New Mexico and Arizona

New Mexico and Arizona, October 8-24, 2004

Unlike other recent excursions, two weeks in the Southwest is hard to categorize in just a few words. So I have split up the photos five ways, and have marked each day with appropriate icons. Or you can click here to see thumbnails of all of the photos.

Balloons [Photos] - The first event on the Travelquest International bus tour of astronomomy and aerospace sites in New Mexico was the final day of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. The festivities were capped by a near-tragedy that fortunately ended well.

Balloon Fiesta

Astronomy and Aerospace [Photos] - The centerpiece of the trip was a bus tour of various New Mexico sites having to do with astronomy, rocketry, air power, and even a stop by the UFO Museum in Roswell. I also saw a vintage B-17 Flying Fortress take to the air in Mesa, Arizona.

Wildlife [Photos] [Video] - I spent some time chasing cranes, coyotes, hawks and hummingbirds around such places as Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and Cave Creek Recreational Area near Portal, Arizona. The video is of a coyote among the cranes at Bosque del Apache.

Scenics [Photos] - I don't claim great proficiency with scenics, but it's easier with subjects such as White Sands National Monument, Chiracahua National Monument, and other sites in New Mexico and Arizona.

Baseball [Photos] [] - I took in three Arizona Fall League games in Scottsdale and Mesa.


Oct. 8 - After flying from Boston to Phoenix, I took in an Arizona Fall League night game in Mesa. However the three-hour time difference caught up with me and I gave up after six innings.

Oct. 9 - It was right back on an airplane as I flew to Albuquerque to join the bus tour. Our stops that afternoon were the Atomic Museum and the Lodestar Planetarium near our hotel in Old Town. I'll avoid editorializing on what the Atomic Museum portrayed except for this - I doubt Hitler, Tojo or Stalin would have struggled with the moral implications of using such weapons if they had been provided with them before Truman.

Oct. 10 - We arose early for the Balloon Fiesta and saw the first batch of hot-air balloons take off before dawn. Waves of balloons, 750 in all, were inflated and launched over the next several hours from the huge field. The predictable air patterns around the Albuquerque area allow the balloons take off and land on the same field. I took quite a few photos as the rising sun lit the balloons, and put on my telephoto to catch some of the intriguing designs such as bees and dragons. I saw the Smokey Bear balloon on the far side of the field and wished that it were closer so I could get a shot of it. A few minutes later the elderly pilot and his two young passengers also wished they were somewhere else as they somehow managed to get snagged on a 600-foot radio tower. Amazingly, they were able to climb from the basket to the tower and descend down the ladder to safety. 600 feet down a ladder, yikes! I got a few distant shots of that. Then we went to the Meteorite Museum at the University of New Mexico. I think it's the first time I've seen an actual electron microscope. Later on in the evening we went stargazing at the Albuquerque Astronomy Club site outside of town.

Oct. 11 - We boarded the bus for a swing northward through Bandelier National Monument and a tour of Los Alamos. I hiked the loop around Bandelier and remembered being there before in the mid-90's. Los Alamos is where the first atomic bombs were developed and is still the site of a lot of scientific research, so we found out a lot about how all that came about.

Oct. 12 - We hit the road in earnest, leaving our Albuquerque motel and heading south. At Socorro we turned west to take a look at the Very Large Array of radio telescope dishes. In the movie Contact, the dishes were pulled together in a very tight triangle that fits well on a movie screen. But there are also three other configurations, and the current one is their widest spacing, covering miles. They move the dishes every four months, so they cycle through the various configurations every 16 months. It's hard to grasp the scale, but the dishes are huge. We went past the array to the next town to have lunch and saw a few pronghorns along the road, but there was no opportunity to get some photos. After the VLA we went south to Las Cruces and did some stargazing at New Mexico State. With the city lights around the observatory, conditions were far from ideal, but I did get my first-ever look at Uranus. (The immature among you can now pipe in with the inevitable jokes.)

Oct. 13 - We stopped by White Sands Missle Range and looked around the outside displays, then got an up close look at the V2 launch site. After the defeat of Germany in WW II, dozens of V2 rockets were transported to White Sands, and this is where the American rocket program really took off. (Haha.) We went on to White Sands National Monument. We weren't there long enough for the type of photos that I wanted to do, so I considered our stop to be a scouting trip for a return four days later. In Alomogordo at the Space Museum we saw many artifacts and the Astronaut Hall of Fame, then we headed up the mountain road to the Lodge at Cloudcroft, 9,000 feet up. Cloudcroft is well named as we were inside a cloud when we arrived. At dinner we heard a presentation about astrophotography with CCD cameras, which are specialized digital cameras. We also heard that it was snowing outside. Our scheduled stargazing was wiped out by the snowstorm so instead I tried some timed night shots of the lodge as the snow came down.

Oct. 14 - The sun was out and the accumulated snow didn't hamper our drive to the Sunspot area to tour the National Solar Observatory and the Apache Point Observatory. Both observatories were interesting, but Apache Point was probably more impressive because we got to see some of the big mirrors in motion. At dinner we had a presentation by Alan Hale, co-discoverer of Hale-Bopp Comet, then it was on to an evening of stargazing at and near the New Mexico Skies facility in Mayhill. If you live in a city and look up at the night sky, at best you'll see the Moon and a few planets and stars. In this part of New Mexico there are no nearby cities or other sources of stray light, so the Milky Way shows up as a bright band of stars. My first stop was at the home of an amateur CCD astronomer who had an incredible setup. Much of what he was doing was completely new to me, but some members of the group were able to follow along as he took an image of a galaxy. Next I went up the hill and got some looks through a 30-inch scope at New Mexico Skies. Such a scope is so tall that you need a ladder to look through it. (The 30-inch designation refers to the diameter of the mirror and for a non-professional scope is really huge.) It is best suited to looking at faint, distant objects such as galaxies. This evening's experience was fascinating, but also instructive of the limitations of observational astronomy. The colorful photos of galaxies that you see in books are camera exposures of many minutes or several hours. What I see through the telescope, even a huge 30-inch scope, is a faint fuzzy ball. Experienced observers may be able to discern more detail, but not much more. If nothing else this experience helped me decide that I am not going to spend much time sitting outside when it is cold and dark looking at faint fuzzy blobs. What I did on Oct. 18 fits my interests more closely.

Oct. 15 - The landscape flattened out as we came down from the mountains and headed east toward Roswell. For a hoot, we stopped in at the UFO museum and also looked through the surrounding retail establishments. We headed back toward Albuquerque, with a brief stop at the lava fields of the Valley of Fires recreational area. During the few minute of hiking, one of the group managed to encounter and get a good photo of a rattlesnake. Yikes. Then it was back to our original hotel and our tour farewell dinner. It was an interesting group of people on the tour and the Red Sox fans outnumbered those who seemed to favored the Yankees, so that was good. However, as we said farewell it looked as though the Bosox were finished.

Bosque del Apache

Oct. 16 - The hotel van ran me out to the car rental facility, and I headed out on my own back down to Socorro. On the way I stopped in at Sevillita National Wildlife Refuge. Their hiking trail is through a desert landscape, and there were some little birds hanging around the feeders behind the visitor center. I loafed there for a while, then decided to check out the VLA again to get some additional photos and also to see if I could find those pronghorns again. I found the VLA, but the pronghorns had moved on. Then it was on to my first loop through Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, certainly one of the crown jewels of the NWR system. Best photo of the day was of a yellow-headed blackbird mixed in with the redwings. There weren't a lot of sandhill cranes yet, but there were a few.

Oct. 17 - After a restless night punctuated by the Saturday night drunks coming back to the motel at 2:30 a.m., I headed east back toward the Valley of Fires. I did a more extensive hike than was possible during our tour stop, but didn't find any rattlers despite a (careful) look around. Next stop was White Sands National Monument, and I tried to take advantage of the sun moving in and out of the clouds to shoot landscapes with different areas highlighted. For wildlife, I saw one teeny white lizard. I got back in time to make a loop through Bosque del Apache and saw a family of mule deer and a roosting hawk.

Oct. 18 - I devoted this day to Bosque del Apache and was rewarded with coyotes, cranes, hawks, blackbirds, the deer family again, and a roadrunner. In just two days it seemed as though the number of cranes had increased. While shooting video of some cranes in a field they started making noise about something, then a coyote strolled through the field. A sandhill crane is a big bird and a lone coyote probably would have difficulty taking one down, so the cranes were very alert but did not flee. It's just a few seconds, but I think think it's a fascinating video clip. That was just one of the highlights of the day.

Oct. 19 - Travel day. Drove back to Albuquerque, flew to Phoenix, then drove southeast to overnight in Willcox, AZ.

Oct. 20 - First stop of the morning was Chiracahua National Monument, which has many interesting rock formations. After a few hours there, I figured there were three ways to get to my evening's lodging in Portal on the other side of the Pendregosa Mountains - a long loop to the south, a shorter loop to the north, or the direct route on a "seasonal" dirt road. Don't tell Hertz but I took the direct route. The road was washboarded and it was impossible to go more than 15-20 m.p.h, but there were no bad ruts to make the road impassable to a passenger car. It was rather narrow so I was happy not to meet any vehicles in the mountains. After some time I reached the other side and started exploring the Cave Creek area, a popular birding area. The best season for birding is winter, but even in October there is something to see. My literature suggested a stop at the Southwestern Research Station run by the American Museum of Natural History. There I found some handy benches next to hummingbird feeders, and there I plopped down and got some good photos of hummingbirds and Mexican jays. I was running low on gas so I my next stop was the town of Rodeo, New Mexico to get fuel. Even though I spent years driving around the empty parts of South Dakota, it seemed to me that Rodeo was one of the more the most desolate places I had ever seen. I backtracked into Arizona to check into the Portal Peak Lodge. That evening I watched the Red Sox complete a miraculous comeback to win the pennant and inflict everlasting shame and humiliation on the Yankees.

Oct. 21 - Took a final look at the Cave Creek area and hiked a ways up the South Fork trail. Saw a couple of woodpeckers and surprised a young buck. Then I made another stop at the Southwest Research Station and tried more photos and video of the hummingbirds. On my return journey, I looped south to Douglas and located the Whitewater Draw refuge. The were a few ducks nearby, but the cranes were landing in a distant part of the lake so there wasn't much to see. I drove through Tombstone and managed to get through a Border Patrol checkpoint without difficulty. It was quite windy south of Tucson, and north of the city it became a sandstorm. Fortunately it turned to rain as I approached Scottsdale.

Oct. 22 - To fit in with the aero/astro theme of the two weeks, I headed out to Falcon Field in Mesa to check out the Arizona Wing of the Confederate, er, Commemorative Air Force. (I guess they decided "Confederate" wasn't very PC.) The Arizona Wing is a museum but it's also a real working facility. Many of the aircraft there such as the B-17 Sentimental Journey are still airworthy. It was an unexpected surprise to find out that they were preparing the B-17 to take off for El Paso that morning. Since I wasn't expecting it, I only had my little camera. I got a few stills as they were working on the plane, and attempted some video as it took off and did a fly by. In the afternoon it was back to Scottsdale to catch the Scorpions taking care of the Peoria Javelinas 7-6.

Oct. 23 - Strolled through downtown Scottsdale and had lunch before hoofing over to Scottsdale Stadium to see the Grand Canyon Rafters beat the Phoenix Desert Dogs 4-2. In the evening as I packed I watched the Bosox punish the Cardinals in the opening game of the World Series.

Oct. 24 - On my connecting flight out of Pittsburgh, US Airways knew there was going to be a 75-minute delay, but rather than letting us sit it out inside the terminal they loaded us on to the plane so they could clear the gate. After we taxied out to the holding area, THEN they told us there would be a delay. However being late meant that the lights of Fenway Park were shining brightly as we made our approach into Boston. Curt Schilling and his bloody sock were about to take the mound. I had my little radio while waiting for the bus, and I did manage to make it home in time to see the end of Game 2. Two games later the miracle was complete and The Curse died at age 86.

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