Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wild Hogs Invade New Mexico & Threaten to Wreak Havoc

Wild hogs are invading New Mexico and are threatening to destroy the environment, spread disease and run off wildlife, according to authorities.

“This is a nightmare in the making," says Ron Jones, Wildlife Specialist for the Wildlife Services Division of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal, Plant, Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in Tucumcari. “And we have a very slim window of opportunity to get a handle on this.”

Jones works on the front lines for the lead agency in the battle against the invasion of wild hogs.

“And our biggest problem right now is a lack of manpower and money,” Jones says.

The problem in New Mexico has grown from the discovery of a single incidence of wild hogs found in Quay county in 2006 to multiple confirmed cases in 12 eastside counties and three other counties in the Boot Heel region of the southwest corner of the state.
Wild hogs grow large, are aggressive and look like a domestic pig gone wild.
There have also been reports of wild hogs in several other counties but perhaps more importantly also in the Rio Grande valley, home to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and many species of wildlife.

Those hogs inhabiting the Boot Heel region are thought to be remnants of a longtime herd of escaped or released domestic pigs while most of those found on the eastside are thought to have been intentionally brought in and released for hunting purposes, Jones says.

Most feral swine are descendants of escaped or intentionally released domestic pigs while some thought to have come from wild boars that escaped from game parks.

Hog hunting has become a popular pursuit in New Mexico due to its lack of a season, requirement of a license and the unlimited harvest allowed.

But in an effort to stem the growth of the sport and its associated problems the state legislature in 2009 passed a law making it illegal in New Mexico to import, hold, release or sell feral hogs or operate a commercial wild hog hunt.

Wild hogs are not be confused with Javelinas, a native game animal, the hunting of which is regulated by the state Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF).

Adult Javelinas are much smaller, have straight not curved tusks and sport a white collar around the neck.
A Javelina is much smaller than a wild pig and is a regulated game animal.
Because wild hogs are classified as feral domestic livestock, not wildlife, state game and fish officers have no jurisdiction over them which is why the USDA’s Wildlife Service’s specialists, like Jones, are leading the charge.

And while some of New Mexico’s wild hogs are thought to have migrated into the state along the Pecos and Canadian river corridors from Texas, it has been their importation into the state for hunting that has really fueled their growth here, Jones says.

“These folks apparently don’t care about the damage they’re causing,” Jones says.

Texas is home to an estimated 2.5 million wild hogs that cause an estimated $52 million dollars in agricultural crop and related damage each year, according to Texas A& M research results.

Nationally the feral swine population has grown to an estimated 5 million in 35 states and they are estimated to cause about a $1 billion in damage each year, according to USDA APHIS data.
And due to the wild pigs ability to rapidly reproduce, up to two litters a year averaging at least six piglets per litter, they are multiplying at astounding rates.

Thus hunting as a management tool has proven to be almost inconsequential in reducing their numbers, Jones says.


Wild hogs present many threats and their destruction of agricultural crops, predation of newborn livestock such as lambs and their capacity to uproot fields is well documented on websites such as Texas A&M’s found at http://feralhogs.tamu.edu/.

But it may be their potential to damage wildlife habitat, contaminate water supplies, spread disease and displace wildlife due to competition for natural resources that may be even more pressing for an outdoor recreational Mecca such as New Mexico.

“Habitat damage may be the bigger issue for us,” says Darrel Weybright, Acting Chief of the NMDGF’s Wildlife Management Division.

Weybright characterized wild pigs as being the new kids on the block competing with already established native wildlife populations for limited resources.

For example deer and bears rely heavily on acorn crops as a food base in New Mexico and wild hogs are known to have a strong preference for utilizing that same food source.

Hogs prefer acorns to the point that once they have depleted any source above ground they will then root out underground caches stashed by ground squirrels, pack rats and other animals.
Rooting effect of wild hogs.
The loss of such an important food base could have a potentially staggering effect on deer and bear populations which have limited alternative food sources to turn to in their absence, Weybright notes.

“So we certainly need to get moving on this and be smart about our approach in dealing with it,” he says.

Wild hogs have also been shown to carry numerous diseases, not the least of which is Pseudorabies, an affliction that can be transmitted through casual contact such as the simple touching of noses, says Jones, the federal wildlife specialist.

Consider the implications to wildlife if predators such as a pack of coyotes were to attack and kill an infected pig and then contract and spread the fatal disease, Jones says.

Over half the wild hogs killed during an eradication operation by wildlife specialists in Quay County in 2009, about 20, resulted in positive test for pseudo rabies, Jones said.

Jones questions whether the same scenario could also apply to other predators too such as bears, mountain lions and foxes that may also prey upon wild pigs, Jones says.

And the same disease transmission potential exists with livestock which feral swine come into regular contact while utilizing the same water and feed sources, Jones says.
Of particular concern to livestock operators would be a resurgence of other diseases the industry has worked hard to eradicate such as Brucellosis and Bovine Tuberculosis which the state’s herds have only recently been declared free of, says Dave Fly, State Veterinarian for the New Mexico Livestock Board.

“We’ve spent millions of dollars and over 20 years to become free if that,” he says. “We can’t afford to jeopardize all that work.”

Wild hogs are also notorious opportunists that prey upon newborn lambs, calves and even their vulnerable mothers which should be of particular concern to farmers and ranchers.

Calls to the Caren Cowan, Executive Director of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association seeking comment about the industry’s efforts to combat wild hogs were not returned. Nor were those made to the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.

Domestic livestock are not the only animals in nature that need to fear the influx of wild hogs.

Research has shown that the diet of wild hogs is heavily augmented - up to 60-percent- by the consumption of all sorts of wild animals including frogs, lizards, snakes, birds and their eggs and even deer fawn.

In one study at Fort Benning Ga. the stomach contents of one wild hog revealed 49 spade-foot toads that had been consumed in a single feeding.
A spade-foot toad. 
The study concluded wild hogs on the base were eating 2.8 million frogs and reptiles a year.

Of particular concern in New Mexico is the fate of endangered or threatened species such as the sand dune lizard in southeastern New Mexico where wild hogs inhabit 100-percent of the lizards’ habitat.

Of equal concern to those worried about the degradation of wildlife habitat is the spread of invasive noxious weeds that comes with the invasion of wild pigs.

Wild hogs are a crafty breed, says Tom Dominguez, the Quay County Extension Agent for New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service.

For instance, they need to wallow in mud to cool their bodies and fend off insects bites and they following account illustrate how far they’ll go to achieve that goal.

A rancher recounted to Dominquez recently about how he kept finding one of his stock tanks running over but couldn’t determine the cause.
New Mexico's east side has become a haven for wild hogs.
The overflowing water had turned the surrounding ground into a big mud pit and was also washing away the tanks’ foundation.

So the rancher hid and waited and soon saw a herd of pigs arrive.

Then he watched in amazement as one of the lead pigs climbed into the stock tank and found and held down on the tank float to keep the water flowing to create a wallow pit.

“They’re pretty innovative,” Dominguez said.

But snared within a wild pigs’ matted hair might be any number of invasive seed pods like the pesky Cocklebur, a plant which can be poisonous to livestock and horses.

Pigs wallow in the mud and coat the attached burs in a nutrient rich, fertile casing which then falls off while the pig roots, wallows or rubs against trees, one of their favorite activities.

Jones, the federal wildlife specialist, has documented where pigs had extensively rooted through pastures in search of grubs, tubers and earthworms. He then went back later to find the same pastures had grown over with weeds.

And in some cases these pastures may never return to their native state, Jones speculated.

Pigs also eat the seeds of many unwanted rangeland plants such as Mesquite trees and Cholla cactus. Some of those seeds are then passed whole in the pig’s feces and later sprout to further spread those plants reach.
Ron Jones, Wildlife Specialist for the Wildlife Services Division of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal, Plant, Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Jones says.

And yet another threat wild pigs pose to wildlife and humans is the contamination of water sources such riparian areas, stock tanks and even municipal water supplies.

Wild hogs have been tested positive for carrying the potentially fatal strain of E-coli and were implicated in the notorious California spinach food poisoning case of 2006.

They have been found to carry the worst waterborne pathogens including Campylobacter, Salmonella, Cryptosporidium and Giardia.

And while wild pigs are incredibly adaptable, the one constant they must have is water.

Their frequent use many of the same watering sites as livestock, wildlife and even human water sources is a recipe for disaster due to the potential for disease transmission, Jones says.

“We’ve got a real problem on our hands here,” Jones warns.


It’s an early December morning and Jones is driving down a muddy ranch road heading for a high spot overlooking a canyon where he hopes to pick up a radio signal from one of his “Judas Pigs.”

“It’s one of the best tools we have,” Jones says as he bounces across a pasture and pull to stop on a butte overlooking a wide valley floor.

Jones pulls out what looks like an arm off a rooftop, television antennae and turns on the handset.

“Nothing” he mumbles before explaining how he suspects a hunter he had talked to recently had apparently gotten into the herd of wild pigs Jones had been tracking.

He was concerned that his Judas Pig had been killed and the $200 radio transmitter attached to it had been destroyed.

Wild hogs typically run in groups called “sounders” containing anywhere from 10 to 20 pigs and lead by a dominate female while male “boars” usually roam alone until visiting a sounder for mating purposes.
A corral cage with spring loaded saloon style doors to trap entire groups of wild hogs at one time.
The “Judas Pig” is usually a female that has been caught along with other members of her group in one of Jones many traps.

Her mates are euthanized but the Judas Pig is then released with an attached transmitter to find another group of wild pigs to run with.

Being highly social animals, the Judas Pig should lead Jones to her new group soon.

It is a very effective way for Jones and his colleagues to find and eliminate large groups of pigs in a single outing.

The end usually comes from above in the form of automatic shotgun wielding shooters riding in low flying airplane.

Jones, armed with his radio antenna directs the shooters from the ground and the work is usually done in just a few minutes.
Ron Jones searches for a Judas Pig using radio telemetry.
The shooters spare the “Judas Pig” which is fitted with a bright yellow ear tag and she is then free to lead Jones to another group in due time.

Last year such efforts resulted in the elimination of over 135 wild hogs with 46 taken in two aerial hunts lasting about 30-minutes thanks to the use of “Judas Pigs,” Jones says. The rest had to be trapped.

But Jones a professional hunter with 25 years experience working for the federal government’s Wildlife Services knows there are many more out there.

“It’s going to take a coordinated effort and everyone’s cooperation to get a handle on this,” Jones said.

Jones is just one of 28 federal wildlife specialists working across the state to responsibly handle and reduce conflicts between wildlife and humans.

And while in years past Jones spent much of his time dealing with nuisance coyotes, raccoons or skunks, since his discovery of wild hogs near Tucumcari back in 2006 he’s been working almost full time on nothing but feral swine.
Coyotes play an important role in ecosystem and most should be shot only through a camera lens.   
“These are highly adaptable, intelligent and resourceful animals,” Jones said. “It’s almost scary how good they are at what they do and that’s way too good for us to tolerate.”

Thus Jones has worked hard to learn their traits and develop strategies for dealing with wild hogs in an effort to limit their expansion in New Mexico.

Jones and other wildlife specialists can now provide ranchers, landowners and public lands managers with plans for building cost effective traps to catch wild hogs and other assistance as needed.
A low cost trap for catching a limited number of  wild hogs. 
The agency has formulated an Eradication Plan  (Text Only) and has met with stakeholders from around the state to generate understanding about the issue but funding and manpower are now the primary hurdles to overcome, Jones says.

“We need to get busy if we want to nip this in the bud,” Jones says.

For more information about the wild hog situation read the Eradication Plan (Text Only) and if more assistance is needed contact the APHIS’ New Mexico Office of Wildlife Services in Albuquerque at (505) 346-2640.

Hunting Wild Hogs:

Wild hog hunting in New Mexico can be a challenging and rewarding experience that also helps protect wildlife and the environment.

Wild hogs are a non-game, destructive, invasive species and as such are not subject to regulation and oversight by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

There is no hunting license required for state residents, there’s no season and no bag limit, says Rick Winslow, Large Carnivore and Furbearer Biologist for NMDGF.

But out-of-state hunters will need a non-game license with an appropriate habitat stamp, he says.

Those interested in hunting wild hogs should arm themselves with a 30-caliber or larger firearm to safely and humanely dispatch these animals which can grow to 400 pounds or more, he says.
A well placed shot just behind the shoulder to target vital internal organs should do the trick in putting down a wild hog, he says.

The male boars make for good mounts due to their large tusks and ferocious appearance while the sows and younger pigs make for good eating, producing plenty of chops, hams and tasty ribs, says Winslow who hunts them himself.

When handling wild hog carcasses hunters should exercise precautions to avoid direct exposure to body fluids and potential disease by wearing rubber gloves and perhaps a neckerchief when gutting and butchering a pig.

Meat for consumption should be thoroughly cooked to kill potentially deadly diseases such as trichinosis which most wild hogs carry, Winslow says.
Finding pigs to hunt is easy, Winslow says.

“Just look for the nastiest, thickest, hardest place to get to and that’s where they’ll be,” he says.
Ron Jones surveys an arroyo outside of Tucumcari where pigs tracks were found.
Wild hogs are smart, wary and adept at avoiding humans but they need water on a daily basis. 

Thus wild hogs, who leave tracks similar to deer, can usually be caught coming or going from any number of water sources usually around dawn or dusk, Winslow advises.

Hunting is prohibited regardless of the species a half hour before or after dawn or dusk and the use of artificial light in New Mexico is strictly prohibited, Winslow said.

Wild hogs can be found throughout the entire east side of the state especially along the Pecos and Canadian river basins but permission is required to hunt on most of the private land found there. 

Contact a local county extension agent or farm or ranch association for possible leads to private land owners that may allow wild hog hunting.

Public lands agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service could provide leads. 

For instance the Lincoln National Forest harbors wild hogs and hunters can find more information about where, including maps, on their website at http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/lincoln/home.

This story was commissioned by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish for its own publication "New Mexico Wildlife" and first appeared in its Winter 2011/2012 edition and can be seen in that format, online,  at http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/publications/documents/NM_Wildlife/archives/NMW_winter2011-12_opt.pdf

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ice Fishing Tips & Tricks from Matt Pelletier of Fish Enchantment

Winter has arrived in New Mexico and thick sheets of ice have formed on many lakes providing anglers with an opportunity to keep fishing in a whole new way.

Ice fishing is a sure fire cure for the winter blues and when properly done can be fun and fulfilling too.

And if there’s one rule to ice fishing it’s that there's no such thing as being over dressed.

To enjoy an ice fishing expedition one need only follow these simple tips and tricks.

Wear layers so you’re always ready for the worst but can peel off clothes as weather permits.

Some days you could start out looking like the kid in "A Christmas Story", bundled up with so many layers you could hardly move. But by the end the day you might be wearing a short sleeved shirt and heavy layers of sunscreen!

A typical ice fishing outfit might include a layer of thermal underwear underneath a set of sweat pants and sweatshirt. Top that off with heavy, waterproof, pants and jacket.

To protect your cheeks and nose from the elements wear a thin balaclava over your face.

A fur hat with ear flaps or a thick knit cap will come in handy as will a good pair of thick, warm, gloves.

If you lack this kind of clothing shop the snow-boarding section of a sporting goods store.

Make sure you wear a warm pair of waterproof boots, preferably without laces, they tend to freeze up when wet and are a real pain to untie.

You’ll only need one pair of breathable socks if you have sufficiently warm boots. Too many socks and your feet will sweat which will eventually result in cold feet and a miserable angler.

Next you'll need a pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes from the bright conditions.

Optics with fog inserts or goggles are best for blocking wind and keeping your lenses from fogging.

Also bring a pair of hand warmers, they also double as a great way to ensure the wax worms in your pocket don't freeze!

Before going out on the ice one should obtain the following safety equipment.

Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, a Hypothermia expert at the University of Manitoba in Canada, teamed up with the Discovery Channel to create instructional videos posted on YouTube that show how to get out of the water if you fall through the ice.

Watch “Survival in the Ice – Part 1” on YouTube before you head out on your first trip.

It’s even wiser to buy or build a pair of safety spikes that can be carried with you and used to stab into the ice and pull yourself out if you do fall through.

Even something as simple as a couple of sharpened screwdrivers hanging from a string dangling around the neck will do the trick.

Always carry a long length of good rope with you too when out on the ice. Tie a loop on one end large enough for someone to slide over their head and arm so you can use it to pull them out.

These simple tools and some knowledge can save your life.
Another situation that presents itself during ice fishing is the potential for a bad slip and fall.

Alleviate this possibility by getting a pair of ice cleats that slip over your boots.

They’ll make a huge difference when fishing on slick ice.

If you find yourself in a situation where you need them and are without, stretch an extra pair of socks over your boots to gain some extra grip.

You’ll also need an auger of some sort so you can drill a hole through the ice to fish through.

Some people will use a battery operated power drill with a long, fluted, wood drill bit to start a hole

Some bait and tackle shops at lakes like Eagle Nest rent ice augers and other equipment for ice anglers to use.

A hand auger will work for thinner ice but once you start fishing through 20" of ice you’ll quickly want to upgrade to a motor driven auger.

As for finding the fish; it helps if you know the structure of the lake you are fishing in advance.

Fish eat all winter long, finding them can take one hole or may require making “Swiss Cheese” of the lake.

Move around a lot, if you don’t get a bite within twenty minutes; drill more holes!

Once a hole had been drilled you'll need an ice scoop to clean out the slush and keep it clear. Plastic scoops work fine but a metal scoop will last forever.

For fishing gear a regular spinning rod will work but you can get a short ice rod combo for under $30.

These 18 to 30-inch long rods allow you to stay close to the hole so you can see what you’re doing.

You’ll want something to sit upon and a five gallon bucket with a swivel lid for a seat is ideal.

These buckets hold plenty of gear inside and with the addition of one of those bucket organizers from the hardware store there’ll be plenty of pockets for stashing tools and gear on the outside.

The next thing you'll need is a means of transporting all your gear across the ice.

There are lightweight sleds that you can buy or build your own from a plastic, concrete mixing bin from the hardware store.

And if the winds are howling you might want to consider getting a portable ice shack.

One great thing about a shack is it blocks the sunlight over your hole allowing you to see further down into the water.

And in clear, shallow, water you'll be able to see the fish and how they’re reacting to your bait and you’ll be able to make react quickly.

It’s a great way to watch as fish take your rig.

As far as fishing tackle goes the lightest line, 2-14 pound test, should cover everything from Perch to Pike.

Use a lighter line when fishing small jigs or bait and heavier line when jigging bigger lures.

You can jig, twitch the lure up and down, with a variety of lures like Kastmasters, Swedish Pimples, Dynamic HD Ice, crappie jigs, and plastic tubes like Gitzits.

You can add a piece of bait to a lure too or just fish it by itself, try a little of both and see what happens.

Live baits like wax worms, meal worms, or night crawlers are worth trying too.

Sometimes fish respond better to plastic synthetic baits so make sure to carry plastic worms, nymphs, and grubs just in case.

A hook setter like The Jawjacker is a great piece of equipment as it will set the hook when the fish bites ensuring it’s hooked even when you’re not standing over the rod at the time.

Okay now that we’ve got the gear covered, it’s time to head out to a lake.

Try Eagle Nest for starters and then follow up on Fish Enchantment’s online fishing forum at http://www.fishenchantment.com/SMF/ for more tips on where and when to go.

At Eagle Nest Lake illegally planted pike are threatening the popular trout fishery and anglers are now required to kill or keep any they catch and catch as many as they can in an attempt to reduce their numbers.

A trout fishery's worst nightmare, Pike.

Always check the ice thickness before going out on the lake and stay away from weak spots like pressure ridges and open water.

Remember you proceed at your own risk every time you step out onto the ice.

If the ice looks really thin, throw a big rock onto the ice. If it doesn’t go through, drill a hole in shallow water to test the thickness of the ice.

Five inches is an accepted safe starting point for many in the angling community while the state of New Mexico uses nine inches.

For more information on ice fishing check out the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/safety/ice/index.html for plenty of helpful tips.

Now get out there and catch some fish, ice fishing is a great experience if you’re prepared.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Vaughn, New Mexico -A Long, Strange Trip Indeed

As the last rays of the sun disappeared over the snow-covered horizon a wave of dread washed over me.

A lumbering snowplow had just passed us, headed south on US 285 with a long line of vehicles crawling behind it.

We should have turned back then but every chance to cross the snowed over median looked like a trap.

And in the descending darkness the windblown snow swept across the highway, obliterating the slim ribbon of pavement, replacing it with a sea of grey.

We kept crawling along in our little station wagon, the front wheel drive and new tires maintaining a firm grip.

The Suzuki’s mighty defroster hummed away while a new set of wiper blades kept the windshield clean.

It wasn’t the car I was worried about, it was the other drivers as we passed one forsaken vehicle after another, off the road, in the ditch or buried in the median.

Their emergency blinkers marked a path through the darkness and then the interior of our car began to fill with a blinding light.

A low-slung pickup sporting fat tires and bright fog lights was bearing down on us from behind.

I turned the hazard lights on and got as far over to the right as I dared.

The pickup rode up on my tail, its piercing lights flooding the interior and then they suddenly disappeared as the vehicle veered sharply off towards the median.

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the truck askew of the roadway, its headlights rapidly fading in the darkness.

There was no stopping to help as it was all I could do to just keep rolling.

A chained up and opportunistic tow truck driver would be making the rounds and plenty of money off this stretch of road all night anyhow.

I thought then of my oldest brother, Eric, the one who taught me how to drive in the snow when we were growing up back east just north of Boston.
I fondly remember doing “donuts” in the snow packed parking lot of Zayre’s in his old Rambler after a good snow storm.

I learned then that just a slight tap of the brakes and a twist of the wheel would send us spinning out of control and howling with glee.

I guess the pickup driver behind me didn’t.

We tentatively motored on and were soon buoyed by the sight of a dim halo of lights far off in the distance above what had to be the town of Vaughn.

A remote railroad hub, the community of about 500 sits out on the lonely, windswept plains of New Mexico providing a haven for road weary truckers, isolated ranchers and, when the weather sours, stranded travelers.

Running due south across the state this two lane, separated highway functions as the state’s primary route for the shipment of low-level radioactive waste to an underground, desert, repository outside of the town of Carlsbad known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

That’s where we were we had headed on Christmas day, my wife and I, to Carlsbad and “Christmas on the Pecos”.

It’s a southeast New Mexico tradition where homeowners on the Pecos River put up elaborate Christmas light displays for visitors to enjoy.
We had a blast!

The weather had cleared and we made a visit to the Carlsbad Caverns that morning and were now heading back, much later than we planned.

The severe snow storm that had just ripped through our state was at our backs as we covered a couple of hundred miles of open road that sunny afternoon

Just two days earlier the same storm had dumped record amounts of snow on the plains and high desert towns of Vaughn, Roswell, Artesia and Carlsbad, bringing them a white Christmas.

The storm had stalled down there and we were forced to leave a day later than planned to give it time to clear out.

As I was packing the wagon to go I was thinking of the Texas family that had been trapped by the same storm days earlier on a rural northern New Mexico road as they tried to make their way to a ski resort.

The family spent two days buried under deep snow drifts snow in their GMC Yukon and almost suffocated to death.

They weighed heavily on my mind as I loaded up several sleeping bags, pillows, a couple of jugs of water, a small propane heater, a pint of whiskey, some trail bars and playing cards to our travel gear.

But as we rolled out of Carlsbad and crossed a hundred miles of cleared blacktop under sunny skies the day of our return I had no idea we were going to need them.

We skated into Vaughn that night atop a sheet of ice with the wind howling and the snow flying.

It was a surreal scene as we passed dozens of idling tractor trailer rigs crowded into a convenience store parking lot, the blowing snow illuminated by the lone street light and the big rigs belching smoke.

Up on a slight hill across the street the lights of a two story hotel and its adjacent 24-hour diner beckoned.

We pulled into the driveway only to encounter a deep snow drift and several abandoned vehicles blocking the way.

But there was an opening and we went for it, cresting the top of the drive with just enough momentum left to slide to a stop under a big pine tree.

We were parked off to the side of a circular driveway in front of the hotel, out of the way and on level ground.

“I think we’ll be staying here for the night,” I said to Wren who nodded in agreement.

But it turned out there wasn’t any room at the inn; they were booked solid with most of the rooms reserved for the railroad workers they catered to.

And none of the other motels in town we called had any vacancies either.

We had arrived too late, the little town and its limited number of hotel rooms was flooded with stranded travelers.

We talked to the driver of a shuttle van for the railroad crews in the parking lot about our options and she suggested if we wanted to chance it we’d better get going before the state police closed the highway.

We talked it over and agreed there was no way we were going to take a chance on making it another 150 miles under these conditions.

We were just going to have to suck it up and ride out the night in our car.

In the crowded diner we heard how the weather was fine that day until the sun set.

Then the melted snow on the roads froze up as the fierce plains winds kicked in, stirring up the snow and sending it adrift.

We wondered about the surly mood of the townspeople too and discovered they had been dealing with stranded travelers for days now and were now low on supplies and patience.

We went back out to the car and prepared to settle in for the night.

Wren wiggled into her bag, reclined her seat and was asleep in no time.

I sat sipping a beer and reading my novel.

The windows soon windows misted over from our breath and I was reduced to just listening to what was going on outside.

The shuttle van came and went every now and then, its lights barely visible through the fogged up window.

A front end loader arrived at one point to clear the lot, its back up beeper chiming while the engine roared with each scoop of the bucket.

I took a walk at one point passing the diner and noting the clock inside showed it was 3:30 in the morning.

It was eerily quiet now that the wind had died.

I looked down the hill at the convenience store parking lot and saw one of the last of the tractor trailers quietly leaving.

I would wait for the dawn, dropping off to sleep in the front seat, my feet warm in a pair of old sheepskin booties and a thick pair of wool socks, a sleeping bag draped over my head.

The sun rose with a vengeance, raising our hopes and dashing our fears.
A beer truck was unloading at the convenience store, the driver apparently unfazed by the road conditions.

He said the highway was a sheet of ice for about ten miles out of town and then turned to clear sailing all the way.

Wren used the prepaid, emergency cell phone we carried to notified work she was going to be late and we took off to cover the last hundred and fifty, uneventful, miles of our trip.

In retrospect we should have known as we headed south into Vaughn that Christmas day that this was going to be one of those trips.

As we had neared the town, the skies clouded over, the road became slick and we saw giant snow banks lining the shoulders.

Then we came across a heavily bundled person stoically riding a scooter down the lonesome highway, miles from anywhere, just putting along, little rings of smoke blowing out the tailpipe.

We just looked at each other and kept on going and by the time we’d passed through town the road and the skies soon cleared as did that eerie feeling.

Days later I would overhear my wife talking on the phone.

She was telling her sister that everyone should have to spend a night sleeping in their car during a snow storm in a lonely, little, town like Vaughn.

After all isn’t that what living in New Mexico is really all about?

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