West of the Pecos, Part III


Sunrise in Alamogordo involves a rather tardy sun peeping over the walls of the Sacramentos to the east:

100_2646.JPGIt's pretty to look at. But the most impressive sight is to the north, or would be, if not for the signage downtown:

100_2645.JPGThat's Sierra Blanca, 11,000 feet of snow-topped mountain. Purty. But not on our route to our next stop, Carlsbad, which lay back across the Sacramentos and southward. Leaving Alamogordo on Route 82, we almost immediately began climbing into one of the prettiest sections of New Mexico we'd yet seen, high mountain villages (such as the aptly named "Cloudcroft") set along wooded ridges where snow was still piled in skiable amounts. After a few miles, these yielded to a narrow green valley with small farms along the banks of an overflowing creek, the Rio Panasco. Most peculiar was the fact that every pasture along the river was occupied by either a handful of deer or a small flock of Wild Turkeys. Dad couldn't believe they were turkeys; there were just too many of them, too far out in the open. We finally decided to stop and snap a picture of a trio we saw strutting through a pasture, one member of which had caused us mild consternation by having so much white in its plumage:

100_2654.JPGApparently western toms have white where the eastern toms have chestnut brown, but I still thought this was rather a lot of white for a turkey; we speculated that it might have a bit of feral turkey in its background, but I suppose that there must be genes for white plumage in the wild population or there wouldn't be any white domestic birds.

We soon turned out of the Rio Panasco valley and were abruptly in yet another variant on the trip's theme of Empty Spaces. For the next twenty-odd miles, we rode along a ridge through fields of... uh... well, I guess you'd have to call them fields because they definitely weren't woods, but there sure wasn't much in them. Not even cows. Instead we saw enormous expanses of empty grazing lands, with sagebrush, the odd low scrub bush/ prickly pear/ cholla plant, and not much else. No houses, no barns, not even power lines. Heck, not even much in the way of windmills. There was only the road, the hills, and the horizon. The tiny, decrepit village of Hope interrupted the monotony for a few moments, but aside from the sad irony of the name, there was little to notice. By the time we reached the far side of town, the road builders weren't even bothering to put in curves. We drove the last twenty miles into Artesia with only four truly necessary turns of the steering wheel.

At that point, we were in familiar territory for a few dozen miles, having passed through Artesia and Carlsbad on the way from Midland to Roswell, but before long we were back into trailblazing mode, heading south from the town of Carlsbad to the caverns with which it shares its name.

We arrived at the Carlsbad National Park entrance in the early afternoon only to discover that the parking lots outside the visitors center had already filled. As a result, we were instructed to park the car at the Whites restaurant/gas station/snack bar/tchotchke emporium and take a shuttle van up to the entrance to the caves. Obligingly cramming ourselves into the back seat of the van, we were a little more cramped than we'd have liked (see below)...

100_2657.JPG...but despite the close personal contact with our fellow tourists, we whirled up the seven miles or so of Walnut Canyon to the top of the mountain that sits atop the caves. Once there, we faced a choice: either go in through the natural entrance to the caves and work our way down more than 700 feet to the "Big Room." Alternatively, we could take an elevator down from the visitor's center directly to the Big Room and walk around it. The Big Room itself was indicated on most tourist information materials as the must-see part of the caverns, but the natural entrance was where the hordes of bats and lesser nighthawks might be seen... at least, they might if you happened to visit the cave after April. Given that fact of migration and the desire not to wreck Dad's bum knee this early in the trip, we opted for a descent by elevator.

The Big Room itself is a massive cavern, roughly cruciform in shape, with passages leading to lower caverns as well as to the main entrance, and with numerous speleological formations of widely varying sizes, shapes, and colors. The formations are an immediate attraction to any photographer, but their location creates a bit of a problem. Since there's no natural light 75 stories below ground, every step of the path around the Big Room must be artificially lit, and every formation the Park wants to show off must be presented in some semi-theatrical fashion. The ambient lighting, however, is still pretty dim, so the use of a flash is indicated in some areas... but using a flash almost inevitably washes out the image. Here's what I mean:

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Same scene, but radically different looks. I continued furiously taking pics, sometimes turning off the flash, sometimes not, but there's simply no way to capture the atmosphere of an underground space the size of six football fields, where you can wander more than a mile and a half, where columns rise to a ceiling a hundred feet above you and pits drop down more than that below you. And most striking of all is the sound of hundreds of people shuffling around in the silence, all of them speaking in low tones and whispers. It's downright primeval in its power.

We took the whole circuit of the Big Room, but by then we were ready to get back to the surface and maybe grab something to drink. I also had one other item nagging at me: before I'd left, I'd put out the word to my online buddies that I was heading to West Texas, and I asked for any recommendations. One of my buddies, the inimitable d.g. strong, told me to check out the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which lay just across the NM/TX line south of the Caverns. Close to the border lay a little spur of trail called McKittrick Canyon, and I'd seen several writeups calling it "the most beautiful spot in Texas."

Well.

I talked Dad and Ian into taking the twenty-mile spin down to McKittrick, where we knew we'd have to move quickly in order to avoid being locked in the park at sunset. The visitor's center for the canyon was unoccupied at this point in the afternoon, so I couldn't ask anyone about likely birds, and Dad's knee was starting to give him a little irritation after the long stroll through the cave, so he wasn't up for a long trip. I elected to take a look at the little nature trail set in a loop near the center. The trail was clearly marked and laid out, with occasional signs identifying interesting plant life, so I figured there might be something interesting in avian terms as well--maybe a Canyon Wren, since we were in a canyon, or even a Rock Wren, since there were rocks. I hauled out the binoculars and headed up the slope, past rocks and chollas and plenty of prickly pears.

100_2707.JPGUnfortunately, by that time we were not alone. From out of nowhere, an older couple had appeared, asking us questions about the park and the canyon and everything else they could think of. We weren't any use, of course, having no more information about the place than they did, but that didn't stop them from their interrogation. He was tall and cranelike, she short and toadlike, and they spoke with a pronounced drawl that didn't strike me as familiar, so I assumed they were probably from some other part of Texas, visiting the Guadalupes for the first time. When they began arguing about whether to take the nature trail or head up into the canyon, we saw our chance and darted up the nature trail. We didn't get far before we realized that there simply wasn't much going on out there. Dad and Ian pushed ahead up the slope, but I had heard a vague, indeterminate birdcall somewhere out in the rocks and scrubby trees. Absolutely nothing was visible--not even the ordinarily ubiquitous ravens. Still, I had my binocs and I'd detected a call, and I was fully prepared to use them to find my bird.

And while I stood there at the edge of the trail, gamely staring through my binoculars out into the scrub, actually muttering things like "Where the hell's that call coming from?" and generally giving the obvious impression that I was trying very hard to identify whatever was out there, the Crane-Toads came wandering up the nature trail behind me, still in heavy discussion about whether this was the right path to take. I cursed and concentrated harder, trying to glean any bit of information I could from the empty landscape, all the while finding it more and more difficult to hear anything over the bickering voices.

It was at that point that Mr. Crane-Toad took a series of long steps away from his short-legged wife and up to me. And so help me, he was whistling. He couldn't have done a better job of obscuring the local birdcalls if he'd had a nose flute and a severe allergy to cacti.

I snapped. Immediately I took a side path out into the midst of the loop, seeking to do nothing but get away from the Crane-Toads, and praying to the shades of John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson to intercede on my behalf and get God to send these yutzes back to their vehicle and out of my hair. Thankfully, J.J. and Roger were on the ball, and after a few moments, the bickering could be heard descending the trail again. I darted back out onto the main trail and hustled up the slope to find Dad and Ian, who had halted for a breather to await me and inform me that there wasn't a damn thing worth seeing on this trail, so they were heading back to the car.

"Okay," I said, acutely aware of the looming gate-closing deadline. "Give me fifteen minutes. I'll be right behind you." I started scanning the rocks and bushes in the valley below the path, and within a few minutes I spotted movement; there was a bird down there. All I could tell was that it wasn't especially large, and that it was roughly dirt-colored. It was also clearly a lover of cover, as it kept darting from bush to bush to rock just fast enough for me to miss a good look. It seemed to wag its tail a bit, though, and after a few moments I was able to spot an eye ring... and a reddish tail. It was a Hermit Thrush, a bird that could hardly be described as an exciting new species, given my experiences helping one out of my driveway back in December.

But I kept my eyes and ears open as I came down the trail, and before long I spotted a bird, the familiar standby of birders everywhere, used as the standard for measuring size across the USA: the American Robin. Several of them, in fact, seemed to be fluttering around, making their familiar calls. But there was one in their midst that didn't quite look right. And as I got my binoculars trained on it, I detected absolutely no sign of a reddish breast. Instead, what I saw was a slim grey body with just a hint of buff in the dark wings. It took me a moment, since I'd only ever seen such a bird once before, but I eventually got it: a Townsend's Solitaire, perched helpfully at the crown of a dead tree:

100_2710.JPGNot a lifer, but a good bird. That, I knew, was as good as it was likely to get today, and with another three days of Texas birding ahead of me, I knew I didn't have to be greedy. I put away the binoculars, scampered down the trail, and climbed back into the car with a silent prayer of thanks to Messrs. Audubon and Peterson. They're good guys, really. And great birding companions.

TO BE CONTINUED

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 10, 2010 8:02 PM.

West of the Pecos, Part II was the previous entry in this blog.

West of the Pecos, Part IV is the next entry in this blog.

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