Camphosting in New Mexico

Early morning light on the alluvial fan of the Sacramento Mountains creates dramatic shadows highlighting the desert greenery.

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.

Dog Canyon at sunrise is spectacular.

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.

Here’s our guy turning the sign around so campers know who’s in the field this day.

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.

Here is Peter walking on the dunes which stretch before him as he does is best “Lawrence of Arabia” impersonation.

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.

Our first experience of a dust storm on White Sands Boulevard in downtown Alamogordo.

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. 

 

 

A place that forever changed the world.

Lining up at 6:45 in the morning at the Tularosa High School for the 60 mile caravan, under military escort, to the Trinity Site.

There are only two days a year that Trinity Site in New Mexico  is open to the public and we were able to be there for one of them, October 5.  We had just arrived in the Alamogordo area for our volunteer gig at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park and were told about the bi-annual open house.  After investigating the details, we asked for the day off, and decided to go.  It was a powerful experience and we were both deeply moved by it.  This blog chronicles our experience. Continue reading

First time camphosts in Sandwich, Massachusetts.

Our pet flamingos love our beautiful campsite here at Shawme Crowell State Forest in Sandwich, MA.

As many of you know, our life on the road has been largely unscripted. We tend to get an idea, do some research, talk to other full-timers, try something new, evaluate it, determine what we have learned and what we might want to do with the information, and then move on.

 

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Estero, Florida in the rear-view mirror.

This is Bonita Beach and our piece of heaven in Florida.

One of the most mysterious effects of being in one place for a long time is how time folds in on itself and neatly puts itself away.  We’ve been in Estero, Florida for nearly five months and in that time, Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone, we witnessed what south-Florida calls the seasons – winter (temperatures in the high 40s);  spring (temperatures in the mid-70s); and currently, summer (temperatures in the mid-80s).  We pulled together a wedding reception for two of our fellow volunteers here at the park, complete with a cake and champagne toasts.  We made a quick trip to the deep and frigid north for a wonderful family weekend, we celebrated a reunion dinner with Triangle X friends who winter here in Florida, met up with people we met on the road in Ann Arbor, and enjoyed a reunion with our first Airstream friends who met in the panhandle of Florida in 2015.  We continue to delight in the company of our Koreshan State Park fellow volunteers following our official fourth anniversary living full time on the road.

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Two snowbirds roost in south Florida.

This is our campsite, decorated with Christmas lights and pots of chrysanthemums.  We are facing east and the morning light is lovely.

Returning to Koreshan State Park in Estero, Florida on November 2 felt like a homecoming.  There was much that has changed since we left the park in April (more on that later) but somehow time compresses itself in the familiar and it seems like merely weeks since we were last here.

First, news about where we are living.  Our new site this year in the Volunteer Village is our favorite of all three years here.  We are up against the fence which means we are closest to the very busy Tamiami Trail but the huge advantage is we have a really lovely “front yard”, a place to securely store our bicycles and no neighbors on our front door side.  Plus, we are removed from the center of the very busy Village, the bathhouse, and the Rec Hall.  The morning sun streams in the kitchen windows and the afternoon sun hits the back of T2, keeping things much cooler than last year when we faced straight into the afternoon sun.  We are next door to some friends from last year who are easy to be around.  It’s all good.

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Amana, Nauvoo and then Paris (Tennessee)

Our lucky charm, handmade with love by a dear friend, continues to grace T2.

Life on the road is full of unexpected occurrences.  There are the happy ones, like discovering the creamiest and richest peanut butter ice cream we’ve ever had (more on that later), or the warm hospitality of strangers (we’ll cover this below), to the stamina-building mechanical breakdowns like the one we experienced upon pulling into Paris, Tennessee.  Yes, gentle readers, we had an “event” and we continue to see how blessed we are.

 

 

 

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Long gazing through Wyoming.

Cheyenne Mountain State Park was a welcoming and restful stop in Colorado Springs.

The morning of September 6 broke hard, clear, and cold as we headed north from Colorado Springs on the final leg of our trip to Wyoming.  Pikes Peak was dusted in snow from a brief encounter with winter, a prelude of things  to come.  At Fort Collins, we were at 5,000′ elevation but our ascent would continue as we headed north.  As I learned from John McPhee’s Rising from the Plains, southeast Wyoming is a tipping point of geological wonder, higher in elevation than the plains of Colorado to the immediate south and higher than the northern part of Wyoming. Continue reading

Enchanting New Mexico

We have had a love affair with New Mexico since we first came here thirty years ago, and crossing the border this time felt just as remarkable.  There were specific things we had on our itinerary and first was a trip to the town of Las Vegas, in the northeastern corner of the state where we were in search of a very special building.

The original “Big Cowgirl”oil painting  lived in our home in Keene for many years.

The story is that years ago, in our life back in New Hampshire, we had purchased a large oil painting by a Massachusetts realist painter named Randall Deihl.  For a decade, “Big Cowgirl” hung on the wall of our high-ceilinged condominium in Keene, reminding us of all things about the west that we loved.  There were lots of stories about the painting that had developed over time, but what we did know is that it was painted when the artist lived in Santa Fe in the 1990s, because he was inspired by a mural on a building in Las Vegas, New Mexico and we were on a quest to see if we could locate it. Continue reading

Adventures in paradise and various utopias. Part 1.

A visit to our friend Mark’s tiki bar which he constructed completely of repurposed materials. Wonderful!

On Sunday, we spent a glorious, lazy summer day with our friend Mark at his tiki bar, The Sunset Grill, on the shore of a lovely little lake in Brown County, Indiana.  The tiki bar is dedicated to a sense of escape from the ordinary and humdrum into a paradise that those of us of a certain age have populated with common, even if distinct, memories.  The tiki bars of our younger days often included a soundtrack of Jimmy Buffet songs, and a kitschy decor of fishnets and buoys and mermaids and drinks with paper parasols.  The paradise of the tiki bar is unrelated to anything historically accurate and more like an island nirvana straight out of the imagination. Continue reading

The end of the road.

I am an incurable romantic and quite capable of being brought to tears by the most improbable of situations.  Today was one of those days where I have been reduced to a melancholy and teary reflection based on a decision that had to be made.  Today,  I parted company with Big Red, my well traveled, reliable suitcase.  Big Red was huge and clunky compared to the standards of today’s suitcases with over 6,400 cubic inches of carrying space.  His wheels were worn out, his retractable handle long ago succumbed to the indignity of duct tape and his zipper, twice replaced, had seen better days.   His ballistic nylon fabric, once deep red, had faded and he had actually suffered a mysterious burn somewhere and his sides were deeply worn along the edges.  After one long flight, he limped off the baggage carousel with a puncture and tear caused by some errant fork lift.  It couldn’t be repaired. Continue reading