Letters From a Bus
December 2007: Holiday Travels
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Discovering Las Cruces, NM

Las Cruces, NM, Day Four at Sunny Acres RV Park, Site: HH

Saturday, December 1, 2007 — Six Months

In Santa Fe, after solving our heating problem on the bus, we sat back and relaxed.  We never went out all day on Monday.  We did small chores around our home and enjoyed feeling comfortably warm. 

On Tuesday we left Santa Fe at the relaxed hour of 9:45 in the morning.  High cirrus clouds covered half of the blue sky.  There was a white haze in the distance.  It looked sunny but chilly — ranging between 28° and 38° (shade or sun).  We drove on a flat plateau beside buttes with mountains on the southern horizon. 

It was an easy drive as we passed through Albuquerque and headed southwest into new (for us) unknown territory on I-25.  We ran parallel to the Rio Grande along sagebrush and grasslands.  The land was flat.  The sky was mostly white with flat sheets of high clouds.

At 12:30 PM we stopped at a very odd rest stop just north of Socorro.  It was made of wood and was on stilts above the desert.  To the south, the Magdalena Mountains stretched ahead of us.  By 1:00 PM temperatures were up to 54°.  We were traveling on a high plateau looking down on a valley to the east.  There were high mountains on the horizon on all sides and there were still heavy clouds.  In a land of chaparral we seemed to stay at 4,500 to 5,000 elevations.

At about 1:30 PM we began to drop down into and then climb out of gigantic ravines.  They seemed to be wide riverbeds that flow east to the Rio Grande.  They are deep, wide washes — totally dry but obviously major during flash floods.  As we came to the bottom of these ravines there were signs warning us to slow to 65 mph and to watch for gusty winds — and the winds were very gusty.  It is a very strange landscape.

At 3:15 PM we pulled into Sunny Acres RV Park in Las Cruces, NM.  We drove 273 miles and it was an easy drive. 

The Chihuahua Trail

The Chihuahua Trail is an ancient corridor across the northern Chihuahua Desert to the southern Rocky Mountains.  It ranks among the most historic highways in North America.  550 miles long, it connects Chihuahua, the capital of Mexico’s state of Chihuahua, with Santa Fe, the capital of the state of New Mexico. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the trail became the northern segment of the 1500 mile long Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, (The Royal Road of the Interior Land), a Spanish roadway that began in Mexico City and ended in Santa Fe.  This historic trail became known as El Camino Real, The Royal Road.

Chihuahua, Mexico is due south of El Paso.  The trail went north for 240 miles from Chihuahua to to the border cities of Juarez and El Paso on the Rio Grande.  Today Mexico’s Federal Highway 45 follows the original trail.  After crossing The Pass and Fort Bliss, the trail bore northward up the Rio Grande valley for some 55 miles.  On the east it passed the Franklin and Organ mountain ranges. 

Between Las Cruces and Socorro, the river made a bow or a westward bending arc.  The trail “strung the bow” intercepting both ends of the river’s arc.  This 90-mile segment, east of the Caballo and Fra Cristobal ranges, lacked dependable sources of water.  It became known as the “Jornada del Muerto” — “the march of the dead” or “dead man’s journey.”  Today the Jornada del Muerto trail passes through the White Sands Missile Range. An ironic footnote: the first atomic bomb was dropped on this trail.

Rejoining the river the trail followed the valley northward for 150 miles through the region of historic pueblos..  It passed at the foot of lava-capped “Contadero” mesa.  It skirted the western edge of a rich marshland called the “Bosque del Apache.”  It passed Albuquerque and the western flanks of the Manzano and Sandia mountain ranges.  It began the ascent up the Southern Rocky Mountain foothills, veering away from the Rio Grande and following its Canada de Santa Fe tributary for about 30 miles to the community of Santa Fe.  Today I-25 follows this route.

At ten o'clock we are heading south towards Albuquerque and by 10:40 AM we are passing through Albuquerque.
At 11:30 AM just north of Socorro, we approach an unusual Rest Stop structure.
Left is the land surrounding the Rest Stop. Right, an hour later we see more mountains ahead of us.
Left, a well maintained road runs parallel to I-25 although the land is so empty it's hard to know who uses it.
Right, at 3:00 PM we have our first glimpse of the Organ Mountains near Las Cruces. 11/27/07
The Chihuahua Trail, Part of the El Camino Real. The red line follows modern highways. The blue dotted line shows the Journado del Muerto trail which lies within today's White Sands Missile Range.

We didn't know that we were driving smack dab into the middle of the gigantic Chihuahua Desert. As it dominates all of the terrain and all of the history in these here parts, I thought I might stop to take a look at the extent of this desert.

Chihuahua Desert
The Chihuahua Desert straddles the USA-Mexico border.  On the US side it occupies the valleys and basins of central and southern New Mexico.  It stretches from west of the Pecos River in Texas to southeastern Arizona.  It is the largest desert in North America.  To the north, the Great Basin Desert is the largest US desert.

By way of illustration, let’s skirt the portion of the Chihuahuan Desert that is within the borders of the United States.  This 1800 mile loop will take about thirty hours to drive.

Start at the northeastern corner of the USA Chihuahua Desert in Amarillo, TX and go west on I-40 through Albuquerque, NM.  Continue west across New Mexico.  After 520 miles and about seven hours stop just past the border in Holbrook, AZ.

Continue from the northwestern corner of the USA Chihuahua Desert in Holbrook, AZ and drive south on US-60 and AZ-77 for 240 miles and about four and a half hours to Tucson, AZ.  Continue southeast on I-10 and AZ-80 for 120 miles and another two and a half hours to the border town of Douglas, AZ.

Continue from the southwestern corner of the USA Chihuahua Desert in Douglas, AZ and drive northeast on AZ-80 crossing into New Mexico and then east on I-10 through Las Cruces, NM.  Turn south on I-10 crossing into Texas and passing through El Paso, TX.  Continue southeast along the Rio Grande to Big Bend National Park and Marathon, TX.  This 510 miles drive will take about eight hours.

Continue from the southeastern corner of the USA Chihuahua Desert in Marathon, TX and drive north on US-385 through Fort Stockton, east on I-20 to Odessa, north on US-385 to Lubbock and then continue north on I-27.  After 412 miles and about seven hours you will end up back in Amarillo, TX.

American Deserts
In the USA there are four deserts: Chihuahuan Desert; Great Basin Desert; Mojave Desert; and the Sonoran Desert.

The Chihuahua Desert (200,000 sq. mi.) is a shrub desert.  The vast majority of this desert lies at elevations between 3,500 and 5,000.  Most of the area receives less than 10 inches of rainfall yearly.

The Great Basin Desert (190,000 sq. mi.) is a “cold desert” due to its more northern latitude as well as common elevations between 4,000 and 6,500 feet.  Precipitation, including snow is generally 7-12” annually.  Vegetation is low and homogeneous, often with a single dominant species of bush that extends for miles. 

The Sonoran Desert (120,000 sq. mi) is the hottest of the North American deserts and has a more southern latitude.  It has a bimodal rainfall pattern that produces high biological diversity.  Winter storms from the Pacific and summer monsoons from the south allow woody plants and annuals.

The Mojave Desert (25,000 sq. mi.) is a transition desert between the cooler and higher Great Basin and the hot Sonoran desert to the south.  It is a rainshadow desert defined by latitude, elevation, geology and indicator plants.  General elevations are between 3,000 and 6,000 feet.  It has a typical mountain-and-basin topography with sparse vegetation.  San and gravel basins drain to central salt flats.

Chihuahua Desert History
People have lived here for 4,000 years.  It is believed that pre-historic Paleo-Indians crossed this land as far back as 20,000 years ago.  Roughly 10,000 years ago, Anasazi tribes created cliff villages.  Spanish explorers, including the famed Coronado, appeared on the scene by the early 1500s.  The Spanish referred to the native inhabitants as Pueblos because of the villages or "pueblos" they built.  After their arrival, the Rio Grande Valley changed hands several times.  Resisting the termination of their tribal customs, the Pueblos overthrew their Spanish oppressors in 1680, and maintained their autonomy until defeated in 1692.

In 1598, a trailblazer named Don Juan de Onate led Spanish colonists through Las Cruces on a route that became known as El Camino Real, or the Royal Highway.  Ornate found a shorter path than the one that curved along the Rio Grande but it was a desolate, 90-mile stretch of desert.  It became known as Jornado del Muerto, or Journey of Death because hot and arid conditions that claimed the lives of many. In addition, Apaches attacked the wagon trains and killed the settlers who dared to cross their territory.

In 1821 Mexican revolutionaries overthrew the Spanish rulers and established the Republic of Mexico.  Twenty-five years later, America's determined westward expansion prompted a war against Mexico. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 claimed much of Mexico's northern land as U.S. domain.

Within USA boundaries, the Chihuahua Desert is bordered on the west by Arizona's U.S. Route 191; on the north by Interstate 40, on the east by Texas' U.S. Route 385, and on the south by the Mexican border.
Sunny Acres is a nice RV park.  It is spacious and well kept.  Sites are gravel but many have a piece of lawn.  There are lots of trees.  The hosts are very nice.  Many stay here for long periods of time.  It feels like a very nice suburban neighborhood.  The dogs are happy.  Lots of territory to explore with little traffic and many doggy smells. 
We have a pull-thru site at the back of the park. We face east. Behind is a storage yard.
We face lanes with RVs parked north or south. There is a strict rule to drive 5 mph — very safe when walking dogs. It's not a garden site but wow, that sun and warm temperatures feel good.
We walk the dogs in a big circle around the park. Lanes are wide and there are many trees.
 Las Cruces is located in south-central New Mexico in the Mesilla Valley.  Turns out it’s the second largest city in the state — larger than Santa Fe.  And it’s loaded with as much history as Santa Fe.  This was a very, very Wild West town where adventurers, hustlers, and murderers such as Kit Carson, Roy Bean and Billy the Kid romped through the area.

The city of Las Cruces encompasses a number of historic districts.  There are the original downtown national historic areas of the Alameda Depot as well as Mesquite Street, which became the town's original 1849 settlement.  And there were the neighboring historic towns of Dona Ana and Mesilla.  Nearby was Fort Selden.

On Wednesday, 11/27 we had a wonderful time walking around the old Mesilla District. We did not know anything of it's history so we found surprises at every turn.

After the Civil War, Mesilla emerged as the commercial, transportation and social center for the region. It attracted legends like Kit Carson and Pancho Villa, promoters like Albert Fountain, gunfighters like Sheriff Pat Garrett and outlaw Billy the Kid, and hustlers like future Langtry, Texas, judge Roy Bean. It staged fandangoes (dances), bullfights, cockfights, theater and some pretty entertaining gunfights.

Las Cruces History
In 1830 Apaches killed travelers from Taos along the El Camino Real.  Survivors marked their graves with crosses.  Nineteen years later, La Placita de Las Cruces, the Place of the Crosses, became the frontier settlement of Las Cruces. 

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the U.S. Army built Fort Selden to guard against the Apache.  The Buffalo Soldiers of the 125th (African-American) Infantry were among the first troops to defend the fort.  In 1973, Fort Selden became a state monument, and it is now the summertime site of weekend portrayals of the life of a frontier soldier.  An interpretive trail also winds through the historical ruins, which are located about 15 miles north of Las Cruces.

During the late 1800s, Las Cruces began supplying goods to adventurous miners who came into the mountains seeking wealth. Fort Selden soldiers also came into town for supplies.

Mesilla Plaza
In 1854, The Gadsden Purchase declared Mesilla officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza with much ceremony on November 16, 1854.

Mesilla History
Mesilla had become a major stop along the Butterfield Overland Stage route, which carried passengers through much of the western U.S. Also, innovative irrigation techniques spurred agricultural growth along the Rio Grande.

Spanish and, later, Mexican and Anglo colonist and freight caravans camped in the vicinity, watered livestock in the nearby river, grazed the animals in the surrounding grassy bottomlands, cooked and sang and slept and sometimes fought around evening fires, and, in the later days, watched warily for Mescalero Apaches.

Mesilla put down permanent roots in the mid 1800’s, after the United States appropriated western Texas and the Southwest – a region roughly the size of Western Europe – in the course of the Mexican/American War and its aftermath. Mesilla, one of the most important settlements in the new territory, serviced Camino Real freight caravans, fought the Mescaleros, supplied the U. S. Army’s nearby Fort Fillmore, entertained Butterfield and San Antonio-to-San Diego stage coach passengers, endured Union and Confederate occupations, and served as territorial capitol.

Mesilla lost its place in the sun in 1881, when the railroad bypassed the village in favor of nearby Las Cruces. Mesilla became the perfect place for a community of ghosts.

A cathedral faces the Plaza. Mesilla, NM 11/27/07
Mesilla sign on the Plaza:
"After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which concluded the Mexican War in 1848, the Mexican government commissioned Cura Ramon Ortiz to settle Mesilla.  He brought families from New Mexico and from Paso del Norte (modern Ciudad Juarez) to populate the Mesilla Civil Colony Grant, which by 1850 had over 800 inhabitants."
Joann Mazzio article about the Butterfield Overland Mail:


Butterfield Overland Trail History

Prior to 1857, there was no organized, commercial system of transportation west of the Mississippi River.  Although many people had crossed the United States by land, the word “overland” had not come into the American vocabulary.  On the historical scale, the Butterfield Overland Mail was symbolic of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which held that it was the duty and right of the United States to expand across the continent.

Adding to the national pride engendered by this symbolism, was unadulterated awe – still felt today – at the rapidity with which the endeavor got under way.  The backing of the federal government was obtained, trails were laid out, stations were set up and manned, coaches and wagons were manufactured and put into operation, and the many obstacles of travel across long stretches of pure wilderness were surmounted.

Several names were associated with the enterprise, but the major credit goes to one man, New  Yorker businessman and financier John Butterfield.  After much political log-rolling by Congress, he obtained a $600,000 government contract to establish and run the Overland Mail Company from St. Louis, Missouri, to San Francisco, California. 

The building and the short life of the Butterfield Overland Mail were dictated by important events in history.  The Mexican War from 1846 to 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 added territory that needed to be incorporated into this country.

Gold was discovered in California in 1848, and California became a state in 1850.  The flood of gold-seekers heading for the Pacific Coast, along with the U.S. Mail, embarked from the East Coast and sailed to the Isthmus of Panama.  Here passengers and cargo went ashore, crossed the mountainous strip of Panama, and took another ship up the West Coast of Central America, past Mexico, and thence to California.

Year-round operation of the Butterfield Overland Mail dictated the choice of a route through the milder climate of the southern tier of states and territories.  This choice, by routing the trail through Texas, led to its short life as the Civil War commenced.  Confederate sympathizers threatened violence to the line even before Texas seceded from the United States.  Union troops were pulled out of the Southwest to engage in battle in the East.  Some Indians further endangered the stage line by taking advantage of the lack of military strength in the area. In 1861, operation of the twice-weekly mail and passenger service was effectively stopped.

In establishing the service, Butterfield had said, “Remember boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the United States mail!”  And nothing did.  During its two and one-half years of service, every eastbound and westbound stage arrived within the 25-day contract time.  Sometimes the trips were reduced to 21 days.  It was an unqualified success.

"In Mesilla, New Mexico, about 40 miles north of El Paso, you will discover one of the most charming and authentic Hispanic- and territorial-style plazas on the trail today. It has been the scene of territorial negotiations between Americans and Mexicans, stagecoach stations for Butterfield’s operations, a brief conflict between Confederate and Union troops, a trail and incarceration of Billy the Kid, visits by Kit Carson, a feud between local powers, a theft by the infamous Texas judge Roy Bean, and some dandy stories about local ghosts."
Butterfield sign on the Plaza

"On a time line, the two and one-half year operation (1857-1861) of the Butterfield Overland Mail was but a flash in the history of transportation in the United States.  But this short-lived operation captured and held the imagination of Americans because it stitched together the growing country from sea to sea." — Joann Mazzio

El Patio sign on the wall of the El Patio Cantina building:
El Patio Cantina, Established 1934

Located in one of the most historic buildings in the town of Mesilla.  The cantina has been operated continuously by direct descendents of the legendary Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain, soldier, journalist and lawman.

These adobe walls have housed the Butterfield Overland Mail (1858) The Mesilla Times (1860), Sam Bean’s Saloon (1860), a Blacksmiths forge (1850), the Albert Fountain Mercantile (1929), US Post Office (1931).  This transportation block dates from 1854.

In April of 1881, Col. A. J. Fountain was Billy the Kids defense lawyer here in Old Mesilla.  On January 31, 1896 Col. Fountain and his eight year old son Henry were murdered by cattle rustlers near White Sands, their bodies were never found; and to this day remains a story rich in southwestern lore.

Butterfield Route with miles and times for each segment:

Div Route ........................Miles ...Hours
1 ...San Francisco, CA .......462 ......80
2 ...Los Angeles, CA ..........282 ......72
3 ...Fort Yuma, AZ .............280 ......72
4 ...Tucson, AZ ..................360 .....82
5 ...Franklin, AZ .................458 ....126
6 ...Fort Chadbourne, TX .....283 .....65
7 ...Colbert's Ferry, OK .......192 .....38
8 ...Fort Smith, AR .............319 .....49
9 ...Tipton, MO ..................160 ......11
......TOTALS: ..................2,795 ....596


These buildings each face the Plaza on various corners. On the left is the courthouse building where Billy the Kid was tried and sentenced. It is now a gift shop.

"A colorful local character of this Wild West timeframe was Henry McCarty, a.k.a. William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid. During the Lincoln County cattle range wars in 1878, Billy the Kid killed a county sheriff, for which he was captured and sentenced to hang. Remarkably, he escaped from the Mesilla courthouse. Within a couple of years, however, he was tracked and killed by the Dona Ana County Sheriff, Pat Garrett. Ironically, the well-known sheriff was later shot outside Las Cruces by an unknown gunslinger; Garrett's body was buried in the local cemetery."

"El Mariachi, dba; Thunderbird de la Mesilla; Gallery, Gifts, Indian Jewelry
This is the oldest documented brick building in New Mexico. Augustin Maurin (of French descent) initiated construction in 1860 using burned brick from his old kiln.  He was murdered by robbers in his adjoining apartment in 1866. The heir, Cesar Maurin, came here from France to claim the property.  He died of natural causes in 1868. Frenhman Pedro Duhalde, a former Mesilla saloonkeeper, moved in and was himself murdered by robbers. Now owned by Tiburcio Frietze, after having been used as a general store, residence, saloon and town hall, the building remains in good condition. Original hand-hewn vigas, supporting a low, irregular ceiling, join with the old brickwork in creating a fitting background for gift items displayed.The Dona Ana Historical Society finds this building worthy of preservation and commends Mr. Frietze for his part in its care."

The Thunderbird gift shop is inside this old brick building shown above right.
Text on the Billy the Kid sign reads: "THIS BUILDING Which dates from 1850, once housed the Capitol of Arizona and New Mexico. Later it was the Courthouse in which Billy The Kid was tried and sentenced to hang." (above left)
Dennis, ever the masonry sub-contractor, noticed how much the old buildings are leaning from age. This one is just off the Plaza. Detail to the right.
Another building off the Plaza. This old adobe building is abandoned.
Two views of a restaurant a few blocks off the Plaza.
Dennis, Master Mason, is always fascinated by masonry details.
I stumbled on this ourdoor altar tucked into a corner in an alley between two stores. It is so beautiful.
On the day we arrived, I immediately learned about a famous restaurant called La Posta located in the old town of Mesilla. We both felt like celebrating our escape into a warmer climate as well as our newly revived gas heat. So I suggested we find Mesilla and have dinner at La Posta that very evening. What a discovery! It was dark so all we saw of Mesilla town was the restaurant. We came back the next day to explore La Mesilla and we went back into La Posta for lunch. This time I took plenty of photos of this marvelous building. We thought the food and service as well as the decorations were all wonderful. The menu was unusual and is another example of "New Mexico cuisine."
The exterior of La Posta and a painting of what it might have looked like when it was a freight and passenger station for the Butterfield Overland Stage.
La Posta sign:
"This is the original La Posta. The only station that remains standing on the Butterfield Trail. For more than a century and three quarters, these old adobe walls have withstood attack of elements and men and have sheltered such personalities as Billy the Kid, Kit Carson and Pancho Villa. Now Mesilla sleeps, but La Posta still offers its traditional hospitality and fine food to all who wander here."
The entrance hallway of La Posta.
Left: The lobby has a birdcage with several parrots and other tropical birds.
Above: A creche is located next to the host who sits below a painting of La Posta.
The Christmas tree in the lobby is covered with Mexican paper flowers. The post and beam openings between rooms are loaded with decorations. The fireplace in our luncheon dining room is very decorative.
This Christmas tree in the main dining room has a Mexican Santa standing by. The same room has a lava rock wall decorated with foliage and paper flowers with piñatas hanging overhead.
A smaller dining room features this fireplace.
Below left, I had a view of this whimsical wall in our dinner dining room the night before. While clearly the fireplaces and many other additions are not part of the original building, one has to wonder about the ceilings which do have that authentic look.
Phantly Roy Bean
Born    1825
Mason County, Kentucky
Died    16 March 1903
Langtry, Texas
Other names: Law West of the Pecos
Occupation: Justice of the Peace, saloonkeeper

Phantly Roy Bean (c. 1825 – March 16, 1903) was an eccentric U.S. saloon-keeper and Justice of the Peace who called himself "The Law West of the Pecos". According to legend, Judge Roy Bean held court in his saloon along the Rio Grande in a desolate stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Bean

Roy Bean was born in Mason County, Kentucky about 1825. At age 15 he left home to follow two older brothers west seeking adventure. With Brother Sam, he joined a wagon train into New Mexico, then crossed the Rio Grande and set up a trading post in Chihuahua, Mexico. After killing a local hombre, Roy fled to California, to stay with his brother Joshua, who would soon become the first mayor of San Diego.

There, Roy developed a reputation for bragging, dueling and gambling on cockfights. Mayor Josh Bean appointed Roy a lieutenant in the state militia and bartender of the Headquarters, his own saloon. In 1852, Roy was arrested after wounding a man in a duel. He escaped, and after Mayor Josh was killed a few months later by a rival in a romantic triangle, Roy headed back to New Mexico where brother Sam Bean had become a sheriff.

Roy tended bar in Sam's saloon for several years while smuggling guns from Mexico through the Union blockade during the Civil War. Afterward, he married a Mexican teenager and settled in San Antonio, where throughout the 1870s, he supported 5 children by peddling stolen firewood and selling watered-down milk. His notorious business practices eventually earned his San Antonio neighborhood the nickname Beanville. http://www.desertusa.com/mag98/aug/papr/du_roybean.html

"Earliest records indicate the La Posta Compound was originally constructed in the 1840's.  Sam Bean and his brother Roy Bean, operated a freight and passenger service line to Pinos Altos from this building in the 1850's.  After the Civil War, The La Posta Compound became an important stop on the Butterfield Stagecoach Line.  During the 1870's and 1880's, the Corn Exchange Hotel, one of the finest lodges in the Southwest, operated from the building.  John Davis, the proprietor of the hotel, died in the late 1870's, however, his wife Augustina continued to operate the hotel, a restaurant and other businesses in the building until the early 1900's.  La Posta de Mesilla Restaurant originated in the northwest corner of the building in 1939 by Katy Griggs Camunez. The business has grown to become one of the most famous restaurants in the Southwest, occupying 10,000 square feet of the La Posta Compound which now included several shops. After Katy passed away, the property and business was acquired by a great niece, Jerean Camunez Hutchinson and her husband Tom, a.k.a. "Hutch", who continue to offer the same quality food and great service in the unique dining environment Katy created."

Roy Bean spent time in Mesilla but it doesn't sound like he was exactly a reliable business man who settled down to help his brother operate a freight and passenger service line at La Posta. He and his brothers all sound like pretty bad hombres to me. I recall the movie, "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" with Paul Newman and I wish I could watch it again. I can't remember much about it. I don't know if it was supposed to be located in Las Cruces or Langtry, TX.

Las Cruces is popular for shooting a variety of movies. One of the earliest films ever made near Las Cruces was the 1911 feature "The Dude." During the 1990s, "Mad Love," "Homage" and "Lolita" were filmed in and around Las Cruces. The music videos of Toby Keith, John Michael Montgomery and Boys II Men have also been produced in the area. Most recently scenes from the Michael Douglas movie "Traffic" were filmed in Las Cruces.

On Friday we decided to set out in the car and explore the surrounding area.  We’d had a little rain but that seemed to be past.  There were clouds but it wasn’t cold.  I picked up a flyer about White Sands and we decided to drive east towards those beautiful Organ Mountains.  The sight of them was a big draw.  What was beyond them?  Well, something called White Sands — a missile base and a monument and beyond that a town called Alamagordo.  I’d heard of the name, White Sands, but I had no idea of why it was well known. 

With little thought or preparation we set out.  My flyer was about missiles and a military base at a place called White Sands.  Dennis knew something about it and was interested in the missile museum.  He said he thought they’d dropped the atomic bomb there.  As we had spent a day walking around La Mesilla, I figured it was his turn to see something of interest to him.  For me it was a throwaway day as I’m not excited about military stuff or weapons of destruction.

What a dummy I am! Sometimes I am so organized and academic and I know exactly what I want to see. And sometimes I am completely clueless. I had no idea that this would be a redletter day and that I would see a landscape that was remarkable and beautiful beyond my imagination.

We headed east on US-70 and the Organ Mountains rose before us.  Their sharp spires remind me of the beautiful mountains in the Hawaiian Islands.  We drove up a pass and stopped at the summit.  Here we had a view of the valley below. 

The Organ Mts. are sharp, clear and beautiful when I see them in Las Cruces. But the photos don't do justice to them. I took this from an empty lot near Mesilla where I had a clear view of the mountains with no obstructions. Driving east up to the pass and looking southeast towards the mountains. The Jornada del Muerto passed through this area.
Above, a view from the pass looking back southwest to the back side of the Organ Mts. from whence we came. Left, the San Augutin Pass side reads: "Divide between Tularosa Basin to east and Jornada del Muerto to west, cut between Organ Mountains to south and San Augustin-San Andres Mountains to north. White gypsum sands glisten to northeast. Roadcuts in Tertiary monzonite. Organ mines yielded copper, lead, silver, gold, zinc and fluorite. Elevation 5,710 feet."
Looking down from the pass to the northeast (left) and the southeast (right). The missile range base is below to the right. The White Sands Missle Range — some 40 miles wide (east to west) and 100 miles long (south to north) crosses the area below from right to left.

We continued down from the pass and exited at a sign for the Missile Base.  But then what?  It is a completely empty land with no clue as to weather we should turn right or left at the exit — and no sign with directions.  We turned right and went south, which was correct.  We saw some ominous signs about ordinance and unauthorized vehicles and no explosive propane.  We took this to mean we were going in the right direction but we didn’t feel good about it.  Although we seemed to be on a public road, we felt like we were trespassing or breaking a law.  We could see signs of a town or a settlement in the distance.

After about ten minutes, we came to a huge gate where we had to stop and park.  We could not drive onto the base without showing driver’s license and insurance and registration papers for our car.  While Dennis got our papers out I walked to the security building where there was a small line.  I observed that there was one man to process each person and that it was taking about five minutes for each person.  I estimated a twenty-minute wait. I saw a sign that said we could walk on base and just show our driver’s license.  So I left and talked to Dennis and we decided to walk up to the gate.

The guard let us through and told us where to walk.  The location of the museum was not obvious but we could see the outside park with all the missiles on display.  The guard asked if I planned to take photos.  I said cautiously that I might.  He said I was allowed to take photos “up range” but not “down range.”  Maybe he said the opposite, I’m not sure.  I had no idea which way was up range or down range and I didn’t ask.  By then we both felt cross and irritated.  If they want the public to come see their museum then why not create a side road that goes directly to the museum or else put the gate past the museum so visitors are not coming on the base?  Why put us through all this bureaucratic and intimidating nonsense?  And is my little digital Canon actually going to capture national secrets if I point it in the right (wrong) direction?  Let’s not be ridiculous.

We walked a quarter mile to a crosswalk that took us across six lanes (empty of traffic) and then to the building by the outdoor park where various missiles and rockets pointed skywards.  The building was locked and following already established practices, there were no obvious signs.  We walked around the park and later found the museum building across the parking lot at some distance.  I furtively shot a few photos of the missiles, wondering if I was pointing up or down range.  If so and if discovered would someone take my camera and erase the offending photos??? The exterior signs around the park describing the evolution of the missiles/rockets were old, faded and sometimes unreadable.  The park seemed neglected and did not meet our standards set by the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL or Cape Kennedy in Florida.

The museum had a different feel.  I think volunteers run it.  It was warm and friendly and well organized.  We spent a lot of time looking at all the exhibits which included displays of plant and animal life in the Chihuahua Desert, history of the Tularosa Basin — the people who lived and settled there, as well as the history of the base — who worked there and what they accomplished.  It was very interesting.  We learned that the range is located in the Tularosa Basin of south-central New Mexico. The area is 20 miles east of Las Cruces, New Mexico, 45 miles north of El Paso, Texas, and 50 miles west of Alamogordo, New Mexico.  White Sands can be seen from space — we saw the photo.

White Sands Missile Range

White Sands Missile Range is America’s largest overland military test range.  It was established in 1945. The world entered the Atomic Age when the first atomic bomb was tested at White Sands on July 16, 1945.  White Sands has conducted more that 42,000 missile and rocket firings.  They examine new weapon systems for the Army, Navy and Air Force.  Purely scientific research is conducted when rocket payloads from NASA are launched to collect information about the sun and stars or microgravity experiments are conducted.  White Sands Missile Range is still a backup-landing site for space shuttles.  Columbia landed there on March 30, 1932.

Today, White Sands seems to be more into missiles that don’t have explosive warheads.  Instead powerful lasers are being used to bring down jets and missiles.  The range has allowed a huge assortment of plants and animals to evolve in pristine natural conditions.  The wildlife studies of mountain lions found in the White Sands mountains are being conducted by biologist.  Other scientists are conducting research on one of the world’s largest herds of African Oryx, which freely roam the range.

You can learn more about the museum and you can download a Museum Brochure at: http://www.wsmr-history.org/

Left: Approaching White Sands Missile Base from the highway exit.
Right: The Missile Park: — Facing up range? Facing down range? Who knows? 11/30/07
The Missile Park displays more than 50 items — a variety of rocket and missiles tested at White Sands. These include everything from the WAC Corporal and Loon (U.S. version of the V-1) to a Pershing II and Patriot. 11/30/07
We walked back by the enormous gate that spanned all the lanes for entering and exiting the base.  The guards did not stop us and my camera was not inspected.

Once in our car we saw that there was no provision for a car to exit the parking lot.  We had to either go through the gates (for which we needed paperwork) or turn around by cutting across the oncoming traffic lanes.  We did the latter as there was very light traffic.  But again it showed that although the museum puts out flyers, the base is ill prepared for handling museum visitors in an efficient and hospitable fashion.  (I was too intimidated to take a photo of the entrance/exit gate to the base.)

We drove back to US-70 and as it was early afternoon and cloudy, we actually felt that we would turn and go back to Las Cruces. But on a whim we said, "Oh why not, we're here," and turned east towards Alamagordo. We'd been told there was a monument where you could see lots of white sand dunes. Mildly curious, we pressed on across the bleak, flat chaparrel desert.

We came to an inspection station. There were uniformed guards and a doberman dog that sniffed each car. Now what? Illegals? Drugs? What are they looking for? The officer approached the driver's window and we just looked at him. We are so obviously middle class citizens and we always have this incredulous look. Attack dogs??? He smiled and waved us through. Oh my gosh! Enough of officialdom for one day.

We began to watch the landscape for white sands. Inbetween the chaparral, it seemed like the sands were turning a little bit lighter. We had no idea. After thirty minutes of driving we came to the White Sands Monument exit and turned north into the museum. Now we were excited for we could see gigantic white sand dunes ahead of us.

I took this photo as we walked out of the base. There was a little desert garden under some trees. This wasn't labeled but I looked it up. I believe it is a California Barrel Cactus.
The road driving through White Sands National Monument. A snow plough has to scoop up the sand and keep it off the roads. It piles up into cliffs on either side. Wind pushes the sand into hills or sand dunes. 11/30/07

We spent more than an hour in the museum learning about the world’s largest gypsum dune field.  The sands have engulfed 275 square miles of desert.   Thank goodness the National Monument has preserved this unique dune field. 

This region of glistening white dunes is located within an "internally drained valley" called the Tularosa Basin. It ranges in elevation from 3890' to 4116' above sea level.  The most active dunes move to the northeast at a rate of up to 30 feet per year.  Other more stable areas of sand move very little.  The pure gypsum (hydrous calcium sulfate) originates in the western portion of the monument from an ephemeral lake or playa with a very high mineral content.  As the water evaporates (theoretically as much as 80" per year!), the minerals are left behind to form gypsum deposits that eventually are wind-transported to form white sand dunes.  http://www.nps.gov/whsa/naturescience/index.htm

Leaving the museum, we drove north into the dunes and came to this boardwalk. It allows the less agile to walk across the dunes and see the plants and distant views. From the boardwalk I saw that someone had traipsed up and down a dune too spell out the name, Dexter. Is it a reference to the Showtime Original Series? 11/30/07
This is our view at the end of the boardwalk. We could have gotten off the boardwalk and walked further. You can walk almost anywhere. There are no restrictions. 11/30/07
Some species of plants can survive burial by a moving dune by a process called "stem elongation." As the sand rises, the plants quickly grow upward to keep their leaves above the rising sand. When the sand dune moves on the plant is left stranded on a "pedestal." These are examples of Skunkbush Sumac. 11/30/07

The majority of plants at White Sands are drought tolerant species. In addition, many of these plants must be adapted to alkaline, nutrient poor soils with a high gypsum content. The highly mineralized water table under these soils ranges from about 3 feet below the surface at Lake Lucero and the interdune flats to more than 20 feet outside the dune field.

Plants surviving here must also endure being buried by moving dunes and be able to tolerate extreme fluctuations in temperature, with common sub-freezing winter lows to occasional 100+ summer days.

Fast-moving dunes present some of the most extreme environmental conditions for plant life on the monument. These dunes creep forward as much as 30 feet per year and even fast-growing plants such as yucca and rosemary-mint cannot outgrow them. Occasional pedestals topped with sumac, rosemarymint, or saltcedar are left in the trail of a moving dune. The interdune areas may contain sand verbena, evening primrose, woolly paperflower, Indian ricegrass, yucca, ephedra, and alkali sacaton.

Slower-moving, vegetated dunes are separated by large grassy, interdune areas. Grasses found here include several members of the dropseed tribe, gyp grama, little bluestem, sandhill muhly, and alkali sacaton. Soaptree yucca, rosemarymint, skunkbush sumac, Rio Grande cottonwood, and scattered stands of the exotic saltcedar are the primary woody plants found in this area. This area has the most complex and varied plant community on the monument.

There are many signs along the road that explain what we are seeing and how the dunes are formed and what grows or lives in the dunes. This one has a picture of a soaptree yucca.
How the Dunes were Formed in the Tularosa Basin

The gypsum that forms the white sands was deposited at the bottom of a shallow sea that covered this area 250 million years ago. Eventually turned into stone, these gypsum-bearing marine deposits were uplifted into a giant dome 70 million years ago when the Rocky Mountains were formed. Beginning 10 million years ago, the center of this dome began to collapse and create the Tularosa Basin. The remaining sides of the original dome formation now form the San Andres and Sacramento mountain ranges that ring the basin.


We drove out further and came upon an amazing and surreal scene, a gigantic parking lot lined with picnic table shelters. The wall of sand in the back has been piled up by the sandploughs that keep the road and parking lot clear. 11/30/07
We climbed up above the picnic tables. Dennis is giving an imitation of a parched desert survivor dragging himself to an oasis. "Water! Cool, clear water...." 11/30/07
This is what we could see from our vantage point. The chaparral filled basins are called playas. They are dry lakes with no outlets. One of the lowest points in the Tularosa Basin is a large playa called Lake Lucero. Occasionally, this dry lakebed fills with water. As the water evaporates, the dissolved gypsum is deposited on the surface. We didn't make it out to see Lake Lucero. But we certainly want to return — perhaps for spring flowers and then we will explore more and see this lake. 11/30/07
It began to rain as we drove home. We were stunned at what we had discovered and amazed at our ignorance that we had not known about this natural wonder. With the clouds and the weather conditions we had seen this gypsum sand dune landscape under beautiful watercolor conditions with lovely delicate pastel colors. It was an awesome day.
Elsa Walton, Sunny Acres RV Park, Las Cruces, NM, Saturday, December 1, 2007