Saturday, August 21, 2010

From Smokey the Grave to the VLA on New Mexico's Byways

Smokey the Bear – he was a real bear. Who knew? He's dead now. I saw his grave. It was big.

Smokey the Bear, real life version, apparently was found after his cartoon counterpart was created. The bear itself came from Disney not wanting to allow the United States full access to Bambi. Bambi was the first cartoon animal used to help stop the spread of forest fires, but as the license was soon going to expire people got underway creating a new creature. Smokey was the answer – unlike squirrels it was far more realistic that a bear could put out a forest fire with his shovel and well worn dungarees all by himself.

A few years later a bear cub was found, having been separated from its mother after a fire. The bear was nursed back to health, and named Smokey. He was well loved. However, as all living things do, the bear died. He was given a full funeral and now has been laid to rest in a small town you've probably never heard of, and are not likely to ever visit.

Cutting a swath through New Mexico, this day would take us through many previously un-thought-of sites. Places we would have made note to visit if only we knew they existed. Next up would be the New Mexico lava flows. While I knew that they would be long since ended, turned from red hot liquid to hard black stone, I still wanted to see something – it seems unfair to name a place The Valley of Fire and not deliver on the promise.

The area was beautiful and trails were laid out for hikers. A five dollar fee deposited into a blind box paid through the honour system allows one the use of a camp site. Had we known, we may have made this the inexpensive end of our days travels, rather than one of the earliest beats.

A mile or thirty down the highway rested a small pull off, situated in a scenic area. Most pull offs will claim to be scenic, but fail in that regard. This one? It delivered. Desert plants, tiny lizards, and places to clamber around, in search of the perfect picture. All the while listening for the telltale rattle indicating that you will need to stand perfectly still for the next few hours, under the blinding sun, or die – die a terrible, terrible, death. Snakes are no ones friends – still, I managed to bury my bear hating hatchet for the day, I can forgive snakes their desire to see me no longer in the land of the living as well – but just for now. Just until I leave New Mexico, then it's back to the game.

Passing through the town of Lincoln was like stepping backwards in time. It seemed as if every building had a historic marker out in front of it. On the hills Spanish crosses marked the highest points, reminding me of Peru. I wondered if these were erected for similar reasons – but if that was so, it would mean a class of people worshiping the earth before the spread of Christianity. Whenever I move through a town of this size, of this historical forgotten importance, it strikes me that people live here. People live their daily lives going about their business. I don't know where they get their food, where they could work, or where they would go to school, but they do.

Much like some countries may seem theme parks for the wandering eyes of the traveller, in a country this size cities and towns take on similar roles.

But then we were gone.

Through hundreds of miles of nothing, loving every moment of it – New Mexico still offering unparalleled driving experiences – we travelled. An unassuming byway poked off of our current unassuming byway, and poised to drive on by, Katherine looked up from the map giving reason to make the turn.

It seems as if just down this road, once we'd turned and rumbled over a cattle gate, we would be headed to an American military missile site. Now, one might wonder just why one would go down a small road to a missile range, and I will tell you – this is a very historical site. It may be true that we didn't get all the way, fences and patrol cars blocking out path, encouraging a U-Turn after some pictures were taken – but we got close enough to see. This was the site of the very first atomic bomb detonation. Open two days a year people can get an up close and personal look at the area, but this was not one of those days. We satisfied ourselves with a peak from beyond the fence.

Having, now, experienced yet another piece of the historical tapestry which led to the end of the second world war, and a great and terrifying cold war – not to mention the killer track 99 red balloons – I wondered what it might have been like to have seen that blast all those years ago. I also wondered just how many people were exposed to the terrible effects of radiation out of sheer ignorance.

Off into the day's heat we reached the town of Socorro checked out their mission, filled up on gas, and then headed for our next destination. The VLA.

The VLA is the Very Large Array. Think of it as 27 satellite dishes all pointed... somewhere, listening, viewing, being an Array – a very large one. If you've seen Contact, you've seen it. If we discover Aliens, pop culture has told me this is how it will happen. Two hundred miles we drove to see this beast. Work that out into gas and the price is more than I would like to admit – but it was a site to see. A sight to see. One that I do not think can be fully appreciated until it has been walked around. A free self guided tour waits for all those willing to make the trip – and a movie explains that with the VLA images can be gathered just as good as with an optical lens. Which begs the question why not just use that – but I'm sure there are very sciencey reasons.

The rain started to fall just as we ended our tour, and began our way onward.

Having finished the American History book Katherine began to read Michael Cheriton's Timeline. It takes place in New Mexico, and we were faced with a decision – drive the sketchy back roads to the towns mentioned in the novel, or take the main roads to Albuquerque. We both decided the first option would be the most fun – but as the rain poured down, it was, unfortunately, thought better of. We booth chose to head the safe route.

Which was probably for the best, as no gas stations were marked for 100 miles, and we had enough left to go 105 miles in the best conditions. It could have been scary in the rain, in the dark, on streets void of traffic. Still – we'll never know what could have happened there.

Never the less, we made it to Albuquerque safe and sound, with a brand new full tank of gas. And we found an acceptable place to sleep there too. Why stop here of all places though? I assure you it had nothing to do with all those wrong turns Bugs Bunny used to make.

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