Our time here at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park in Alamogordo, New Mexico is flying by. As I write this, we are just over the halfway mark of the ten weeks we are here serving as camphosts. There is one other couple here sharing the daily assignments with us in this 44-site campground. And for those inquiring minds out there who remember reading about our summer camphosting on the Cape, thankfully, cleaning bathrooms is NOT one of our responsibilities here!
The two of us women cover most of the daily shifts in the visitor’s center. The visitor’s center is a great place to learn about the history of the area which was home most recently to the Mescalero Apache. They were moved off the land by the U.S. Cavalry beginning in 1863 and eventually completely removed by 1883. By the 1880s the Basin (this area is referred to as the Tularosa Basin) ranchers from Texas began moving in to claim the land and graze their cattle on the open land where grasses were rumored to be belly high on a horse.
The park sits at the opening of Dog Canyon, the only source of reliable water to this part of the Basin. The visitor’s center has interesting displays highlighting the first settler here, Francois Rochas who came from France in the 1880s. His eventual neighbor in the Basin was Oliver Lee who came with his half-brother from Texas in 1885 looking to ranch. Rochas and Lee appeared to have worked out some agreement over access to the water which is a valuable commodity in the Basin. The term “basin” is a geological term referring to a geographic area where the water which flows in has no outlet to the ocean. Think of it as a giant bathtub with no drain and that’s what happens here in the Tularosa.
Rochas and Lee eventually collaborated on a canal that directed water from Dog Canyon, across Rochas’ land, and one mile away to where Oliver Lee was building his adobe house and ranch. By 1893, the ranch was established and eventually Lee got married and he and wife raised six of their eight children in the house. They lived in the ranch house until 1907 and the colorful legends of Lee continue to be told in the area.
Peter takes on the host chores around the campground like cleaning up campsites, emptying trash, cleaning the walkways around the visitors center and cleaning out the group camp site. On the four days that we are on duty, Peter and I get to share the end of day task of checking all camper registrations in the camp sites which often includes great conversations with campers. In addition, Peter has been assigned to giving one of the three weekly tours of the historic adobe ranch house, which he really loves.
Because of all the interactions we each have with the campers/guests, we have concluded that New Mexico has a very different feel when it comes to camping. The people who come here, for the most part, are looking for a more solitary and quiet experience and to witness the legendary sunsets for which the park is deservedly well known. The campground is 12 miles south of Alamogordo, a city of about 30,000 and about 20 miles from White Sands National Monument, a stunning and completely unique gypsum wonderland.
The campground sits at the foot of the magnificent Sacramento Mountains at the mouth of Dog Canyon in the Chihuahuan desert. The desert here gets about 10 inches of rain a year (it actually rained today and we had thunder and lighting) and the vegetation includes lots of prickly pear, ocotillo, and cholla cactus and mesquite and creosote bushes, which are blooming now. While the hummingbirds have recently left, we have lots of other birds, including a great horned owl whose pre-dawn call is positively mesmerizing. There are all kinds of desert creatures here including the ones we’ve seen: diamondback rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and javelinas. I had an unpleasant encounter with a particular kind of black ant that lives here. Its bite is extremely painful and very slow to heal. However, I remain undeterred in my feelings about New Mexico.
Long ago, this place won over our hearts and the time here has merely reinforced our feelings. We have done a bit of exploring including a trip to White Sands National Monument. Peter and I were here once before with my son and we think it was close to 30 years ago. White Sands is a remarkable place that started forming only 10,000 years ago from gypsum that washes down out of the mountains that frame the Basin. The place is very dynamic and continues to create more sand each year. The dunes are constantly moving eastward under the force of the wind up to 10′ at a time. So, White Sands never looks the same two years in a row.
And speaking of the wind, sand storms do spring up quickly in the Basin. Coming back from town one afternoon, the sky turned an eery yellow, the winds switched, and soon we were in the midst of a pretty intense dust storm which slowed traffic down to a stop. Peter said it was kind of like driving in a snowstorm, but the gritty sand gets blown into any small opening, like a truck window left opened just a crack.
In spite of the occasional deviation from sun and warmth, the park is known for its spectacular sunsets and no matter how many times I have attempted to photograph them, nothing comes close. No one has been able to tell me why the sunsets are so amazing here. One theory is that because of the influence of the vast gypsum sand field, the particulates in the air bend the light in breathtaking ways. In any case, here’s one peak at what the show looked like one night.
Peter and Liz are spending ten weeks in New Mexico, living in their Airstream and gathering memories and stories as their pilgrimage continues.