NM to TX: White Sands, Rockets, Visiting A True Ghost Town, & A Very Special Grave

It’s pretty amazing to be driving along seeing this out the window…

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…then taking a slight detour and finding yourself in a drastically different world:

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When we left Las Cruces, our goal was to make it to San Antonio by the end of the day. We had two routes to choose from: the southern route through El Paso, allowing us a quick trip into Juarez, Mexico, or the northerly slightly-out-of-the-way route through Carlsbad.

Ultimately, we decided to go north – we had no idea how bad the border crossing would be, neither of us had any identification beyond our licenses, and the barrage of drug war-related roadside bombings that had literally occurred in the past few days didn’t seem all that inviting.

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Our first stop was White Sands National Monument, a vast desert expanse of brilliant ivory-colored gypsum sand.

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As you drive deeper into the desert, the vegetation disappears until you are surrounded by white on all sides, with only the mountains in the distance.

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Because gypsum is water-soluble, it’s rarely found in sand form, as rain water will wash it out to sea. However, with no natural water outlet, the water simply sinks into the ground, leaving behind the gypsum.

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The park offers night walks, where the moonlight reflecting off the sand is supposed to be incredible.

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From the road, the sand dunes rise up to 20-30 feet, and it’s a lot of fun trying to scramble to the top (er, not sure if that’s actually allowed or not):

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Of course, if you’ve got sand…

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A very popular activity at White Sands is sledding! Sleds can be rented from the Visitor’s Center, and we saw a bunch of kids barreling down sand dunes.

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A number of paths take you through the surprising variety of desert flora, including this very beautiful pink flower (nature’s perfect color pallets never cease to amaze me):

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The park’s Visitor Center is a National Landmark in itself, an adobe-style structure built in the 1930’s.

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Quick digression: one of my favorite license plates in the US is New Mexico’s…

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…and in the White Sands parking lot, I saw they were phasing it out with this less optimal version (referencing Albuquerque’s famous annual hot air balloon gathering). Nice, but I really love the first one:

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White Sands National Monument is located in the middle of the White Sands Missile Range, the largest military installation in the United States. As you drive along the highway, numerous signs warn you of the dangers of trespassing. Meanwhile, the rocket theme is played up by the nearby town of Alamogordo:

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A decaying rocket sign:

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We made a short trip off the highway in Alamogordo to see the New Mexico Museum of Space History, appropriately located on Route 2001:

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We didn’t have time to go inside, but the outside alone was worth the detour. A ton of rockets are positioned outside the museum…

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…along with a lot of neat artifacts from nearby rocket testing, including this spent booster base:

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An enormous rocket booster in much better shape:

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But the real reason we stopped was to visit the grave of a very special American hero: Ham, the world’s first astrochimp.

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Out of 40 candidates, 2 year-old Ham was chosen to be the first spaceape sent up from the United States (differentiated from previous animals launched into space in that he had to actively perform tasks). His journey lasted about 17 minutes, and he only suffered a bruised nose. After his flight, Ham spent the next 17 years at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he died. His remains are now at the NM Museum of Space History (minus the skeleton, oddly, which was kept by the Smithsonian).

Cool space-themed motel sign:

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Continuing on our road, we suddenly found ourselves cutting through the Lincoln National Forest, which came as a surprise considering we’d been driving almost exclusively through desert.

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Smokey looks like he’s zonked out on something here. Seriously, could he look more spacey?

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The road began rising through the mountains…

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…and rising…

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…and pretty soon, you wouldn’t even imagine you were in New Mexico:

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This apple boy at a roadside stop creeps me out for some reason:

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Several small towns dot the route (a local warned us not to speed, explaining that a few of them were on the poor side and needed all the money they could get):

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We had an awesome lunch at Big Daddy’s Diner. I gotta say, I really wasn’t expecting to eat lunch in an environment that felt like northern Maine. I also forgot how laid back the south-west (and especially New Mexico) can be. When I asked the waiter to make our orders to go so we could eat on the road, he simply couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to take a little time to enjoy my lunch (even though their sign offers take out).

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The route was pleasant, and soon, we were descending again…

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We began seeing fields of cattle, bordered by gentle green mountains:

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And then: flat as far as the eye could see:

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Great Starlite Motel sign:

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One roadside establishment called Mrs. White’s had an endless number of advertisements along the side of the road, which clearly have been around for a while as evidenced by this one offering flashbulbs.

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An old eatery sign:

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And then we were in Texas…

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A ways down the road, we came across our first true ghost town: Orla.

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We’d been to a bunch of near ghost towns on the trip, with forgotten main streets, dilapidated buildings, and barely a soul in sight. But all had populations at least numbering in the hundreds, whereas Orla claims a mere 2 residents in total (and that might be overcounting).

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Established in 1890, Orla was founded on the Pecos Valley Railroad line and once had a school, general stores, hotel, and a livery stable. Today, it exists as a decaying group of buildings along the highway, like this old grocery store:

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The fading Orla Grocery sign:

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A pair of empty buildings:

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Best of all is this skeleton of an ancient gas station:

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I’d love to know when it was built, and what it originally looked like:

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The remains of the gas pump roof:

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A rusted DIESEL sign on the side of the highway:

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A few falling-down houses also remain:

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A view inside:

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Side of the house:

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The rear. Love the picket fence:

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An old truck in the back – year, anyone?

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Shacks further away were being overtaken by foliage:

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I love this one house, with its porch still in decent shape:

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Shall we go inside?

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As I walked through the empty rooms, I suddenly became aware of how quiet it was. Very few cars passed on the road, and a barrage of scenes from Texas Chainsaw Massacre came rushing to mind:

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Neat old door:

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Another room:

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Another Orla residence:

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We continued south toward Pecos:

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As we neared town, we passed by this odd abandoned motel…

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The fading rusted sign identifies it as the Boulder Motel:

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The main motel structure is made out of stone:

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An old post card. Looks like a gas station was at one end:

The motel rooms:

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Below, you can see the entrance to the office on the right:

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As I was taking the below picture, two vicious chihuahuas suddenly started running at me from the building across the street, barking loudly and trying bite me. I ran back toward the car, trying not to get bit while urging the dogs back into the driveway so they wouldn’t get run over, and well aware of how ridiculous I looked. Thankfully, when I made it back to the sidewalk, they gave up chase and returned to the yard they’d come from, paying zero attention to the five or six cars that had stopped to let them cross.

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For anyone looking for abandoned buildings, there’s a bunch to find near Pecos:

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Another:

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Then we arrived in Pecos, which claims to be the site of the world’s first rodeo:

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Great postcard sign as you enter:

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We continued on, and I started noticing things inching across the road:

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You can see them better in this picture. Whatever they were, they were definitely moving very slowly.

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Caterpillars! For a good 20 miles, we saw hundreds making the dangerous journey, making me wonder: is it really better on the other side?

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More and more oil derricks appeared on the horizon, and Texas began to feel like Texas:

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We drove well into the night, and I’d like to take this time to thank Texas for rewarding us with our first ticket of the trip. The offense? Going 75 in a 65 zone, nabbed in a speed trap at about 1 AM as we were desperately trying to get to our hotel in San Antonio to sleep (weirdly, the speed limit on the same road is 80 during the daytime). As a result of post-speeding-ticket paranoia, we drove way too slow the rest of the way and got in about 3 AM. $160 out the window…Thanks again, Texas!

-SCOUT

PS – In case anyone was wondering why we didn’t stop in Carlsbad Caverns, we arrived at the very inopportune time of 3pm – the last tour for the day had already started, and the insanely cool bat exodus would not begin until sundown.  Yet another case of bad roadtrip timing…

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22 comments

  1. Augh. I got pulled over on the same stretch of highway when a girlfriend and I took a roadtrip to San Antonio too (came from California)! They don’t mess with speed limits in Texas. Thankfully my friend was driving and gave the office a sob story about us driving so she could be with her husband who was stationed in Corpus Christi (truth!) and he let us off with a warning… whew!

  2. I’m no expert in vintage delivery vans, but I used to know a thing or two about old cars. The rear wheel well/fender visible in your photo suggests 1948-53ish. Maybe a bit newer, industrial vehicles don’t change design as often as passenger cars.

  3. That truck is a Dodge Route Van, which was made from 1948 through the early 50s.

  4. Man this was a fun post for me to read! I grew up in Artesia (my parents still live there) and I spent 7 months last year in Cloudcroft (home of Big Daddy’s Diner). We had to drive to Alamogordo to buy groceries and the scenery on that drive never ceased to take my breath away. Now I’m living in West Texas where the scenery can only be described as…flat.

    I, too, love the old style NM license plates and am not a fan of the hot air balloon version. However, they’ve recently released new plates that I think are pretty neat: http://tinyurl.com/2cqwf78

    Oh, and I can’t believe you went through Carlsbad and didn’t go to the caverns!

  5. I’m in SA, wife’s from NYC, love the blog, I’ve been reading it for a few months now. Enjoy the time here. Sorry for the ticket but most everyone is super friendly here so I hope it makes up for that!

  6. Another great collection of road trip finds! I’m sure you’re missed in NYC . . . but it would be fun if you could do this all over the place fulltime, right? :)

  7. Looking at your pictures of White Sands Missile Range brings back memories of when I was stationed there in 1960. I was stationed on the edge of White Sands Range at Orgrande Range Station, and that is were we tested the Red-Stone missile

  8. Yeah, I got a ticket driving to El Paso. Also, hi from Killeen *waves from a couple hours north of San Antonio* Hope you enjoy the missions

  9. I love this site. I went to school in Arizona in the early 90s. I used to drive all over the back roads of New Mexico, and spent a lot of time at White Sands. i have a few pictures up at my site.

  10. I’m sad you missed Carslbad! I got to go last summer for the first time since I was a kid, and it was so much fun!

    Also, if you ever come through NM again, I recommend spending some time in the Gila wilderness area. It’s similar to the Lincoln Forest in that it’s nothing like what you would imagine New Mexico to be like. It’s one of my favorite places to go.

  11. Welcome to Texas. Sorry to hear about the speeding ticket, but those Texas Rangers are mighty persnickety about the speed limit. Hope you have a great time in San Antonio, lots to see and do. Hope you take a detour down to the gulf coast – we’ve got more rockets here in Houston, so come on by – we’ll leave the lights on.

  12. RobtBrk – high five!

  13. a speeding ticket in Texas? next time, just let them see your 6 shooter holstered to your belt, you should get off with a warning. another great update from your trip Scout, keep em coming!

  14. True, Sedge. My mom got off the hook for speeding by showing the cop her concealed and carry ID. True story.

  15. You should have told me you were coming to San Antonio! I woulda made some time to show you some spots!

  16. One day I hope to meet you. When I do I will give you a few dollars towards your speeding ticket. It is only fair considering how I have been enjoying your vacation so much.

    But would you have been driving any slower if you were not in a rush?

  17. Great tip you gave on renting a car from White Plains rather than in NYC! Thanks. We saved about 500 on a two week rental by doing so – compared to what we pay in the Brooklyn Heights area! Love the travelogue, by the way. Andy

  18. It was sad day when I had to give up my NM license plate. But I agree, the older ones look much better. You can actually still get the old ones at the DMV, but they give you the newer balloon ones by default.

    But it actually looks like they’re soon replacing the balloon ones with this:

    http://www.mvd.newmexico.gov/images/standard-Centennial-license-plate.jpg

    which i think looks kind of awesome.

    i still have yet to see the bats at carlsbad caverns. must do so in the next year before my parents leave NM.

  19. Great shots of White Sands..I was there last year, went to the trinity site open-house and of course, Roswell…Driving through New Mexico sometimes felt like you were on another planet at times..

  20. I know this is an older post but just happen to stumble on your blog a few weeks ago and had to comment. Pecos was my home town and I see that you traveled through Fort Stockton where I now live(just a few more miles up the road). There is so much history and many old buildings that you didn’t mention. The picture of the “Post Card” was just after the Museum on the Chamber of Commerce wall, and “Wind Mill Square” Anually the city sponsors an event “Night in Old Pecos” live band on the Saloon style stage, a Shoot out, and street dance. Beautiful Court yard, just off of the museum, that happened to be host to my little sisters wedding. There is an old Rail Road depot right before that just as you crossed over the rail road tracks. Like Orla, Pecos is slowly becoming a ghost town as a few other surround “Little Towns”. Another town that always amazed me was Toyah, 19 miles west I-10. There is an old 2 story bank there that begs to be restored, its amazing. I can go on and on but will stop for now. West Texas has so many places that will be perfect for many movies. Thanks for posting your travels.

  21. I forgot to mention the Old General Store, Toone’s. Its west of Pecos on Old 20. It leterally has everything from close to groceries to hunting supplies…

  22. I was born and raised in Pecos. Live in San Antone now. Love to see people actually take an interest in our little towns in West Texas. Love the blog. Good job.

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