Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Road Trip Adventure Across America - Part Thirteen

Do you realize we know less about the earth we live on than about the stars and galaxies of outer space? The greatest mystery is right here. Right under our feet!
From the film Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1959

Waking up in a cigarette smelling room in a rather unattractive, need of renovation motel surrounded by ugly petroleum vehicles in the middle of the Southern New Mexican desert wasn’t the cheeriest thing to have happened to us, but the knowledge we’d be exploring the wonders beneath our Earth in a few hours made it tolerable.

Like most mornings on the road getting the kids clean and dressed required channeling a drill sergeant.  Shower…now!  Clothes packed…now!  Idiot check…NOW! I moved the car a little closer so we wouldn’t have to lug all our stuff from the second level, all the way down the walk way, down stairs and across a parking lot.  Once the oil field guys had gone a lot of parking spaces opened up.   

After another quick complimentary (read barely ok) breakfast in the “lovely” dining hall – I saw ghosts dressed in white shirts and skinny ties sipping coffee – we headed to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, with a little side trip to fill up the tank at the gas station next to the Walmart that didn’t have a gas station despite what the desk clerk at the motel told me.

It was an easy trip down the highway through the Chihuahua Desert.  Not much to look at except a lot of prickly pear cactus and abandoned Indian trading posts, but interesting none-the-less since I’d never been around those parts before.   

Prickly Pear Cactus
Once we got off the highway and on the road to the caverns it became a little mountainous and picturesque.  The drive seemed to last longer than expected (7 miles) as we slowly wined upwards, but isn’t that the case always when you drive someplace for the first time.  The return trip back down that same road (also 7 miles) went a lot faster, amazing how that occurs.

Avery from near the visitor center looking South
The visitor center sits atop a small mountain in the Guadalupe Range of which the caverns lay below, with a modern Southwestern architectural flair.  The buildings seemed fairly new and I wonder what it was like decades ago when they first opened in the 1920’s.  It became a National Park in 1930.

Carlsbad Canyon Visitor Center

In the parking lot we noticed a variety of license plates from all over the country, including another blue compact from California.   

The heat of the day was creeping up towards the triple digits so it would be nice to get down in the caves for some cool temperatures, usually hovering around 53 degrees or so they say.  It was easy entry – you just have to wait for the elevator to come back up and a ranger takes you down into the cavern.  

waiting to go down 750 feet
Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 118 limestone caves, the most famous of which is Carlsbad Cavern and though popular thought is that they were carved out by running water like many limestone caves in the world, rather these caves were dissolved by very aggressive sulfuric acid.  One fact not known to most is that the caves sit atop a field of natural gas and oil, which are the source of the sulfur-bearing water that formed the caves. 

rare ceiling to floor speleothem
The magnificent speleothems (cave formations) that continue to grow and decorate Carlsbad Cavern are due to rain and snowmelt soaking through limestone rock, then eventually dripping into a cave below and evaporating.  Wherever that water drop evaporates and releases carbon dioxide in an air-filled cave, a small amount of mineral-mostly calcite, is left behind. Thus, drip-by-drip, over the past million years or so, Carlsbad Cavern has slowly been decorating itself.  Now you know something new.

The ranger explained to us that we were going 750 feet down into the cavern.  That’s a long way.  Once down we decided to take the Big Room self-guided tour.  It was dark, so we had to let our eyes adjust.  Olivia was a little apprehensive at first but as time went on she got used to the dark and damp alien surroundings and became comfortable.  Avery…well, he wasn’t scared at all…maybe a little, at first, but don’t tell him I said so.

where we were heading
I won’t give a moment-by-moment tour, suffice it to say, it’s an amazing journey everyone should see at some point in his or her life.  It’s a geological wonderland and I just wish I had a better camera to capture the beautiful images that you saw everywhere you looked.   

crazy spelunkers

Avery holding our hometown paper
It took us over an hour to walk around the Big Room, which covers 8.2 acres. If we had time we could have hiked to the Natural Entrance 79 stories above, which would have been a site to see – emerging from the cave and into the sunlight, but we had places to go and people to see.
Carlsbad Cavern Natural Entrance
The kids wanted to eat in the Visitor Center lunchroom and of course get stuff in the gift shop, which I negated on both counts.  I told them their gift shop allowance was all used up and that we’d stop for lunch in El Paso.  After getting some entering shots out front and some pictures by the park main sign to send to the relatives we headed out to begin the long and winding road to Phoenix.   

Ranger Ave
Ranger Liv
Ranger Rick & Friend
By this time I nixed the idea of stopping at Tombstone because we wouldn’t get there until near sundown and still had to get to Kristin’s at a decent time.  I didn’t want to put them out.

We got on US Highway 62 and headed South-South West towards El Paso.  Once passing back into Texas we drove by Guadalupe National Park and Guadalupe Peak, the highest spot in Texas.  I stopped to get some pictures and video as I had never been to the highest spot in Texas before or at least at the base of it.  I needed proof that I was there.  The kids stayed in the car playing their EDs.  I guess they did not see the significance.

Weren't we just there?

Guadalupe Peak - highest elevation in Texas

 Once out of the mountains it was really desert and at one point we drove through a salt flat – white on both sides as far as you could see.   

Salt Flats East of El Paso
Slowing things down was some road construction.  We came to a standstill for more than fifteen minutes waiting for cars to pass by on the one lane open.  It was a relief when it finally came to our turn. 

The desert finally gave way to civilization as we entered the outskirts of El Paso.  A light industrial landscape seemed to go on and on forever but we finally got into a more suburban atmosphere and came upon a McDonald’s.  My phone was tapped out and I had to download video and photos to my Mac so I could take more photos and video.  I hadn’t the energy the night before to download and so it was packed full.  
McDonald’s stops always take longer than expected but we finally got on the road.  We eventually hooked back up with Interstate 10, passing by downtown El Paso, and onward back to California.   
Downtown El Paso
I had a flash back seeing a shopping center parking lot I was at the last time I was in El Paso.  It was on our move to Cali from Texas, driving a U-Haul pulling a trailer with our Explorer on it.  We had driven all night but somewhere outside Odessa the trailer had a blowout.  It was pitch black and we could hear the coyotes howling in the distance.  It seemed to take the tow guy forever to get there and I recall having quick remembrances of those camp ghost stories about the guy with the hook terrorizing the couple stranded along a desolate road.  The tow truck eventually showed up and the tow truck guy fixed the tire without incident.  We got into El Paso right after dawn and parked the truck in a shopping center near a place to get a bite to eat.  I think that’s when we discovered that two of the tires on the Explorer had been slashed by something, which meant we had to get two new tires once in California before we could give up the U-haul.  We ended up pulling it to the Sears in Thousand Oaks the day we arrived to get new tires.  Not much fun after driving over 24 hours with only cat naps.  Ironically, we were traveling with our cat Angel who, unfortunately we believe got eaten by coyotes a year later.  The circle of life.

Anyway, El Paso wasn’t the most attractive city I’ve seen but not terrible.  We were soon past the city limits and back into New Mexico before you could say Chihuahua.  Once passed Las Cruces there isn’t much to see.   

New Mexican desert and clouds
We did go through some stormy weather and when your driving on mostly flat terrain the clouds and lightning looming in the distance always give a good show, especially with mesas and mountains as a nice backdrop.  We skirted most of the rain but at least it was entertaining in a rather nondescript area of the country.  

We stopped in Deming, NM for some ice cream.  I looked up and found where a Dairy Queen was supposed to be but when we got there it was out of business so we scrambled and ended up at McDonald’s.  Oh, my, losing precious time.

Arizona-New Mexico border
As we made ourselves west, entering Arizona, signs appeared promoting a roadside attraction called The Thing, Mystery of the Desert.  I didn’t give it much thought but we were somewhere between Wilcox and Tucson, Arizona when the need to stop for gas, pee break and snacks became apparent…I saw there was a place coming up which looked like a Stuckey’s, which some of you may remember  – they have a famous pecan roll.  This place had a Dairy Queen attached to a large souvenir shop and the infamous museum.   

The large place was full of all kinds of stuff, Native American trinkets that collect dust on shelves and usually end up not selling at garage sales around the country.  They even sold luggage of all things.  Plus, I guess out back you could gaze at The Thing for a dollar.  I avoided both Dairy Queen and The Thing but had to let the kids get a snack and a drink.  Olivia had trouble deciding on a snack.  I walked her down one aisle and up the next and she just couldn’t decide.  Then we passed the “sale” table and she saw IT, a mermaid figurine she just HAD to have.  Luckily, it was on sale for $2 or $3 so I said fine – more so we could get on with our lives.  The guy at the counter was nice enough to find a new box for it and packed it up nicely.  Friendly folk in Arizona and coincidentally I left with an Arizona tea.  Oh, and by the way The Thing is some mummified woman the original owner bought for $50 from a traveling salesman...or is it?  Where’s Mulder when you need him.

We were three hours from Kristen’s house and the sun was falling fast.  It was still light as we passed through Tucson but getting dark fast.  I wanted to try to drive through Oro Valley, where I came a few years ago to interview champion decathletes and their famed Academic Decathlon coach Chris Yetman from Canyon del Oro High but alas not enough time.

The sun set below the Arizona mesa somewhere between Tucson and Phoenix.  I stopped along the highway to get pictures of the colorful sunset, some of the prettiest you’ll find anywhere.  

Somewhere along the way I typed in Kristen’s address to let the GPS guide me – it sure was useful finding her parent’s house in Colorado and so I figured it could help me again since I’d be searching in the dark.  Their new house was in Goodyear, AZ, a suburb of Phoenix on its western side so we had to drive through the city to get there, though at night there was no traffic slowing us down.  It was getting late and though I had texted her earlier letting her know we’d be arriving after dark, I was unsettled that it was this late.

I followed the iPhone directions and when the blue dot reached what was supposed to be the house we found ourselves on a desolate stretch of road.  I drove around a little looking for their street but I quickly surmised the GPS screwed up.  I doubled checked to make sure I put in the right address but it still was telling me the wrong coordinates.  I had no choice but to call Kristen.  Not knowing the area and with it being night made it difficult explaining where I was but she figured it out and gave me directions to get to their house.  Boy was the GPS wrong by miles.   

Even when we got to their neighborhood, a new development, we couldn’t find the house.  The next day I figured out that there were two sections to their street, which were disconnected from each other – I’m guessing the two would connect at some later date when the development was completed, but it made it difficult to locate.  I was on the phone with Kristen as she walked the street to wave us down.  What a comedy of errors.

The house was very nice and I was surprised they were already unpacked - they had just moved in a couple of weeks earlier. That would never happen with us – the amount of stuff we have would take a month or two. Unfortunately, Logan and Braidan were already asleep, as was Nick, Kristen’s husband, who had to get up at 3am for work.  Logan had given up his room for Olivia and Avery and I slept in the guest room.  Nick arose, I’m sure because of the ruckus the kids were making (playing with their dog) and helped make some food for the kids.  After a short visit we grabbed our bags and went to bed.  Kristen told us she and the kids had to get up early as she had to get to the hospital for an early shift.  Nick at the time worked for University of Phoenix but now was accepted to Goodyear’s police academy and is becoming a police officer.  He’s also a decorated Army National Guard veteran, having served four tours in Iraq.  He is currently in the Reserves, as is Kristen.  They, along with Kristen’s brother Mathew who is an Army captain, deserve a hearty and heartfelt thank you from all of us for their service to our country.  
At Kristen's 2nd Lt. swearing in at Disneyland Oct. 2013

After a long drive though the desert it was easy to go to sleep and in such nice surroundings – a far cry from the stench filled motel we slept in the night previous.  This was our last sleep over of the trip and come tomorrow we’d all be sleeping in our own beds.  Ahhhhh!

(Next on A Road Trip Adventure Across America: The final stretch – six hours to Moorpark with a stop to see where PeeWee said oui oui in the mouth of T-Rex and finally seeing my sweetie after two months.)

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