Saturday, November 6, 2010
Day 128: Downhill
Wimsatt to the outskirts of Alamogordo. 22.2 miles/2438.8 total
Saturday, November 6, 2010
9:05 a.m. I’m departing from Sixteen Springs Canyon Road and US 82 in Wimsatt, going uphill for about eight miles into Cloudcroft, then steeply descending for fourteen miles to Alamogordo, a total distance of 22.2 miles.
It’s another clear sunny day. What else is new? It’s chilly up here, probably in the high 40s, but by the time I get to the sunny west side of the mountains it’ll be hitting 65 or 70.
Almost immediately an old couple stop to ask me if I’m “broke down” and need help. I tell them my story in brief—that I’m walking across the country and staying in a motor home at night. They laugh, I guess from the sheer insanity of the idea. The guy doesn’t have any teeth, and he looks jolly and benign and just a little daft. I’m reminded of one summer during college when I did some work for a guy, helping him build a breakwater on his lakefront property. He was probably only in his 50s, but his wife insisted that he needed someone to do the heavy work because he had a heart condition. So he’d hang out with me at the dock, bumming cigarettes from me on the sly and shooting the shit. This guy had false teeth that he seldom wore, and I got used to seeing just his gums. He was a nice guy to begin with, but the absence of teeth made him seem even more beneficent and genial. Then one day I came over while he was eating his supper, and he had his teeth in. He looked up and grinned at me and I was shocked. Those teeth made him look like a different person, sinister and tough. His smile was now menacing rather than kindly and avuncular. I think at that moment I was experiencing something innate in our species--the evaluation of another based on whether they are predator or prey or something in between, and the key to it is in the teeth.
I pass the Mountain of the Lord Church, set back about a quarter of a mile from the road. It has the now-familiar “Prayer, America’s Only Hope” sign out front. They must get those signs from some fundamentalist clearing house. Deliver us from our wickedness, oh Lord. In this case I'm sure that what they’d classify as America’s runaway wickedness would be things like voting Democratic and not executing enough blacks and Mexicans.
The sign on a building says James Canyon Volunteer Fire Department. Notwithstanding this, and the fact that James Canyon appears on other things near here, including the church and cemetery I visited yesterday, my map says this is Wimsatt. And it looks as if there are plenty of Wimsatts to go around. I read last night that old G. Gordon had a few kids and a bunch of grandkids. Up the road there’s a Wimsatt & Sons Construction and Storage Company. So the Wimsatts still make their presence known here.
Buildings and businesses dot the way as I near Cloudcroft. The Wimsatts have a U Haul rental operation. They, like everyone else, squeeze a living out of tourism, transience, and recreation up here in the mountains. I wonder if G. Gordon Wimsatt passed on his knack for reading bear grease to any of his descendants.
I start seeing quite a few spruce trees in addition to the pines, and some Douglas firs and balsam firs as well. The hills are thickly forested with evergreens here, with few bare spots on the peaks.
At 5 miles I reach the sign that says I’m entering the village limits of Cloudcroft, elevation 8,650 feet. But that’s just a teaser, because the real village isn’t for another two or three miles, and I’m still heading uphill. Wikipedia says the population of Cloudcroft was 729 in 2000, but I’ll bet it swells in the summer, because there are many lodges and campgrounds and vacation homes. A place that's twenty degrees cooler must draw people from down in the baking desert.
Cloudcroft was founded by the Eddy brothers, Charles and John (they must have named Eddy County after one or both of them). They organized the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad. They decided to run a rail line up into the Sacramento Mountains to harvest lumber, and when they got up here they saw that it would be a great place to bring tourists. Cloudcroft Lodge and a pavilion were built in 1899 and the rail line was completed to the top in 1900. In the 1930s the lodge was managed by Conrad Hilton, and it brought in some big names, like Clark Gable and Judy Garland. With the increasing popularity of cars, passenger rail service stopped in 1938.
I pass the Village of Cloudcroft Photovoltaic System Project, run by the EPA, Department of Energy, and the State of New Mexico. I see a few solar panels, but it looks as if they’re still setting them up.
Then comes Ski Cloudcroft, which is waiting for some snow at this point. A little way up the road they’re doing some logging on the hillside, and the sweet smell of sawdust fills the air. I see my first New Mexico raccoon roadkill. I’ve seen a few smears that probably were raccoons, but I couldn’t tell for sure. This one’s intact.
After Big Daddy’s Diner, the Elk Vista Motel, and the Crosseyed Moose Cafe, at 7.9 miles I enter the village center. Cloudcroft has new-looking elementary, middle, and high schools, one right after the other along 82.
Past the high school I head up to the central business district, which consists of a few blocks of boutiques, antique and souvenir stores, and bars and restaurants, all aimed at the tourist trade. The store front facades are flat and square in the typical old west style. I remember that when I was here in April in the car on the way out to California they had snow on the roofs of the buildings and roadsides here from an overnight storm.
After a little turn around the town and a visit to Allsup’s gas station convenience store for a cappuccino, I begin my trip down out of the Sacramento Mountains. Immediately I feel like I’m being pushed from behind, and each step jars my knees and my heels. As I begin tripping this light fantastic the first thing I can see on the far western horizon are the vast white sands looking like snow in front of the San Andres Mountains, perhaps forty miles distant. That’s a nice preview of what I’ll be seeing during the next two or three days of walking.
In the immediate foreground are the remnants of a train trestle. A historic marker tells the story of the railway built by Charles B. Eddy, which continued to operate as a freight railway until 1947. All that remains is this one trestle.
Less than two miles down the hill a guy on a bicycle passes me going the other way. Lord have mercy, that’s a serious bike ride, the kind you’d do if you were in training for the Tour de France. A little more than 4,300 feet over sixteen miles.
Off to my left the valley is filled with deciduous trees, flaming yellow and gold aspens and elms. I pass under the Harkey Pedestrian Bridge of the New Mexico Rails to Trails system. And here comes the same cyclist going down the mountain, coasting and riding the brake all the way. Easier than going up.
I come to a little place called Old Wooten. This was probably a water stop for the railroad. There’s an old water tank painted red. I go by an orchard where the trees are just loaded with ripe apples, and hardly a single one on the ground.
At about 15.5 miles I reach Mountain Park, elevation 6,750 feet. So that means I’ve descended 1,900 feet so far. Not quite halfway. The only factoid I can offer about Mountain Park is that it’s the birthplace of the cartoonist Bill Mauldin.
I stop in at the Wolf Creek Antler Works, a place that sells furniture made from elk and deer antlers. I sit on the front porch and talk to the proprietor, a guy named Joe. He’s originally from Artesia. I ask him if he’s heard of Gordon Wimsatt and he says oh yes, that guy was famous around here. And the Wimsatt family is all over up in the mountains. Joe says his business is slow in this spot and he’s thinking of going back up to Cloudcroft next year. Reluctantly I get back on my feet, which are a little more sore than usual from all this downhill walking.
The next little community is High Rolls. It lists its elevation as 6,750 feet also. But it’s downhill from Mountain Park, so somebody is mistaken.
West of High Rolls, at 17.1 miles, I come to a tunnel. Lupe at the Hope Quick Stop told me this is the only tunnel in New Mexico. It’s a short one, about a quarter of a mile. At the other end of the tunnel I’m once again treated to a view of the vast area of white sands on the desert floor.
Tucked against the steep cliffs I see a roadside cross and a little shrine to a young woman named Kristen. Her photograph is down at the bottom of the cross. She must have bought it right here, maybe driving a car, maybe as a passenger. Or perhaps she was walking, just like me, and one of these big loose rocks that are strewn along the shoulder fell down off the mountain and hit her in the head. (I’m starting to think like Anguish now.)
There’s about a mile and a half to go, and the vegetation is once more typical of the desert—yuccas, cactuses, mesquites—and the hillsides are bare of the tall evergreen trees.
I pass another dead raccoon, an empty beer bottle lying next to him as if he’d passed out from drinking too much. Maybe all these animal deaths aren’t due to car accidents after all.