Las Cruces, New Mexico: March 11-17

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During her career, Dot spent a lot of time in both Deming and Las Cruces, both located about 20 miles north of the border. So she was the tour guide.

We signed up in Las Cruces for a week and looked forward to the arrival of Cherie and Keith, expected half-way through our stay. They were right on schedule, and we sight-saw and dined together. The week was overshadowed, however, by an impending turn in the weather. While the eastern two thirds of the country was setting thousands of high temperature records, the west, from top to bottom was threatened with more than its share of winter, with cold, wind and snow all in the forecast. We spent a lot of time watching it, and deciding that we’d rather be stuck in Albuquerque than Las Cruces, we made a run for it a day early.

On our first full day there, we headed downtown. The visitors’ center was the nicest we’ve ever experienced. The space itself was beautiful and well-organized, as was the greeter we encountered. Not only was she tremendously informative; we were gifted with popcorn and bottles of water. From there, we walked and drove through parts of the historic district. The core consists of two one-way streets separated by a rarely traveled Main Street. Two neighborhoods flank the core: the Alameda District, featuring Victorian architecture and platted on anticipation of the railroad’s arrival in 1881; and the older Mesquite District, featuring Vernacular architecture. Vernacular architecture is described as local adaptation by builders of materials, styles and utility, with no architect being involved. It is more creative than frenzied.

The Rio Grande Theater dates back to the silent film era. It has undergone major restoration, and one can walk through the lobby and adjacent rooms, though the auditorium itself is open only for performances. Across the street is the site of St. Genevieve’s RC Church, a dominant structure in town until the parish moved to a new modern building. Just a few blocks away,we took time to drive by the Dona Ana County Courthouse (1937) and the Alameda Train Station, which replaced the original 1881 wooden structure in 1910. It anchors Alameda Depot Historic District which is listed on the National Register.

We also walked by the 1892 Bean House, the residence of Sam Bean. Sam and his brother, (Judge)Roy Bean, owned a saloon for many years in nearby Mesilla, and Sam later owned one in Las Cruces. Roy, notorious womanizer and self-appointed Law West of the Pecos, fled, along with Sam, from an attempted murder charge in Texas and settled here on the Rio Grande. Judge Roy handed out justice from his saloon.

Our next venture was actually two. We headed northeast of Las Cruces about fifty miles to the White Sands National Monument. The largest gypsum dune field in the world, it covers nearly 300 square miles. The calcium sulfate is created by evaporation in the Tularosa Basin, formed by the collapse of a dome 10 million years ago. The granules are windborne to the northeast forming several different types of dunes as they travel, depending on the amount of gypsum, velocity of the wind and presence of plant life. While it is buried, some forms of vegetation, most prominently the soaptree yucca, elongate their stems to keep leaves above the marauding gypsum for survival. Fauna, likewise, have adapted to the phenomenon; lizard, fox mouse and several insects have evolved into white versions of their species to survive the terrain.

We visited the reception center, where the hottest seller was a 30 inch disc for sliding down the dunes. $14 would secure one, and you could sell it back for $5. The incredible thing about the place, as we discovered in our travels around the dunes, was that locals treat it like going to the beach. They arrive, set up shade canopies, slide for hours and picnic hearty. At one point, a boardwalk allowed us to traverse some of the dunes. We expected to see the ocean just around every corner, to no avail.

Just east of the Monument is the town of Alamogordo, host of the first atomic bomb test and of Holloman AFB. We didn’t go there, and we’ll detail the reasons why in future episodes. As we travel north through New Mexico, the story will never take a back seat.

The Monument, however, is also surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range. On the way back to Las Cruces, we found our way onto the base to view the history museum and display. Created initially to play with the mass of V-2 rockets and parts we confiscated at the end of WWII (along with its inventor and a hundred or so of his teammates), it has not only tested armaments of every description but also worked with many non-military applications. One of the major exhibits showed the development of an escape module for the NASA program (right).

The exhibits began with a history of the indigenous inhabitants of the area, long before the onset of government operations. The Mogollon culture, one of the three dominant cultures in the region, is extensively covered.

The area is rife with Apache history; in particular, the 1879-80 Vittorio War. The Warm Springs Apache were repeatedly denied their promised homeland and were shunted to inferior property. Their leader, Vittorio, considered the finest guerilla fighter ever known, rebelled, and after leading his people to the Hembrillo Basin on the currrent White Sands range, stood his ground. His forces, numbering about 150, were challenged by Captain Henry Carroll and a force of 71 Buffalo Soldiers. They pinned down the Army forces; they survived the night and were rescued by two companies of the Army’s cavalry and 100 Apache scouts. There has been no end of analysis og the strategies of both sides on that battlefield; it became a lesson plan for West Point cadets.

Following that, there are exhibits of missiles, technical equipment used in the validation of experiments, and additional rooms to honor such events like the landing of the shuttle Columbia on its range. One room featured the artistry of Ben Steele, a soldier forced through the Bataan March and accompanying travesties. He sketched in captvity but did his final work after arriving home. One example is shown below; others even more brutal.

Another rocket struck my fancy – the WAC Corporal, which was the first U.S. missile to enter outer space. Designed at CalTech, it was designed to penetrate the stratosphere with meteorological equipment. When mounted atop a V-2, it became the first two-stage rocket in history. Its acronym has been either attributed to Women’s Army Corps or Without Attitude Control!

Now for a dog story. Dingo and Count were the Missile Dogs of WSMR. Before firing, critical missile parts were coated with squalene, a shark oil odorless to humans but tempting to dogs. After the landing site of a test was determined by radar, the dynamic duo would be driven, or helicoptered, to scour the area, and they would usually come up with their quarry within an hour.

Nor could one escape the concept behind two monitors. One was the Cinetheodolite , a camera that could record position, speed and acceleration throughout a test flight. The other was a digital computer, the Radar Operation Program, that was not programmed by code but rather by locating and relocating wires on its three boards. Any geek out there want to give it a try?

Across the street, in the field, are found an extensive array of craft that have been tested and certified on the range, including a Patriot missile launcher that became familiar to all of us during the first Gulf War. I had been warned that any outdoor pictures I took should show mountains in the background. As a result, I ignored a building near the outdoor display. “What’s in there,” Dot asked, and I decided to investigate. It was the heart of the exhibit – the V-2 rocket that inaugurated the project. Inside the building was not only an actual V-2 but a testament to its importance as the foundation of U. S. rocketry. Deferential to the constraint, I took no pix inside the building. But the history was fascinating, and I read all of it. That particular missile stood at the complex for fifty years, while weather took its toll. In 2002, it was transferred to Kansas for restoration, and, simultaneously, the site built this enclosure for its future preservation. It was returned in 2004. Designed by Wernher von Braun, it had the capability of delivering a 2,000 pound warhead at supersonic speeds to target areas 150 miles away. Over 3,600 V-2’s were fired at England and the continent during WWII. Von Braun based his design on the work of Dr. Robert Goddard during the 1930’s in Roswell, NM. Research on the V-2 after the war was the foundation of the U. S. Space Age.

Back in Las Cruces, we hooked up with Keith and Cherie for a day in Mesilla. Just four miles south of Las Cruces, its history as a pre-descendent is impressive. Mesilla suffered from an identity crisis for many years. First the Spanish were in control; then they established the autonomy of Mexico. Wars between the U.S. and Mexico and the Treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo caused repopulations and re-loyalties. When the Gadsden Purchase was negotiated in 1853, it was consummated by a flag raising at Mesilla Plaza. Mesilla was also the site of a very early battle of the Civil War. The picture at right is the bar at the Double Eagle, where Dot used to spend her down time while in the area!

Notorious among its citizens was one Henry McCarty (aka William Bonney aka Billy the Kid. He was tried in the building pictured below and sentenced to hang for the murder of Sheriff William Brady; his defense attorney was Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain, an upstanding lawyer and legislator who lost the case and was later murdered himself (but not by Billy). Billy escaped from Mesilla and was eventually done in by Pat Garrett.

I could go on for many more paragraphs about Mesilla, but I’ll spare you. Enjoy the pictures.

On Saturday, we planned to go to the Las Cruces Farm and Ranch Museum, then have dinner with the Begleys. But the weather report for Sunday was ominous, so we opted for a quick departure.

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