Carlsbad: Caves, Bats, and Genitals

Stone HousesI was excited to learn a few months ago that my friend Morgan from college was working as a ranger at Carlsbad Caverns for the summer. I was equally disappointed to hear the the two nights I would be there were during her weekend, and she was planning on going camping in the mountains (she’s not used to the desert, so she needs to escape towards trees and/or water whenever she can). I was bummed about missing her, but Morgan confirmed with her roommate that it was alright for me to sleep on their couch anyway. As summer rangers they get to stay in the park itself, right across from the Visitor’s Center in tiny, old, stone houses.

I followed Morgan’s directions to get to the staff parking lot, and wandered around the tiny houses and apartments until I found her house. I knocked on the door but no one answered. I wasn’t sure what I would do if her roommate wasn’t home, since I had no way to contact her and Morgan was probably out of cell range by now. I knocked again and looked around. Eventually a woman came to the door, and I began to explain myself. Her name was Mary Ann, and she seemed completely unconcerned with me or my presence there. Mary Ann left to visit some friends in a neighboring house, and I went over to the Visitor’s Center to watch the Bat Flight.

Bat DonationsDuring the summer months the Mexican free-tailed bats migrate up to Carlsbad to live in the caves. The section where they nest is closed off to visitors, but you can catch a peek at them every night as they exit the cave for their feeding session. The start time is approximate of course. If the bats come out early you’ll see a lot of them. If they come out late it may be too dark to see anything. An open amphitheater is situated above the natural cave entrance, and while you wait a park ranger gives a talk about bats. I got a good seat near the front and waited for the talk to begin. I saw a young boy walk by wearing a Batman cape. There was a family behind me with a 4-year-old boy who was simply not understanding the concept. “Where are the bats?” he would ask.

“They’ll come out once the sun sets,” his mother told him.

“Where will they be?”

“Right there in front of us.”

“Why aren’t there any bats?”

“The sun hasn’t set yet, honey.”

“I don’t see any.”

“They’ll come out once it’s dark.”

“But…where are the bats?”

On and on like this, until the ranger came forward to give the presentation. No cameras are allowed during the bat flight because the flash and electronic noise interferes with the flight. An enforcement ranger stands near the front, scanning the crowd to make sure no one is trying to sneak a photo. We learn about the bats, their migration, their diet, and a fungus that has been destroying bat colonies out east but fortunately hasn’t reached Carlsbad. A sensor is set up deep in the caverns near the entrance to the bat cave itself. When the bats begin to move, a scratching, clicking sound can be heard over the speakers. After a few clicks the ranger declares that it’s time, and he turns off his radio and speaker system to ensure they won’t bother the bats.

The first few minutes are awkward. We are told to be very quiet and move as little as possible. But the bats aren’t there yet. So we sit in still silence, staring up of the New Mexico sky waiting for them to appear. No one in the crowd knows how long we’ll have to wait. There are lots of kids, and kids are hard to keep quiet, especially without payoff. Parents keep shushing them and getting them to sit back down. The kids keep spotting cave swallows and asking if they are bats. They’re not. There are no bats.

Bird in the skyEventually, I see the ranger point up to the sky. It’s dusk now and it’s hard to tell the difference between a bat and a bird in such low light. He points again, and I see it this time. Gradually, more and more appear from the cave, and I’m getting better at recognizing them. They fly up, filling the sky. Like all exciting things, after a while the wonder begins to wear off. The younger children become restless, and the families leave. It’s getting darker, and it’s harder to see. I keep watching the bats until I am the last person in the amphitheater. I decide it’s time to go, not wanting to hold up the rangers since I’m sure their shift only ends once all the tourists leave. As I walk out I overhear the ranger who gave the talk telling the others that it was the best bat flight he’d seen in weeks. He said at one point he was counting about 40 bats per second. How he could count them I’ll never know.

Super MoonI walk back to my car, and a giant yellow moon is rising above the horizon. It’s the supermoon, appearing especially big and especially yellow. It’s gorgeous, but disappointing. I love looking up at the stars, and the desert is the perfect place to see them. But with a moon this big and bright, there are no stars. I’ll have to check the lunar schedule next time I come to visit.

I sneak back into the dark house as quietly as I can, trying not to wake Mary Ann. I slowly get ready for bed, and after about 15 minutes Mary Ann walks in the door, having only just returned from her friend’s house. Once again, she is generally unconcerned with me.

The next morning I wake up early so I can get to the cave entrance right as it opens. Since very early on in the cave’s explorative history people have reached it vertically. Originally it was by a large guano bucket lowered down by ropes. In 1932 an elevator shaft was constructed, and people have been going in and out by elevator ever since. There is still a large, natural entrance, however, and tourists can walk all the way down themselves if they so desire. Morgan left me a note suggesting that I walk down the natural entrance rather than take the elevator, so that was the plan. There are many warnings about the difficult climb, and how it’s not for everyone. After looking at the specs for temperature, distance, and depth I felt pretty confident. Compared to the Grand Canyon, this would be easy.

King's PalaceI set off down the trail, audio guide in hand. I love audio guides. It’s hard for me to stay focused on nature and beauty alone – I want to learn things. I want to know things I can’t know just by looking. Millions of years ago, the entire region was a sea reef. The sea dried up, the tectonic plates shifted, and the reef was pushed below the surface. Water dripped down from above, and huge cave formations were created over thousands of years. And then one day around 1898, an ambitious young man decided he wanted to become a bat guano farmer, and the beauties of the cave became known to the modern world. Sometimes it’s hard to wrap your head around the timeline. This place is more than ancient, it’s prehistoric. And there were many hundreds of thousands of years in between when it was a reef and when the first formations began. Later on the audio guide would point out some huge piles of bat guano, leftover from a time when bats nested in a different part of the cave. “These piles are approximately 45,000 years old,” said the narrator. “They are probably the youngest thing you’ll see in the cave.”

The cavern system is separated out into different areas. The natural entrance and the Big Room can be seen by anyone via self-guided tour. Other areas are only available in small, ranger-guided tours. Some require special equipment and physical ability. Those tours also require reservations months in advance, so I opted for the only guided tour available, the King’s Palace.

Thin Pillars on WallThe cavern is a cool 68 degrees at all time. It’s lit by specially placed lights, designed by a broadway lighting designer. The King’s Palace is a series of rooms near the base of the natural entrance, and the ranger took us through, pointing out the various features and telling us more about the cave’s human history. After guano mining proved less profitable than originally hoped, the caverns become an attractive tourist location. People would be lowered down in the guano bucket and led through by torchlight. The caves are massive and complicated, and it’s hard to imagine navigating them by nothing but memory and the occasional marker.

Back in the 1940s, the most well-known and well-liked of the guides used to lead what he called the Rock of Ages Tour. He would take huge groups into the Big Room, sit them down in front of a formation called the Rock of Ages, turn off all the lights, and give a lengthy speech in the pitch black. As his speech was ending, a quartet of rangers would start singing the hymn “Rock of Ages” in harmony. Much to the disappointment of many visitors, they stopped doing those tours long ago. It was no longer practical to turn off all the lights at once, and I get the feeling the Park Service wasn’t thrilled about singing a church hymn during an official tour.

Rock of AgesHowever, during the King’s Palace tour your group is in an area isolated from the main part of the cave. After going through most of the rooms, the ranger had us all sit down on the long bench lining the pathway. She went over to the switches and turned out the lights. I have never experienced that level of black. It’s hard to think about even now, because a total lack of light is so foreign to my general life experience. But in that room you are under several stories of solid rock, and without the electric lights there is absolutely nothing. I waved my hand in front of my face. Nothing. Sometimes I thought I could see it, but it was just my brain trying to make an image of something it was sure was there. In the darkness, the ranger told us about the speeches that were made during the old Rock of Ages tour. How he would explain to the dark crowd that, “for hundreds of thousands of years the cave sat in total darkness, her beauty completely hidden from the outside world. That beauty was first revealed when man brought in a single spark of light.” With that, the ranger clicked on a lighter in front of her face. Behind her you could barely make out a few of the formations – the same formations that were so clear a minute earlier under the electric lights. It’s amazing to think of climbing through this place, only able to see a few feet in front of you at any time. How absolutely terrifying and wondrous. It must have felt impossible.

After the King’s Palace I walked through the Big Room, which is aptly named. I listened as the audio guide explained the various formations and the difficult preservation efforts (preserving the cave from thousands of annual tourists, since left to it’s own devices the cave would be just fine). The narrator explained that many features were named by whatever feature they seemed to look like, be it a lion or a fairy. The audio guide encouraged me to look for shapes myself and see if I could come up with my own names. Around the next corner was, of course, a stalagmite that was unmistakably breast-shaped. It was hard not to giggle.

Breast of Venus

The lighting in the cave can make for some dark and blurry photos, but I did my best. After I walked the length of the Big Boom I took the elevator up for lunch. I saw that there was a ranger talked scheduled for 4PM down in the Big Room, and rushed back down in time to catch it. Between the ranger talk the day before, the bat flight, the audio guide, and the info panels, I had already heard most of the information in this talk. He did relate the wonderful story of how they used a balloon to hook a rope to the ceiling to explore what turned out to be a large room directly above the center of the Big Room. When trying to imagine this event, remember that the ceiling in the Big Room is 255 feet (78 meters) high.

The cave was closing for the day, and I caught one more talk about Mountain Lions before I headed back to the little stone house. I walked in the door to find my friend Morgan sitting in the living room with about seven other people, all eating German chocolate cake. We hugged and she explained that after the first night, she’d seen enough trees and was frankly a little bored. So she came back early, knowing I would be there. And she made a cake, because it’s Morgan.

The crowd in the living room was composed of other rangers, and after a while everyone left but Morgan, Mary Ann, and myself. Morgan explained that she’d made a homemade face mask that her and Mary Ann were going to use, and asked if I wanted to try it. We slathered it on our faces and went to sit on the stone porch wall to let it dry. I asked what the mask was made of, and Morgan said it was yogurt and turmeric. Knowing the effect turmeric has had on some of my other possessions I asked, “Doesn’t that turn your skin yellow?” Morgan shrugged, “I don’t know, mine doesn’t turn yellow.” Mary Ann’s eyes got wide and she ran back inside to wash it off. I figured it was too late for me, and Morgan and I turned back to face the visitor’s center. From her house you can see the path tourists take to get to the amphitheater for the bat flight, and we watched as the nightly procession began.

After the mask (which did not turn my face yellow), we walked over to their friend Tess’s house for a party. I get the impression this is an almost nightly occurrence, and probably where Mary Ann had been the night before. This explained a lot about her previous lack of acknowledgment, since she was a normally fun and friendly person. When the party calls, nothing else matters.

Tess made Mac & Cheese, and much alcohol was consumed. The rangers are fun and sometimes wild people, and I felt at home with them instantly. I mentioned that the audio guide told me to think up names right before I saw a rock shaped like a breast, and the others explained that formation was called the Breast of Venus. This was immediately followed by the question, “But did you see the Rest of Venus?” Apparently there was a vaginally-shapped formation near the end of the Big Room, and Morgan promised to take me to see it the next morning before I left.

We stayed late into the evening before heading back to our own tiny house for the night. You have to carry flashlights when walking at night because of the presence of snakes and spiders. It was clear that someone had not taken that precaution the night before, as evidenced by a large, squashed tarantula on the path. The spider was named Dead Tom and Mary Ann worried she was the culprit.

The Rest of Venus EditIn the morning we got up early for what became known as Genital Tour 2013, where Morgan took me on a quick tour of her favorite formations shaped like private parts, starting with the Rest of Venus. Morgan was off-duty but she still had her keys, so the two of us went back into the King’s Palace area for a few extra special phalluses. On our way out we heard some tourists coming down the natural entrance path and ducked behind a rock to avoid the awkward question of why two women in plain clothes were coming out of a gated area of the cave. Once we were done with Genital Tour 2013, we got in line to take the elevator back up. Of course all the other employees know Morgan, and as a result one of the elevator operator rangers offered to show us a few things even Morgan hadn’t seen yet.

Morgan with KilroyThe elevators have large, glass windows to allows visitors to see the decades-old elevator shaft, cut from the stone. After letting out the other tourists that rode up with us, the operator closed the doors and took us back down several floors. He slowed the elevator to a stop and gradually raised it up again, until a bit of red paint caught his eye. He stopped the elevator and we looked out to see the image of Kilroy painted on the wall. He wasn’t sure how long it had been there, but since Kilroy’s heyday was World War II, it had probably been a while. He raised it up a bit more to show the way they cut small channels in the rock to drain water out, and a bit further to see some tiny stalactites forming on some of the support beams. It was funny to think about the thousands of people that look out these windows everyday, but are moving too fast to really see anything.

I had been told by many people to visit Carlsbad, and I can understand why. It is absolutely incredible, and I couldn’t begin to think of the words to describe it. Fortunately for me, famed photographer Ansel Adams already found the perfect words, and the park service, in their wisdom, put them on display:

Ansel Adams Edited

Posting Delay

If you are reading this it means I am in the middle of a wi-fi desert on the Blue Ridge Parkway and am not able to upload the next post. Blogging will continue once I reach civilization and/or Charlottesville.

Rockets and Aliens

The LandingsAs a lifelong X-Files fan and space-lover, I couldn’t wander through New Mexico without a stop in Roswell. I had heard mixed things about the town. Some said it was cool and different, others said it was a kitschy waste of time. I feel like all the descriptions were accurate.

Without a doubt, the town of Roswell has embraced its alien legacy. Billboards for various businesses have pictures of cartoon aliens and claim prices to be “out of this world.” A single block of Main Street seems to hold all the main tourist attractions, including the International UFO Museum. Of course, the museum has no real artifacts to speak of, since such things would be, you know, evidence of extraterrestrial life. It does have an impressive collection of newspaper reports, photos, and first person accounts from the crash in 1947. The official word from the US Air Force is that the object that crashed was a weather balloon, which was all anyone thought for some time. It was years after the actual event that accounts began to spring up that called into question the government explanation for the crash. For one, many supposedly firsthand accounts claim to have seen strange, dead bodies inside the crashed object.

UFO TrashI am not inclined to believe an alien race that just happened to form in a remarkably similar humanoid shape developed spacefaring technology only to fly a single, tiny ship to our planet with zero followup. Nor am I of the opinion that the government is involved in a massive conspiracy to hide continued visits from such creatures. However in reading the accounts from Roswell, noting that they come from a wide variety of sources (from the backwoods farmer to the military nurse), it’s hard not to believe something strange went down in the desert in the 1940s. Personally the most logical explanation I’ve ever heard came out recently in a book by reporter Annie Jacobsen, whose anonymous source claims the crash was a soviet craft piloted by surgically-altered humans, possibly children. Her source also claims that the reason the military chose to hide this information was that our government, in response, decided to engage in similar experiments. Some of the source’s story is a bit much for me, but the basic principle seems sound: the crash was a result of military technology being developed in the Cold War. The event was kept secret because of ongoing experiments the government did not want known to the public. I imagine a similar explanation could be applied to any number of other, less notable events in the 20th century.

Crowd watching aliensNone of this changes the fact that the signature piece in the International UFO Museum is a full-size diorama depicting a flying saucer and four aliens. Every 10-15 minutes the saucer spins in mid-air, smoke appears, and the aliens move their heads back and forth while the sound of an incomprehensible, high-pitched, beep-based alien language is heard. Of course even taking all accounts at face value this is ludicrous, since everyone who claims to have seen the bodies agrees they were dead on or before impact. Still, the kids seemed to enjoy it.

I looked around outside the museum, but all the other businesses seemed to be interested only in selling me cheap things I don’t want. These cheap things have aliens on them, which is what distinguishes Roswell from other tourist areas, but my needs had not changed. I bought a shot glass for my collection and headed over to the visitor’s center for recommendations on how to spend the next couple hours. I was told that the “best restaurant in town” was Margarita’s, the Mexican and Chinese buffet. The food was good, and I could see looking at the other customers that this place was popular among locals, not tourists. It also seemed to be popular among hispanics, which is usually a good quality in a Mexican restaurant.

RocketAfter lunch I headed to the Roswell Museum & Art Center. They have a sizable exhibit on Robert Goddard, the American physicist and inventor credited with building the world’s first successful liquid-fuel rocket. I think I had heard of Goddard before, and probably seen his name adorning buildings or star systems. I loved the exhibit. In contrast to the UFO Museum where there are no actual artifacts and everything is speculation, the Goddard exhibit was filled with original pieces from his workshop and experiments. These were real remnants of our first journeys towards space. A year ago we used a hovering crane to land a robot on Mars, and here in front of me were the now antiquated tools used to start the process less than 90 years ago.

Line up

Some of the pieces seemed so strange, like they came out of a Dr. Seuss book on machines. Or a 1950s B-Movie. Or a medieval torture chamber. There were fragments from that first flight in 1926, and various trial versions of the rocket components. I watched a documentary showing footage from some of the first flights. It’s amazing to think how many hours of work had to go into getting such a small piece of metal to fly just a little ways up into the air. But it would have all been worth it just to have done it. We are so used to the concept of flight and even space travel, it’s hard to imagine what it was like to live in a world where 50 feet in the air might as well be the moon.

Outside the museum a couple stopped to talk with me after noticing my Washington license plate. They were traveling as well, and after I explained my trip they asked where I was headed next. I told them Carlsbad Caverns, which was apparently where they were headed as well. “Maybe we’ll see you there,” said the man. Maybe, I thought. It would seem that stranger things have happened.

A Dream Called Santa Fe

In case you aren’t already aware, if you’re in a musical set in New York City, you are probably wishing you were in Santa Fe.

For example: In Rent, the young artists talk about leaving behind their beautifully tragic bohemian lifestyles and opening a restaurant in Santa Fe. Rather than being in cold, harsh New York, they will escape to an easy existence in the sunshine. They won’t have to discuss philosophy and there will be no cockroaches. They will finally be able have a stable income, living the simple life.

In Newsies, 17-year-old Jack Kelly envisions a land of cowboys, full of fresh air. Far from the hustle and bustle of the newspaper-driven world he lives in, Santa Fe has freedom. He doesn’t need a real family, he’s got Santa Fe.

It was because of these stories that Santa Fe was originally on my must-see list. I had to know what was so great. But the more I talked to people who had been to New Mexico, the more I heard the cities weren’t much to write home about, and all very similar to boot. At one point I was specifically told I could skip Santa Fe and just visit Old Town Albuquerque to get the same feel. My host in Albuquerque, a New Mexican native, generally agreed with this assessment.


And I started to realize, all those people that sang about Santa Fe had never actually been to Santa Fe. All of those characters were born and raised in New York City and, spoiler alert, none of them go to Santa Fe in the end. The dream of Santa Fe is just that, a dream.

I’ve never been to Santa Fe. But if I were to make a guess, I’d say it’s probably very hot and dry. I’d say there are a lot of touristy shops, and some very old mission churches. I’d say it’s dusty, and if Albuquerque is any indication, they still have cockroaches.

But as long as you don’t go to Santa Fe, as long as it’s still your dream, then the show isn’t over. You still have a happy ending waiting for you, or at least a bittersweet but hopeful one. With that and a two hour detour in mind, I opted not to go to Santa Fe myself. This whole trip is a dream made into a reality, but perhaps some things are better left dreams.

Like Santa Fe.

The Land of Entrapment

My second experience with Couchsurfing was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I stayed with a young bluegrass musician and lifelong resident. His house is dirty, the toilet is broken, and just last week a tree fell in his backyard that nearly took out the entire sunporch. To hear Dustin talk about the saturation of awful punk and rock bands in town, one could easily assume he’s the sort of musician that can’t see past his own genre. However that assumption disappears when you’re with him in the car, and he cranks up the sound on Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger.”

Bead & FetishI went to a Mexican restaurant on Dustin’s recommendation, and wandered around Old Town for a while. Old Town is for tourists, and I’m starting to realize that every tourist destination is exactly the same. The same expensive native art, the same cheap T-shirts, the same fudge and candy shops. They even had a place that sells Christmas decorations year round. It amazes me how many places sell Christmas decorations year round in this country. I walked by one store as the door was opening and I immediately knew the smell. I’m still working on the perfect words to describe it, but it was instantly recognizable to me. I knew this was a tourist shop. I knew what kind of knickknacks I would find inside. I’ve smelled that shop so many times in life, ever since I was a little girl on vacation in Mexico. The smell is even more common than Christmas.

I returned to the house and Dustin’s friend Frank came over. The two jammed for awhile in the living room as I listened and watched. We had some split pea soup and waited for their friend Matt to call about fishing. The three of them were hoping to go fishing down by the river that night, and had invited me to go along with. Unfortunately the entire river area was closed due to the fire risk, a fact that Dustin lamented about several times over the course of the evening. The area by the river is his favorite place in the city, and the only place he really wanted me to see.

Frank FishingInstead, their friend Matt said he knew a place nearby that they could go, though Dustin felt that what Matt was describing sounded less like a river and more like a ditch. Eventually Matt called to say his girlfriend wouldn’t be back with the car in time, and Dustin, Frank, and I decided to go off to The Ditch on our own. We had few supplies, and ended up stopping at the local co-op to pick up some shrimp for bait. The Ditch was a sizable irrigation creek just past where the beautiful, grassy, closed river area ended. Frank explained that they weren’t used to fishing in this type of water, and didn’t really know what they were doing. Matt was the one who understood this type of fishing, but he wasn’t here. Still, they tried. Frank thought he got a nibble once, but nothing more. Much beer was had, and I sat back to watch. As the sun began to set we crossed over The Ditch and up the hill to see it. It was a gorgeous sunset.

SunsetWe drove back to the house with the radio up, and Dustin and Frank discussed the various positive attributes that make Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” the absolute perfect song. Some of Dustin’s friends (including the infamous Matt) were heading over to their favorite local bar to hear an all-female salsa band, and I tagged along. The place was packed, and we all drank and talked. The stage and most of the bar was outside, something that would be unheard of in Seattle for most of the year. Dustin says they love getting outside at night, and I can’t blame them. It’s beautiful and warm, and so far I have yet to encounter a single mosquito. I suppose that’s because there’s no standing water for them to lay eggs in.

I was getting tired, but Dustin wanted to hangout with his neighbor, a good friend he rarely gets to see. We went over to find the neighbor setting up his brand new mixing board. We went in the back room and turned on some tunes. When “Fly Like an Eagle” came on, the neighbor mentioned that the only thing that could make this moment more perfect would be if we had some pot. I agreed that it seemed like the setting in which a person should be high, and we’re going to end that story there.

Sky ShotAfter staying up so late the night before, Dustin was down for the count the following day. I did some more exploring in the city, but didn’t find much that interested me. I spent most of the day in coffee shops catching up on my writing. When I arrived back at the house Dustin had returned. He was at Matt’s house using his internet, and spent most of the day refusing Matt’s suggestions that they go places. Matt isn’t able to drive himself anywhere right now due to a DUI, and Dustin could see that all the suggestions of fun things to do were excuses to get a chauffeur. I joined Dustin to watch Slingblade, an old Billy Bob Thorton movie and one of Dustin’s favorites. The cat, Chicken, likes to catch moths and play with them. We assume she eventually eats them, but it’s hard to tell.

When I explain where I’ve been and where I’m going, Dustin tells me I’m missing all the best parts of New Mexico. He explains that I have to come back and visit northern New Mexico, just above Albuquerque. That’s where the real beauty is. He tells me New Mexico is nicknamed “The Land of Enchantment,” but locals call is “The Land of Entrapment” because they have so many transplants. Lots of people come to visit, and many never leave. I can’t imagine why. It must be something they keep up north.

Alone in Water Canyon

I asked the woman at the Magdalena Visitors Center if there were any campgrounds nearby. She said the closet one was Water Canyon. She mentioned that it was quite nice – a favorite among campers. It was only a few miles out of town, and in the direction I was already going. I had some time to kill so I asked her about the signs I saw for Kelly Ghost Town, the former mining boom town. She gave me a brochure and told me where to go, though under her breath she said, “there’s not much up there, but, if you want to go…”

I followed her directions for the turn off to Kelly Street, a long and slow road dotted with mobile homes. I turned left at the fork as instructed, and started up a single lane gravel road with neither signage nor signs of life. I drive extra slow on these types of roads. I encountered a few up in Oregon north of Crater Lake. They’re always long, always rough, and they never give any indication of how long you’ve been driving or how long you’ve left to go. They make me nervous. I started to wonder if anyone else ever went to see the Kelly Ghost Town. That’s when the Check Coolant light went on.

For those who have never been, New Mexico is a land without shade. Trees are few and far between. Clouds, when present, are mostly decorative. Which means despite my desires and better judgement, I had to stop and check my engine in the middle of the 95 degree sun.

Looking at the coolant tank, I confirmed it was at the top of the minimum amount line. My car likes to warn me of things in plenty of time, so there was still a fair amount left. I also knew that in a pinch a person could use water as coolant, and I had just refilled all my water stores at the VLA. I looked up and down the road, wondering if it was worth the risk. I had no idea how far the ghost town was. If it was only a little farther, it might be better to go there, let the engine cool a bit while I explored, and then head back into town. Or it could be a considerable distance, my coolant tank could be leaking fast, and I could find myself walking back to town alone on the road where heat was invented. I remembered how uninterested the woman in town was when I mentioned Kelly, and decided to turn back.

Before I left for this trip I had my car checked, and I mentioned that I suspected I might have a small coolant leak. They confirmed I was correct, and fixed it for a pretty penny. I wasn’t sure if this meant there was still a leak, or if driving in the desert sun for three days was just a bit much for my little Jetta. I called my dad to discuss possible courses of action, and he agreed that for now I should just fill up the tank and keep an eye on it. If I noticed it slipping away more I could take it in for service.

In town I found an auto repair shop and picked up some coolant. The woman behind the counter confirmed that Water Canyon, the suggested camping destination, was a lovely place. I filled up the coolant tank in the parking lot and ended up spilling some on myself. I went back in to ask if they had anywhere I could wash my hands, and she looked at me hesitantly. “The best I can offer you is some wipes. Our town is out of water.” Apparently water is being trucked into Magdalena and rationed, and as a result the restroom was closed. Such are the problems you don’t realize some people have.

2013-06-20 17.37.24I drove out to the turnoff for Water Canyon, noting the distance listed to the campground so at least I would know how far I’d gone if the paved road turned to gravel. I drove for awhile, past a couple houses nestled together, and reached the campground sign. It gave an arrow pointing off towards, as expected, a long gravel road. I’d already reached the distance listed on the highway sign, which meant I was back to guessing. I drove up slowly, eventually making it the the campsites. There was a board labeled “Information Center” that had some nice signs about littering and rabies, but no information about payment. I circled the campground to be sure. This place was free. It was also empty. There was no drinking water – not even the sound of a distant stream. I was two miles from the houses, six miles from the road, and 16 miles from a town with no water. I was completely alone in the desert.

I picked out the shadiest looking site, which happened to be right next to the entrance. I suppose I also wanted to know if anyone happened to join me. Solitude and reflection is one thing, but sitting at the picnic table swatting away flies I suddenly felt so isolated and vulnerable. It’s the same feeling I get on those gravel roads. The creeping realization that if something goes wrong, it will be fully up to me to determine and execute a solution. There is no one to help. And here I am, protected only by the faith that this big metal box I’m driving will keep functioning as usual, because if anything goes wrong I have neither the skills nor the tools to fix it.

I know that I am capable. I know that I am prepared. But part of being prepared for the worst is a deep fear and certainty that the worst will occur. That’s the kind of fear that sneaks up on you when you find yourself completely alone in the truly inaccurately named Water Canyon. That subtle panic that reminds you that characters in horror movies never suspect they’re in a horror movie until it’s too late. That useless knowledge that you could have a brain aneurysm at any moment, fall to the ground dead, and be slowly devoured by turkey vultures.

And so you get out your computer and start to write about how you feel. And you start to think about how nice it is to have a gentle breeze and a free place to stay for the night. About how the canyon really is lovely and the flies are dying down. About how you just climbed nine miles out of the Grand Canyon with the exact same supplies you have in your car, and a two or five mile walk to find help wouldn’t kill you if push came to shove.

Feeling a bit better about the situation, you get out a slice of bread and some Nutella. And just when you consider going over to the information bulletin board to learn about rabies, two Forest Service fire prevention trucks drive through the campground on patrol, and the six able-bodied men inside give you a nod. Even in Water Canyon, you are not alone.

The Very Large Array

Under FootOne of my favorite movies of all time is Contact. If you haven’t seen it, you should probably stop whatever you’re doing to watch it right now. Featured heavily in the movie is the Very Large Array in New Mexico, a series of giant radio telescopes used for astronomical observation. A normal telescope dish functions a bit like holding a funnel out in the rain – you can cover a larger area and still have everything funneled into a single spot so it can be useful. A radio telescope does this with radio waves, and the bigger the telescope the more you can “see” with it. Of course there are practical and physical limits to how big we can build a telescope dish. What’s cool is that if you make several dishes and spread them out, they act like one giant dish that is as big as the area between the individual dishes. That’s what is happening at the Very Large Array.

The VLA is very purposely out in the middle of nowhere. There are no pesky cities near the Plains of San Agustin to send out contaminating radio waves, and the high desert plateau is good for getting clear and consistent signals from space. I first saw the VLA from a distance, and thought I must have read the milage wrong before I left the gas station at a nearby town. I thought for sure I had several more miles to go. I did. The VLA has 27 antennas, each spanning 25 meters (82 feet) and weighing over 200 tons. I was still 20 miles away when I first saw the antennas. They are that huge, and (at times) that spread out.

Tourists Taking PicturesI watched the video and took the walking tour, and was once again reminded how much I love space. I even learned a few fun facts relating to the Movie Contact, including that the canyon featured in the movie as being close to the VLA is Canyon de Chelly, where I had been just a day before. On the walking tour I took a few pictures, including another in my series of photos of tourists taking pictures. While my camera resolution isn’t the best, there are two people in the photo to the left, and both are taking a picture.

I have an extensive shot glass collection at home, and knew I’d be adding a few more pieces from my trip. I try to limit myself to either shot glasses that are especially interesting, or glasses from places neither I nor anyone I know may ever visit again. I felt the VLA fit one if not both of these qualifications and picked up a shot glass from the gift shop. I went to the bathroom and watched as it tumbled out of my purse and smashed into a millions pieces right below the decorative tile art. I went back into the gift shop to buy another, and the woman graciously offered to trade a new one for the broken glass.

With the SunThere’s nothing terribly insightful to say about the VLA, though I’m surprised at how many people I’ve met a long the way who’ve never heard of it. I just can’t understand how anyone can get through life without being utterly fascinated by the cosmos.