OK, so I'm a year and a half late in posting this page! In fact, I'm so late that since I began writing it, I've made a complete clockwise circle of New Mexico as the seasons progressed, returning to the park where I started. Oh, well... better late than never!
New Mexico: land of lakes
December 31, 2007—Before I left New Jersey, when I thought of New Mexico, I thought of desert. But once I started camping in New Mexico state parks, I was struck by how many were near bodies of water: El Vado Lake, Fenton Lake, Heron Lake, Bluewater Lake, Navajo Lake, Morphy Lake, Clayton Lake, Storrie Lake, Conchas Lake, Santa Rosa Lake, Sumner Lake, Percha Dam, Caballo Lake, Elephant Butte Lake, Bottomless Lakes, Leasburg Dam, Coyote Creek, Brantley Lake... judging by the number of lakes here, you'd almost think you were in Wisconsin!
Well, my friends Kate & Terry and I have been slowly making our way down the eastern side of the state, staying one step ahead of the massive blizzards that have ravaged northern New Mexico and Colorado... and as it happens, we've stayed at three lakes in a row. (Four, if you count an "oasis" that turned out not to be.) So this is the story of our fall and early winter.
After leaving the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, we headed for Santa Rosa Lake State Park. On the way there, we pulled into a truckstop, and I got Skylark weighed for the first time. I was elated to discover that with full tanks, the rig is 600 pounds underweight! Considering how overweight Gertie was, and how I moved all that stuff over to Skylark and then added more, I honestly expected to be at or near capacity, so this was a wonderful surprise. It means I can afford the extra weight involved in replacing my two T105 flooded-cell batteries with four maintenance-free AGM batteries. Now I have to figure out whether I can afford the cost, and when I can get together with Mike and Lisa Sylvester to do the work. AGMs are an expensive luxury, but I had them in Gertie and I don't want to be without them again. And for the amount of dry camping I do—and the amount of power my computer use requires!—two batteries just aren't enough.
I've been re-reading a little book on Route 66 that my friend Nan gave me, and it was fun to see the places I've been... not that I've been following Route 66 deliberately, but I've been on it many times in many places here in the Southwest. Did you know that they don't have Route 66 road signs any more? They were being stolen so frequently that now the highway departments just paint the numbers on the road:
Even when cruising along in four-lane comfort on Interstate 40, you can often see stretches of the old two-lane Route 66 running alongside—sometimes as close as a hundred feet. It's a strange feeling, like catching a glimpse of a parallel universe.
After settling in at Santa Rosa Lake State Park, Kate & Terry and I drove into town to see the "Blue Hole," a large artesian well that produces about 2,000 GPM of 61° F. water all year round. About 60 feet across and 280 feet deep, the Blue Hole is a favorite site for cave diving, with hundreds of divers showing up every weekend... and judging by the number of white-slashed red rectangles we saw around town, the scuba-diving trade keeps Santa Rosa's economy afloat—barely. Even the Chamber of Commerce building has a giant diving flag. They know which side their bread's buttered on.
The Blue Hole itself doesn't look like much from the surface... just like a big pond. The only thing that distinguishes it is the number of warning signs around it, telling you that you must have a diving permit, and that if you get the bends, the nearest hyperbaric chamber is 100+ miles away in Albuquerque. (In a severe case, you might not live long enough to get there.)
Santa Rosa is one of the many Route 66 towns that were bypassed by the interstate and have never recovered. If you saw "Cars," the movie's fictional town of Radiator Springs looks like many of these faded Route 66 towns. This main-street scene from the movie could have been photographed in any number of southwestern towns.
The film's story of a once-prosperous town that suddenly dried up when the superhighway passed it by is one you'll encounter over and over along the "Mother Road." Santa Rosa is one of these "lost" Route 66 towns. About half the businesses appear to be closed down, and the survivors are mostly motels and restaurants. I don't think I've ever seen so many motels in a town this small. (Although Breezewood, Pennsylvania might contest that—it bills itself as "Town of Motels" in signs along the PA Turnpike.)
Aside from the diving trade, Santa Rosa is trying hard to make a living on Route 66 nostalgia. We ate at the Route 66 cafe (not bad, not great) and then stopped at the Route 66 Auto Museum... but after looking around the gift shop, declined to pay $5 to see the "More than 30 cars!!" on display. The three bored employees sitting in the snack bar went back to chatting and watching TV, and we left.
Back at the campground, we watched the full moon rise over Santa Rosa Lake as the temperature fell rapidly after sundown.
In fact, it dropped to around around 25° F. overnight—not surprising for the end of November—but I was comfortable in my warm bed with my electric heater running intermittently. I didn't even need the extra comforter that I keep rolled up at the foot of the bed. I had a leisurely breakfast, and sometime after 9:00 it started to snow—big wet flakes that barely stuck to the ground. Alix loved watching them, and even jumped up with her forepaws on the window once or twice, trying to catch the swirling flakes.
I was about to take a shower and get ready to leave for Oasis State Park, about two hours away, when Kate called on the FRS radio we use as an intercom to say that she had no intention of driving anywhere today. Our friend Mimi, who was camped nearby, chimed in that the forecast for Clovis was one to three inches of snow after midnight, so she and Jonna were going to stay put as well.
So there we were, "snowed in."
To Jonna and Mimi, Californians who spend most of their time in Mexico, this was apparently a scene of frozen horror comparable to the Donner party's ordeal. Kate & Terry, also from California, seemed to feel about the same. I'm from New Jersey, where we get eight- to ten-inch snowfalls several times each winter, so I had trouble keeping a straight face. These rigs actually handle better than cars in snow; they have six big tires (four of them powered) and plenty of weight on them for good traction. Nevertheless, I'd rather my friends were overly cautious than see them try to bull their way through conditions they felt were unsafe, so I resigned myself to sitting still for a day or two.
And it wasn't such a hardship to be in my cozy home with my friendly cat. My two electric heaters kept me warm, and there was nothing urgent on the agenda. I made a loaf of cheddar/seed and nut bread, then spent the afternoon watching a two-part A&E adaptation of "The Lost World." Although they changed the story a bit (e.g., the explorers are betrayed not by a vengeful half-breed, but by a deranged fundamentalist missionary; Lord John Roxton ends up marrying an Amazonian aborigine princess; and there's a lot of "we can't disturb this fragile ecosystem" stuff that Conan Doyle would have found baffling), it was very well done and I enjoyed it a lot. After supper, I put my 12V mattress pad in place, so the bed was toasty warm when I climbed in.
An oasis that wasn't
We eventually did get to Oasis State Park—that is, Kate & Terry and I did. (Jonna & Mimi, traumatized by their brush with snow, had headed straight for Mexico, vowing "never again!") But we didn't like Oasis enough to stay long—only four nights, whereas we normally spend the full permitted three weeks at a New Mexico state park. But the place was pretty bleak, at least at this time of year: flat and nearly featureless.
A few days of that were enough, and we moved on toward Roswell. The weather turned mild overnight: by afternoon, it was a balmy 70° F.! After doing our grocery shopping at the local Wal-Mart, we drove the last few miles to nearby Bottomless Lakes State Park. We took what we could get in the way of campsites, and the view wasn't exciting. But scouting around turned up several prime lakeside sites with electric hookups, and talking with the rangers revealed that two would be available in a few days... so we made reservations (something we don't normally do) to make sure we'd get them.
A few days later we moved into sites with a wonderful view of Lea Lake. Looking out my panoramic windows in the back, I could see the ducks paddling contentedly, stopping every once in while to dive for edibles. Sunsets painted the pink cliffs on the other side of the lake a brilliant red. And I could watch it all from my desk! Who could ask for more?
The "Bottomless Lakes" for which the park is named are actually sinkholes. This is limestone country—if nothing else, the hardness of the water would tell you that—and when water seeps through limestone, even the slightest trace of acidity will eat away at it. If that happens deep underground, you get caves like Carlsbad Caverns; if it happens near the surface, you get cave-ins—sinkholes. This park is studded with them, and they come in all sizes... from lakes several hundred feet wide to mini-craters just a foot wide. There was one of these right next to my rig, which I named Mammoth Lake. I shot "aerial" photos of it, adding a toy car as a prop, and I was going to make up a story for this journal to go with the picture... something about El Sapo Grande, the legendary monster toad of Mammoth Lake... but who'd believe me?
After a few days admiring the scenery, Kate wanted to go into Roswell to see the UFO-oriented tourist attractions. I went along somewhat reluctantly, but found myself enjoying the sheer goofiness of the whole business. I'm not going to talk about the fabled flying saucer crash; if tall tales and conspiracy theories are your cup of tea, you can find plenty of that elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the whole town of Roswell is "alienated"...they even have slanty almond eyes painted on all the streetlights. Having carried "saucer consciousness" to absurd, almost Dadaistic heights, the town is replete with alien kitsch. It seems every block has a building with a "crashed" flying saucer sticking out of one side. Little green men sit nonchalantly on the parapets.
If I were in the wrong mood, I might find all this offensively touristy... but somehow it just struck me as kind of charming in a silly, over-the-top way. So much of the alien decor around town is obviously tongue-in-cheek, like this 190-foot mural in back of MacDonald's. (Click on the picture to see an enlarged version showing the whole thing). Heck, the entire front of the building resembles a crashed saucer! Roswell could have been another dying Route 66 town like Santa Rosa, but instead they've thrived on their unique alien/UFO schtick, and skeptic though I am, I can't find it in my heart to begrudge them that.
As I'm sure you know by now, I love to work on my rig, and so does my friend Kate. When we camp together, we egg each other on and tackle all kinds of "home improvement" projects. One thing I did this time was to install new digital SeeLevel II tank gauges, replacing the old inaccurate three-light gauges that came with this rig. I won't bore you with the details here; if you're interested, there's a "tank gauges" page where you can read all about it.
Another project was replacing the rattly, hard-to-clean miniblinds in our kitchen and bathroom windows with brightly colored curtains. We set up our sewing machines on the picnic table by Kate & Terry's campsite, and I brought out all my sewing stuff: cutting mat, thread and other tools. Kate & Terry had had their striped material cut to size at the fabric store, so all they needed to do was make hanging pockets.
I had to measure and cut everything in both red and white (for lining) fabrics, and I was terrified that I'd screw up. But I did OK—no catastrophic errors. I made my two panels, Scotchgarded them and put up my curtain rod in the kitchen, finishing as twilight fell. Next day I photographed the curtain, which added a nice touch of color to my drab kitchen.
The next day I made a set of bathroom curtains from a dusty-rose colored fabric with a tiny floral print... again, a touch of warmth, and a big improvement over the beige miniblinds the factory had installed.
And then we stowed the sewing machines and moved on to Brantley Lake State Park.
Attack of the killer birds
Alix and I are a good team. She's my early warning system. If there's an insect in the rig, no matter how small, she'll find it. I can tell when she goes into her "hunting posture" that she's spotted a fly or whatever. Then I swat it, and give her a cat treat.
But at Brantley Lake we encountered a larger flying menace: birds. Over a period of nearly a week, a gray bird who apparently lived in the tree outside my office window repeatedly attacked its reflection in the glass. Alix, of course, went crazy, leaping and snatching as the bird flung itself against the window again and again. I shot a few stills, but quickly switched to video, which was much more effective. I shot footage of both Alix and the bird from all angles, then put together a 40-second video, in case you're curious.
Christmas in New Mexico
I'm not much for traditional holiday celebrations. Unlike Kate, I loathe Christmas music (I've just heard it too many times in my 57 years), and I'm not fond of Christmas decorations, cards, Santas, etc. That makes me something of a self-imposed outcast at holidays. My one concession to holiday cheer this year was a string of red, green and yellow LED lights, which run for weeks on a pair of "C" cells. They add a cheerful touch of color to my office—I think I'll leave them up all year.
Nevertheless, Kate & Terry, Jerry Hormuth and I had a pleasant Christmas dinner. I made cornbread (a little too moist, but everybody liked it), Kate made an excellent ham, Jerry made very good mashed potatoes... there was no dessert, but it was quite enjoyable.
Kate and I even exchanged gifts, although we didn't do it on Christmas day—that would have been too traditional! A few days before before Christmas, I gave Kate an infrared thermometer because I knew she coveted mine. It's a wonderful gadget that lets you measure temperatures instantly, with no need for contact—just point it at something and read the temperature. And a few days after Christmas, Kate gave me a super-bright 9-LED flashlight, finished in anodized red aluminum to match my coach.
Of course, Christmas really had nothing to do with it. My friends and I pass stuff back and forth all the time. Sometimes it's an item that one of us didn't need but another does; sometimes one of us will come across a bargain and buy several for our friends...we're always giving each other stuff.
My Christmas present to the Lazy Daze discussion group that I moderate was a virtual one: I created a Lazy Daze snow globe image, by montaging together several other photos in Photoshop. It turned out pretty well... I wish I had a real one.