New Mexico – Caverns, Caves, and 2 Extra Days
Updated: Mar 21, 2022
I believe that the last time I posted a significant update I was seated in the lobby of the Motel 6 in Carlsbad, NM. Suffice to say that circumstances have changed between then and now as I am currently perched dozens of feet from the Sea of Cortez in the luxurious comfort of the Esperanza Resort in Los Cabos. Nothing against Motel 6, but they ain’t got nothin’ on this. I am taking a vacation from my travels so to speak in order to spend a little time with my Dad and step-Mom. However, you don’t want to hear all about the humpback whales that are spouting on the other side of my margarita, do you? As Kermit once sang so eloquently, “getting there is half the fun.” I hope that he’s right, because getting here has been a blast, and I’m really looking forward to the other half. From our deluxe accommodations in Carlsbad it was extremely obvious that our charted course was going to send us through days of weather that can only be described by Jeep travelers as intolerable cruelty. Accordingly we scrapped our plans and decided to beat a hasty retreat to the South. The Jeep obviously agreed since it definitely performs better heading West and South than it does heading East or North. Seeing as we had already made a few adjustments to our agenda in the weeks on the road, we approached Plan J with open minds and an eye toward the thin gray lines that drifted across the map in between the bold courses laid out by the Interstate system. We hit the road early in order to make it to the first descent of the day into Carlsbad Caverns. For some reason we were worried about crowds, but the weather had convinced all but the most stubborn, stupid, and time pressed travelers to stay in bed today. We got to the visitors center moments before they opened, and joined an assembled crowd of 6 taking pictures of frozen cacti and desert snow. We had been planning this stop from weeks, but neither Jason or I knew much more about Carlsbad Caverns than that there were caverns there, and it was right outside of Carlsbad. If there’s one thing this trip has taught me, it’s that the National Park Service often rewards blind faith. I have yet to visit a “bad” park and, especially in the West, they’ve done an incredible job of finding, preserving, and interpreting geological anomalies and wonders that are truly awe inspiring. Actually, if this trip has taught me one thing I suppose it would be how to shift a manual transmission without using the clutch, so maybe I’ve learned a couple of things already. Mom would be so proud. The Caverns themselves were amazing. It’s as if God spent years down there making those little drizzle castles we built on the beach when we were kids, and then decided to show off by flipping the world upside down and doing it on the ceiling as well. The walking path through the Cathedral Room alone is over a mile long. Yes, a mile. Underground. Through a cave. Awesome. There are several other rooms to explore in the cavern system, but we decided that the pictures of White Sands National Monument were too inviting to pass by, so we loaded up and headed West through Guadeloupe Mtn National Park which deserves more than the passing glance we gave it on our way to White Sands. In a sign of things to come we opted for the scenic route which combined breathtaking views with underestimated travel times in a way that defined every stereotype of the term. We arrived at White Sands 20 minutes before they shut down for the day and were rewarded with a spectacular sunset that defied being bottled up in my camera in any semblance of its natural beauty. Once the show was over and the stars began to show themselves in the clear desert sky, old man winter decided once again to ride shotgun in DIE TAN as we rumbled toward Los Cruses, NM. I think Jason’s brain froze solid half way through the mountains, but once he realized we were headed into a college town he shook the groggy haze from his head and worked on finding us a safe haven for the night near the undergraduate dorms. Perfectly located in between the liquor store and the Whattaburger was the Teakwood Inn with an indoor pool and free breakfast. It took us a while to defrost that night, but eventually we made our way to the High Desert Brewing Company which lived up to its reputation as the home of high caliber beers and comfortable atmosphere. It also continued to prove my theory that most great bars could be re-named “8 Dudes and One Hot Chick.” Of course she left within minutes of our arrival, and we turned our attention to the beers at hand and the stories of the other guys pushing the limits of last call. Fortunately our motley crew provided hours of entertainment, and an earful of good advice for the journey ahead. Our bartender Luke kept everyone’s thoughts well lubricated as Ernesto described windsurfing in Los Cabrilles with so much enthusiasm that I thought he was going to run out the door and sprint all the way there at any moment. Matt, the brewmaster (“Brew-Daddy thank you very much.”) rolled his eyes and headed into the kitchen to work on some late night snacks. Chris was the East Coast transplant who tried to keep us all under control, or at least keep Ernesto from launching into orbit. Not a bad crowd for a Sunday night in New Mexico. We’re getting to the point in the trip where just about everywhere someone has some first hand advice on Baja. This is a welcome change from the “Ba-who?” I heard in Mississippi, or the constant advice not to drink the water we get from gas station attendants and waitresses in the conversations that follow their bewildered looks at the Jeep. From Las Cruses we continued West across New Mexico with an eye on the Arizona border, and sunnier weather. Still bundled up in every piece of clothing we can find we decide that the best spot to stop for lunch is the winery advertising free tastings. It would prove to be a fateful decision to say the least. As we wandered through the door and took our stools at the tasting bar we met Darrel, our tour guide for the afternoon. He informed us that the free wine tasting was limited, but for $3 we could try 6 wines rather than 1. Sold! As we worked our way through the tasting menu Darrel further informed us that the NM school system had left him a little rusty in the math department, and that it would be our responsibility to let him know when the 6th bottle had been poured. Needless to say we tried everything at least twice and eroded a fair amount of the afternoon right there at the St. Claire tasting bar. Realizing that this would necessitate yet another change in plans we asked Darrel for his recommendations for camping and dinner. “Over the hill there and off the dirt road by the dairy there’s a dry river bed. Follow it to the mountainside and you’ll find an old platinum mine where you guys could camp if you want.” Seriously? Did he just say platinum mine? Excellent. After he told us about the Mexican butcher we stocked up on red wine and hit the road for old Mexico. At the border we parked the Jeep, walked to the butcher shop and ordered dinner by holding a thumb and index fingers about 3 inches apart and adding a crappy accent to “T-bone… dos por favor.” Our mangled Spanish produced mixed results as we left the store with 7 thick cuts of steak our man cut with a giant jig saw while we searched for charcoal. We raced North beneath a setting sun, and returned to town as darkness set in. After finding the dirt road and the river bed we were about ½ a mile from the mountain when the things got rough enough to question the off road potential of our trusty ride. Jason and I dismounted and set off on foot to find the mine by the light of our lantern. We stumbled around in the dark for a while and eventually found a hole in the side of the mountain worthy of exploration. It matched Darrel’s description, and more importantly seemed to provide a warm camp on a very chilly night. Jason was convinced that the Jeep wouldn’t make it even close to the mine, and was certain that he was in no mood to haul a bunch of gear up the side of a mountain to set up camp. We had seen a sign for a hot spring earlier in the day, and it was growing more attractive by the minute as an alternative plan for the night. After a brief discussion I hopped behind the wheel, threw it in 4WD, and started picking my way up toward the mine. As there was no where to turn around before the small plateau at the mine entrance, I was committed to the course after just a few yards. Jostling and churning up the mountain, the Jeep lived up to its rugged reputation to deliver itself safely to its mountainside perch for the evening, and started us on our course to a night as authentic cavemen. 150 ft into the mine shaft and 50 feet to the right we found a perfect camp site. A hollow spot in the mountain supported by ancient beams with just enough room for a tent, a fire, and a couple of camp chairs. Before long we had steaks on the fire, the tent set up, and a bottle of New Mexican Merlot half way emptied. The rest of the evening disappeared into the jug of table wine in a haze of campfire smoke. Monday’s hangover was somewhat brutal, and I blame it all on the campfire. We broke camp, tumbled down the mountain, and headed West toward Arizona. It was time to make some miles, so of course we got a flat before we even made it out of town. The guys at the garage informed me that the grinding sound coming from my brakes was a disaster waiting to happen. We added new pads to the tab and within an hour or so were back on the road with our pockets $100 lighter. New Mexico was in no mood to let us leave so easily. The wind that blew us across the desert cut through me like a knife. By the time we reached Animas, I couldn’t take it anymore. We holed up in the Panther Tracks Grill for an hour or so to thaw out. A dusty rancher who wandered in told us that the thermometer at his barn had just climbed to 18 degrees. We knew that it was cold, but 18? That’s just not fair.
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