One of the highlights of my sabbatical was an overnight camping trip near the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico. Jon and I decided to do the overnight trip on one of the two days the Trinity Site is open each year, so we could stop by the historic site and learn more about the Manhattan Project and the first atomic test detonation on July 16, 1945.
So, we packed the car and took off for the long, six hour drive through Socorro, the Trinity Site, a gorgeous area called the Valley of Fires (a sprawling valley of ancient petrified lava that's really something to see), then off to Alamogordo to head to our campsite at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. It rained on our way through Alamogordo, one of New Mexico's dramatic, Indian Summer thunderstorms that lit the brooding sky on fire and cooled off the 80-degree temperatures.
We arrived at our campsite after the rain, and a couple hours before dark, just in time to set up camp in the waning daylight. The campsites around us were abuzz with activity: families setting up their tents or hooking up their RVs to a water source, walking around to orient themselves to the grounds and exercise their dogs--until suddenly Jon and I noticed that the campground became very quiet. Everyone had disappeared, and we realized that we were the only ones left on the grounds. We joked that perhaps incognito G-men from the nearby White Sands Missile Range stealthily abducted them and that perhaps we were the rejects.
I walked to the ranger station to see if anyone was still on duty, but it was closed. Instead, I found an announcement on the bulletin board that a full moon was to rise that night. Everyone had gone to a 7:00 storytelling about native American moon folklore at the group shelter. Apparently the park rangers do this for every advent of a full moon at Oliver Lee park, and it's such a great idea. Too bad we missed it, but we certainly didn't miss the drama and the glory of the full moon slowly making its grandiose entrance over the Sacramento mountains escarpment, shining brighter than any flashlight ever could. It was so close to the earth, its light shone nearly like daylight well into the wee hours of the morning--and it was fabulous. We toasted the moon with a glass of wine while cooking our dinner over an open fire and retiring to a game of gin rummy by moonlight.
In the morning we cooked breakfast, packed camp, and took a quick hike up part of the Dog Canyon trail, the main attraction at Oliver Lee. We didn't make it very far into the canyon before deciding to turn around as we were running short on time, but by all accounts it's a New Mexico hike you don't want to miss. On our drive out of the camping area, we were greeted by a tarantula wandering lost in the road, perhaps to tell us, "y'all come back now, ya hear?". This was the first time either of us had encountered a live tarantula in nature, and it was the crescendo to an already fascinating trip.
After our short hike, we headed to White Sands national monument to play in the blinding gypsum dunes for a couple of hours before making the long drive back home. Growing up in New Mexico, I only had one opportunity to visit this unique place in all the world but was thwarted by a haboob-style sandstorm, and being only 12 miles away this time around, I didn't want to miss even just a short visit.
Mid-way home, we had the pleasure of stopping at Laughing Sheep farm near Lincoln, New Mexico, to stock up on grass-fed beef, pork, and elk--the latter for dinner that evening, thanks to the fine cooking skills of our dear friends and neighbors Karen and Jerry. After communing with nature as we had that weekend, it was fitting to sit down to a well-cooked meal that was itself well-fed.
Some people travel the world on their sabbaticals--a wise and wonderful choice--but I chose to explore local treasures, and discovered that I am none the poorer.