Monday, November 22, 2010

A Little R&R

Since we've been running from one tourist destination to the next, we decide to take a couple of days off and relax in the mountains.  We are on our way west to the White Sands National Monument when I propose this idea to Brad - why don't we pull off the highway and camp in the National Forest?  It's mostly public land, although some of it is private used mostly for cattle ranching, and we can camp for free.  He loves the idea (especially the free part) for an opportunity to slow down and relax, so we stop in a small town called Mayhill and ask a funny, older guy at the local store for directions to get to some of the "dispersed" camping areas.  "Well, you can't get there from here," he laughs.  "I've always wanted to say that," he smiles.  "Actually, you're in luck.  Hunting season ended yesterday and won't open again until Thanksgiving weekend," (which is next weekend) "and it's really pretty in there.  In fact I wish I could take you myself if I didn't have to mind the store."

He provides us with the directions, and we head off.  The store fella assures us that "hundreds" of people bring their "million dollar RVs" in here during hunting season (so I'm glad we missed that - AND we won't get shot!), so even though the blacktop becomes a dirt road, it's still in very good shape.  Along the way, we run across a lumber mill which allows us to collect some firewood for free.  The workers in the mill are wearing cowboy hats (who doesn't down here?) and no safety equipment.  Go figure!  The mill is run down and old, and literally it seems, in the middle of nowhere, except this Lincoln National Forest.  But the wood is beautiful pine wood which is soft and will burn fast, but smells great!  As we travel along the road - Agua Chiquita Canyon Road - we start to see the pull-off areas with the stone fire rings that signify the free camping areas.  You are only allowed to camp where there is already an established fire ring, and they are fairly close to the road, but this road is not used much, in fact we only pass one or two other vehicles.

We find a site we like and nestle into it.  It is only about eight feet from a crystal clear stream that is only about two feet wide and falling quite rapidly over tiny one-foot waterfalls so we can hear it inside the trailer as we fall asleep, and under two huge pine trees that must measure almost four feet in diameter and 50 to 60 feet in height.  We are in a canyon and guess what!  There is snow on the sides of the hill where the sun doesn't shine!  I'll bet snow hasn't fallen in Canada yet, and here we are camping in it even though we came south to get away from it.  The guy at the store said they had three inches of snow on Monday (three days ago), but the ground is already dry where the sun can reach.
Note the snow on the ground; our first campsite in the Lincoln National Forest
We have beautiful campfires for the three nights that we are here, the first of the trip since RV parks don't allow campfires, and neither did the Guadalupe National Park (that was just ashpalt camping like a big parking lot), so this is a real treat, even though we are wearing longjohns, winter coats and gloves.  The moon is almost full, and it creates so much light we don't need our flashlights outside; in fact the trees are producing huge shadows on the ground, but of course we can't see as many stars.  But we can see the craters on the moon with our naked eye, and with our binoculars, we can see unbelievable detail of the moon's surface.  We wish we had a telescope.

Temperatures drop near freezing at night, although we have our furnace to keep us warm - hah! not what you were thinking!  When we wake each morning (in Texas and here in New Mexico), the sky is a beautiful deep azure blue because the air is so dry.  It's such a magnificent way to start each day.  We joke with the locals about it being "another sunny morning", and some of them look at us strangely - we know they were born here and don't understand what it can be like to not see the sun for two weeks in a row like we do in the east.  But Brad's been getting nose bleeds from the dryness and our skin looks 10 years older already.  Hmm, we didn't come here for that either!  Break out the Vitamin E oil!

On our first morning in the Lincoln National Forest, We quickly realize that, although we have a beautiful spot under the whispery pine trees, they provide too much shade, and there are a few spots just down the little access road where we've pulled in that are more in the open and, more importantly, in the sun but still right beside the creek.  So we spend 45 minutes making the move, which is made more difficult because Brad has to back the trailer down the access road onto the main road and then back it all the way down the access road again so he can pull forwards into the spot we want so our back window will be facing the sun to get the most heat into the trailer during the day.  The move is worth it, and Grady enjoys basking in the sunshine on his carpet-covered multi-level cat perch during the afternoons. 

The ground here is very hard and in spots covered with small mounds of dirt instead of grass.  As I'm looking out of the back window one day, I notice that one of the mounds of dirt is a darker colour and suddenly fresh dirt is thrown out - this is a hole being freshly dug by whatever creature lives there.  As I run outside to see what it is, Brad is just pulling in with the truck loaded with new wood, so he scares it back down the hole.  I go back into the trailer and watch it with the binoculars even though I'm only about 30 feet away.  It seems to be some kind of gopher or small groundhog.  Ok, nothing very exciting, but it's the only wildlife we've seen out here.  Brad walks over to the hole, to clear away the dirt so we can get a better view of the animal, and the animal catches sight of Brad.  After that, we don't see any more activity.  So I walk back over to the hole and discover that the gopher has filled the hole back in from the inside - I guess he figures this exit will be too dangerous with us topside!

btw - this type of camping is called dry camping or "boondocking" - camping in a trailer or RV with no hookups.  We are fully self-sufficient.  Our 80-gallon fresh water tank was almost full when we arrived, our grey (dirty) water and black (sewer) water tanks were almost empty and we filled our propane tank which runs our furnace, stove, water heater and fridge, our two six-gallon gas tanks which run our generator for our microwave/oven, electrical recepticles (so I can blowdry my hair, recharge the battery on my laptop and camera) and lights and which recharges our two marine batteries the latter of which also runs our lights.  We can camp for about four days like this, more if we really work hard on conserving water.  The water is always the "problem", especially since I'm such a girly girl and wash my hair everyday.  But really, after three or four days of being nowhere, I'm ready to hook into an RV park and watch TV and have real water and electricity.  Even I have my limits!

We know that the road ahead has some steep climbs in elevation.  The city we have to go through, Cloudcroft, has the highest elevation of any city in New Mexico - 8,650 feet.  Then within 14 miles, the elevation drops into the city of Alamogorda at 4,335 feet.  There are warnings for trucks about the steep grades and that only those with air brakes should attempt it - it should be fun!  The drive through the National Forest from our campsite to Cloudcroft is breathtaking.  We continue on the Agua Chiquita Road which is a loop from Mayhill to Cloudcroft, but at a snail's pace of about 15 mph.  The road in most places is no more than one vehicle wide, and continues to be only dirt, but not too rough.  At one point, it winds steeply through a mountain pass (Lynn, you would have been crying, I swear), and my GPS kept saying "turn around when possible", (you must be joking!) so I just shut it off!  I was fairly certain, having an innate sense of direction, that we were heading the right way, but you never know when these roads will take you off into nowhere; but I did see that map once in the store at the beginning of this little venture.

Near the top of one particularly steep, windy, narrow pass, we can see where a forest fire had swept through.  Brad took a pic:
Partially fire-ravaged hillside at the top of the mountain in the Lincoln National Forest, NM
And keep in mind, it's FREEZING up here, with the wind howling through these trees like a late-night horror movie.  Case in point why we don't travel at night.

We meet only one other vehicle on this road, fortunately at a point where he can pull aside to let us pass, because we'll be damned if we'll back up anywhere.  The views are stunning when we can see the forest beyond the trees, and lo and behold, we finally make it to a paved intersection - but there are no signs telling us which city is in which direction!  Hmm - I love guessing!  Try left -should be west if we've traveling north, right?.  And we end up in the town of Sunspot, home of THE national solar telescope.  What an accidental find.  We tour the institute, but aren't allowed to look through any of the six or seven telescopes they have here ("Do you know how expensive these telescopes are?  We can't let just regular humans look through them you know!"  Well excuse me for not having a Ph.D. in solar physics!  I didn't know I'd need one when I left Ontario a few weeks ago.)  Anyway, we do get to LOOK at one of the telescopes and can see that it's trained on a sunspot; other telescopes are used to look specifically at just the corona, just solar flares, etc. - very detailed, specific aspects.  We move on, and find our way to Cloudcroft and make the amazing decent into Alamogorda - it is steep - and to our campsite nestled in the valley between two mountain ranges.

What an adventure.  Off the beaten track is certainly worth it.

Addendum - December 5/10:
The Lincoln National Forest is home to a legend - Smokey the Bear!  It was in this forest that Smokey was found as a cub during a forest fire.  The poor little guy was badly singed and orphaned, but thankfully rescued by a fire crew who found him clinging to a tree stump.  He was nursed back to health and it was decided, because of his firey rescue, to use his picture as a symbol to help prevent forest fires.  That was 60 years ago.  Who doesn't know Smokey the Bear today?  He was rescued only about 60 or so miles north of where we were in the Lincoln National Forest.

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