Oh, my . . . sounds like a radical departure from running
around McDowell Mountain Park, doesn't it?
The next part of our trip will be different from the three restful weeks we
stayed in one place near Phoenix, basking in the (mostly) warm Sonoran Desert sunshine. Now we're on the move again with new adventures
and new camping venues until we reach the race site for the
Rocky Raccoon 100-miler in ten days. En route we'll be spending
a few days playing "tourist" at various places in New Mexico and southern Texas.
Hopefully we'll find some interesting places to run, too.
It was sad to leave McDowell Park this morning. It's such a
beautiful place with lots of great trails to run. And we're
spoiled being in one spot for so long. You can't imagine the
amount of work and time that saves us.
How many guys does it take to dump two
campers' tanks?? Jim, on left, emptied ours just fine,
but it took four fellas some time to help
the guy on the right with a problem he had.
But this would begin another chapter in our trip.
Today's goal was to reach the White
Sands Missile Range northeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico, a drive
of just over 400 miles, before dark. We made campground
reservations at the post with the intention of exploring the
nearby dunes at White Sands National Monument tomorrow,
then heading on to Carlsbad in the afternoon. We ended up
finding more to do at the missile range itself than we expected.
It has been many years since either of us has been to White
Sands National Monument and neither of us has been on the post
in the missile range, site of
America's largest overland military test range. This place is
HUGE -- 3,200 square miles (not acres!) -- covering a lot
more Chihuahuan Desert territory than the little black square
shown on our AAA map. We already knew some of the history of the (in)famous
Manhattan Project and Trinity Site, but we had the opportunity
to learn a lot more about the history of the missile
range "from prehistoric farmers to hard rock miners to rocket
scientists" at the comprehensive museum on post.
We had great weather during today's drive and traffic was light
once we got beyond the Phoenix metro area. Waiting until almost 9 AM to
leave the campground helped us avoid the worst of the morning
rush hour -- but not the rush for the campground's dump site
(photo above), as
we found ourselves behind a caravan of half a dozen RVers traveling together. Then we had to go toward
Phoenix before we
could get away from it.
Our route was the same one we took from McDowell Park to
Carlsbad Caverns four years ago.
First we headed east on US 60
past the towns of Apache Junction and Globe through the Superstition and Pinal Mountains in the southern part of Tonto National Forest. I
enjoyed all the rock walls, the Queen Creek Tunnel, and the 4,612-foot
pass dubbed "Top
of the World" in this section.
At Globe we turned onto US 70 and followed it through Ft. Apache
Indian Reservation and the Gila River Valley between the Gila
and Santa Teresa Mountain ranges to the New Mexico state line
and Lordsburg. We could see snow on top of the 8, 000- to
10,000-foot peaks in the Coronado National Forest near Safford
but there was no snow anywhere near the roads we traveled today.
We hopped on I-10 to Las Cruces, picked up US 70 again NE of
town, and climbed up (to about 5,700 feet) and over the Organ
Mountains to reach the missile range. What a view east toward
the Tularosa Basin!
Four hundred and one miles in 7½
hours with two stops for fuel, lunch in the camper, and potty
breaks -- not too bad for hauling our house-on-wheels with us
through some mountains! We
enjoyed this route and would use it again unless there was ice
or snow at the higher passes.
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
We had a couple surprises upon arrival at the missile range,
which is about 20 miles east of Las Cruces, 45 miles north of El
Paso, and 50 miles west of Alamogordo.
first one was along the three-mile long entry road to the post: this sign, interspersed among all the
usual warnings you see when approaching a military installation
(a lot of "do this, don't do that" security stuff):
The silhouette of the antelope-like critter with the distinctive
horns looked familiar
since we've seen stuffed ones at Cabella's stores around the
country, but we couldn't remember the name "Oryx" until we saw
photos and more stuffed heads (below) at the museum on post. The fact
that these animals are now unexpectedly and overly prolific in
southwestern New Mexico, after being imported from the Kalahari
region of Africa in 1969, is one of those "but it seemed like a
good idea at the time" government snafus.
The New Mexico Dept. of Fish and Game introduced the Oryx to the
missile range as part of an exotic animal program (not sure what
that was all about). For some reason, no one predicted
they would roam outside the range. Granted, the missile range is
very large -- roughly 40 miles wide and 100 miles long, minus a
few hundred square miles -- but it isn't fenced. So wander
they did, and now the Oryx have created "management problems"
throughout the Tularosa Basin and White Sands National Monument.
The Oryx are a road hazard from the Texas border to Albuquerque
and a runway hazard at Holloman AFB. Oops!
Stuffed three-week-old Oryx that was struck
by a vehicle on post
In addition, there are no natural predators of the Oryx in New
Mexico. Their population is controlled in the Kalahari by
lions. As a sign at the museum wryly notes, "Since there are
no African lions on the missile range, the New Mexico Fish and
Game Department has instituted a hunting season to control the
oryx population. Licenses for the hunt are issued by a lottery
system. After receiving a permit, a hunter cannot apply again.
It is a once-in-a-lifetime hunt."
If there's a lottery, there must be more people chomping at
the bit to kill an Oryx than there are Oryx that need to be
culled each year. What a deal: you don't even have to go
to Africa any more to bag an Oryx. At least it's not one of
those ridiculous enclosures where the big game has no sporting
chance of escape from the "hunters."
A Barrel Cactus about to bloom; we are
farther south than we were at McDowell Park in AZ
Sorry for the mini-rant.
After seeing these beautiful animals in real life (near the
road!) and knowing the history of the
exotic-animal-experiment-gone-bad, the solution to Oryx
overpopulation strikes me as ironic and unfair. But when you
think about how they are likely to die in their native Africa,
from lion teeth puncturing their jugular and being eaten organ
by organ, limb by limb, I suppose a well-placed bullet is humane
in comparison. Still . . .
(I'm not anti-gun or anti-hunting, just
soft-hearted when it comes to both domestic and wild animals. I
understand the arguments on both sides of the hunting issue and
I remain firmly on the fence, whether the discussion is about
gray wolves in Montana, black bears in Virginia, or whatever
species needs to be "managed" -- so don't try to sway me one way
or the other!!)
This is the fifth or sixth military
installation we've used for camping the last few years and it
was the most rigorous entry process to date. These
guys are thorough! Be aware of that if you ever visit the
post for any reason (museum, missile park, Bataan Memorial Death
The usual process for us has been
for the entrance guard(s) to glance at our military IDs and maybe
our drivers' licenses and to ask a question or two before waving us
and the camper through the gate. Pretty simple. At Fort Meade in
Maryland there was an additional cursory check of the camper.
Here the two young Army guards checked
our drivers' licenses and military IDs (not noticing or
mentioning that my military card had inadvertently expired two
weeks ago!), truck and camper registrations, and vehicle
insurance cards. They asked one of us to stand a good distance
away with the dogs (I got that job -- gotta watch these killer
Labs!) so they could inspect inside the truck and under the hood.
AND they wanted all the camper slides and basement doors
opened so they could see everything inside the living area and
underneath. Jim was busy opening and closing doors for several
minutes. I was dispatched too far away with Cody and Tater to hear any conversation
with the guards. That was probably for the best.
Wow! All that for a couple of
retirees traveling with their two dogs in a camper!! I thought
it was a little over the top but Jim-the-retired-military-guy says they are just doing
their job to safeguard the post and the 2,000+ people who live
and work there.
For all they knew, we might have mischievous intentions. White
Sands allows many non-military visitors to enter the post
because of the numerous tests occurring here. Besides our own
Defense Department, private industry and foreign nations conduct laser, radar, and
flight research at WSMR. In addition, the range museum and
missile park are open to the public. That probably accounts for the more
thorough entry process at this installation than the others
After being satisfied with their
inspection and interrogation, the guards waved us through
the gate. Now WE had a question, since we'd never been on post
before. How do we get to the campground? Neither of them was
certain, but they gave us a map of the post, pointed us in the
general direction, and we eventually found it. That was easier
than finding the building where we were supposed to pay, but we
finally found that, too. (Buildings on military bases/posts
where we've been aren't numbered in logical, chronological
order. With all that "order" in the military, I'm surprised.)
We enjoyed our short time at this
campground. I'll show some photos and talk more about it in an
entry after our trip is over, comparing the various types of
places we stayed.
THE MISSILE RANGE MUSEUM & PARK
The museum just inside the entrance gate is a great place to learn about the history of the
missile range, literally from the earliest inhabitants of the
Tularosa Basin (the wide desert valley between Las Cruces and
Alamogordo, New Mexico) to detonation of the world's first
atomic bomb to early Space Age rocket testing to
current national and international research that is conducted here.
Visitors don't have to have military connections to visit the
museum, outdoor missile park, or Trinity Site -- they just have
to pass muster at the entrance gate! Admission is free. We spent
about an hour inside the museum and walking around the missile
park outside. If we'd had more time, we could have read a lot
more of the information with the displays.
A bit of history: the museum looks back to prehistoric
times, displaying artifacts from the campsites of
hunter-gatherers who killed now-extinct camels and mammoths for
food. Their grinding stones, pottery, and rock art have been
found all over the missile range. More recent inhabitants built
permanent pueblo structures.
History and artifacts from early
inhabitants in the Tularosa Basin area
Spanish explorers and missionaries arrived in the area in the
late 1500s. The "Camino Real" ran along the Rio Grande River
just west of White Sands. There were many conflicts over the
nest three hundred years between local Apache tribes and
European, and later American, settlers until the defeat of Chief
Victorio's Apache followers in 1880.
Next, ranchers and miners flooded into the Tularosa Basin.
Ranching was tough in this very dry area. Miners found a wide
variety of minerals in the surrounding mountains but never
struck it rich. Eventually the government took over the huge
territory I've already described.
The White Sands Proving Ground was established at the end of
WWII to test the atom bomb and emerging rocket and missile
technology, such as the German V-2 rocket. The range continues
to develop and test new weapons systems for the Army, Navy, and
Air Force. It also conducts purely scientific research and tests
advanced missile and laser technologies, such as the THAAD
missiles that strike targets directly to destroy them. The range has
an alternate space shuttle landing site where Columbia landed in
Information about Trinity Site AKA Ground
Zero, where the
first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945
Photos of "The Gadget" (left), the first
nuclear device, and a one-third scale model (right)
You can learn about this complete time-line in the range's
museum or at the official
It's more fun at the
museum than the web site, though, whether you're a big kid like
us or a little kid!
An early-generation computer used at the missile
Outside the museum, the Missile Park has an interesting display
of over fifty rockets, missiles, and launchers that have been tested on the
range. Each one is clearly marked with a sign that tells its
purpose and history. Some of the missiles are famous ones you've probably
heard of, like the Pershing, Patriot, and Redstone missiles. A pamphlet we received
at the museum says there have been more than 42,000 missile and
rocket firings at WSMR.
Here are photos of a few of the missiles and rockets on display.
See the web site
link below for more photos and information, if
you are interested.
Good view of the Organ Mountains behind a
display of missiles and rockets
Pershing, a two-stage, surface-to-surface
missile first fired in 1982
Redstone, our country's largest
surface-to-surface ballistic missile when it was first
fired in 1958. Redstone boosters sent our
first satellite into space -- and Alan Sheperd in 1961.
There are some other "flying machines" on display outside, such
as this Huey helicopter from the Viet Nam era. Jim flew in one
of these when he was over there in the Army, but he said his
never had doors!
"Huey" UH-1M helicopter used for troop
transport and medical evacuation
You've heard of the sightings of space aliens and flying saucers for which
Roswell, New Mexico is famous?? This piece of a missile might
have started that phenomenon. In the next photo Jim inspects an
which was a section of the Voyager Balloon System:
Aeroshell was launched near Roswell and landed at White Sands
Missile Range. The bright, shiny cone projected the
illusion of a flying saucer but its real purpose was to slow
down a vehicle landing on Mars.
THE BATAAN MEMORIAL DEATH MARCH
There is some running or hiking content to this entry!
Each year since 1992 a challenging march has been conducted through the
high desert terrain at White Sands Missile Range in honor of our
heroic service members who defended the Philippine Islands
during WWII. (The event was begun in 1989 at another location.) Over 4,000 people participated last year in the
full marathon (26.2 miles) and shorter 15.2-mile
events. This year's event is scheduled for March 30.
This patriotic photo montage is from the
event's web site home page:
Although most of the participants are members of the military,
civilians can also take the challenge as individuals or in
five-person teams. There are awards in various categories for the individuals and teams that arrive at the finish
line first (only in the marathon) but the event is not considered a "race." However,
the men's winning time of 3:16 in 2007 indicates running
was involved, not just walking. The course profile and
description of the high desert terrain look difficult. I don't know how
hard it is to enter the event, but I'd like to participate
Here's the web site for more information:
FINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT THE MISSILE RANGE
I encourage you to spend some time on the White Sands Missile
Range web site for further information:
Click on the links to "Visitors" and "Public Affairs" for a
wealth of information about the history of the range itself, the
U.S. missile program, and the Trinity Site (which is open to
visitors only twice a year and is located many miles away in the
northern part of the range).
On the web site are
numerous photos and a lengthy visitors guide in pdf format that
is interesting to read before you visit the post or the area. It
includes information about the three closest cities (Las Cruces
and Alamogordo, NM and El Paso, TX) and the White Sands National
Speaking of which, that's the focus of the next entry -- the
gorgeous white gypsum sand dunes that
give "White Sands" National Monument (and this whole
area) its name. Come along and play with us in the dunes
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil