Checking in from Carrizozo, NM …
As we travel through many towns of the west it is interesting to stop and walk through the local cemeteries as each one is so different from what we are familiar with on the east coast. The older sections of a cemetery, meaning graves of those born in the early 1800’s and who died before the twentieth century, make you stop and think what life was like then and what means did their love ones or others have to bury them and provide a grave site marker. “Boot Hill”, in the west alludes to the fact that many of its occupants were cowboys who “died with their boots on,” the implication here being they died violently, as in gunfights or by hanging, and not of natural causes and most of these died before they were forty. There are many such graves in New Mexico, which only have a large stone or wooden cross to mark their site and no name or date scratched on the marker. The immediate families or loved ones of these souls are probably long gone and not around to maintain to maintain the cemetery. Within the cemetery there are crumbling retaining walls, tilted monuments, and unstable fences. Some may have a cast iron gate around them or a stack of available rocks from the area. Wooden headboards and iron markers are staples of the western cemetery throughout the late nineteenth century. There are weeds and scrub brush replacing what was once there, but the scenery gives the visitor a hint of the Wild West. As you read the epitaphs honoring the dead or notice the newer stones made of highly polished granite, you cannot help but notice the mix of wood, marble, wrought iron, and simple wood pickets. These cemeteries are an interesting mix where the past meets the present.
Not far from Lincoln is Fort Stanton, which was founded in 1855 to protect settlements of the Hondo Valley from the rampaging tribes in the Apache Wars. The fort operated until 1899 with an interruption from 1862 to 1864 when Confederate forces occupied the facility. (We had no idea that the Civil War had reached this far west.) When the fort reopened under the US Army in 1864, the first commandant was Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson.
In 1899, President William McKinley closed the fort and had it converted to the first tuberculosis hospital in the nation. The hospital and research facility were limited to naval, marine and merchant marine servicemen. Seems a little strange that ocean-going men would end up being treated in the high country of New Mexico, but the dry, hot climate was considered ideal for treatment of the disease. There is a cemetery near Fort Stanton where 1,840 mariners are buried. The view from this site is fantastic, but it is a little unusual to see the cemetery marked with anchors and maritime markings. Fort Stanton also served one other purpose before its final closing. It was an internment location for Germans and some Japanese during World War II.
From Lincoln and the legend of Billy the Kid, my next destination was the town of Capitan. With a slight smell of smoke in the air from the New Mexico fires to the south, it was appropriate that I was entering the home of Smokey the Bear. In the spring of 1950 after a huge and horrendous fire, a badly burned black bear cub was found in the Capitan Gap near the body of his mother. Rescued by veterinarians, the cub was originally named Hotfoot Teddy. He soon was renamed Smokey, however, and he became the real life version of the mascot of the US Forest Service. Smokey spent the next 26 years at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. When he died in 1976, his remains were returned to Capitan where he was buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park.
Walking the next day from Capitan to Carrizozo through the gorgeous Capitan Mountains, the elevation peaked at 7,000 feet at Indian Divide. The path then wound down to a high desert mesa with rough buffalo grass, scattered and stunted mesquite trees and more frequent cacti. Just west of Carrizozo, we came upon an almost unbelievable landscape that we had seen from Google aerial maps but couldn’t quite understand. It was what the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century had described as the impassable Malpais or badlands. Now called the Valley of Fires, the area is actually the youngest lava flow in the continental US with its latest flow having occurred between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago. The flow erupted from volcanic vents at the northern end of the Tularosa Basin on at least two occasions and has created a field of broken black lava that measures 44 miles long, up to two miles wide and as much as 160 feet deep. At our overnight parking space at the Valley of Fires Recreation Area on a high ridge, the view is spectacular. What appears to be a black gash in the earth from the aerial shots, is more like an amazing moonscape up close if the surface of the moon had cacti spurting from the broken lava. Truly a beautiful view as the sun dips behind the mountains and cast shadows on the area.
Today at Valley of Fires, we met a group of 6 cyclists and their support team, Journey of Hope, biking across the US. This group was created by Push America (www.PushAmerica.org) and is the largest fraternal fundraiser of its kind. The Journey of Hope covers 32 different states, cycling over 12,000 miles combined and is solely comprised of members of Pi Kappa Phi whose goal is to spread a message of acceptance and understanding for people with disabilities.
Heading west over the next few days toward San Antonio, NM with parking for the RV a possible challenge. Wish us luck and safe travel.