Wednesday, August 29, 2012

White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns

White sand as far as the eye can see

Visitor Center
Sacramento Mountains

Las Cruces sunset

Carlsbad Caverns natural entrance

A view of the King's Palace

A view of green lake

Las Cruces and Carlsbad Caverns

Our penultimate stop in New Mexico was in the town of Las Cruces (The Crosses) a peculiar name for a town! The story behind the name - a battle between Apache  and Spanish explorers ended with just one survivor a young boy after which other Spanish explorers  placed a lot of crosses on the battle ground, then founded the town and called it Las Cruces. The center of town has been modernized, it looks very nice but was deserted when we went to Main Street on our first night to have dinner and attend a concert in a renovated old theatre; dinner was good but the concert was not! Admission was free and we were happy to see the really excellent renovation to the inside of the theatre.

The following day we took a long trip over the Sacramento mountains into the Tularosa Valley to visit White Sands National Monument a vast area 275sq. miles of dazzling white gypsum dunes. Gypsum is usually associated with sheetrock and other building products; it is not mined and commercially sold from White Sands as it is federal property. There’s an 8 mile road one can take into the dunes from the visitor center which has some nice exhibits and a video explaining how gypsum rock is melted by rain in the nearby mountains, forms into crystals in the shallow lakes on the valley floor, then when these dry up the crystals are broken up by the wind and ground down into fine sand as it tumbles along the dunes. White Sands Missile Range surrounds the National Monument, after WWII it was used to test rockets captured from Germany; to this day it is used for testing experimental weapons and space technology resulting in periodic closures on US 70 for about two hours each time. The Trinity Site which is located at the north end of the valley was where the first atomic bomb was test exploded.
From White Sands National Monument we went to Alamogordo on the summit of the San Andres mountains (on the east side of the Tularosa valley) to visit The Rocket and Space Museum which may have been worth the trip had we not already visited the Kennedy Space Center 3 times in all. While there we went to the IMAX and ended up keeping our eyes closed during most of the movie about an air race held in Reno, NV each year - far too much fast high flying footage! We drove back in a rain storm (much welcomed by the people) along the valley over the Sacramento Mountains which are high and spiky into The Mesilla Valley to Las Cruces.

Our final stop in New Mexico was Carlsbad to visit Carlsbad Caverns. We had heard of these caverns from many, many people and had very high expectations; these were surpassed so much so that we hiking up the 750ft trail and, down after lunch, then returned the following day to hike both down and up; oh our aching legs! The caverns are enormous and give one the feeling of Jonah in the whales belly; we were certainly in the earth’s belly. First off we signed up for a guided tour of The Kings Palace and in order to be on time we took the elevator down 750ft (30 stories) – took all of one minute! The Kings Palace tour takes one down to 830ft the tour through highly decorated scenic chambers with speleothems (a new word for us meaning cave formations/decorations) helictites You +1'd this publicly. Undo(a helictite is a speleothem found in limestone caves that changes its axis from the vertical at one or more stages during its growth), draperies, columns and soda straws, we had a young guide who answered all questions and was very informative. One of her stories told of two animals who have adapted to living in the cavern - the stick ant and the cricket; the ant lays its eggs in a pool and after a while they float to the surface, when the cricket drinks from the pool it ingests the eggs. The eggs incubate inside the cricket and when the time arrives for the eggs to hatch the cricket gets a very thirsty feeling and heads to a pool to drink, drinks, explodes and all the little ants crawl out – amazing, right? 
After the tour we walked up the steep 750ft mile long climb to the natural entrance, passing bats and starlings on the way; we had lunch and then walked back down to visit the Big Room which is a must. The Big Room is huge with enormous caverns at every turn, it contains a 200,000-ton boulder that fell from the cave ceiling thousands of years ago and hope it will be thousands more before it moves again; the hike is one mile around the Big Room which includes Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, Buddha and Temple of the Sun to name but a few of the formations that one passes, we kept looking in the many pools for dead crickets, we think we saw one!  Then we walked back up the long 750ft ascent mile again. Tom keeps thinking that Adele wants to kill him and collect her inheritance!

While waiting to view the Bat flight we had a snack. The Bat flight is a mass exodus at dusk of anywhere between 300,000 and 1,800,000 Mexican free tailed bats (very small bats) that fly from the cave first in an anticlockwise spiral and then head off into the night (travelling up to 60 miles round trip) to eat moths and other insects.  We sat in an amphitheater to watch the bats – after an hour they were still pouring out! This was almost as good as the visiting the caves and only happens during the summer as the bats migrate to Mexico for the winter.
As the temperature was over 90F the next day we went back to the caverns and hiked down, around the big room and then back up again; the temperature in the caverns is a constant 57F (14C). While underground we missed a big storm which only lasted 10 minutes but dumped an inch of rain accompanied by 75 mph winds.  Carlsbad Caverns is a very enjoyable place to visit.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Four Corners and more

Tribute to Navajo Code Talkers 

Window Rock 

Canyon De Chelly overlook 

Visiting 4 states all at once 

Indian Dancers in Cortez

Mural in Cortez 
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Mesa Verde

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Mesa Verde and the Four Corners

From Santa Fe we headed down the road to Albuquerque and we went into the historic downtown which was busy with tourists, however as it was a very hot day we just visited Mission San Felipe which is situated on the plaza. A gentleman at the church recommended a restaurant behind the church for lunch after which we walked along the little shops around the plaza and went back to the cool of RV. We parked at the Hard Rock Casino RV Park and ate and gambled all 3 nights we were there; we came out pretty even, won well the first night then lost all we won the next two nights.

Adele likes to read books relative to our travels and at the moment is listening to “A Voyage Long and Strange” by Tony Horwitz, which is the Spanish History of America; their quest for gold and the conversion of the Indians to Christianity. He brings to life the journeys of the Conquistadors - De Soto, Coronado, Don Diego de Vargas, General Santa Anna and others. We Irish believe that St Brendan the navigator reached America in the late 5th or early 6th century so we’re delighted that Horwitz wonders why the history of the US starts with the Anglo version of Plymouth Rock and fills in the gaps telling of how so many places are named after Spanish explorers who sailed up the east and west coasts and explored two thirds of the interior of the landmass of the US.
From Albuquerque we traveled west along Route 66 to Gallup a town almost on the Arizona border and surrounded by Indian Territory; having once again packed our bags we set off in “BlueBug” for Cortez, Colorado to visit nearby Mesa Verde. We made good time on the road and managed to obtain tickets for the 4pm tour of the Mesa Verde Cliff Palace. Having 3 hours to fill before taking the tour we adjourned to the cafĂ© in the visitor center where both of us had Navajo Tacos they were delicious, from there we went to the museum and watched a 20 minute video of how archeologists imagine Mesa Verde came to be, the peoples story, the building methods and some thoughts on why it was abandoned, then we took a quick look around the museum. The Spruce Tree Ruins are right beside the Visitors center, but down a steep incline so as we were up at over 8000ft we decided to “save our breath” for the Cliff Palace tour. For our tour we had a ranger with a keen sense of humor which made the tour very enjoyable and informative; we had to descend steps, hike along the side of the cliff, ascend more steps and climb 3 different sets of ladders to get back to the top of the cliff - that effort took a lot of people's breath away! That night we stayed at the Tomahawk Motel in Cortez a really nice budget motel run by a German couple. The following morning we are up good and early which for us is 8.30 am, we had breakfast at the Ute Cafe (called after the local mountains) where we could not finish the “Senior” breakfast (it must have been for Senior truck drivers!) We next drove SW to the Four Corners where the States of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet; there’s a plaque marking the spot which we stood on, with one leg in each state, Adele even crawled on it. Photos to come! We enjoyed the whole experience. 

From Four Corners we continued into Arizona to drive south to Canyon de Chelly - which is a mini Grand Canyon (only 900ft deep) with beautiful colored walls, working ranches on the Canyon floor all with wonderful views of great rock formations. At the visitors center Adele got into a dialog with a gentleman called John - a Navajo – who was building a traditional Hogan; which is a round house has one door, a chimney and no windows. The Hogan is built wholly of cedar logs - no pegs, dowels or nails - they had no metals. It is possible to take a guided horseback ride down into the canyon; we reckoned that if we got up on a horse we might not walk again for a few days; in fact we might not even be able to drive back to the RV or not be capable of getting out of the car when we arrived back at the RV, so we drove along the rim, getting out every so often to enjoy the views.
We then drove southeast to Window Rock which is one big hole in a rock! Window Rock is the Capital of the Navajo Nation where they also have a lovely memorial tribute to the WW 11 Navajo Code Talkers; as the Navajo language was not a written language the Japanese could not break the code, places like Iwo Jima might never have been captured except for the Code Talkers. It was not until a short few years ago that their contribution to victory in 1945 was acknowledged; the fear during the Cold War was that they might be needed again. In recent years all Code Talkers were awarded the Congressional Silver Medal, sadly quite a number of them were awarded posthumously. What a great journey! Next day we just hung around and caught up with friends and family.

For our next trip we drove south from Gallup to the Pueblo of Zuni. Zuni is the Capital of the Zuni tribe who have lived in the area over thousands of years. The pueblo consists of adobe building only, not a trailer to be seen. Most natives walked to wherever they were going as it was quicker, we understood why when having turned off the main road we found ourselves going round in circles. There were bee hive ovens outside every house and several had bread baking in them sourdough or wheat are the choices. The visitor center had memorabilia from the Spanish explorers both religious and armor. From Zuni we drove to El Morro (Spanish for a bluff) which has a water hole which never runs dry; this was a stopping point for the Native Peoples, Spanish Governors, Spanish and later Explorers many of whom marked their passage with inscriptions on the wall of the bluff, the earliest cannot be dated but many are from the late 1500’s. Our final stop was at the Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano "The Land of Fire and Ice" situated on the Continental Divide. The ice cave is made from a hollow lava tube and it was cold in there, the temperature never rises above 31F (0C) - the floor of the cave is ice 20ft deep. The Indian tribes were known to use it as an ice box. The road we drove to and fro on was an old trading route as far as Arizona; however lack of water beyond New Mexico prevented explorers from travelling to California
Once again we were literally on Route 66 which is where our RV Park was located in Gallup. The town is known for many things; it’s Murals which tell the story of the development of the town - first as a railroad town (which it still is), then Route 66 coming through the town and the many movies made around Gallup. Right on Route 66 there’s a wonderful old hotel called El Rancho Hotel the lobby of which is furnished in south western style with chairs made from the horns of steers, Indians rugs, Pottery and a big fire place. Another feature is a mural telling the story of the Spanish explorers who passed through the area. The piece de resistance has to be the portrait gallery of movie starts all along the balcony including Ronald Reagan. We watched a great show of Indian dancing on the patio outside the Hotel at 5pm. We really enjoyed our visit to Gallup and are delighted we decided to travel this way.  Oh! By the way - us pale faces were very much in the minority in the areas we visited; we were, after all right in the middle of Indian Territory.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

A viewing stop along the highway 

Potential City Block 

View from a cave dwelling door - see ruins below  
The door  
Ancient art on the wall of a cave dwelling

Can't even begin to pronounce the name on the bridge
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Sante Fe, New Mexico

Basilica of St Francis

Adobe building 

A very important map 

The spiral staircase - no nails used  

Art in the State Capitol Building

Art outside studio on Canyon Road 

Adobe Church at sunset 
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Santa Fe, New Mexico

The license plate slogan for New Mexico is “Land of Enchantment” and for us it has lived up to this; it is so different from the neighboring states that it has enchanted us. New Mexico was the 47th State to join the Union in 1912 and # 43 on our list of states visited since October 2010. Santa Fe was our first stop; a very old town originally founded by the Spanish which is very evident in that the first thing one notices about Santa Fe is the low adobe buildings and how well they blend into the surrounding dessert. One of the oldest buildings is the Palace of Governors on the plaza in the center of the town; it is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the US, now a museum with lots of religious artifacts and furniture from Spain - well worth a visit. On the patio outside the palace Native Indians sell their wares, mostly jewelry.

As we were driving from Colorado we noticed the Rockies getting lower then all of a sudden we spotted a range of very large mountains rising up to the east; we discovered them to be the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at the southern end of the Rockies and 12,000ft high; Santa Fe is in the foothills at 7,000ft. Adapting to the thinner air at this elevation takes a day or two most notably when going up steps.
Proudly declaring themselves to be of direct Spanish descent the traditional religion of the people is Catholic. Ironically, their first Bishop was French at it was he who had the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi built just around the corner from the Palace of Governors; the Basilica is a beautiful Romanesque building - he obviously did not appreciate the adobe style of building. The Basilica had a big renovation in 2008 and looks magnificent. Not far away is another church built in the Gothic style which was the convent chapel of the Loretto Sisters and is now a museum; its claim to fame is a 360 degree spiral staircase to the choir loft which was built with no nails or screws. The Chapel/Museum is now an integral part of the Inn and Spa at Loretto. The shop attached to the chapel/museum had an array of religious souvenirs the likes of which we had never seen before, not even in Jerusalem.

The town is a shopper’s paradise and a great place to visit; we have never seen so much art and jewelry for sale in any other town, every shop has art and jewelry as do the galleries around the Plaza. The very large galleries are on Canyon Road which is a short walk from the center; the galleries here have very large bronze, wood and marble pieces on display that one usually associates with public places. 
Santa Fe is the State Capitol and has a beautiful circular Capitol building which from the air it looks like the Zia - the emblem on the state flag (the sun at the center with rays shining out to the north, south, east and west) - an old Indian symbol from the days of sun worshipping. The State House seats 281 and the State Senate seats 206 in very plush seating. House and Senate members receive no annual pay and no health care either – a per diem and travel expenses only. A great model for Washington to embrace? Would solve a lot of problems!

Being so close to Los Alamos we just had to go there and visit the Bradbury Museum where we learned quite a lot about the Atom and the Hydrogen Bombs and how they came to fruition. Los Alamos was specifically selected as the research because it is so remote; literally in the middle of nowhere and where any accident would not be too catastrophic for the wider community. Today it’s a big town spread out along the top of Mesa topped mountains where 9 out of 10 people work in some manner for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The museum was very informative and well laid out it provides a timeline from site selection, construction, key appointments, research and testing of the various components used in the bombs. A little scary when one things what may have been, we have to be thankful to world leaders since WW11 that they did not lead us into war during our lifetime.  Replicas of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” which were dropped on Japan are on display with a narrative on how risky the mission was. The fusion bit was a bit beyond us; Adele does however understand the car engine! We can only wonder at the great minds who worked there and how dangerous it all was. Admission to the museum which has five galleries – History, Defense, Research, TechLab and Virtual Exhibits is free. Research at Los Alamos National Laboratory continues to be crucial to many facets of the US economy.
We then took a trip back in time to Bandelier National Monument, a rugged but beautiful canyon and mesa country where evidence of a human presence exists that goes back over 11,000 years; with Petroglyphs, dwellings carved into the soft rock cliffs and still standing masonry walls that pay tribute to the early days of a culture that still survives in the surrounding communities. A bad fire in the Spring caused a lot of damage so much so that “flash flood” conditions exist leading to warnings that if it rained on our hike to the caves/dwellings (2.2 miles) we were to immediately seek higher ground; to prove the point a video of a flash flood passing the visitors center earlier in this year was playing in a continuous loop. Once again we were allowed to climb up ladders to the dwellings; all the ceilings were burned black seemingly to harden the ceiling and stop it from falling down on the inhabitants, this was a big pueblo with hundreds of rooms. Adele read a book about an author who recently lived in dwelling like these where neighbors are all interconnected no need for climbing ladders to visit, however one neighbor put sheetrock in a doorway, imagine how disappointed the neighbors were.

Our RV Park was on Historical Route 66 12 miles out of town, most days we travelled into Santa Fe - thankfully the road is paved otherwise we would have made ruts along this section of Route 66. Santa Fe is a very enjoyable town to visit where there’s a lot to do in and around the area.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Colorado Springs

Does this sign mean only Protestants are going to Heaven?

 The Air Force Acedamy Cadet Chapel, Colorado Springs

The train to the top of Pikes Peak 

Look who Adele found at the top of Pikes Peak! 

Tom was brave enough to go to the edge of Pikes Peak 

It was cold up there 39F (4C) 

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

Cliff Dwellings near Manitou

A view from the balcony of the Broadmoar Hotel 

One of the many public areas in the Broadmoar Hotel 
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Colorado Springs

We arrived in Colorado Springs on August 1st so just one more month on the road before we take a break and head to Ireland for a wedding and then England to see our English Grandchildren. Only 60 miles south of Denver Colorado Springs is a big town that thrives on tourism. As the name suggests this is another spring town; we are now becoming quite blasĂ© about hot springs as there seems to no shortage of hot springs in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and now Colorado.  At an even higher elevation than Denver, we had a lovely site on the side of a hill overlooking Old Colorado City and downtown Colorado Springs. Once we had our selves hooked up we drove up to the US Air Force Academy just north of the city; it is beautifully laid out and as we walk to the Chapel we can see and hear this year’s recruits being put through their exercises on the parade grounds. The Chapel is the focal point and the main attraction as it is an architectural wonder; we were highly amused by a notice at the foot of the steps to the main door – “Protestants upstairs, Catholics, Jews and Buddhist down stairs” and although each had their own place of worship we wondered about the upstairs/downstairs. A docent gave a group of us the history of the Academy and the Chapel. The Protestant chapel is nothing short of magnificent with beautifully stained glass windows; the Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist places of worship are nice nothing like the majesty of upstairs. As we exit the Chapel the rain starts to bucket down, we spent some time in the visitor center and on our way out of the Academy we stopped to view the sports facilities; beautifully laid out and manicured as are all the grounds.

Next day we headed for the mountains and Pikes Peak which is the 3rd highest peak in Colorado standing 14,115ft above sea level. Peaks Cog railway climbs 6,715 vertical feet to the summit from the little town of Manitou Springs, a 9 mile trip. Usually one must have a reservation but we chanced it and managed to get seats on the 11.30am train and had a very nice family sitting beside us. The journey to the top takes an hour and a half journey, most of it on a single rail which means that there’s a train every two hours; so we were lucky! It is very cold at the top of Pikes Peak so we wrapped up well and enjoyed the 40 minutes we were allowed up there. There’s a tradition of eating doughnuts at the summit (something to do with cooking at that elevation) Tom was willing to line up so that we would not break with tradition. We met a man scattering the ashes of a loved one, while another man appeared as though he was being sworn in to one of the armed services - everyone had their own agenda. The views are wonderful and we could see five states in all. The hour and a half journey down went very quickly. We drove down to Manitou Springs for dinner in a French restaurant; had stuffed crepes, shared a slice of German chocolate cake and took half of it home for another night.
The following day we hiked in the Garden of the Gods which we think is the end of the line of the large red rocks that run from Denver to Colorado Springs. The shapes and sizes of the rocks in the Garden of the Gods are magnificent and there’s a very good visitor center which has the skull of a Theiorphytalia a prehistoric animal found in the garden and nowhere else. From there we went on to the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, authentic Anasazi dwellings where we were able to climb ladders to enter the dwellings and check out the size of the rooms. In the museum they had a video of three generations of Indians dancing; they moved so fast it was unbelievable – we were fascinated by their feathered costumes - eagle’s costumes mostly. On the way back we stopped in Old Town Colorado, it was Art Gallery night when all the galleries served cheese and wine, Adele was very frustrated as due to an allergic reaction to wine she cannot really enjoy occasions like these.

Our next destination was Santa Fee and we traveled the 300+ miles the next day – one observation we’ve made is there’s not much truck traffic on the north to south highways yet east to west is very busy.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Denver visiting Sue and Bill

At Red Rock Amphitheatre

A view from the top down to the stage - note athletes training

At the base of Buffalo Bill's statue in Golden

Karyn, Ben, Ryan and Meghan 

Adele hankering after a much taller man!

One of the many beautiful hotels in Vail

Believe it or not, this car is made from Lego!
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