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Manzano Mountains adventure

Red mixture

May 22, 2006—While staying at Percha Dam, my friend Kate and I made occasional day trips in her little Tracker, driving into nearby Truth or Consequences and Silver City to shop. We cleaned out the local Dollar General stores of "laser tops" (see the Rock Hound State Park page), bought groceries, and picked up a few used DVDs at the local video stores.

TorC used to be Hot Springs, but in 1950 the town renamed itself after the popular radio show "Truth or Consequences." In return, the show broadcast from "TorC" during the first weekend of May annually for the next fifty years. The deal was a good thing for both sides, but especially for the town. There are dozens of towns named Hot Springs, but only one Truth or Consequences! Today the town's population is only about 8,000, but it's full of galleries, health food stores and other attractions designed to appeal to upper-middle-class tourists.

I spotted this patent medicine ad in a TorC gallery window. It reminds me of the old joke in which a salesman assures a customer, "Why, Madam, this tonic is good for man and beast!"... to which she replies, "Oh, then it'll be just the thing for my husband!" Well, perhaps if your husband is a jackass, then Red Mixture is just the thing.

Percha Dam was a lovely spot, but the weather was getting a bit warm for my taste. One morning I woke up thinking "Gee, it's muggy!" It turned out that the humidity was 27%, which would qualify as a dry day in New Jersey where I grew up. But the southwest has spoiled me—I'm used to 7-15% humidity and like it that way.

Kate & Terry and I agreed that it was time to move northward and upward to cooler, dryer climes, so on Tuesday, May 18th we drove away from Percha Dam. On the way out of the park I photographed this old class C motorhome, which has to be the most decrepit RV I've ever seen in a campground... in fact, it looks as if it would fall apart if you kicked it. It's not a great shot, because the picnic table blocks the back end, and you can't see the entry door, which is roughly hacked out of a sheet of plywood. But notice that huge wooden case, leaning at a precarious angle in the rear? It's about the size of an upright piano, and it's sitting on the rusted back bumper (which is sagging badly, hence the tilt)—otherwise completely unsupported. I would not like to be driving behind this guy when that bumper finally lets go!

Old rig

I headed toward Manzano Mountains State Park, while Kate & Terry aimed to drive to a commercial campground in the hills near Albuquerque. They reached their destination in mid-afternoon... but my trip was a different story. Driving up the highway, I pretty soon picked up a "stalker": a red Lazy Daze trailing me that I recognized as belonging to Jerry Hormuth, a fulltimer I'd met at Quartzsite. I tried calling him on the CB, but got no answer. Jerry's CB has a bad antenna cable—it receives, but doesn't transmit more than about twenty feet—but he's never bothered to get it fixed. Needless to say, it's annoying when trying to caravan (especially since he didn't bother to turn on his cell phone, so my attempt to call him went unanswered), and it was to prove even more of a problem later on.

My GPS navigator "Mabel" (a Garmin StreetPilot 2610) has always gotten me where I wanted to go, but this day she failed me. Jerry and I followed Mabel's instructions once we got close to the campground, and she led us onto endless miles of the worst roads I've ever traveled. At best it was washboard; at worst it was little more than a goat path. Gertie felt as though she'd shake to pieces, and I didn't want to think about what this was doing to poor Marie in back!

After about five miles I lost sight of Jerry in my rear-view mirror, so I stopped to let him to catch up. After fifteen minutes had gone by and he hadn't shown up, I guessed that he had probably turned back and gone looking for another route. I could hardly blame him, but with his CB unable to transmit, I had no way of knowing what was going on.

Finally I gave up on waiting for Jerry and soldiered on, trusting that Mabel would get me through, as she has always done in the past. The scenery was wild and beautiful—red sandstone cliffs marching into the distance—but I wasn't in a position to enjoy it. I was too busy trying to keep Gertie from wandering off the narrow, rutted, rock-strewn path. The road got worse and worse. I scraped the rear bumper a couple of times on steep dips, and wondered about turning around, but there was no place to turn.

Red cliffs

Finally I came upon a rancher backing into his driveway, and stopped to ask directions. To my dismay, he told me that the road I was on wouldn't take me to the state park, and that I needed to retrace my path. He then gave me lengthy and confusing directions—I noticed that he didn't specify any road names—and I turned around in his driveway and set off to backtrack along the same dreadful road I had already traversed.

But after about the second turn, I realized that I had turned too soon, putting me onto an even narrower and more badly rutted washboard road. So I looked for a driveway to turn around in. When I found one, it was tiny and at an awkward angle, but I did my best to make a turn—and promptly got stuck, broadside across the road, with Gertie's front wheels in a ditch.

In the ditch

Up until now I had been taking this as a somewhat annoying but picturesque diversion... but with Gertie immovable and blocking the road, miles from anywhere and with no cell phone signal, I came pretty close to hyperventilating. Then I said to myself, "Hey! You have a full tank of gas, a full tank of water, a full tank of propane, fully charged batteries and lots of food. Think of this as an adventure—something to write about on your website." Thinking of it as a story to tell helped distance me a little from the calamity, and taking a few pictures helped too.

So I climbed into my brown "dirty work" jumpsuit and surveyed the situation. It looked as if the main hang-up was my entry step, which was dug into the rocky soil, so I got out my folding shovel and dug away as much as I could from underneath it. Then I rocked Gertie back and forth (35 years of NJ winter driving experience came in handy) until I managed to get her out of the ditch—miracle of miracles! A good thing too, I realized afterward, because the chances of a wrecker being able to get to me over those roads were probably slim to none.

I headed back down the road, making guesses about where to turn, until I found a house close to the road with no vicious-sounding barking dogs (a feature of most places I passed). The man inside gave me very clear directions to the park... but also told me it had closed to camping four days before, due to the extreme fire danger. (At the time I thought it was the danger to campers they were concerned about, but I later realized that more likely it was the danger from campers—the kind who believe that "It isn't camping unless you have a campfire!")

Mabel didn't know of any other campgrounds nearby, so I fell back on plan B: find a motel or a Wal-Mart (whichever came first) and boondock in their parking lot. Intermittent spatters of rain were falling as I thanked the helpful homeowner and headed down the dirt road, praying that he was right about there being a paved road just a few miles further on.

By the time I found it, the rain had stopped and the most spectacular sunset I'd ever seen was in progress, with banks of clouds blazing neon-orange above the rugged mountains while gray streamers of rain fell from the nearer clouds. I made a hurried attempt to photograph it, but there was no time to set up the tripod and really do it right.


As it grew darker, I headed for what Mabel said was the nearest motel, ten miles away in Mountainair. When I got there, a cheery sign in the window said "We're open—come on in!," but the office was dark and the door was locked. I knocked and rang the doorbell repeatedly, but nobody came, even though I could see lights within. I suppose I could have just parked there and dealt with it in the morning, but I had visions of being awakened at 3:00 a.m. by someone banging on the door, demanding to know what the hell I thought I was doing there. So I climbed back into Gertie and headed for a motel in Los Lunas, about forty minutes away.

The highway was smooth and almost deserted, and Gertie hummed along like a well-oiled sewing machine. I was deeply grateful that I hadn't—as far as I could tell—done her any damage in this series of misadventures. I hadn't had any supper, but I drank water and sucked on a root beer barrel to stave off hunger.

It was in Los Lunas, and later Belen, that Mabel failed me again. The motels she directed me to simply weren't there. Neither was a major highway interchange I ran into... so pretty clearly there had been some major rearranging going on since Mabel's most recent update. She's not infallible...but she's still a lot smarter than I am overall when it comes to directions! And in a sense, what happened up in the hills was my fault. The next day, I did something I should have done long ago: changed Mabel's "vehicle" setting from "auto/motorcycle" to "bus." That should help avoid dirt-road fiascos in the future.

Finally I located a Super 8 Motel in Belen and trudged into the lobby, dead tired, hoping they'd just let me park for half price. But the desk clerk kindly pointed out that I could park for free behind the China Buffet restaurant next door... so that's what I did. I parked under a bright light, next to a flatbed truck. It looked like a reasonably safe location, but frankly I was too exhausted to care. Marie seemed unfazed. I ate a light supper of corn chips and a couple of thin slices of Swiss cheese, with applesauce for dessert. I even found an open WiFi network, so I was able to send out a quick "I'm OK" email to my friends.

Behind the China Buffet

I slept well enough, but not long enough. I woke up at 5:30 a.m., thinking "Oh, shit—I'll bet I tore off my dump valves, and maybe ruptured my holding tanks. I'm probably dribbling crap all over this parking lot!" (The tanks and valves are on the underside, hanging fairly low.) Of course I couldn't sleep after that.

So I got up, got dressed and took a look. Amazingly, nothing was damaged—even the black tank's cap (the lowest one) didn't touch dirt! I was very lucky to be able to get out of that jam on my own, and without damaging anything. Looking at the photo of Gertie stuck in the ditch still gives me the willies!

The whole rig was full of red dust from the previous day's misadventures. I spent about half an hour just wiping it off the kitchen. My first priority after eating a quick breakfast was to stop at an auto parts store and pick up some oil and transmission fluid—I'd checked both first thing in the morning, in case a stone had punctured something, and found that both were low (but no punctures). I also bought a spare can of belt dressing—Gertie needs treatment once or twice a month, or her four belts start to squeal.

Then I stopped at a Sonic drive-in and bought a chicken wrap and one of their banana milkshakes, which I had grown to love when I was staying with Bill Haas in Patagonia. I ate the wrap and put the shake in the fridge, then drove to a self-service car wash I'd spotted the night before, shoved a five dollar bill in the slot and spent half an hour washing red dirt off Gertie. I got most of it, except on the roof. I also cleaned all the windows thoroughly, wiping them with a damp microfiber towel as Kate had taught me.

After that I headed toward Tijeras, where Kate & Terry were staying. Although it was only about an hour's drive—maybe less—I had to fight to stay awake. The cold banana shake helped.

Hidden Valley Resort in Tijeras could more accurately be called Hidden Hillside—the sites are terraced up a fairly steep slope. They are also very close together. Kate's rig was just ten feet, three inches from mine, and the folks next to me (a huge trailer with a big slideout) were only a few feet away. Behind me, the gravel road was only about three feet from my rear bumper, so I got a closeup view (as well as an earful) of the huge rigs as they roared past.

Scenic view

If the sites weren't so close together, Hidden Valley would be a fairly pleasant place. But packing us in like sardines made privacy impossible. If I left my windows open, I could hear every word of Kate & Terry's conversations, and their TV shows and movies came through loud and clear. Likewise, I knew that they'd be unwilling eavesdroppers on any phone conversation of mine.


Still, I needed a few days to rest and recover from my Manzano Mountains adventures, do laundry and catch up on email. Hidden Valley was OK for that, and I was only paying $12 a day, thanks to my Passport America discount. But as soon as I reasonably could, I left Hidden Valley and headed north.

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