Sunday, September 14, 2008

Back to the Mountains and Green Chiles

It is strange when I think about it-- I lived my first 18 years in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and yet for 47 years, I have never lived there. Oh, I guess you could count the three months after my first year at college, but never again after that except to visit for a week or two from time to time.

My younger son says I can't be so attached to a place, that it must be my childhood and memories of my parents that affects me so strongly. And those are factors, all right, but no. It really is the place, the mountains, the smell of it after a rain.

So I drove west from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, as I have so many times before, on Interstate 10, turning north at Big Spring to La Mesa, then Seminole, then Hobbs, north again to Lovington, then west through Artesia, and then through the still sparsely populated land to the mountains, where I caught a short downpour as I entered the mountains, then around through Mayhill and finally Cloudcroft. The windows were down, the better to enjoy the chill air and smell the pines.

By 6 p.m., even on a weekday in September, the motels in Cloudcroft were pretty much chock-full. I found one place with two cabins left to rent--the owner/manager had left a phone number to call and a list of three cabins, with the numbers of each and instructions to erase the one you took and call, and they would be over to take care of the paperwork and payment. My eyebrows went up at that, but it apparently works well enough. One cabin number had been erased, so it was taken. I didn't need a two-bedroom cabin or two double beds, so I called ahead to Alamogordo to see if Motel 6, where I had a reservation for Friday and Saturday, could also accomodate me on Thursday. They could, and would hold the room. So I began the steep, steep grade down the mountain and through the tunnel in third gear. Almost slow enough to be spotted as a Texan after my lack of practice for a number of years. The road falls away into a gorge on the left for several miles, then the right, and then the left again. Two lane. It seemed so modern when it was finished in my childhood--it had been a winding dirt road. I remember when they blasted the rock to make the tunnel, they blasted into a hollow full of 200 or more rattlesnakes, which slowed down excavation for a day or two while they were cleared out....and so down the 16 miles to the valley below.

And I remember when I hurt my hand while staying with my best friend at their Cloudcroft summer home, and how her father, in his Lincoln, whipped down the mountain at 70 miles an hour to land me at the emergency room in something like 16 or 17 minutes--he wasn't speeding because my hand was hurt; that was the way he always drove.

So I picked my way down at a more sedate pace and realized that the town has grown out even beyond the highway. The highway through town has been gentrified, with blooming desert willows every 30 yards or so in the median, fresh clean shops on both sides. Nice improvement. Huh. There's an Appleby's and Chili's there now. Except for Tularosa on the north end of the Tularosa Basin, most cities are 70 miles or more away.

The next day, I drove around to look at "my mountains" from every angle possible. I would stop on the sides of the roads to drink my fill, and inevitably, someone would come along and start to stop and get out, in case I had car trouble. (Sigh) They were so NICE. I couldn't walk around far to explore because my knee was really grumbling after more than 600 miles in the car the day before. But I broke off some greasewood and sniffed, and I stopped at the pistachio farm for pistachios dipped in red chile, green chile, lemon lime and garlic. GRUNT. and they are starting to spell the sauce "chili" rather than "chile." (dadgum newcomers)

But when I went to breakfast and asked for huevos rancheros, the waitress asked, "green or red?" And when I went out for enchiladas that evening, they were New Mexico style, a stack dipped in chili sauce (I chose red) with onions and cheese between the corn tortillas and a fried egg on top. And mildly hot (sadly calmed down from the old fire-breathing heat of yore, but still, a bit of a bite.) And at another breakfast, fluffy eggs scrambled with green chiles and the most wonderful homemade salsa, again with a bite. No meat unless asked for, and no piles of shredded cheese, just salsa. I was a truly happy camper.

Summer is the rainy season there. Alamogordo and the whole region had been in varying degrees of drought for about a decade. No rain fell in Alamogordo between Thanksgiving and the end of June.Nada. Zilch. Not even one inch. Then Dolly came up from El Paso. Tropical depression Dolly I should say, hundreds of miles from landfall. Heavy flooding in Alamogordo, to be expected, but--heavy flooding in Ruidosa? (which means noisy water in Apache, I believe. Alamogordo means fat cottonwood in Spanish, and indeed there were stands of them when the railroad established the town in 1898.) Ruidosa is high in the mountains, but the creek flooded to the extent large boulders tumbled in the water, bridges were washed out, fences were destroyed and homes flooded. The quarterhorse race track there had part of the track washed out. Mind boggling. But after, the familiar daily afternoon rains, continuing the greening process throughout the summer.

Much erosion in the valley from flash floods trying to find somewhere to go. But oh, beautiful, everything green, even the desert foothills covered with what appeared from a distance to be green fuzz. People busy, going about their business, oblivious to the awesome mountains there each time they raised their eyes. Awesome mountains ALWAYS there, every day. And I was just there for a few days to soak it up. Alamogordo remains the only town I personally know of that has changed all its street lights to a low, golden glow that doesn't interfere with the observatory at Sac Peak 29 miles away as the crow flies--you can see it from town.

I dawdled through the mountains on the way back. The aspens were pale green, just beginning the yellow gold of later in the fall. Wildflowers were blooming. Even a campfire in one of the campgrounds, strictly forbidden during the preceding drought. I found my daughter-in-law's requested cherry cider, and an early apple stand where I loaded up on Jonathans,still a little green-tasting and so juicy each bite dripped juice down my chin. Also Winesaps and Golden Delicious, the latter smelling and tasting like ripe pears when tree-ripened.

Highway 82 goes straight through downtown Artesia, which has a series of larger than life statues of a frontier woman with two laughing children, a pot-bellied possible wildcatter (oilman) and lanky cowboy standing at a tall table cussing or discussing, a cowboy on horseback chasing a wily steer. And others. Hobbs is way slickered up with block after block of high end motels and hotels going in. Reason--a casino has been established there. Elsewhere,farm after farm of fluorishing pecan groves.

To be fair, Artesia, Lovington and Hobbs, clear to Seminole, Texas, are in oil and gas country. It stinks until you get kind of used to it. From the mountains to Artesia, enough people have moved in that I only passed 30 minutes at a time without sight of a car front or back. I'd forgotten the old-fashioned custom of flashing your lights as a friendly "hello" to an oncoming car. The grass was still straw-colored, but so thick I sometimes saw several cattle in an acre instead of just one.

And so I pressed east, back the way I had come. Subway has come to the truckstops, allowing a nice change from the ubiquitous fried food that was all I remember from only a few years back.

And back home again. What can I say? I find beauty in West Texas, too. And I love the concerts, the museums--some would cite the superior and plentiful shopping--of Dallas-Fort Worth and their surrounding cities. But to get away by car to realize again just how big this country actually is was a trip of its own. I covered 1500 miles in four days, and that was less than halfway across Texas and a third or less across New Mexico and back. I didn't take books or music--traffic was light enough to fiddle with the radio. How else would I have learned cotton futures had dropped three times in one day, or that futures for milo and corn are holding?

New Mexico has ALWAYS written signs in Spanish. In fact, until sometime in the 1970's, Spanish was the official state language. To my astonishment, I found myself understanding a great deal of the Spanish I heard. They speak more slowly, and yeah, some of it is Span-glish. It was refreshing to assume every Hispanic I met was an American citizen. But that's a topic for another day.

The chorus of the state song goes, "Oh, fair New Mexico, we love, we love you so--no matter where we go, New Mexico!" Says it for me.


clairz said...

It was wonderful to find a new post on your blog. Such a great trip--your descriptions made me feel as though I was riding along with you. Thank you!

night lightning woman said...

Wow. couldn't wish for better. Thank you, clairz.

Old NFO said...

Excellent post! Reminds me of my Mother taking a similar trip (but to El Paso) back in the 1970s. Thanks for sharing that.

night lightning woman said...

OK, I've read both your blogs and am really impressed. Will check in again. Thanks for thecomments. I'm really honored.