El Paso TX to Alamogordo NM: Mile 6310.4

El Paso is a desert border town and a military town which, IMHO, are two strikes against it. But, I am also prejudged on this, I was stationed at Fort Bliss – the Military Base that makes this a military town – for training in a Surface to Air missile system called HAWK (Homing All the Way Killer) from March 1963 to January 1964 when I was transferred to an active unit in Korea and then from April to June 1965 when I came back from Korea and ended up teaching Germans at the nearby Orogrande Missile Range. 

Being in the Army for three years was a major influence on my life, much of it good and some not so good. When I was in the military, it was an almost universal American male coming of age experience.  Yes, if someone didn’t want to go in the military and had the means to get a deferment, they were able to stay out, but that was more of an exception than a rule. Like most men my age, by the time I was in my early twenties, we had actually contributed at least two years – three in my case – to our country. I was exposed to other men, many from vastly different social and economic backgrounds, who I would never have met otherwise; not only exposed to but lived with, and, in many cases, befriended, which I give at least partial credit for why I am more tolerant of Trump voters than most of my friends. But, most importantly and somewhat counter-intuitively, the draft makes war less likely. People revolted against the Vietnam War because they or their relatives might go. Now,  with a so-called Professional Military, war does not involve the citizenry. Now, because almost nobody has been in the military, killing people in faraway lands is looked upon as a noble cause. Now we say, “Thank you for your service.” instead of protesting our wars. End of rant. 

Since, by the luck of using the internet, our motel was almost next door to Fort Bliss, we decided to visit and look around. (BTW, it turns out that we couldn’t just go onto the base to drive and look around, we had to go through a security check, in a pre-gate area, and then have a reason to go on base, in our case the reason was to go to the museum. Not shown is a series of about 15 cameras that looked into our car from different angles).
War has been good to the Army, at least at Fort Bliss, the old wooden PX is now a spiffy Marketplace and there are new buildings everywhere.
All that is left of my old HAWK outfit except for…
the barracks, we lived in (and the mess hall in which I first heard of the Kennedy assassination.
After our Fort Bliss excursion, we went into El Paso, itself, for lunch at Tabla where we had an excellent “simple” salad – anything but simple with avocado, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, parmesan cheese, and a herbed vinaigrette – Brussel sprouts, and Pork Belly Wraps. Brussel sprouts and pork belly, neither of which were around ten years ago, are now on almost every menu in what I would call New Style Restaurants.
BTW, while guns may be legal, most places we went didn’t want them. We only saw one guy with a gun in all our travels. This sign was typical.
After lunch, we went to the Rocketbuster Boot Factory where Michele was tempted by a pair of exquisite mules.
After lunch and after Rocketbuster, we wandered around the newly gentrified warehouse area that housed them both. It was very nice but somewhat empty. It was, however, next to a bustling Hispanic area…
where I got a very welcome cappuccino. Then we blew town, heading for White Sands.
We drove along “the wall” for a while…
looking throw the pickets into Juarez, Mexico.
We wandered through a maze of new freeway construction…
until we finally got untangled and crossed back into New Mexico about ten miles up the freeway.
After a few miles of freeway driving, we turned right and took US 70 over Augustin Pass…
into a large, flat, valley (a graben, really, as this area is part of the Basin and Range and is a dropped block caused by the Earth’s stretching).

 

As we drive across the flat valley floor, we start to see white sand dunes on our left.
and arrays of cameras on our right. At first, I think this is because we are passing through the White Sands Missile Range but now I’m inclined to think it is part of our “border security”.
Driving through the dunes at White Sands is like driving past a snowfield.

 

The road is even plowed as if it were snow.
We wandered around in the warm, fading, light; soaking up the soft beauty of the land and the light, feeling as much as seeing the day end.

After getting gas, we went to Lowe’s Super Market to get a take out dinner – the food was surprisingly good, if not very memorable – and then to our motel.to eat it.

 

Whites City to El Paso: Mile 6132.2

El Paso is about 144 and two hours and 25 minutes miles from Whites City, according to Google and that is about what it took us. We started on a four-lane divided highway that goes between Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Guadalupe Mountains Nation Park named, creatively enough, National Park Highway.  

The highway makes a straight beeline, southwest, for Texas and then turns almost due west just before the border as if it didn’t really want to go to Texas.
Just as we enter Texas, the highway contracts to two lanes and starts getting more interesting. 
Thank you, Texas.
We run along the southern edge of the Guadalupe Mountains. These are the highest mountains in Texas – the only mountains, really – and Michele and I are both thrilled to be in the mountains again.
When asked to sum up his four book masterpiece on geology, John McPhee said, “If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.”. Now, we are looking up at a 4,000-foot thick marine deposit that was formed when it was a shallow sea at the edge of what was, at the time, the only continent on Earth, Pangea about 275 million years ago.  About 12 million years ago, this area was raised up by the Farallon Plate sliding under the North American Plate. 
From a high point in the Guadalupe Mountains, we drop down into the Rio Grande Basin for an uneventful drive to El Paso,
much of the time driving directly into the setting sun and lengthening shadows. 

We ended our drive at the Scenic Drive Overlook, looking down at El Paso and Juarez like any other tourist, and we ended the day at the Hoppy Monk where we had excellent Lamb barbacoa tacos, Rabbit tacos, suburb Veggie empanadas, and a pretty good Beet and Kale salad. 

Whites City through the Wolfcamp Field

This is the largest estimate of continuous oil that USGS has ever assessed in the United States. The Wolfcamp shale in the Midland Basin portion of Texas’ Permian Basin province contains an estimated mean of 20 billion barrels of oil, 16 trillion cubic feet of associated natural gas, and 1.6 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. From a November 15, 2016, USGS Report.
 

It turned out that, without knowing it, Michele and I had wandered into the Wolfcamp Shale area of the Midland Basin when we were forced to turn around and take another road into the Carlsbad area a couple of nights ago. Because we had really only seen it in the dark, we decided to detour back to see it in daylight. BTW, Michele was driving and I was photographing on this part of the trip. Riding through the Wolfcamp area was the closest I will ever get to Deadwood; this is the 21st Century equivalent to an old-timey Gold Rush, an Oil Rush with corporations doing the rushing. It was both hellishly repellant and strangely compelling.

After breakfast at the Cactus Cafe in Whites City, we drive down the small back road we had used to get Whites City two nights ago. It is the kind of road we often see driving through ranching country in Nevada except that the countryside is flat and empty.
We pass old, almost picturesque, falling down barns and houses, sometimes replaced with newer, but abandoned trailers. 
As we deeper into the former emptiness, we run into trucks….
and then more trucks, under impossibly blue skies.
Everybody is in a hurry to get someplace and the roads are too small to carry the traffic but they are being improved. This is dry, dry, land with only an occasional “gully washer” and one of the improvements are signs that tell the truckers how deep the standing water is in a low spot on the road.
There are trucks every couple hundred feet, for miles (look closely between the first two trucks).
We pass lots of tractors hauling these specialized containers. BTW, by “tractor”, I mean the road machine pulling the trailer.
Everything here had to be trucked here. These huge drill towers are hauled in sections in trucks that take up almost the whole road.
This huge drill rig stands on its tippy toes like it doesn’t want to get dirty, which, considering how dusty it can get, is probably a stellar idea. This is not a cheap operation…
and, apparently,  it is not very safe, either.
Fortunately, there are doctors nearby, or, going by the cars in the parking lot, one doctor. If you can’t read the sign, it says “XstremeMD” (actually, even if you can read it, it says “XstremeMD”).
There are trucks everywhere and…
and they need to be loaded and unloaded which often requires specialized equipment. 


Of course the workers have to live somewhere and we ran into several of these encampments, for lack of a better term. On the sign, the second Bylaw says “Watch for Children”
This is Signor Lodge and they were still setting it up when we drove through.
The newly built – moved in? – Orla General Store with four food trucks behind it.
We talked about having lunch here and then lost our nerve.

All in all, while the area we wandered around is huge, I think the number of workers numbers in the thousands, not tens of thousands. However, they are continuing to survey and more people are arriving every day.

We stopped to talk to a couple of guys surveying for new sites. When I talked to them, I said, “This is amazing.” and one answered, “I wouldn’t say amazing, but it is…something.”

After several hours of traffic jamming with big trucks, we were almost out of gas, so we went back to Whites City to gas up. BTW, we were the only SUV we saw, everybody that wasn’t driving a huge truck hauling something was driving a huge pickup, like a Ford 250 or bigger. 

To be continued…

A day in and out of Carlsbad Caverns


The things that have most stuck with me from Carlsbad Caverns are the people, the mountains, and the railing glowing in the gloom of the cavern. This is the first time we have been to a National Park on our trip and the people are entirely different from anywhere else that we have been. (OK, thinking about it, we did go to the Lookout Mountain Battlefield Visitor Center in Chattanooga and the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park west of Austin so maybe this is the first time we have been to a classic Western National Park.) The people are older and whiter and, somehow, more interested, in a sort of academic way, in what they are seeing (in other words, I suppose, they are more like us). As an aside, every explanatory sign in the park presupposes evolution and deep time and I am reminded of how much work it must take to hold on to a belief that the Universe is only 6,000 years old. End aside. The mountains, ahh, the mountains. We have not seen mountains like this since the end of September and seeing them brings back how big a part of our life mountains are. Almost any place in the Far West has mountains in the background, they anchor the view. 

Our motel is just outside the park so, even after our usual late start, we are at the caverns well before lunch. There are two ways into the caverns, an elevator which takes the visitor directly down into the main cavern itself and walking about a mile and a quarter, through the natural opening and down about 750 feet on a paved path. We took the latter route.  BTW, I was glad to read that people can’t bring their drones into the cave. The walk into the cave was great but about 3/4s of the way on the one and a half mile walk around The Big Room, both Michele and I were getting bored. Yes, it is terrific but it is also repetitious. We took the elevator back to the surface, had a late lunch in the cafeteria in the Park Headquarters/elevator building, and decided to kill a couple of hours and then come back to the mouth of the cave to see the evening fly out of a half million bats. Watching the bats fly out was interesting, for a while, but it was getting dark and cold so we left after about a three-quarters of an hour (with almost everybody else, I want to add). While we were killing time, however, we had a super time driving along a ridge that looked across Walnut Canyon and then into Walnut Canyon, itself, marveling at the beauty of the area, all the time knowing that this was not for everybody but it sure is our kind of country. At the end of the drive, we looked down on the flat plain where we had been stuck the day before and that night, returning from a surprisingly good dinner at Yellow Brix in Carlsbad – where I had pork chops sous-vide which I think were the best pork chops I have ever eaten – looking at the same area, we were surprised at how full it looked with gas burn off fires everywhere. Michele suggested that we take a look the next morning on our way to El Paso. 

From San Angelo to Whites City: Mile 5730.3

After our late lunch in Big Spring, we started our drive to Carlsbad which Google said would be about 170 miles and take about three hours. This seems like the middle of nowhere, but we are also less than 40 miles from Midland TX, the birthplace of Laura Bush, childhood home of George H. W. Bush, and, more importantly to my mind, home of Jim Hall, one of the most innovative racecar designers of all time. Hall was the first designer to use a rear-mounted, upside down, wing to produce downforce two years before Colon Chapman brought the now ubiquitous wing to Formula One. Midland is another, of too many, places we pass saying “We’ll have to visit next time”

As we drive through the mostly empty countryside, we occasionally see trucks and, then, tanks of water for sale. We know it relates to fracking but sort of assume that it is not a big deal.

One of the things I’ve missed on this trip is a late afternoon cappuccino pick me up. It is one of the downsides to spending so much time on back roads. Every major city that we have stayed in, from Albuquerque to Austin, has a Starbucks and most have an independent coffee shop, but, in small towns and small cities like San Angelo, the only way to get a cup of coffee is to get a pour from a pot that has been warming and oxidising for a couple of hours. For me, that’s two problems, a cup of brewed coffee, with about 200mgs of caffeine, is way too big a hit for five in the afternoon and coffee gets too bitter if it sits on a warmer for more than a couple of minutes. A cappuccino, with 40mgs of caffeine, is a perfect afternoon pick-me-upper.   As we drove through Andrews TX, a very small burg of under 13 thousand people, Google reported that there was a coffee shop nearby so we had to give it a try. The only other time we ran into an espresso place, while on back roads, was a small town in southern Georgia that had a surprising amount of street art. As an aside, when we walked into the espresso serving coffee shop in rural Georgia, the first people we saw were a mixed-race couple with their kids, sitting at a table having ice cream. End aside.   In fading light, we continued to drive through pretty much empty country and crossed over into New Mexico at Jal, a small town of about 2,000 people. Jal had the only piece of public art we saw all day (although it did take a small detour). After Jal, however, everything seemed to change; we ran into increasingly heavy traffic and then a huge traffic jam, going the other way, caused by an accident between a tanker truck and a cop car. Then our lane just stopped and we sat until all the light was gone. Finally, a truck from the New Mexico DOT came by and the driver told us that the road was blocked by an accident and would stay closed for the next four or five hours. He suggested we backtrack to the first accident and go down a side road back into Texas where we could pick up a highway that would take us to Carlsbad, where we had planned on having dinner, and then on to Whites City where we were going to spend the night. 

We had expected to get to Carlsbad with about a hundred miles of gas but, with all the back and forth, we were now almost out of gas and in the middle of nowhere, although it was a nowhere with a lot of traffic. Just before the Highway to Carlsbad, we found a very strange “gas station”. It had several pumps in a gravel parking lot, dim lighting on tall poles, and two kinds of diesel with only one flavor of gas. Under the circumstances, it was perfect and we finally got to Whites City after ten where the desk clerk and his friend were watching Fox news. They offered us microwaved pizza which was terrific.