Valley of Fires

Carrizozo, New Mexico, February 2003

2/7/2003, 8:35 p.m.
I'm off to a bit of a rough start. After months of wondering where our snow was—by now we should have had several snows of a foot or more and at least a few inches of accumulation—today of all days I woke up to a temperature of 12 degrees and a dusting of snow. It looked likely to stay icy all day, so I reported to work that I would not be taking the approved personal day after all and was promptly sucked into a maelstrom of little troublesome aggravations.

By early afternoon it was looking clear again, and I realized that if I could escape from work I might still manage my Big Adventure. At 4:00 sharp I clocked out, loaded Lionel, Rowdy (the current foster greyhound), Six and Kiki into the Yaga Hut, and hit the road. I would like to have taken the cats, but so far they're not big fans of the Yaga Hut. We'll have to work on that.

So here I am, snug in my little house, pink bird on my shoulder, listening to good music and enjoying some me-time. I did the Wilbury Twist in between bites of dinner. I have books, coffee and chocolate... life is good.

I want to talk about driving the Yaga Hut while it's still fresh on my mind. First thing to remember is that she's a behemoth—approximately 25 feet long, 9 feed wide, six wheels, 9500 pounds of 70's brown and shag carpet powered down the road by a tempermental Dodge 440 engine. From my position in the driver's seat, I can reach the floor switch (yes, floor switch) for the bright lights with the very tip of my boot if I reach slightly. If I remove my left hand from the wheel and fully extend that arm and shoulder I can work the turn signal level. Turning the lights on or off requires leaning far forward over the steering wheel.

The thing about taking a solo trip with Yaga is this: If you need to do anything, you stop. Can't see out the rearview? Pull over—you can't reach it from where you're sitting. CD is on it's fourth repeat? Stop—the player's on the opposite side of the dash.

In general driving the Hut is sort of a cross between motorcycling and, say, what I imaging piloting a river barge might be like. It takes all your focus like riding—you can't afford to get distracted for a second. Any any required maneuvering takes space, time, and planning so you'd better look ahead. You know how in the old movies when someone is driving, you can see the steering wheel turning back and forth? That really happens in the Hut; staying in your lane requires constant small adjustments. It's tiring to drive, and you have to make a concerted effort to stay relaxed.

Now, you can consider all of that plus the $40 per fillup (not to mention the unspeakable gas mileage) to be the Hut's down side. None of it is really ~bad~, it's just... what it is. And the up side? I have a warm comfy bed for the night, with all the electricity I can use and space for myself, two large dogs, and two caged birds, at a cost of $11 per night. I cooked my dinner on a gas stove in my tiny kitchen, and tomorrow after I hook up the water I'll have hot and cold running water, including a toilet and shower. The coffee pot is set up and ready to turn on when I wake up. What more could I want? I'm feeling good about my little getaway.

Roll up your rug, dust your broom
Ball the jack, howl at the moon
Ain't ever been nothin' quite like this
Everybody's tryin' to do the Wilbury Twist

—The Traveling Wilburys, vol. 3

2/8/2003, 2:36 p.m.
As my little adventure continues, I need to tell you something about the remarkable place I've made my temporary home. But first, a little about some challenges and lessons I'm having with regard to RV camping. I need to get them down here because eventually stoda and I will need to do something about them, but in the overall framework of my trip they're not very important.

First, I ran out of propane last night, so today there's no cooking or hot water. Not an issue, as I have a tiny microwave and there's a restroom nearby with water for washing and drinking. Lesson #1: In really cold weather, use the portable electric heater for temperature control and save the propane for cooking and washing up.

After taking the dogs on a nature walk this morning, I came back to try and hook up to the campground's water system. The RV's tank was drained and filled with pink antifreeze for the winter, so first I fill the storage tank and start running the faucets to flush that out. After awhile I notice a lot of water dripping down the outside of the RV, so with a sinking heart I go in to investigate. Uh-oh... the pump leaks and has soaked a large area of carpet under and in front of the sink. I turn everything off, use a synthetic chamois to sop up as much of the water as I can, and aim the heater and fan under there to dry things out. A little more poking seems to indicate that the only problem is some loose connections. For the job jar: Get some hose clamps on those fittings.

Next task is hooking up to the pressurized water system. Standing outside with snow falling, I hook up the hoses and turn on the water, causing an immediate spew around the hose fitting. Turn it off and tighten the fitting. Water on, leakage. Several attempts and a pair of soaked gloves later, there's still a significant leak. Lesson #2: A roll of Teflon tape would be a good thing to keep in the supply drawer.

So that's where I am now, with no propane and no running water. I'm comfortably warm, gloves are hung up to dry, I've refilled my water bottles in the women's room, and this is still a whole lot more comfortable than a tent. I'm going to close for now, finish my coffee, and take the dogs out wandering.

Where will you be when it all comes down
What will you hold sacred and true
Where will you be when it all comes down
What thing of all things will be treasured by you

—Nathan Hamilton, All for Love and Wages

2/8/2003, 7:13 p.m.
After a day of roaming with the dogs over the malpais—the badlands—strolling through falling snow, and talking with the campground host (who turns out to be a Bird Person and was thrilled to make Six's and Kiki's acquaintance), it's time to tell you a little about this place.

On visits before I moved to New Mexico, I found the Valley of Fires Recreation Area a fascinating and strangely beautiful place. Located near Carrizozo, this particular bit of the malpais is one of the youngest lava flows in the continental United States. Although there are volcanoes in this state, there was no eruption here: Lava flowed up through volcanic vents to flood the Tularosa valley between 1,000 and 1,500 years ago. It covered the original valley floor, leaving islands of higher sandstone, called kipukas, amidst the flow. This campground is located atop a large kipuka.

I'm surrounded by black rock to the horizon in all directions. The flow covers about 127 square miles, and is 165 feet deep at its thickest point. Imagine yourself here on horseback or foot 150 years ago and you'll certainly find "badlands" an accurate description—rocky and treacherous, filled with pressure ridges and collapsed gas bubbles and spiky cacti and unstable lava formations. Windborne dirt and decayed lava provide a foothold for a desert ecosystem, with heavy vegetation and thriving wildlife.

Not surprisingly, the Hawai'ian language has a lot of words pertaining to volcanic activity, and since the olivine basalt of the Valley of Fires is similar to deposits from Hawai'ian volcanoes, two of them are used here to describe the two types of lava. Pahoehoe (pah-HOY-hoy) is thick and ropy, formed when cooling but still molten lava "wrinkled" up against an obstacle. The other type is aa (AH-ah), blocky and jagged.

We started down the wheelchair-accessible path, which so far extends about a third of the length of the nature trail. Just where the ashphalt ends is a glorious juniper growing out of the rock. Windblown, twisted and graceful, it's estimated to be over 400 years old. Leaving the pavement, we ventured out directly onto the malpais, weaving among black, jagged towers that loomed far over my head. On a wet, snowy day like this the inhabitants of the place take cover (perhaps having more good sense than a certain redheaded biker chick). On a sunny morning we might have found cottontails, dark-skinned and collared lizards, roadrunners, qual, cactus wrens, snakes, tarantulas and other residents. This area also provides habitat for great horned and burrowing owls, turkey vultures, ravens, golden eagles, and harrier, red-tailed and Swainson's hawks as well as several species of bats.

Prehistoric people occupied the malpai, finding it a rich source of plants for food and fiber, game animals, grinding stones, and clay. At the time of white European incursions into New Mexico, the lands were occupied by the Mescalero Apaches. This part of the state also had a significant role in the "wild and wooly west," about which more tomorrow.

A rock that spoke a word
an animated mineral it can be heard

—They Might Be Giants, Apollo 18

2/9/2003, 10:00 a.m.
It snowed all day yesterday, but this morning it's bright and sunny. I'm going to make an early start because if there's snow or ice at my house I want to have time to deal with it in the daylight. There's a chance I'll have to find someplace to stash the Hut until the road clears off, if I can't get her up our lane.

I mentioned yesterday that this part of New Mexico is significant historically. It's inextricably tied up with the golden era of cattle barons. The area has a hair-raising history, and it came to national attention between 1878 and 1881 for the "Lincoln County War." This bitter and deadly feud pitted the Murphy-Dolan gang against the Tunstall-McSween gang in a series of skirmishes in and around Lincoln, New Mexico. It was here that one Billy Bonney, better known to history as Billy the Kid, earned his reputation as a desperado. (Before he was gunned down in Fort Sumner by Sheriff Patrick Garrett in 1881, The Kid claimed to have killed 21 men, one for each year of his life. All the same, he was well-loved in certain circles hereabouts and there were many in Fort Sumner who cursed Garrett for bringing the outlaw down.) And now, having had my R&R, it's time for me to head north into those clouds I see and hope that I'll end up at home.

Fill your heart up with somethin'
Take the wind and the weather
And the sunshine feels better
And when it's time to go
Sweep up your heartaches
Tie up your bootlace
Pack up your suitcase
Your suitcase full of tears

—Mark Ambrose, Shadow on the Moon

2/8/2003, 6:23 p.m.
I'm safely home, after a mostly pleasant drive home. Somewhere between Claunch (I love that name, it's so Hank the Cowdog) and Mountainair I ran into enough snow to make the rear wheels slithery; you haven't slithered 'til you've slithered in the Yaga Hut! I slowed down and took it easy, and eventually got past the bad roads only to have the wind pick up. The last 40 miles of the trip were pretty taxing due to gusts that threatened to shove me right off the road. It looks like about three inches of snow fell while I was gone, but it's still dry and toothy so we made it up that final hill to the house. The Hut is unloaded, refilled with antifreeze in the pipes, covered, and tucked in for the time being; the birds are dozing next to the brightly burning woodstove downstairs; I have a very tired dog on either side of me; and here I am back at the computer. The cats are pretending they didn't notice I was gone.

Solo roaming is something I used to do a lot, and I haven't done much of it since we moved away from Texas. But it feels good; it feels like reclaiming a little part of myself that I almost let slip away. And it's good to be home, so before I wander out to soak in the hot tub I'll leave you with these words, with an apologetic nod to the Traveling Wilburys:

She can drive a boat, she can pop a clutch
She can even drive the Yaga Hut
She's so good to look at in the mud
She's my baby


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