In the morning I go to a National Park Service office in Carlsbad. While talking with a ranger, I learn that this is the peak of birthing season for the bats and that is why the nightly foraging was canceled. I travel north to Roswell, and find the town geardd up for the 51st anniversary of the incident at Area 51. the Official Roswell Incident Museum is crowded, and I pick up a couple souvenirs for a young friend ("Floatboy", older brother of Diablito, I got souvenirs for the oldest brother "Englebert" at Carlsbad, so now I can send them home) and head for the town movie theatre. Where better to watch The X-Files Movie than Roswell, NM?I head west toward Capitan and Carrizozo, planning to make it to I-25 and Socorro tonight. Outside of Roswell I enter an extremely desolate area that stretches for many miles. The elevation keeps the temperatures down. Not far outside of Hondo, NM I enter greener lands and large hills. The altitude rises quickly and I need to clear my ears repeatedly. I pass through Indian Pass, 6,940 ft above sea level, and then descend some, passing through towns at 6,400 ft. I make it to Carrizozo and I am faced with a wall of black clouds. I inquire about a motel room, as it is clear I can not pass through the storms. The rooms are too high, but I am told of a campsite three miles outside of town. I head for it, and find an amazing park overlooking The Valley of Fire, a five mile wide, 45 mile long lava flow. It is spectacular, but the storms are rolling right through the middle of it, with fierce lightning striking frequently, thick fingers of electricity running verticaly and horizontally at will.
I see a wall of water heading my way, and I realize I wil never get my tent up in time. The far side of the valley is obscured by the oncoming rain. The are I am hoping to camp in is completely bare except for the metal roofed picnic tables. I see the sheet of rain moving closer and I think of South Carolina storms that move between 20 and 40 mph, and I know I'm out of time. I grab my gear and head for a bathroom building nearby. It isn't as nearby as I thought (distances are hard to judge out here when visibility is fifteen miles) and I am exhausted by the time I reach the building. I open the door and see indoor plumbing has not reached this part of the park yet and it is nothing more than a nice resort for visiting mosquitos, with dinning included via the hole in the floor. I decide not to add to tonight's dining pleasure.
Now desperate, and sure that I am seconds away from getting soaked and electrocuted, I need to make it to the large covered picnic table at the entrance to the park. I put my gear on the nearest picnic table and race back to my bike, which I had put under the shelter over the table at my site. I fire up my bike and carefully roll it around the table onto the dirt and it dies. I fire it up again and it dies again. Oh &@#! I've been trying to ride it with the seat covered by the garbage bag that I put on it when it rains and this has blocked my air intake and fouled the plugs. Fearing I am screwed big time, I pull off the bag and try to start it one more time. It resists, bogs, coughs, and then roars to life, spewing a large black cloud of its own. I go to the other site, grab my gear, and make it to the picnic area.
And wait. The storm closes, but never overtakes my position. Occasionally a stiff wind blows some drops under the shelter. It is cold, and I put my jacket on. Two days ago it was nearly 110 and now I'm putting on extra clothes to stay warm. The lightning picks up in intensity and I realize the area is tremendously exposed. Should the storm move a couple miles I will be seeing the beautiful Southwest lightning up close and personal. I wait for two hours, and the storm appears to slowly be getting closer, so I turn around and head back to Carrizozo for a motel room stay. Later, I walk through the town as the outskirts of the storm move into the town. Clearly I would have been dealing with the storm had I stayed at the campsite. The clouds move across the hill I am on and I watch as they begin to rotate as the air from the valley to the east blows in. Wondering about funnel clouds, I watch for a while, but the valley air is dry and the clouds that are rotating are also dissipating. Later, the rain and lightning move into the town as well, and I guess I made a good choice, but an expensive one compared to the $7/night rate at the park.July 2, 1998
In a sense it is too bad I didn't brave the elements and camp out. I stop by the Valley of Fire in the morning to get a road map of New Mexico and the BLM agent tells me that around 2am the skies cleared and the coyotes were singing.
I head toward Socorro and the Very LArge Array. I pass by an entrance to the White Sands Nuclear Test Site and I decide to see if I can get in. Althought I don't, I do spend a good bit of time talking to the security guard and one of the maintenence workers, who both point out a large circular clearing about five or six miles away and tell me that's Trinity, where they exploded the first nucelar bomb. They also tell me that the "official" host town is Alamagordo, when in fact the site is just outside of San Antonio, NM. I've looked at the maps distributed by White Sands as well as New Mexico and AAA, and they have Trinity in different locations, with White Sands' map showing it where I saw it, and the other two showing it close to Alamagordo. Strange.
Coming into San Antonio, NM, I cross the Rio Grande. It is one of the few rivers not dried up, altough it too is showing the effects of the local drought. There were a few people in it, a couple women washing clothes and some kids playing in it. I get on I-25 and look back into the calley the Rio Grande runs through. The hills around it are the usual brown of dried grass, but around the river is a lush swash of vegetation.
I inquire about directions to the VLA in Socorro and I am surprised to find it is still some 50 miles away. I stop by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, but it is closed for a long holiday weekend. I meet someone who says he will call ahead and let the VLA control room know I am coming. I eat and then head out through some beautiful hills. It is no longer desert, and there are short trees and living undergrowth. The hills border on being mountains outright, and I climb to 6,500 ft above sea level. I stop in Magdalena and send off the souvenirs for the young boys I mentioned earlier. From Magdalena to the VLA is 20 miles, but I can see the outermost telescope when I am only a few miles outside of town. There are 27 dishes in operation, with one spare dish sheltered in a large building. the dishes have many arrangement, and are moveable. Currently it is configured in a large Y shape, some 12 miles from end to end, but it can extend as far as 20 miles end to end, larger than the interstate loop around Washington DC and Arlington VA (they had an image of the Y superimposed onto a map showing this, that's how I know).
I wander around the control room building without geting anyone to let me in through the obvious doors, so I go up to a "No Admittance" door and try my luck. The outer door is open, and I knock a couple times on the inner door. No luck immediately, but in a minute someone wanders into view. I knock again and he lets me in. I tell him the control room is expecting me, and after signing in, ask him how to get there (this should have tipped him off, but these guys are scientists and not real bright). I make my way into the control room and clearly surprise the young woman at the computer console. I introduce myself and ask if the guy called ahead, and she says no, not sure what to make of me (and my road stink, likely). I give some of my background and indicate that I am interested in how things work. She seems more comfortable (her name is Renee) and tells me lots of stuff, very little of which I understand. One thing I see time and time again is people who are very competent at what they do but are completely unable to explain what it is they do, or how it works. Richard Feynman once said that in order to truly understand something, one must teach it to someone else. I'm sure that she knows what all the different computer programs used to control the telescope do, but showing my a readout of the names of them didn't reveal much to me.
Her shift ends, and the next guy (Larry) is in the same vein. I hear terms like "correlators" and "D-gates", but in the end, all I got out of it is that there are a bunch of computers with a lot of flashing lights that handle everything and tell you when something is wrong. All the same, I thought it was really cool :-),/p>
I head out of VLA with hopes of making it to the next town, Datil, where there is a campground, but I am confronted (almost Springered) with another wall of water between me and my destination. The sign says 15 miles to Datil, and although it looks like there are breaks in the rain, I don't see how I can make it and I go back to Magdalena, only 100 miles from where I started my day.Email me gtkelly domain dialectronics.com