Smorgasbord Letters from America – 1986 – New Mexico, Mckittrick Canyon and the Living Desert – Part Two

This it the second part of the article that I wrote for my parents primarily but with a view to adapting to send off to a magazine at a later date. We crossed Texas and into New Mexico to hopefully experience a once in a lifetime sighting of Halley’s Comet which only appears every 76 years. Our trip offered some wonderful opportunities to explore the area and here is part one.

Unfortunately at some point over the last 32 years, the photographs that I took have gone missing,probably when we lost a great many books and other paper items when our house was wrecked by a leaking pipe when we were away in 1996. However, thanks to and their free use images, I have managed to find a few to share with you.

New Mexico and some ambitions fulfilled – Part Two

McKittrick Canyon

One of the things David and Walter really wanted to do while we were in the area was to get in some Mountain Time.

Having looked at the map we decided to go south of the New Mexico border, back into Texas to Guadalupe National Park. As none of us had been in training for a long hike we settled on McKittrick Canyon, and armed with a guide book and a gallon of water we set off from the Ranger Station along a dried up stream bed. The plant life was varied and very green due to the unusual amount of water available and about every half mile or so the stream would appear from underground and form small pools shaded by evergreen trees, strangely out of place in this semi desert. Some of the pools contain trout, rare in Texas and beside one such small oasis we sat and ate our picnic lunch in the company of a small, lonely, speckled trout.

Here is a video which showcases this amazing place far better than my original photos thanks again toGoTraveler

A sandwich has never tasted so good. On our hike we stopped briefly at Pratt’s Cabin, it is now a Ranger Post with restrooms, open only in summer, but at one time Mr. Pratt had lived there in isolated splendour with only rattlers and coyotes for company. Certainly an ideal spot for getting away from the madding crowd.

Surprisingly for this time of year, the temperature for the three days we were in the area stayed in the high 70’s and low 80’s. I could feel my nose getting redder by the minute, but it was wonderful to feel the warm sun in January and was far removed from the snow and ice we had left back in England the previous winter. We turned back after 2.8 miles and retraced our steps, investigating all the things we had missed the first time. David and Walter had by this time got a little bored with the straight and narrow and so went sideways and up whenever possible.

This is not really recommended during the summer months as you are likely to meet some of the less welcome natives of the canyon, but they stayed in sight of the main path which I stuck to with the consolation that I got back to the Ranger Post five minutes before them.

My muscles ached from the unfamiliar exercise but it was wonderful to be able to study all the plants and all the geological history evident in the Canyon. This was an easy walk that anyone could do properly equipped, water being the main priority, although at this time of year there were very few people taking advantage of this beautiful place, which quite frankly suited us. Being so quiet and peaceful, it was easy to imagine an apache or two lurking behind some of the large mescal plants along the trail, and who knows maybe there was.

The Living Desert

One of the things that I really wanted to see while in New Mexico was the Living Desert. I had heard about it at school and was delighted to find that it was only a few miles the other side of Carlsbad City.

After our walk through McKittrick Canyon we drove back through White’s City and on to Carlsbad. It was not until I got out of the car that I realised just how out of condition I really was. However the next two hours were so interesting that I soon forgot my aches and pains.

At first when you enter the display all you see are some sand dunes sprinkled with cactus, most of which we had already seen on our trip. We were a little disappointed until we turned the corner and entered the aviary section.

In this area were all the animals that had been found in the desert abandoned or injured. They included bobcats, mountain lions, falcons, road runners and some gorgeous Bam Owls. Three of them sat in a row, on one leg with their eyes closed and I couldn’t help but notice their resemblance to the Andrews Sisters, with apologies, and not a comment on their singing abilities. You are able to walk through one display which has vultures flying around your head, a little disconcerting to say the least. Not wishing to be their next meal I retired gracefully and explored around the next corner. There are animal enclosures all through the Living Desert containing a variety of the area’s inhabitants, including foxes, bear, raccoon and a very unconcerned badger eating his dinner.

My favourites were the Prairie Dogs who spent their time rushing around their enclosure from hole to hole, gossiping and chattering with excitement, it reminded me a little of our apartment complex. In the paddocks were mule deer, bison and one particularly rampant elk stag. Boss of a very pretty harem. He disliked the intrusion into his courtship rituals and had been bashing his head against the brick wall, literally, forcing the rangers to fence off part of the access road overlooking the paddock.

The park was due to close so calling upon the final reserves left in my muscles I raced up to the gift shop and managed to buy two cacti to bring home to Houston to join all my other plant life.

On the way back to White’s City we stopped in Carlsbad at the Sirloin Stockade and had a great steak dinner which was excellent value, and a definite improvement on the night before. It also fuelled us up for another late night view of Halley’s Comet. A super end to another great day.

If you would like to know more about this wonderful and magical place here is a short tour thanks to TravelGuideNewMexico

The return

I felt that breakfast at the top of the canyon watching the sun come up over the desert for the last time was a fitting end to the weekend and a good start to the twelve hour journey home, and it was. What a beautiful place and one that none of us were keen to leave.

The return drive was unremarkable except for Walter sighting a coyote on the hills alongside the Orla Road. We stopped and watched this wild, free creature for a few minutes and with more than a touch of envy we carried on, taking with us some very happy memories, hopefully captured on film and the determination to see even more of this beautiful country.

I hope you have enjoyed our trip to New Mexico and you can find the first part and the previous letters from 1985  in this directory:

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine Weekly Round Up – Good intentions by Grandmas, Bird Watching and Halley’s Comet

Doesn’t time fly when you are having fun. Well I am anyway and I hope you are too… It has been a busy week offline with various projects and also taking advantage of the cold but sunny weather. It is hard to believe that it is January 20th already but it is great that the evenings are growing lighter by a few minutes each day.

My thanks as always to you for dropping in so often and keeping me motivated and here are some of the posts you might have missed..

This week Linda shares the delightful!! coat that her Grandmother managed to find at the charity shop for her..

Getting to know you – Sunday Interview with author Denzil Walton.

The first part of our trip from Houston to Carlsbad Caverns and to see Halley’s Comet on its once in a lifetime visit.

The title of this series came about as I dipped into a Thesaurus to find some words for a poem I was writing. I noticed that a great many words that reflected (see what I mean) key elements in our lives began with the letter ‘R’. In this first post quite a bit about what I think about RESPECT

Chapter one of the sequel to my first book written 20 years ago which followed my 18 month challenge to lose 150lbs. I am told at 42 that I am unlikely to make 45!

This week I look at the nutritional elements of Asparagus and Carol Taylor turns this very healthy vegetable into some delicious meals.

Colleen Chesebro’s Tuesday Poetry Challenge.

I have chosen ‘Secret and Draw’ for my key words this week and I am also trying my hand at a Haibun… here is the link  where you will find a description of this form which is a combination of prose and poetry.


I have discovered the secret to eternal youth. I stand before the mirror. With eyes almost closed the image blurs. Wrinkles disappear. Hair regains its colour. The extra pounds fall away. I am tall and strong. A reflection of how I used to be. I draw the image towards me absorbing its essence.

Do not be deceived
Challenge the silver backed mirror
Remain young at heart.

New book on the shelves

Author Update -Reviews

Thanks for dropping by and hope to see you again next week… Sally.

Smorgasbord Letters from America – 1986 – New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns and Halley’s Comet.

Over the next two weeks I will be sharing the article that I wrote for my parents primarily but with a view to adapting to send off to a magazine at a later date. We crossed Texas and into New Mexico to hopefully experience a once in a lifetime sighting of Halley’s Comet which only appears every 76 years. Our trip offered some wonderful opportunities to explore the area and here is part one.

Unfortunately at some point over the last 32 years, the photographs that I took have gone missing,probably when we lost a great many books and other paper items when our house was wrecked by a leaking pipe when we were away in 1996. However, thanks to and their free use images, I have managed to find a few to share with you.

New Mexico and some ambitions fulfilled.


We decided that the ideal time to make the long drive to New Mexico and the Carlsbad Caverns would be the weekend of January 19th, there was a holiday on the Monday and David and our friend Walter could take the time off work. The Weather Channel assured us of a dry, warm three days so instead of packing enough clothes for two weeks; I restricted myself to some jeans and a sweater for the cooler evenings.

We managed to leave Houston by 3p.m. and decided to take route 290 to Austin and then on to join the main East, West Highway 10. This was a mistake as we got caught up in Austin’s rush hour traffic and lost considerable time on what was going to be a very long trip anyway.

Matters were not helped by poor signposting through the town and by the fact that I complacently folded the map about a mile too soon. However, after leaving Austin’s limits, we made good time to the junction of the 10, especially as the three of us could alternate with the driving. By now it was dark so very little of the area could be seen, but thankfully the road was clear with light traffic and we managed to make Fort Stockton, 500 miles from Houston, by 1a.m. Here we stayed the night at the good value Rodeway Inn, leaving early the next morning, fortified by a large and excellent breakfast in a small but very friendly diner.

On to Carlsbad

There were 158 miles left of the trip to the Carlsbad Caverns, and a lucky choice of route took us from Orla, on the 285, miles across to join the 180 which lead into New Mexico and the Caverns. This winding road through the desert provided us with a spectacular view of the Guadalupe Mountains and Guadalupe Peak, at 8,751 feet, the highest point in Texas. The day was bright and with only a few clouds and the range was very impressive and a stark contrast to the vast flatness of most of the rest of Texas. For us it was the first bonus of this long trip.

Shortly after joining the 180 we entered the state of New Mexico and after driving parallel with the mountains for 15 miles we reached White’s City at the entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns road. Although the term one horse town would certainly apply to White’s City, it provided the only refreshment and accommodation for the immediate area and had obviously prospered from the thousands of annual visitors to the Caverns. We decided to explore this small town later in the day and pressed on up the canyon to the Cavern’s visitor centre where we signed on for the Blue Tour.

A brief history

It is known that the Indians in the Guadalupe area first discovered the entrance to the Cavern and relics and old Mescal cooking pits have been found in and around the entrance.

However, it was not until the late 1880s that any exploration of the enormous underground world took place. A local rancher, while looking for a stray cow, witnessed an evening bat flight from the Cavern. From this chance sighting, knowledge of the cave and its bats was passed on until several enterprising companies began to mine the rich bat guano, so prized for its fertilizing qualities. Over 100,000 tons of guano were removed, but none of the six companies were able to make it a profitable operation. However, one man who had worked for most of these companies at one time or another, James White, explored the cavern with a hand held lantern and with what must have been a great deal of courage. After this first primative exploration, discoveries were made deeper and deeper into the darkness, until now there are over 3 1/2 miles of lit pathways over 700 feet below the surface.

The Blue Tour

The Blue Tour lasted about 4 hours and consisted firstly of a Ranger guided tour down to the lowest point and then a self-guided tour with individual radios which picked up commentary along the route.

The drawback to the guided tour is that you are forced to go at the pace of 180 or so other tourists, which included quite a number of elderly people and small children. Most of these very small children were quite plainly terrified by the darkness and strangeness of the cavern and cried most of the tour. As there are excellent nursery facilities at the surface it seemed a little heartless of the parents to subject these children to the experience and it did spoil the tour for a great many people. However, the rangers did an excellent job of herding us safely to the bottom and were available to answer questions some of which were more basic such as “When do we get to the snack bar?” and “Where are the restrooms?”

The three of us were really looking forward to the self-guided part of the tour and having reached the bottom we were issued our radios. There is a large refreshment area on this level with gift shops and restrooms, many people took the opportunity to have lunch for the first time at 700 feet and then took the elevator back to the surface.

The more adventurous started out to explore the Big Room, a spectacular wonderland of stalagmites and stalactites. For over an hour we followed the path through this strange world, admiring the Temple of the Sun, the Totem Pole and the Crystal Spring Dome to name just a few. I enjoyed the visit very much, as we all did, but David felt it was too organized, and would have much preferred to have spent time in the newest cave that had been discovered, where hand- held lanterns and a more adventurous spirit was necessary. Of course safety is the key factor and very important with so many people wandering around on their own within the main cavern area.

It had definitely been worth the long trip from Houston, as was the incredible view that greeted us after our 700 feet elevator ride to the surface. From the Cavern’s car park you could see for miles across the desert towards the Guadalupe Mountains and we decided that this was the ideal place to fulfil the second ambition of the trip, to see Halley’s Comet.

Here is a short video about the caverns and the surrounding area. Courtesy ofGoTraveler

Our first night in White City

By now tired and dusty, we returned to White’s City and booked into the Best Western Motel which was as usual very good value and comfortable. After showering and changing our clothes we crossed the road to sample the local fare offered by the only restaurant in town, the Velvet Garter Saloon. In Houston we are used to the excellent food available and the good service and we were very disappointed by our first meal in New Mexico. We all had fajitas, one of our favourites, and were amazed to be presented with two tortillas and about three ounces of meat apiece and nothing else.

Hardly satisfying for three hungry intrepid explorers, not only that, but we were virtually hustled out of the place after finishing our entrees and were obviously not popular when we requested a dessert to fill the gap. Just goes to show what lack of competition can do to a town.

To compensate ourselves we returned to our motel room and downed some vodka and orange juice and prepared to return to the Cavern entrance armed with sweaters, a flask of soup and some borrowed binoculars from the obliging desk clerk. I am sure this varied wildlife on the surrounding hillside derived much pleasure from watching us humans lying on our backs from the car park, eves lifted heavenwards searching for the elusive Halley’s Comet.

We were very excited to find it after some minutes especially when you realize that it is certainly a once in a lifetime experience. It was a small speck but with binoculars you could see the tail and the three of us were absolutely thrilled that our long trip had been  well worth the effort.

While star-gazing we noticed a dark scuttling shape crossing the car park, after investigating with torches, we discovered a raccoon on a midnight prowl for food and about to make off with the rucksack. We obliged him with some of our soup, which he thoroughly enjoyed and then it was discovered that Sally had left both camera and flash back at the motel, a very careless move for someone so snap happy. After a couple of hours we retired to the motel and bed, happy with the first day of our trip and ready to tackle the day to follow, hopefully in the mountains.

I woke early the next morning and leaving David and Walter sleeping soundly, I drove up the canyon, this time with the camera, to watch the sun rising up over the desert. This little side trip of mine proved to be very rewarding as I was treated to the sight of a herd of Mule Deer grazing the hillside. I managed to get some photographs of these appealing animals and spent about half an hour watching them move lazily over the sparse terrain. I returned to the motel feeling fresh and ready for anything, particularly a good hot breakfast. A meal I always enjoy when prepared by someone else.

I hope that you have enjoyed the first part of our trip to New Mexico and next week McKittrick Canyon and the Living Desert centre.

You can read all the previous Letters from America in this directory: