Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Space Tour, Part 1 - Truth or Conbsequences, NM

New Mexico has a rich space history.  Near Alamogordo is the White Sands Missile Range, a military installation that encompasses the White Sands National Monument with dunes of white gypsum.  The Trinity Site, the location of the first atomic explosion, is in this missile range, but tours occur only twice a year on the first Saturday in October and April.  Roswell, New Mexico is also the alleged location of the crash landing of a UFO in 1947, and where we will tour the International UFO Museum.  The Very Large Array - radio telescopes - is located in Socorro.  But first, we plan to tour Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences.

First, let me explain the name of this town.  Originally called Hot Springs (for the hot springs found here), the town voted to change its name when Ralph Edwards, producer of the TV show, challenged any town in America to change its name to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the game show. Hot Springs met the challenge and became Truth or Consequences.

Spaceport America, still under construction, will be the future home of space travel for tourism.  Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson's venture, will operate from this center carrying (wealthy) tourists into space.  The buildings are owned and run by the state of New Mexico.  We arrive at our free BLM campsite about 30 miles from the Spaceport on Monday.  As I investigate the tours of Spaceport America (which I should have done previously), I learn that exclusive, guided bus tours are only available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday - we won't be waiting around.  It is expected that sometime later this year (2013), the public will be allowed to drive out to the site and tour the area without taking the bus tour.  We'll have to come back.

Picnic lunch at Elephant Butte Lake State Park
We always find other things to do.  From our campsite, we enter Elephant Butte Lake State Park from the north, and its "back door".  Several dirt roads lead from this main road down to the lake which is VERY low as New Mexico and many western states suffer from a multi-year drought.  The boat ramp at the northern end of the lake is closed as the water doesn't reach this far any more.  The lake is a reservoir, dammed at its southern tip by Elephant Butte Dam, holding back the waters of the Rio Grande River (which is only about 6-8 feet across and quite shallow).  The dam is a beautiful structure, built between 1911 and 1916.  We stop for lunch on the rocky beach at Three Sisters Cove where we can drive quite a distance across what was once the lake bottom to the shore.  At the point, a group of bird enthusiasts are photographing the tens of thousands (literally) of migratory birds that fill these waters.  We are not close enough to identify most of the birds, but with our binoculars I do see a couple of bald eagles, a great blue heron, cormorants, ducks, geese and terns.  Suddenly, one bird will get spooked and they will all take flight at once, the sound of their thousands of wings beating sounding like a passing airplane or rushing water.  The sun is hot, there is no wind - it's a perfect day.
Elephant Butte Dam - note how low the water level is by the white line

Dona Edmund explaining the 1870s credit system machine
We also drive out to the ghost town of Chloride, about 40 miles west of us.  It is a very scenic drive that takes us through valleys and foothills, with 10,000-foot snow-capped peaks to the west of us.  Chloride was once a silver mining town in the 1870s to the 1890s when the government changed coin currency from silver to gold and the price of silver plummeted.  Only 11 people reside in the town today, but two of those residents are Don and Dona Edmund, a retired couple originally from New York who have purchased many of the old buildings and are restoring them.  They run the Pioneer Store Museum as well as the Gift Shop and Gallery (which used to be a saloon).  These two have the most interesting stories to tell.  For example, the Pioneer Store was originally built by a Canadian, one Mr. Dalgleish.  The Edmunds purchased the store from one of his ancestors and when they unlocked the doors, all of the original store items - tools, saddles, clothes, etc. - were still on the shelves.  When the town "died", the previous owners simply locked the doors and left.  We are the only tourists in town today, and we get a personalized tour by Dona of the items in the museum as well as site founder, Harry Pye's original cabin which the Edmunds have restored and converted into a rental cabin for visitors, and the closed cafe (originally a failed bank and later saloon) for which they are seeking a cook.  There is also a 5-site RV park, picnic area and pit toilets.  What a delightful, entertaining couple, and kudos to them for their work and passion.  There are several other ghost towns in the area: Cuchillo, Winston, Monticello, Placita, Hillsboro, Kingston and Lake Valley, but we visit only Chloride.  New Mexico ghost towns website.
Pioneer Store Museum displays, Chloride
And so the first stop on our "space tour" is a little disappointing because we can't visit Spaceport America, but we are once again enchanted by New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.

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