Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Valley of Fires

North of Alamogorda, near Carrizozo, New Mexico, is Valley of Fires.  This is a lava field 44 miles (71 Km) long and 2 to 5 miles wide through the Tularosa Basin which flowed southward after spewing from volcanic vents on at least two occasions, most recently about 1,500 to 2,000 years ago.  We are camped on a kipuka (a cool Hawaiian word - say it), which is an area of higher ground that the lava flowed around, leaving these islands of sandstone and soil.

The crusted lava looks like it has flowed quite slowly as it is very swirly (a very technical geological term, right Dolores?), which makes the black patterns very beautiful.  It almost looks like and artist's canvas or a lazy river at Disney World.  We are in a valley and the land here is quite flat except for the "kipukas", so perhaps the flows were slow, causing the twisted flows.  The Recreation Area where we are camped is centred around fallen lava tubes and bubbles, so many areas are sunken.  The loose pieces of lava sound like broken glass, although they are heavier than the lava we experienced in Arizona where there are hundeds of volcanic cones.  The visitor's centre says that this lava is olivine basalt, similar to Hawaiian lava flows.  In this valley, the flow is so rough and broken, it could only be crossed on foot (as opposed to a donkey cart, I suppose).  We are surprised to learn that we are allowed to walk anywhere on the lava field, not just along the path, but the lava is fairly sharp so we have to be careful, although we do not venture far.  This area contains many pressure ridges, fissures, lava bubbles where gases built up when the lava was hot and collapsed as the lava cooled, and tubes where the lava once flowed and then collapsed as it cooled.  It is difficult to climb, especially with cacti in the way.
Marilyn a little off the path
Many plants and animals live here in the lava field; in fact there is more plant life here than we have seen anywhere so far in our desert travels.  There are junipers and many kinds of cactus including the ever-present prickly pear, grasses, the banana yucca, the sotol (which resembles the yucca but isn't), and annual & perennial flowers (which are out of season now).  We don't see any wildlife (none, nada, zilch), but apparently this is home to the kit fox, coyotes, deer, many birds including owls, eagles, hawks and other small perching birds (okay, I saw about a dozen little birds), snakes (in hibernation now, thank goodness), rodents, rabbits, a small band of Barbary sheep, bobcats and rigtail cats.

The first day we are here is totally overcast in the morning (our first cloudy day) and VERY windy and cold.  In fact, in the morning, we can't see the northern end of the eastern mountain range - the Sacramento Mountains.  At first, Brad thinks it is fog or mist, but then I see a few dry flakes of snow falling outside of our trailer windows and we realize that there is a blizzard blowing in the mountains obscuring our visibility of the range.  Okay - I'm really sure we left home to escape SNOW - hoser!  But here it is, almost as far south as we can go in the state of New Mexico anyway.  Fortunately, we don't get any more snow than those few dry flakes.  The sun finally comes out mid-afternoon and so we walk the trail through the lava flow, but man, is it cold!  I think my ears are going to fall off.  I have brought a winter coat and this day I have to use it.
The broken flows of Valley of Fires Recreation Area
The second night we camp here, the temperature drops to 10F (that's about -15C)!!!  Our water hose outside stands up all by itself even though Brad disconnects it from the tap and our trailer so we don't burst the couplings.  We're pretty sure the water in our tanks is at least slushy, but nothing seems to have frozen.  The second day is sunny and warmer (if you're in the sun).  No wind today.  Brad goes out and hikes the trail again before we leave to go back to Alamogordo.  I stay inside trying to warm up - I'm having one of those days where I just can't get warm, even though I have the temperature inside the trailer up to 80F!

And a funny thing happens on the drive back to the city.  It's only a one-hour drive back south to Alamogordo, so I don't bother to put Grady's food and water dishes in the back seat of the truck.  Surely he can survive for one hour without them.  Apparently not!  About five minutes into our drive, he starts howling from the back seat, and wandering from the back seat to the front seat and back again.  The howling won't stop.  We can't figure it out.  He hasn't howled in the car since day 2!  I try to put him on my lap, but he won't settle - he goes to the back seat and howls again.  I say to Brad, "Maybe he's upset that I didn't put his food and water dish back there.  Maybe he's hungry or thirsty all of a sudden.  I think you're going to have to stop and I'm going to have to get them from the trailer."  Fortunately, we're not on a busy highway, so Brad stops at a small pulloff, and I get Grady's life sustenance from the trailer, and put them on the floor in the back seat where they belong.  As we get rolling again, Grady checks the dishes out, but does not eat or drink, jumps up on the centre console between Brad and me, and goes to sleep.  "All is well now.  Whew!  Everything is in place.  My food has not been left behind and I will not starve to death for the rest of the trip."  Stupid cat!

The reason we return to Alamogordo is because we are booked into a tour to Lake Lucero at the White Sands National Monument on Saturday afternoon.  This is a Ranger-guided auto caravan across a military missile base to a dry lake bed to see selenite crystals that eventually become the white sands in the dunes we saw the other day.  Another geology lesson?  Surely you've had enough?
Selenite crystals stuck in the gypsum at Lake Lucero
The selenite crytals are beautiful - very sharp around the edges, but very soft on their face - you can score them with a fingernail.  They can be dissolved in water, and eroded by the wind, thus creating the sand dunes.  Selenite crystals are just the way that gypsum forms when it cystalizes.  Every mineral has certain properties and these are gypsum's.  Some crytals are four feet long, but are mostly underground, exposing only a few inches or a foot perhaps by heavy rains.  They protrude from the ground at sharp angles, so you wouldn't want to be walking out here in bare feet.  Their colourings range from a light tan colour to almost green, depending on the mineral in the ground where they form.  They are odd and stunning to witness.  They glimmer when the sun hits them (yes, another sunny day).  What a fantastic opportunity to come see this.  There are only two tours per month on the last Saturday of each month - rules of the military base.

American military paranoia?  We had to drive our trailer in to the Lake trailhead (18 miles across the base), which was no big deal because the road was paved.  We weren't allowed to leave it just off the highway outside the base gate.  Also, no photos could be taken during the drive across the base - it was barren desert!  We were not allowed to stop our vehicles along the drive to the trailhead while on the base.  The rules were very explicit.  I think we might have been shot if we'd disobeyed!  We were joking with our park ranger guide before we entered - "We have come to see your nuclear wessels."  Remember the line from "Star Trek 4, the Voyage Home", spoken by Chekov in his Russian accent?  The Ranger got it right away and laughed like crazy.  "Yeah, you'll probably be shot," she laughed.  The base is a missile test range, and they do run at least two tests per week, which is a shame so close to such a beautiful natural area.    Only in America!

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