, literally turned our knees to rubber. The literature advises the cliff dwellings tour involves “walking on steep slopes (paved) at high elevations.” Trust me, it is waaaay more challenging.

We descended from the top of the cliffs two ways. First, we very carefully negotiated a rock passage no wide than 18 inches. A false step and we would have tumbled hundreds of feet. Next we climbed down a ladder, but not an ordinary ladder. Its rungs were spaced further apart than any ladder I had ever used. I had difficulty planting my feet on each rung. I have no idea how my much shorter wife was able to find her footing without missing a level. 

For the next two days both of us experienced charley horses in our legs. Still, it was worth the hair-raising effort to learn about the culture and heritage of the people who lived in New Mexico before Western Europeans arrived. 

A day trip to Taos revealed some spectacular scenery. The next day we went south to Albuquerque including a ride on the Sandia Peak Tramway, the world’s third longest single span. Sandia Peak is more than 10,000 feet high.

So here are some interesting observations and facts about New Mexico I didn’t know or realize before our trip:

·     New Mexico is the fifth largest state in total square miles.

·     My concept of the Rio Grande was that it separated part of Texas from Mexico. But the Rio Grande is much more. It begins in Colorado and flows through central New Mexico. It is the fourth or fifth longest river in America.

·     As I don’t fly as often as I used to I was amazed by the technology conveniences airports in Albuquerque and Denver provide travelers—plentiful and free outlets and charging stations for phones and laptops, plus comfortable club chairs and tables. 

·     It seemed almost every merchant we met came from back East and had a connection to us. In a Nambé store in Taos, the manager originated from Naugatuck, Conn., just north of Seymour where we lived when I was a reporter for The New Haven Register. What’s more, he said the customer before us also hailed from White Plains. In Albuquerque, the balloon store owner grew up in North Chatham, NY, not far from Gilda’s home town of Saratoga Springs.

·     Many of the soldiers captured in the Philippines at the beginning of Word War II came from New Mexico.