Alamogordo, New Mexico is best known for its proximity to White Sands National Monument. The eight-mile loop will take you to the edge of the park’s miles of silky sand dunes that seem to stretch as far as the horizon (it is the largest swath of gypsum sand dunes in the world). When we lived in the area twenty years ago, we would visit White Sands regularly, sometimes to hike far into the dunes and test our ability to read the sky and find our way out, and sometimes to just sit and think, or to soak up the sun and then watch it set behind the mountains of the Tularosa Basin. Sometimes we would talk about our future, about what jobs we might have, what places we might live, and whether and when we would get married and have kids. If we do, we agreed, we will bring them here to White Sands so they can experience for themselves the quiet beauty of this place.
During our reunion tour of Alamogordo, we stayed at the nearby Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, a beautiful remote site in an area called Dog Canyon on the outskirts of town. Oliver Lee has a nice visitor center and a variety of long hikes where you can lose yourself on a mountain trail or among the rocks and velvet ash trees that grow along the dry river beds. But we took only one short hike, opting instead to drive into Alamo and show the kids where we lived (Starlight Court Apartments), where we ate (Margo’s), where we used to cool off in the hotter months (up the mountain in Cloudcroft), and where their dad started his teaching career (Alamogordo High School. Go Tigers).
We also took them to the New Mexico Museum of Space History (originally known as the International Space Hall of Fame), which doesn’t quite stand up to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum back home but does have a pretty cool moon rock and a lot of interactive activities, plus a great outside display of rockets and a “whisper dish.” The museum is also home to the New Mexico Space Academy Summer Camp, which sadly but quite appropriately was not running a winter camp for roadschoolers.
As a town, Alamogordo seems much poorer than we remember it, although that may be more a reflection of us than the town itself. The trailer parks seem bigger, the high school could use a face lift, and the downtown is full of empty buildings with For Lease signs in the windows. On the other hand, the hospital has moved and expanded, the NMSU @ Alamogordo campus has a new wing, and there is a bigger, newer facility for the German school (nearby Holloman Air Force base has had a partnership with the German Air Force since 1997).
We drive down nearly every street, to remember and to check out a few houses for sale, wondering how much it would be to buy a little place here in our first town. Not a lot, but too much for us, for now. So we enjoy being here and, most of all, visiting White Sands. We drive back three times, to see the dunes in different light and sled down as many times as we can.
The dunes, though, are not the only part of White Sands that people associate with Alamogordo. On July 16, 1945, this southern end of the White Sands Missile Range was the test site for the first atomic bomb. The success of the explosion, which generated more than 15,000 tons of destructive power, effectively ended the top secret Manhattan Project and set in motion the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our math and English lessons are shorter this week, overtaken by the history and science that is right here in Alamogordo and in front of us as we head north.
We leave Alamo-G and drive through Carrizozo, passing the blackened land and rocks (like pumice, Elian says) of the Valley of the Fires, and reaching another side of the Missile Range in San Antonio, New Mexico. We are here to see the birds at the Bosque del Apache, the thousands of geese, ducks, and most notably sand hill cranes that fly in at dusk and fly out at dawn. The sight and sound of the birds, all flying and landing together, is unforgettable. The next morning, I get up at dawn and drive to see them fly out. I turn down the wrong road and miss most of the fly out but my mistake is rewarded by the sight of a mountain lion, standing in the road staring at me before running off into the woods.
While in San Antonio, we eat at the Owl Bar and Café, which is famous for its green chile cheeseburger (there is a burger battle between the Owl and the Buckhorn, the only other place in town), but is also known as the spot where the Manhattan Project scientists, calling themselves “prospectors”, would stop to eat between Los Alamos and the missile range. Newspaper clippings cover the walls, along with dollar bills that customers leave to make their mark (BigTrip now among them).
Our blast into the past continues in Albuquerque, where we visit the National Museum of Nuclear Science and walk our way from the discovery of the atom through the development and use of nuclear bombs to today’s nuclear power plants. We talk about the difference between atomic and hydrogen power (hydrogen the subject of a report Elian is writing), the immediate and long-term effects of the Japanese bombing, the Cold War and Communism, and the ever-changing periodic table (there’s a huge table of the elements embedded in the floor, which seems like a lot of work to keep up with the additions).
We squeeze in a showing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the old Kimo theater in downtown Albuquerque, visit old town Albuquerque, and of course manage a visit to the University of New Mexico library and nearby Frontier restaurant. Next up is a week in and around Santa Fe!