Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Truth or Consequences

29 May 2019

We're on the road again, tiki touring a bit around the southwestern US and then heading back toward Washington state, our home base.  

Days 1 through 3
We left Tucson and drove along I-10 to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where the oldest of my three brothers lives.  Usually we only see each other at family events like weddings and funerals, since we live some distance from each other.  So it was fun to take time to just hang out and catch up on each other's lives.  Plus he has two adorable cats, so I had a great time playing with them.

The area was originally inhabited by the Mongollon Native Americans, and later the Manso people, neighbors of the Mescalero Apache nation.  The Spanish conquistadors colonized the area by the late 1590s, and ruled the region until the Mexican American war in the 1840s.  The US seized control of the area, and set up various towns, army posts, and such.  

Las Cruces is a pretty old city, dating back to the mid 1800s.  However, Mesilla, a nearby town, is even older, and more of the old buildings are still standing.  We visited Mesilla a few times, mostly in the evenings.  The Cathedral of San Albino is there, a lovely old brick building built in 1852.  It really was beautiful at sunset, the golden bricks glowing in the setting sunlight.

The towns are located in the Rio Grande basin, in the Chihuahuan Desert.  Weird to have a river running through a desert - but there isn't much rainfall.  In fact, Las Cruces boasts that they have 340 days of sunshine a year!  But the higher elevation makes a different climate than the Sonoran Desert, so there are different cactus here.  No saguaros, but plenty of prickly pear, cholla cactus, and palo verde trees.  In some areas there seemed to be more trees, but the soil seems lighter in color than in the Sonoran Desert, almost more like sand.

We drove back and forth across the Rio Grande several times, but the riverbed was bone dry.  There are a series of dams on this upper portion of the river so that the water can be used to irrigate the many pecan orchards and chili pepper farms in the region.  The water is released based on season, but the area is undergoing a bit of a drought, so the water is still dammed up for now.

On Saturday, we went to downtown Las Cruces for the farmer's market.  It was sort of an arts and crafts fair plus the farmer's market, all kinds of fabric items, jewelry, ceramics, and food items for sale as well as beautiful fruits and vegs.

But the highlight for us was a little mariachi trio, two women and one man, playing guitar, drum, and a tambourine, all averaging about 75 or 80 years old.  Really, they were adorable!  And two of the people had their oxygen tanks nearby - singing at 4,000 ft elevation (1.2 km!) can be kind of rough!  There were some other musicians who were better, a few who were worse, but this trio really had so much more personality than everyone else put together!

We also found a great mosaic made of rounded river rocks in various sizes and colors.  It actually was a sun dial, though there wasn't the upright or wedge to make the shadow and tell the time.  It was a beautiful mosaic, nevertheless.

On Sunday, we had wind advisories.  In the morning, we tried to visit the national monument that features fossilized dinosaur tracks, but it turned out that it was a series of trails through the park.  None of us were dressed for hiking trails where we might encounter rattlesnakes - we were all in shorts and sandals.  So, that will wait until another time with better weather.

We planned to go out in the afternoon and do something else, but the wind picked up until we had a full-fledged dust storm.  Not a heavy dust storm, not bad enough to shut down the highways.  But enough that walking around outside was difficult, fighting against the sustained winds at 35 miles per hour (56 kph), or with the wind at my back, nearly pushing me into a run or fast jog!  Plus all that dust flying around at that speed was like having tiny needles hitting me in the face or any other exposed skin - really hurt!  There was also some rain and hail as well as the howling wind.  Yeah, it was not good.  So it turned into a stay inside kind of afternoon.

My brother's house is near Picacho Mountain, a dormant volcano.  The first photo is what the mountain looked like in the morning, before the wind started wailing.  The second photo is in the height of the dust storm, when the sky was beige in every direction, and the mountain is barely visible.  Just for reference.

Days 4 through 6
On Monday, we decided to head to the town of Truth or Consequences, about 75 miles (120 km) to the north up I-25.  More windy weather had been forecast, so we didn't want to still be out driving during the height of the windstorm.  

T or C, as the directional signs posted, is actually an interesting little town.  

The town was originally called Hot Springs - there's a rift in the Rio Grande river basin here, with geothermal springs bubbling up to the surface in a few areas.  Spas and hotels were built up over most of the springs, and now they're all privately owned.  People can either stay at these hotels to enjoy the hot mineral water, or they can pay a spa fee to soak in these healing waters.

Many of us remember the television show "Truth or Consequences," but prior to that it was a radio show.  Turns out that the host of the radio show announced in March 1950 that he would broadcast the 10th anniversary program from the first town to name itself after the show.  Hot Springs officially changed the town name to Truth or Consequences on March 31, 1950.  The following day, the show was broadcast from T or C.  The host, Ralph Edwards, visited the town during the first weekend in May for the next 50 years for the Fiesta event, still celebrated to this day.

The rest of the year, T or C is fairly quiet.  It's a small town with about 6,000 residents.  The elevation is about 4,250 feet (1.3 km), and the topography is hilly.  

It's also an artsy sort of town - interesting doors in bright colors, a quail family painted on a retaining wall at a street corner, little things like that.  We spent one afternoon wandering around town after a great lunch, just enjoying the ambience.

The river here was fairly small through the town.  But the neighboring town, Elephant Butte, is near one of the dams that creates a reservoir of water that is known as Elephant Butte Lake.

I spent this afternoon (Wednesday) driving around Elephant Butte Lake, exploring.  There are tons of camping sites for both tents, trailers, and RVs near the lake, some even with little adobe shelters for sun protection.  Great views of the lake and the surrounding cliffs and mountains are everywhere - the place is so scenic!

And again, I have to say how really weird it is to see all this water in the middle of a desert!

There's something about a desert that is really wild and elemental, even when the only wild animals we've seen in New Mexico have been rabbits, either lean jackrabbits, or softer and rounder cottontails.  But there seems to be the hint of danger, the potential of life and death struggles in this rather barren wilderness.  

Maybe it's knowing that if we walk into that vast desert beyond a town, it will be a struggle to survive.  There isn't much to eat, there aren't easily accessible streams for water, the relentless sun will beat down on our heads and dehydrate our bodies.  There are animals hiding out there that are dangerous - venomous snakes, coyotes, mountain lions, maybe even wolves.  

And there's a sense of loneliness in the desert that I haven't experienced anywhere else.  A sense of solitariness, of being all alone in an alien environment.  Other environments seem to be more nurturing, such as forests, meadows, even beaches - life seems more abundant, more lush, more able to sustain life.  There's something about the desert that seems rather malevolent or destructive.  Whatever the opposite of nurturing would be. 

Days hit about 90 F (32 C), nights can drop to 49 F (10 C).  Those animals prowl, slither, creep.  It's a harsh environment, unforgiving.

I've been told that the desert is transformative.  I'm not sure I agree.  I think the desert needs to be respected, but I'm not sure I'm ready to live in it.

We'll travel around this desert for several more days.  As we continue to travel without much of a plan, as we continue to explore this corner of the country.