Seven-hundred fifty feet below the Chihuahuan Desert, in the pale illumination of dark passages, lies Carlsbad Cavern. Facilitators Hilary Marshall and Rachel Falcone took a peek underground at this National Park on their long drive to Fort Worth, TX from Las Cruces, NM. The cavern’s decorations–formed drip by drip as water has seeped into the limestone bedrock of the cave beginning 500,000 years ago–are stunning beyond words and images. “The Big Room,” like an underground sea, captivated us with both its vastness and subtle details.
Facilitator Hilary Marshall (left) can be seen forgoing a sore neck to get a closer look at the Cavern’s ceiling formations.
Above ground and within Texas’ borders, we drove through one of the region’s many ghost towns. Orla, Texas, an oil supply center in the mid-1960′s boasting a population of more than 200, is now only a monument to what it once was.
Below, a sign for the deserted Orla Grocery and Gas Station reels folks in with its honest words: “It’s a long way to anywhere from Orla Grocery….”
Our time in Las Cruces, NM, flew by and before we knew it, we’d reached the end of our stay. There was still so much to see, so before we left we spent the better part of a day hiking in the New Mexican desert.
We began the day in Baylor Canyon, slowly making our way into the Organ Mountains. Flocks of desert quail kept us company while we picked our way through a rocky creek bed (which Hilary mistook for a path).
Our pre-concieved notions of “desert” were continuously challenged throughout our time in Las Cruces. Dry and dusty New Mexico is home to a delicate and varied population of wildflowers, innumerable towering yucca plants, dozens of species of grasses, and all sorts of resilient animals. Some areas are rocky while others are covered in sand; some spots are home to only cactus while others can sustain a variety of plant life. “Desert” does not begin to describe the beauty we encountered while in New Mexico.
In the evening, just before sunset, we made our way to White Sands Nat’l Park, whose gypsum desert couldn’t be more different from Baylors rocky terrain. The sand there was pure white and cool to the touch. The towering dunes sustained only the most rugged plants and insects. To us Northerners, the scenery looked more like a snowy January evening than a blazing hot dusk in the desert.
Above, facilitator Rachel Falcone takes a rest atop one of the sand dunes. The sand itself was a sight to behold, but the delicate flowers that survive at White Sands deserve attention, too. Their roots tap into the nutritious soil beneath the dunes and their stems grow rapidly to stay above the surface of the ever-shifting landscape.
As the sun set on the desert, we packed up memories of New Mexico’s immense natural beauty and wealth of interesting people to carry with us as we head towards a new landscape: Texas!
97 year-old José Gonzales came to MobileBooth West with his daughter RosaLee Chavez to talk about his education in a one room school house in rural New Mexico. Back in his day, going to school was no picnic… in fact, it could be downright dangerous!
19 year-old teacher Miss Pruitt was not about to be run off like the previous teacher at Cutter School (who was allegedly driven mad by a “cut up” named Lloyd and was never heard from again). Before anyone had time to misbehave on the first day of school, Miss Pruitt pulled out her six-shooter to let the kids know she meant business. The gun stayed on her desk in plain sight, and when the “cutting up” began, she cocked it and pointed it straight at the troublemaker – the notorious Lloyd.
The gun wasn’t enough to scare him, and he kept right on misbehaving, so Miss Pruitt invented another punishment. She asked José to help her rig up two tiny nooses hanging from the window frame and she strung Lloyd up by his thumbs. He was left to dangle there in the hot sun for the rest of the school day and his poor thumbs were black by the end. He never did come to school again.
Mr. Gonzales told facilitator Hilary Marshall that she’d be surprised by his story, and she certainly was. The west was “wild and wooly” back then, and we thank Mr. Gonzales’ keen memory for reminding us of how much things have changed!
September is chilé season here in New Mexico, the nation’s chilÃ capitol. Facilitators Rachel Falcone and Hilary Marshall have been enjoying the smell of roasting green chilés since their first day in Las Cruces. MobileBooth West is parked just steps away from Wal-Mart’s giant chilé roasters (pictured below), and folks come by every day to take advantage of the chilé roasting services (free with purchase!).
After roasting over gas flames, the chilés are slightly blackened, steaming hot, and wonderfully aromatic. They’re also ready to eat or freeze. Chilé season doesn’t last long, but chilés are a staple of the New Mexican diet, so most families freeze enough to last them the rest of the year.
We’ve come to adore the smell of roasting chilés and to expect chilés in just about everything, from the commonly served green enchiladas to the rarer-but-just-as-delicious green chilé pecan brittle. There’s even chilé-infused liquors to be had if you wander into the right watering hole.
We salute you, green chilé, in all your versatile glory.
Gila Nat’l Forest in southern New Mexico covers 3.3 million acres of publicly owned land and contains the nation’s first Wilderness Area, which by law must remain undeveloped and without roads. The park offers visitors the opportunity to experience a vast array of landscapes, ranging from 10,000 ft. peaks to grassy valleys, from dry plains to lush pion and juniper forests. Gila is a place of peace for hikers who seek genuine solitude, or for StoryCorps facilitators with a few days off.
We barely scratched the surface of Gila Nat’l Forest’s offerings during our brief visit, but we certainly enjoyed ourselves. After an impromptu picnic in the truck while waiting out an evening hail storm, we soaked in the steaming Gila Hot Springs (above) to warm up. The waters soothed us for our next day’s hiking at Gila’s Cliff Dwellings.
The dwellings (above) have always been a popular destination, even before formal trails allowed thousands of tourists to to wonder about who might have inhabited these stony structures. Tucked neatly into large caves looming over the west fork of the Gila River, the dwellings were a safe haven for hunters and trappers after the original inhabitants were long gone, and the many artifacts that must have been left behind were poached long ago, leaving the identity of Gila’s people a mystery forever.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings were built under roofs of porous rock, which has slowly eroded over the years. The minerals contained in the rock left patterns of sooty black on almost every surface, a stark contrast to the colorful wild flowers and lush forests in the valley below.
After Gila, we visited City of Rocks State Park (below). A wild storm was rolling in across the desert and we could see the rain falling from miles away while we enjoyed blue skies.
City of Rocks is an odd spot: a fistful of giant boulders thrown to earth by a volcano thirty million years ago, or as folks say around here, by angry gods. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of stone and tufts of grass, with silence around every corner. Somehow we managed to find our way out, just as the late summer rain began to fall. We headed home to Las Cruces, well rested after two days in the wilderness.
In the presence of friend and fellow artist Pamela Hirst (right), Terry Alvarez (left) blessed MobileBooth West with her captivating song. Her voice and lyrics harnessed much of the beauty of the land surrounding Las Cruces, and the magic that seems to keep people here for generations. To preface her song, “Hot Day in July,” she said, “Well, I started out wanting to write a love song one day, and as you know if you write, it doesn’t always take you where you want to go. So it ended up being a song about Las Cruces…When I moved to Las Cruces in 1955, and for at least 20 years after, it rained at least half the days in July. The clouds would come over the Organ Mountains, and it would rain…So I started writing…and I just thought of the beauty of those mountains and the eternalness of the mountains….”
hot day in July
and clouds on the mountaintop
roll down to the valley
and lay down their tears
red hawk flying high
up over the mountaintop
he’s been on his journey
for thousands of years
look there in the valley where the sun is breaking through
there the spirits of the old ones danced and played
and up there on the cliff by the Cueva and the red rock
lonely cowboys rode their horses through the day
and far over yonder, silver river winding wide
we dreamed our dreams and plans one yesterday
hot night in July and clouds on the mountaintop
they’re gone by the morning, just drifted away
my memories roll by
like clouds on the mountaintop
like light on the hillsides
red fading to gray
Folks here in Las Cruces, NM, have had a lot of different things to say about Ciudad Ju·rez, located in the state of Chihuahua, directly across the U.S. Mexican Border from El Paso, TX. Famous for the hundreds of unsolved murders and abductions of women that have occurred in Ju·rez over the last decade, the city is not an obvious destination spot for American tourists visiting México. Nevertheless, folks here in Las Cruces seemed to agree that Ju·rez was something a visitor should see if they made it this far south.
The air in Ju·rez, like in Las Cruces, was hot and dry, which made the paletas we bought (they’re Mexican-style popsicles, made of real fruit) wonderfully refreshing. Music bumped on every block from shops, passing cars, and accordions, which reminded us both of our own bustling cities of Chicago and Brooklyn. People were friendly and willing to offer up information and advise about what to explore. Our sandaled feet were filthy by the end of the afternoon, just as they would have been after a long walk in one of our home cities. Juarez was both familiar enough to be comfortable and different enough to be interesting.
After spending only a brief time in Juarez, it seems that as a whole, this city could be understandably daunting to American tourists visiting from across the border. But the individual details, discovered by careful exploration with the five senses, were wonderfully exciting.
Above: on the edge of an alley market, facilitator Rachel Falcone takes a closer look at the brilliant colors of the city’s buildings.
With the vision of the famed Organ Mountains to the East, MobileBooth West opened to the public outside the Wal-Mart on Lohman Avenue in Las Cruces, NM. This day marked two “firsts” for StoryCorps: our first stop in New Mexico and our first time parking outside of Wal-Mart.
Despite the hustle-bustle of the crowd and the busy Wal-Mart parking lot, several of those gathered took on our StoryCorps practice of listening closely.
A gem of a lady graced MobileBooth West for our first interview in Las Cruces. Ninety-five-year-old Gwendolyn Jones came with her daughter Gayle Lewis and revealed herself to be as humble as she is extraordinary.
A woman ahead of her times, Gwendolyn went to college as soon as she could, attending the University of Kansas at the early age of 16. When Gayle asked Gwendolyn what her parents thought of her going off to college as a young women in 1928, Gwendolyn said she didn’t wait to find out. They went off to work, and when they returned she had already left for school. “I was determined to go,” she said. She continued with the same initiative in her career in social work and then as a teacher, always working out of the home, even as she raised her family.
Gwendolyn has quite a lot to smile about and her joy was infectious. Here she exits MobileBooth West with the help of facilitator Rachel Falcone and KRWG Morning Edition Host Carrie Hamblen.
Special thanks to KRWG Development Director Ford Ballardfor providing photos of our Opening Day events.