Monday, March 20, 2006

White Sands and the Northern Chihuahuan Desert

White Sands

7:30 PM

Camped about fifty feet from the railroad tracks out on the New Mexico desert north of Three Rivers (highway 54). Just had dinner, which consisted of some beef jerky, a “Larabar” (energy bar), cashew pieces and water. It’s cold, but the winds have died down, and hopefully, with the rainfly covering the tent, it will remain warm enough inside overnight.

In Central New Mexico, I camped far from the highway, but near to a railroad track I thought was relatively unused. It wasn't.


A rough night, during which I woke feeling nauseous. With time, it faded away. Up at 8:00 after a heavy, dream-filled sleep.

First day of Spring?

A fierce wind blowing, but it was clear and dry. A gorgeous day that makes me want to get out there!

All my things had dried out overnight. Left Carlsbad around 9:00 and headed toward Roswell, site of the infamous UFO crash.

55 degrees out at mid-morning, with 30 to 40 mph crosswinds. As tough a ride as Punta Arenas, Chile. Thank goodness for good pavement.

It has been difficult to stop for photos. The momentum that has carried me since Argentina, continues. In Artesia, I recognized this and forced myself to stop and look at an oil refinery, snapping a few pictures.

Refineries are a feature of the South Coast, Texas and New Mexico. This one is at Artesia, New Mexico. A crucial component to our society, I suspect few of us have a clue how they work.

Breakfast at “Denny’s” in Roswell, an encore of last night’s dinner. I continue to be shocked by the number of very heavy people in this country. In a population, you would expect a certain percentage of people to be seriously overweight. In the U.S., that number is way too high. Just as with the smokers in Latin America, society will pay the price.

Roswell's "UFO Museum and Research Center" (looks like a movie theater to me!)

In Fort Stockton yesterday, I went into a service station mini-market to look for some snacks. In many such markets, the snacks might occupy an aisle. Here, they occupied nearly the entire store. I think there might have been shelves for motor oil and paper products.

From Roswell, turned west toward the mountains, and into wind. Much easier riding: the bike’s fairing working perfectly against head-on winds. But it was slower too, guzzling the gas.

I found myself riding the road to Ruidoso that someone early in this journey had recommended I take as I made my way from New England to Mexico. Now I can’t recall who it was. The mountaintops ahead were shrouded in cloud. From the road, it was impossible to tell what weather was beyond.

Highway 70 climbed steadily toward the clouds. The air grew frigid, even in the sunlight. I pulled over to bundle up as much as I could: electric vest, fleece jacket and long-sleeved shirt under my Aerostich suit, and Gore-Tex jacket and pants over it. I thought that once I had reached the U.S., I’d be able to retire the electric vest. Apparently not.

Higher up, snow began to fall. I had no idea how bad it might get, but paid close attention to the pavement. As long as the snow was melting on contact, I could keep going.

Pretty country, but the uniform conifer forests betrayed these mountains as part of some corporate harvest plan. Ruidoso is a flourishing tourist destination, popular for its casinos and nearby winter sports. Many of the homes, condos and businesses look new.

Had I known in advance the pass would be 7,591 feet in elevation, I probably would not have attempted it. But reaching the summit, I had no more concerns. Though flurries continued, I knew I would be down out of the mountains when I reached Tularosa, less than thirty miles ahead.

So I stopped to have a closer look at one resort near the town of Mescalero: the “Inn of the Mountain Gods and Casino”. Apparently a Mescalero Indian resort, it’s tucked away in an idyllic mountain setting beside a lake. A huge complex with a great deal of new construction underway. Nearby was a big-game hunting concession.

Near Ruidoso, New Mexico, I thought I'd shoot me some big game. Unfortunately the firing range was closed.

A welcome relief from the cold as I quickly descended to Tularosa. In this "pint-sized" city, the police were active. Three police cars had stopped three separate victims. Filling the coffers, I guess. Intimidating.

I was annoyed by all the drivers strictly adhering to the ridiculous speed limit of 55 or 60 on the open highways. (The same types of highways on which it was apparently “safe” to drive 75 in Texas.)

The clouds all behind now, it was a clear, brisk and breezy afternoon in the Tularosa Valley.

Since it was so close, decided to go have a look at White Sands National Monument to the south, beyond the city of Alamogordo.

Only $3 for admission to the park (the same fee for a motorcycle, bicycle or pedestrian.) White Sands is the largest field of gypsum dunes in the World. In the surrounding mountains, rain dissolves strata containing gypsum, washing it into Lake Lucero. The lake is dry much of the year, the gypsum being left on the lake bed surface. Prevailing winds then lift the gypsum off the lake, depositing it in dunes.

White Sands National Monument

Apparently, gypsum dune fields are uncommon, since the water-soluble substance is usually carried by rivers out to the sea. But no rivers drain the Tularosa Basin, so the gypsum remains captured here.

I am amazed how freely visitors are allowed to explore the dunes. There is access to a wide area, with plenty of parking. Out across the dunes, people crawl, ant-like specs. Their traces are soon gone; the sands are constantly on the move.

At White Sands, people are free to "play in the sand." Their traces soon disappear. Here is a fresh footprint next to one that's only fifteen minutes old. The sand is constantly on the move.

I tried to make a u-turn on the narrow road and rolled my front tire off into the sand. Mistake. The sand was so soft and deep, it took all my strength to pull the bike back out. If I had continued to go forward, it would have taken several people to extract the bike.

After wandering the dunes until closing time, I returned to Alamogordo, expecting the “Hampton Inn” there might be reasonably-priced. However, at around $100, it was well beyond my budget. So much for Alamogordo. I would find a place to camp out instead.

Driving north on U.S. 54, there were not many access roads through the fencelines and out into the Chihuahuan desert. This one seemed to provide access to the rail signals, and perhaps some ranches.

280 miles traveled today.


babycondor said...

For some reason this is a very interesting image. The contrast between the fast-moving train and the tiny tent...movement and rest, as they say.

timtraveler said...

Movement and not much rest

Anonymous said...


otto said...

That's one small step for men'
Cool moon like footprint
6:26 AM
timtraveler said...

Yes, it's a huge responsibility to represent all mankind on this journey of mine.
11:15 PM

Paul said...

Beautiful photo!
9:26 AM
timtraveler said...

Thanks, Paul. I really was amazed at this landscape. It's almost hypnotic!
8:16 AM