Desert Southwest Adventure: Day 3

We began the day with a hardy breakfast at the Waffle & Pancake Shoppe, a 36-year-old Alamogordo institution. The Brockett-family diner specializes in great home cooking and excellent customer service. We were not disappointed! Cliff enjoyed the huevos rancheros, while Jon had a traditional bacon and egg breakfast. The hash browns were perfect! Five stars!

From there, we headed to White Sands National Park, about a 15-minute drive, just past Holloman Air Force Base. It’s a relatively small park—the main road into and out of the park (called Dunes Drive) is only about 16 miles, round-trip. Typical of a first-time visit, we posed for a photo in front of the park’s entrance sign. Then we headed to the historic visitor center, a Depression-era adobe building that is part of a complex exemplifying the very best artisanship of the WPA workers who built it more than 80 years ago. In fact, the Pueblo Revival-style buildings are of such architectural significance, they have been designated a National Historic District.

After purchasing our park postcard (another tradition), we headed toward the interdune boardwalk, an 0.4-mile elevated platform that promised unparalleled views of the dunes but never really delivered. First, the term “boardwalk” is a rather “loose” interpretation. The raised platform is actually made of metal, so, in addition to having to endure the intense sun reflecting off the surface of the gypsum sand, we also endured a hot metal walkway for a partial, and obstructed, view of the dune field (at 275 square miles, the dune field is large enough to be seen from space, but not from the boardwalk).

When the Permian Sea retreated millions of years ago, it left behind deep layers of gypsum. Mountains rose and carried the gypsum high. Later, water from melting glaciers dissolved the mineral and returned it to the basin. For thousands of years, wind and sun separated the water from the gypsum and formed selenite crystals. Wind and water from ephemeral bodies of water such as Lake Lucero broke down the crystals, making them smaller and smaller until they became sand. Steadily, strong southwest winds kept the gypsum sand moving, piling it up and pushing the dunes into the various fields we see today.

After a brief stop to climb the dunes and take a few photos, we completed our motor tour and headed to the highlight of the day: a visit to Three Rivers Petroglyph site, about 30 miles away.

The site contains more than 21,000 petroglyphs, or rock carvings, including masks, sunbursts, wildlife, handprints, and geometric designs. These were the works of the Jornada Mogollon prehistoric Indians, a culture that thrived in villages throughout the Tularosa Basin. The prehistoric rock art they left behind makes this one of the largest and most intriguing rock sites in the Southwest.

We ascended the rugged 0.5-mile trail to view some of the most interesting petroglyphs, including the one pictured here. The circle and dot motif is prevalent throughout the site, accounting for more than 10 percent of the petroglyphs (although absent from other Jornada Mogollon rock art sites). The Three Rivers Petroglyph site is one of the few locations in the Southwest set aside solely because of its rock art. It is also one of the few sites giving visitors such direct access to petroglyphs. The glyphs of birds, humans, animals, fish, insects and plants, as well as numerous geometric and abstract designs are scattered over 50 acres of New Mexico’s northern Chihuahuan Desert. The petroglyphs date to between about 900 and 1400 A.C.E, and were created by using stone tools to remove the dark patina on the exterior of the basalt rock.

While it is known how the petroglyphs were made, and it’s fairly certain who made them, there is much less certainty about why they were made and what they may mean. Some say the petroglyphs are picture writing, with each one representing a word or thought, similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Together, they may relate a story, an idea, or directions to travelers. Their exact meaning may never be known because there are no modern descendants who have carried on the language and memories of the Jornada Mogollon people.

After a brief shopping excursion to replenish supplies, we headed back to Cloud 9 for a televisit with Jon’s mom, followed by a fajita fiesta. We ended the evening with a roaring campfire under clear, starlit skies.

Next morning, we spent time blogging and surfing the web, and then made ready for the next leg of our adventure.

A few things we learned along the way are worth sharing:

  • Sometimes, the best adventure is the one you haven’t planned for.
  • “Dry” heat is actually preferable to any weather that includes a “heat index.”
  • Never underestimate the power of an umbrella to shield you from the desert sun.