June 24, 2015


“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable.”  J. Robert Oppenheimer

Carol writes:   Sometimes we pull into a campground and realize immediately that a week just isn’t long enough, and so it was at the Army’s White Sands Missile Range.   The campground had only 8 sites.  When we inquired and were told that there was indeed an opening for us to extend for a two-week stay, we jumped on it! 

Many years ago, whoever designed this campground certainly appreciated the incredible view of the Organ Mountains, and also knew about the importance of shade in the desert.  Look at the view outside our RV front windshield!

Only the golfers had a better vantage point…

With the rising sun behind us, the generous shade cover over our picnic table enabled us to enjoy our daily morning coffee outdoors where we could luxuriate in the “cool” of a desert morning.

We met up once again with our Las Cruces-transplanted friends Jim and Barb.  After a late afternoon Farmers Market, Jim and Barb graciously showed us a bit of Las Cruces and the town square of La Mesilla, important historically as the site of the signing of the Gadsden Purchase, the last territorial purchase for the United States in the Lower 48. 

Not surprisingly, we finished up the evening at Jim’s and Barb’s with a rousing game of Carbles.

This Carbles game was starting to get addictive…so much so that we wanted to find a way to have a board of our own!  That dilemma was solved one day while out on errands when Al noticed an ‘Arts and Crafts Shop’ on post.  Just what we needed!  With a heavy dose of help from the craft shop manager, over the next three days we created a paper game board template, selected our wood of choice—cherry, glued the necessary panels together to create a 24-inch game board, marked and drilled the marble holding spaces

Transferring marks from paper template

Making marble holding spaces with the drill press
Waiting for glue to dry

painted individual playing fields, and sprayed with three coats of polyurethane finish!

We are now proud owners of our own custom Carbles game board!

It didn’t take very many days at White Sands Missile Range before we concluded that this present-day Army post, which at one time occupied such an important place in missile and space history, was now quite deserted of residents.  On our evening bike rides outside the campground we noticed many, many unoccupied homes in the housing area.  Even those houses that had someone living in them had very few residents who were outdoors at sundown; very few children were playing in the yards.  It was like a surreal scene from “Andromeda Strain.”  There was the mostly abandoned older houses—very small stucco buildings with 50s era architecture and one-car garages,

and a larger newer section that was also largely unoccupied, although the houses looked relatively new and modern.

Consistent with the desert environment, the front yards were landscaped in stones rather than grass, with a smattering of desert plant life, some of which was quite spectacular.

We decided to stick to the paved streets and not venture into a totally natural area next to the housing.  We took serious note of the sober posted warning…

Although it had been quite a while since Al last played a round of golf, he found the sparsely used course within sight of the campground irresistible.  He got in four rounds of golf, and on one of them I decided to join him so I could drive the cart.

Now for a brief discussion of the history of White Sands Missile Range…

White Sands Missile Range will forever occupy its place in history as the site where the first atomic bomb was successfully tested on July 16, 1945.  Success of the Manhattan Project, under the technical leadership of physicist Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, assured an early end to WW II.  In addition to ground zero, tours of Trinity Site also include an outside view of the McDonald Ranch House where many of the scientists lived and much of the bomb assembly was carried out in a specially designed clean room.  Guided tours are offered only two days a year--on the first Saturday of April and October.  We will definitely put those dates on our calendar and plan accordingly next time we are in the area.

Toward the very end of WW II the much feared German V-2 rocket technology fell into Allied hands.  Most of the captured V-2 components wound up at what was then known as White Sands Proving Ground.  Not long after the end of WW II, many German scientists and engineers arrived to assist in assembling the rocket components, and the missile age was launched at White Sands.  Although the V-2 rocket system did not significantly affect the course of WW II, it did serve as a significant research platform for blasting off into the Space Age.

On post, we enjoyed a neat little missile museum with its large outdoor display of missiles.

A fully refurbished V-2 rocket had its own building.

There was this display of Patriot Missiles that figured so prominently in the Persian Gulf War,

the Nike Ajax air defense system that Al’s father worked with as a young Army man stationed at Ft. Bliss in the early 1950s,

and the direct descendent of the V-2 rocket—the incredibly simple Redstone rocket which launched the first satellite and the first human into orbit in the early days of the U.S. space program.

Due to a need for an alternate landing site, it seemed fitting that in light of the huge role that the White Sands scientists played in developing our space program, the Shuttle actually made a landing at White Sands in 1982.

By far, the most interesting historical site at White Sands that we were able to visit was Launch Complex 33, the oldest launch complex, the one at which the very first rocket and missile launches were made in 1945 in the very early days of the space program.  The block house, which protected men and equipment during a launch, is one of the oldest buildings at White Sands. 

The rockets were launched from this old historic gantry.

It was plain to see that desert vegetation had overgrown much of the surrounding acreage; this created an even spookier feeling than our bike rides through the deserted housing section.

Our peaceful two weeks at White Sands Missile Range is symbolic of one of the chief reasons we like to stay at military campgrounds, especially Army ones.  We can be assured that the rich military history of each post will be commemorated in a meaningful way, and that was surely the case at White Sands Missile Range. 

During our stay at White Sands, I truly cherished the daily plaintive bugle calls:  “reveille” early each morning, “retreat” at the close of the work day, and “taps” at 10:30 each night just as my head hit the pillow.  Some Army customs should just…live on…forever.

“My first recollection is that of a bugle call.”
 General Douglas MacArthur

June 14, 2015


“Great men are meteors designed to burn so that the earth may be lighted.”  Napoleon Bonaparte

Carol writes:   As we left the cool mountain oasis of Ruidoso and headed downhill to our campground at Holloman Air Force Base in the Tularosa Valley,

the outside temps just kept climbing—all the way to near 100 degrees.  On the outskirts of Holloman AFB, one of the first things we noticed was that the local soil was quite favorable for the growth of pistachios and grapes, for we spotted row upon row of pistachio trees and immaculately maintained vineyards.  We made a mental note to check out both later in the week. 

We had visited White Sands National Monument 25 years ago during our yearlong trip on the road.  All either of us remembered was how much fun the kids had “sledding” down the dunes.  With a few more decades of wear on our bones, this time our visit had a slightly different focus.  We opted to take an evening ranger-led walk out onto the dunes, during which we learned about the unique plant life

and animal life on the dunes,

the geology of how the dunes were created and what makes them so special.  White Sands National Monument is the largest of only three gypsum dune fields in the world.  The sand is very fine, unbelievably white, and ever moving.

Sunset that first night was a special time on the dunes,

and the near-full moon was spectacular.  Al’s camera with up to 50x zoom made for some fun photography of the moon.

Back in Ruidoso, Al had done a quick check on the Internet and had discovered that the full moon would be occurring on the second night in our new location.  He had read that the night of the full moon has become a very special celestial event at White Sands National Monument, and this month the occasion would be celebrated on the dunes with a mariachi band concert that would start just after moonrise.  We were game! 

We arrived early and took an opportunity to enjoy a picnic supper, quickly copying the locals and figuring out how to park to get much needed shade for our picnic table.

A pre-concert photoshoot of the band at the top of a nearby dune must have produced some pretty awesome publicity shots.

Our vanity shots were a little more understated…

As concert time approached, we picked our spot on the dunes.

Shortly after moonrise over the distant Sacramento Mountains, the music began and we were treated to an authentic mariachi band concert in one of the loveliest venues I could imagine.

There was one more experience at White Sands National Monument that we wanted to attempt, and that was an early morning 5-mile hike around the Alkali Flat trail, which led through the heart of the dunes to an ancient lakebed that had occupied much of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age. 

We had been told to take plenty of water, to start early, and to allow about 3 hours for the hike.  The temperature was ideal at the start of the hike at 7 a.m., and we felt pretty exhilarated.

It didn’t take long before the trail had left all trace of civilization behind.  Incredibly, there we were, all alone on the wildly beautiful dunes, in near-total silence thanks to the area’s restricted air space.

We spotted some animal life in addition to several dune features we had learned about on the ranger-led twilight stroll just a few nights ago—

sand sculptures…

pedestals with plant life…

tracks left behind by dune movement…

and this very cooperative and photogenic nearly white lizard.

Midway, we took a few minutes of rest for a snack and water,

but soon it was time to get moving on.

We would have loved to linger, but our safe 3-hour window was rapidly closing and the temp was rising quickly. Toward the end of the hike, within a matter of minutes, we were VERY aware of the heat; but by that time, fortunately, we had already sighted the parking lot in the distance.

We felt this hike ranked near the top of our all-time favorite hikes in terms of both beauty and uniqueness. 

These perfectly undisturbed waves of sand may serve as a seed of inspiration and become an overall quilting pattern in a future quilt project.

One of the local attractions that had caught our attention was the National Solar Observatory, situated at one of the high points in the Sacramento Mountains in a place called Sunspot, New Mexico.  Our friends Barb and Jim had never been to Sunspot and were eager to accompany us on a day trip to visit the observatory, which at 9200 feet is ideally situated far from any major source of air pollution, with plenty of sunshine and dry air.  Scientists from all over the world submit applications for slots of research time on the Dunn Solar Telescope.  Our tour guide informed us that the proposals that are deemed most worthy get the longest time slots on the days of the year with the most sunlight.  Sounds logical…

The tower which houses the Dunn Solar Telescope is 136 feet tall with an additional 228 feet below ground!  Light from the sun enters two mirrors at the top of the tower and is then guided through a vacuum tube to a primary mirror far below ground, then back up into scientific equipment for data collection on optical benches. 

We finished out our special day with our friends with a short stop in western-town touristy Cloudcroft,

then back to “Alamo” for our first taste of Caliches yummy frozen custard, and finally a rematch game of Carbles around our campsite at sunset.

For those of you who are wondering, we did make that visit to one of the pistachio farm/vineyards that we had spotted on the outskirts of town.  We were told at Heart of the Desert Vineyards that New Mexico soil and sunshine are a perfect combination for wine production.  After being offered generous free wine tasting, we were hooked on two samples—one a Pistachio Rosé (yes, a unique pistachio flavor incorporated into a rosé wine!) and a semi-sweet Malvasia Bianca (new to us, but could become a new favorite).  
For good measure, we added in a bag of locally grown pistachio nuts to our purchase.  An awesome happy hour will be coming soon…

Our inaugural week in the desert at Holloman AFB was an enjoyable one.  I got in an afternoon of pool time (one of my weaknesses), and the RV’s air conditioning worked like a champ and kept us cool and comfy.  We loved our daytime and nighttime visits to White Sands and will always remember the stunning majesty of its ever-moving landscape of white dunes.

“I wanna be runnin' when the sand runs out."  
Song by Rascal Flatts