Monday, November 8, 2010

Day 129: Alamogordo

Alamogordo to White Sands National Monument. 21.1 miles/2459.9

Monday, November 8, 2010

8:50 a.m. I’m starting at the north end of Alamogordo, heading through the city, then down US 70 to the visitor’s center at the White Sands National Monument, a distance of 21.1 miles.

It’s about 60 degrees and clear, expected to get up to about 70 or 75. A beautiful day as usual. In front of me as I head west on US 82 are the San Andres Mountains, and behind me are the Sacramento Mountains.

Very soon into the walk I turn left onto Florida Ave., entering the Alamogordo city limits. A mile or so down Florida I pass the Deutsche Schule Alamogordo, looking fairly new and prosperous. In 2008 the German government built this school for the children of German air force pilots who train at Holloman Air Force Base, southwest of the city. (As if to reinforce this, I see a couple of people speaking German at the gas station after the walk.) I wonder if they still call it the Luftwaffe?

I should mention that Alamogordo was founded and laid out by the El Paso and Northeartern Railroad brothers, Charles and John Eddy, and that John chose the name Alamogordo, which means “fat cottonwood tree,” after a grove of, well, fat cottonwoods he remembered from down by the Pecos River. When the Eddy brothers laid the city out, they numbered the east-west streets and named the longer north-south streets after states. White Sands Boulevard, which is the main drag and where I’ll be soon, was originally called Pennsylvania Avenue.

Alamogordo’s motto is “The Friendliest Place on Earth.” That’s a bit grandiose, don’t you think? I have found most of the people here to be about as friendly as they are elsewhere, to be sure. But the friendliest on earth? Even allowing for normal civic hyperbole, that's a big statement, bound to invite dispute.

The north end of the city seems to be a prosperous middle class neighborhood. The military is big in Alamogordo, and nearby Holloman Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range employ over 6,000 people, many of whom live in this city of about 35,000. There are also many military retirees living around here.

Alamogordo is perhaps most famous for being the city closest to the Trinity site, where they detonated the first atomic bomb in the summer of 1945. Even though it was several dozen miles from here it must have lit up the sky a bit. Closer than I'd want to be to an atomic explosion.

Down at the White Sands Missile Range is where they did quite a bit of research in connection with the space program in its early years. Training chimps, decelerating people from 600 mph to a full stop in one and a quarter seconds, that kind of thing. There’s a museum here in town dedicated to the history of the space program. I won’t visit it, however. Frankly, the whole space thing never excited me much, in reality or in fiction. Except of course for I Dream of Jeannie, which was a great show.

At 4.2 miles, after cutting across on Indian Wells Boulevard, I turn south onto US 70, White Sands Boulevard. Right away I pass a large campus of buildings of the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. According to a sign in front (in large type), it was founded in 1903. The first teacher was the blind daughter of lawman Pat Garrett, Elizabeth Garrett, who also wrote the state song, “O Fair New Mexico.” And for you deep trivia buffs, here's the last verse of that song, copied from my 2007 edition of the New Mexico Blue Book:

Days that are full of heart-dreams,
Nights when the moon hangs low,
Beaming its benediction
O'er Nuevo Mejico.
Land with its bright manana
Coming through weal and woe,
State of our esperanza
Is Nuevo Mejico.

I pass the Trinity Full Gospel Church, Pastor Harold T. Marshall. I wonder if this church is named after the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost or the a-bomb site? Maybe both. Which reminds me that I read about a church here in Alamogordo that held some book burnings in 2001. Not this church, but one called Christ Community Church. They burned Harry Potter books as well as books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, Star Wars books, and the works of William Shakespeare. Also a Ouija board. The pastor called the Harry Potter books “a masterpiece of Satanic deception.” To retaliate, the Alamogordo Public Library held a fundraiser and used the proceeds to purchase books by J. K. Rowling, Tolkien, and Shakespeare.

Strictly as a statement of literary criticism, I can see the burning of those books, except for the Shakespeare, of course. I think burning books, particularly if they're insipid ones, may have its place. After all, books aren’t sacred, especially Bibles and Korans. If the burnings had been held a few years later they could have warmed themselves with some of that damned Twilight series, and thrown some Dan Brown on the fire while they were at it.

I pass the Alamogordo Visitor Center and Chamber of Commerce, whose free RV dumping station I availed myself of yesterday. In this complex there’s also the Tularosa Basin Historical Museum, which I visited last April on my way through here. I decide to go back in for a few minutes and end up having a nice conversation with the docent, a woman named Shirley. We talked about our grandchildren mostly.

I stop to exchange pleasantries with a woman who is holding one of those street corner signs, this one for a furniture company. But she seems quite paranoid and doesn’t want to talk. I'm tempted to mention to her that Alamogordo is supposed to be the friendliest place on earth, but she doesn't appear to be in the mood.

I come to the Commission for the Blind Orientation Center, in a 1949 vintage adobe building, quite handsome. I pass My Mother’s Place Restaurant, the Rocket Restaurant, the White Sands Motel. As I reach the southern edge of town the buildings thin out. I pass the Highway 70 Adult Store, a couple of abandoned car dealerships, some used car lots, a paint and bump shop.

Then I’m back in the desert again. A flat expanse lies before me for the next 60 miles or so, with the San Andres Mountains in the distance but getting closer. Out here in the middle of nowhere there’s a new-looking place called Plateau Espresso. They’re selling the usual fancy expensive coffee and tea drinks. I opt for a blended iced chai, which is basically a milkshake with just an afterthought of spiced chai tea and a big glob of whipped cream on top. But it hits the spot when you're walking through the desert. Chai wallah, come here, boy!

At 14 miles I pass the entrance to the main gate of Holloman Air Force Base. Lots of new-looking base housing along a fence by the road. After about a half mile of this the base becomes fenced-off bare desert, jets flying high and low over me.

Some high clouds are coming in from over the mountains to the west. At 19 miles I pass a sign saying that I’m entering White Sands Missile Range, "Birthplace of America’s Missile and Space Activity. Visit our Museum and Gift Shop and Missile Park."

I begin to see the white sand dunes of the national park, and at 20 miles I see the sign for White Sands National Monument. Not long afterwards the motor home, parked in front of the visitor’s center, comes into view.

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