Posts Tagged With: New Mexico

The Birds

Picture this idyllic scene of early spring in southeastern New Mexico: The western sky is streaked with the orange, gold, and pink of a glorious sunset. We are standing in a residential neighborhood on a calm evening, watching a flock of birds as they come in to settle in the treetops for the night. As they circle above us, the last rays of the sun touch the tips of their outspread wings with bronze.

Amid all this loveliness and serenity, why am I fidgeting so uneasily, wishing the garage beside me had broader eaves so I could move closer under its shelter?

Because the birds soaring over our heads are vultures. Dozens and dozens of them, circling in a holding pattern and then swooping down to land in a row of trees along the edge of a well-kept back yard.

The vultures settle onto the very tops of the trees, even though it would seem the branches there would be too slender to hold them. There are so many that the treetops are edged in black like an old-fashioned letter announcing bad news.

Each time a few new birds land, a ripple of grumbling goes through the flock. The ones already perching either resist the arrival of the newcomers, shift position to make room for them, or take off to rejoin the circle above the trees. Meanwhile, more birds keep coming, and coming, and coming. They seem to be auditioning for a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. All that’s missing is the ominous background music.

And I’m getting increasingly nervous. We’re just standing there watching, for Pete’s sake. The obvious risk of hanging out underneath a large number of large birds is bad enough. But these are vultures. While we’re gaping at them, we are not moving. Staying that still, in this case, seems like a really, really bad idea. There are more than enough buzzards above us to carry off our carcasses like the winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

(Which unfortunately reminds me of the joke about the buzzard who checks in at the airport, carrying a dead armadillo under each wing. “Sorry, sir,” the ticket agent tells him, “Only one carrion item per passenger.”)

Sorry.

But these buzzards are no joke. We were told that they aren’t permanent residents, but are only passing through. Their visits last two or three months, though, so they have become a serious nuisance. Not only are the birds big, bold, and plentiful; they are also protected by law. This makes getting rid of them a challenge.

Still, I can’t help but wonder. What would “chile con vulture” taste like? And would it be better with red or green?

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A Good Day To Be Alive

Sunday was a good day, because we didn't die.

It happened not long after we had crossed the state line from Nebraska into Colorado. As always, I smiled at the incongruity of the plain brown sign reading "Welcome to Colorful Colorado." We were traveling south on Highway 71, about 30 miles north of Brush.

The cold January day was the first of our planned two-day trip from South Dakota to New Mexico. Visibility, under low clouds and light snow, was about half a mile. When we passed a newly built wind farm, the tall windmills loomed eerily out of the clouds and snow like landing towers for alien spacecraft.

The road was what the weather service would have probably described as "snow packed and slippery." Mindful of the conditions, we were driving at about 50 miles an hour.

Suddenly the rear wheels lost traction. The back of the car slued to the right, then to the left and back to the right. We slid sideways across the width of the road and into the left side ditch, bounced up a steep five- or six-foot bank, spun around without hitting the four-strand barbed wire fence at the top of the bank, and stopped. We were facing back toward the highway, with the nose of the car at the edge of a 10- or 12-foot dropoff.

At least that's how the driver explained it to me after the fact. At the time, all I knew was that one second I was twisted in my seat, rummaging for the bottle of V-8 juice on the floor behind me, and the next second my partner had shouted something like, "Hang on!" and we were sliding sideways. The car was jolting from side to side, all I could see was snow, my head thumped against the side window, my knee hit the front console, and my contact lenses were slipping sideways so I clamped my eyes shut to keep them in place. Then we were stopped, which felt wonderful until I looked out my window and saw how close we were to the edge of a steep bank.

We sat still for a few seconds, then asked each other, "Are you all right?" and decided we both were. We sat for a few moments more and watched our fingers shake as adrenaline flooded our bodies and gratitude flooded our minds. I said, with what seemed to me great calm, "We need to back very slowly away from the edge."

He answered, "Oh, I was just going to drive straight back down." I hoped he was trying to be funny. At any rate, he backed up, drove along the bank to a lower spot, and pulled back onto the highway.

Had the skid happened a few seconds later, we might have slid into the pickup that was approaching from the south. A few seconds earlier, we might have gone off the road at the top of a steep ditch and rolled. A couple of seconds longer, and we would have dived nose-first down the steep bank to the road below.

Those few seconds might have changed our lives forever or even ended them. They didn't. The particular arrangement of circumstances at that particular time and place didn't leave us jammed into a smashed SUV with crushed legs, battered faces, or fractured skulls. We were merely shaken, not shattered. Even our vehicle was left without a scratch or dent, though with a slight wobble about the right front wheel and a souvenir bunch of dry prairie grass caught in the back bumper.

We drove—slowly—on to Brush through the increasing snow and decreasing visibility. After eight or ten miles, our fingers had nearly stopped shaking. We checked ourselves into a motel. We went for a walk through the snow to exercise the adrenaline out of our systems.

The next morning, under frigid sunshine, we had the car checked and the wheels aligned. Then we drove on south, slowly, carefully, and gratefully.

It was a wonderful day to be alive.

Categories: Living Consciously, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Orange You Glad You Saw the Game?”

In South Dakota, seeing hordes of people wearing orange only means one thing—opening weekend of pheasant season. In a certain part of southeastern New Mexico, seeing hordes of people wearing orange only means one thing—opening weekend of football season.

For whatever reason, possibly including its proximity to Texas, where high school football is less a sport than a religion, this is a town that takes its football seriously. How seriously? Well, the windows of all the downtown businesses display pictures of the players, the cheerleaders, and the orange bulldog mascot. And if Halloween happens to fall on the Friday night of a home game, they postpone it (Halloween, not the game) to the next night.

It pretty much goes without saying that on game day, practically everyone in town wears something orange. Even though we were going to the game, I didn't exactly have a dog in the fight. Nevertheless, trying to be polite and blend in, I dug through my suitcase for the closest thing to orange I had, a coral-colored tee shirt.

As soon as we walked through the gate, I realized this was not high school football as I have ever known it. To me, a high school football field is just that—a field, with reasonably groomed grass, goal posts that may or may not have a fresh coat of paint, a few sets of bleachers, a concession shack, and maybe a couple of bathrooms.

This was a stadium—with tiers of seats on both sides, a high concrete walkway circling the field, at least two concession stands, end zones made up of orange and white squares of artificial turf, a giant inflatable orange bulldog mascot at one end of the field, and skyboxes, for Pete's sake. Plus fireworks at the beginning and end of the game. (Most of it privately funded, I should note, for anyone concerned about the wise use of tax dollars.)

And orange everywhere. Blaze orange. Tangerine. Yellow-orange. Ochre. Faded rust. Not just shirts and caps, either, though both were plentiful. Shoelaces. Lapel buttons. Seat cushions. Bags. Hair ornaments.

No orange hair, though, which I found surprising and a little disappointing. There were some kids with orange goop smeared on their faces and hair, but they looked less like football fans than members of a struggling wannabe grunge band called Zombies of the Pumpkin Patch. This may explain why that particular look was limited to a handful of junior high boys.

The moon came up, nearly full, at the beginning of the second half. It was—I am not making this up—orange.

Amid all this color, my well-intentioned coral shirt looked very, very pink.

On the other side of the stadium, supporters of the visiting team, from a town some 60 miles away, were out in force—and in blue. I kept my feet under the seat in front of me so no one would notice my potentially disloyal blue socks.

Oh, and the football game? The visitors made seven touchdowns, were ahead by 14 points at the end of the first half, and scored a total of 49 points. The bulldogs made nine touchdowns and ended up with 63 points. It was the best high school football game I've ever seen. Also the longest; the second quarter lasted an hour.

By the end of the game, I had a better understanding of why football here is such a big deal. It was almost enough to make me think about buying something orange. Not a tee shirt, though. A seat cushion.

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Atomic Oaks

We were somewhere in the neighborhood of Carlsbad, New Mexico, at the end of several miles of rough gravel roads. The scenic view consisted of potash mines and oil wells on the horizons and a lot of mesquite in the foreground.

Mixed in with the mesquite were what our guide told us were oak trees. I had trouble believing this, even after he got out of the car and brought back what was unmistakably an oak leaf. These were nothing like any oak trees I had ever seen. Even the bush-sized scrub oaks at least look like trees. These were only knee high.

The supposed oak trees were dwarfed by the four-foot-high concrete marker that we had driven all the way out here to see. It contained a metal plaque commemorating "Project Gnome."

We were standing directly above the site of a nuclear explosion. On December 10, 1961, 1200 feet beneath this spot, scientists detonated a nuclear device at the end of a tunnel that had been excavated from a vertical shaft some 1100 feet away.

This was part of the Plowshare program, an effort in the 1960's to try to find industrial and scientific applications for nuclear power. Several underground explosions were set off in New Mexico and Colorado before the project was ended in the early 1970's, apparently without finding any practical uses for nuclear explosions.

One goal of the Gnome blast was to generate steam. Steam was generated, all right, but some of it got through the seals in the tunnel and leaked out through the shaft. The difficulty in controlling nuclear explosions may have been one of the reasons for ending the Plowshare program.

At the site of the blast nearly 50 years later, there wasn't much to see besides the marker, the mesquite, and the miniature oak trees. Were they some mutant life form, an unforeseen side effect of experimenting with nuclear blasts?

Nope. Not at all. They are Quercus havardii, or shin oak, described to us as part of the largest oak forest in North America. That's "largest" in the sense of geographic area, rather than "largest" in the sense of mighty oaks from little acorns growing. Their size is presumably a result of adapting to a dry, hot climate, and they were midgets long before anyone ever heard of nuclear power.

And the dangers of strolling through the site of an atomic explosion? Well, in May of 1962, scientists visited the cavity created by the Gnome blast and found it "hot" only in temperature. It was 140 degrees down there, but it wasn't radioactive. This site has been tested regularly over the past 50 years, and it doesn't have any more radiation than your average back yard. (If you'd like more information, check out atomictourist.com.)

The only real health risk in visiting Project Gnome today is losing your broad-brimmed hat in the wind and getting sunburned. Unless, of course, you happen to trip over an oak tree.

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