Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Visit Trinity Site for a Real Blast from the Past!

The memorial obelisk at ground zero.
The Army expects bigger crowds and longer waits for the public to visit the Trinity Site on White Sands Missile Range this fall due to the recent release of the movie “Oppenheimer.”  

The remote military base in the New Mexico desert was the test site for the world’s first explosion of an atom bomb and is opened to the public twice a year.

“Due to the release of the movie, “Oppenheimer” in July, we are expecting a larger than normal crowd at the 21 October open house,” according to an alert posted on the Army’s Trinity Site web page. “You may experience wait times of up to two hours getting onto the site. If you are not one of the first 5,000 visitors, you might not get through the gate prior to its’ closure at 2 p.m.” 

Sweet duty for this group of soldiers who said they enjoyed working with the public.
During its April open house the Army saw about 3,900 visitors and it took just over an hour for the author’s vehicle to slowly make its way up to and through the manned checkpoint to gain entrance to the site.  

We arrived at around 9:30 a.m. after spending the night at the Days Inn in nearby Socorro where Trinity Site visitors will need to book a room well in advance if they want to stay in town. 

Those who prefer to camp out can find some sites just outside of San Antonio at the Riverine Park off U.S. 380 in the Bosque alongside the irrigation canal. We observed others camped out on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land on the road leading to the Stallion Gate on White Sands Missile Range.

Primitive campsites at Riverine Park off U.S. 380 outside of San Antonio.
Travel to the site from Las Cruces or Albuqueque takes a couple of hours and visitors can only gain entrance through the Stallion Gate on N.M. 525 located off U.S. 380 between San Antonio and Carrizozo. The gate opens at 8 a.m. ID is required. No firearms or marijuana allowed. The call of nature can be strong when waiting in line. Prepare accordingly. See the site's website for more info.

Trinity Site is where the first atomic bomb was tested at 5:29:45 a.m. Mountain War Time on July 16, 1945. The 19-kiloton explosion not only led to a quick end to the war in the Pacific but also ushered the world into the atomic age. All life on Earth has been touched by the event, which took place here, according to a brochure on the Trinity Site's webpages

The ranch house where it all came together.
The 51,500-acre area was declared a national historic landmark in 1975. The landmark includes base camp, where the scientists and support group lived; ground zero, where the bomb was placed for the explosion; and the Schmidt/McDonald ranch house, where the plutonium core to the bomb was assembled. Visitors to a Trinity Site Open House are given the opportunity to visit ground zero and the ranch house. In addition, one of the old instrumentation bunkers is visible beside the road just west of ground zero. 

Socorro's plaza area is well worth exploring.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Riding the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

Autumn is a great time to take a ride into New Mexico’s high country to see the trees changing colors from aboard one of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad’s antique trains.

The railroad’s steam locomotives chug along over 64 miles of narrow gauge track spanning the mountains between Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo., crossing both state’s borders 11 times.

As the trains wends its way up and over 10,000-foot high Cumbres Pass at a top speed of 12 miles-per-hour, passengers have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. 

The passing countryside includes wide meadows of native grasses bordered by thick stands of aspen and pines trees through which the Los Pinos River meanders. Adventurous anglers seeking a bucket list experience can arrange to be dropped off and picked up later at a predetermined spot along the route.

Passengers can book passage aboard the train’s antique coach, parlor, or deluxe cars, which offer varying degrees of services and amenities. Any passenger can ride out on the open air car where exposure to the elements provides a heightened experience.

And with stations on both ends of the line in either Chama, N.M. or Antonito, Colo., passengers can plan their adventure from either side of the mountains.

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad depot at Antonito, Colo.

Just make sure you remember from which station you’re departing before you hit the road. 

During a recent autumn outing to catch the train we were cruising up U.S. 285 in remote northern New Mexico, about half way to Colorado, when it suddenly dawned on us that we were on the wrong side of the mountains. Out of habit we had taken the turnoff just north of Española where U.S. 84/285 splits because that’s the highway we usually take to go up to Colorado.

But today we were supposed to be on the other side of the Tusas Mountains, headed up U.S. 84 through Chama to catch the midday train at Cumbres Pass. Instead we were cutting through miles of empty sage, spruce and piñon studded countryside headed for Antonito in southern Colorado.

We got lucky though as we were just coming up to the intersection at Tres Piedras where we could take U.S. 64 over the mountains back to Chama. It was a shame we had to hurry because the fall scenery along this highway was at its peak and screaming for us to stop and take photographs.

We hustled to make the train and passed it just as we motoring up the mountain to Cumbres Pass station. The remote mountaintop station in the national forest sits at a jumping off point for Continental Divide Trail hikers and boasts primitive camp sites amid great scenic views.

Once on board we found our assigned seats and soon enjoyed the rhythmic rocking of the train, the clattering of the tracks and the warm sun and gentle breezes flowing through our open windows.

Wren Propp and Karl Moffatt enjoy a recent autumn ride on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Passing through dark tunnels, creeping along the edge of steep canyons and crossing over towering trestle bridges, the train marked its passage with the hoot and wail of its haunting steam whistle.

Arriving at Osier Station high in the mountains we were treated to a full blown buffet lunch inside the sprawling cafeteria.

The menu included green or red chile enchiladas, grilled chicken and barbecue pork, pinto beans, roasted potatoes, salads, coleslaw, cornbread, dinner rolls, tortillas, peach cobbler and other desserts.

Back onboard the train the bar car was serving up Coors tall boys and other adult beverages during the return trip. When we got back to Cumbres Pass I  surreptitiously stayed on board while my wife got off and picked me up later at the end of the line in Chama.

During the return trip I had the pleasure of hanging out between the cars with a young conductor who told me how much he loved his job but didn’t know if he could still continue doing it every summer now that he was finally graduating from college back in Oklahoma. He would soon be starting his teaching career and had a girlfriend back there too.

Boy, this poor guy sure seemed conflicted so I offered him my best advice about jobs and women, noting how both were in great supply compared to a fun gig like working on the railroad. I wished him the best of luck in getting his priorities straight as we rolled into Chama and parted ways.

Several months later I was watching the local news when they aired a story about the train featuring the same conductor. There he was telling the reporter how he was planning to be a teacher that winter but no matter what would be back on the railroad every summer after that for as long as they would have him.

Smart kid that conductor.

Visit the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad's website at https://cumbrestoltec.com/ for more information.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Fort Sumner & Bosque Redondo - Small Town Charm Amid a Violent Past

By Wren Propp

Serious events of more than 150 years ago play a major role in the lifeblood of Fort Sumner, home to the Bosque Redondo Memorial and Billy the Kid's gravesite. But visitors also can enjoy fishing, birding, camping, and even old fashioned soda fountain while taking in all that history.

On one hand visitors may come to see the gravesite of Billy the Kid, a Lincoln County War character whose mythologized youth (he was a starving orphan) and homicidal bravado usually overshadows the bloody reasons for the war itself. There’s a private museum and references throughout town referring to the Kid who was finally hunted down and killed here by Sheriff Pat Garrett back in 1881. 

Then on the other hand, there's the memorial and education center dedicated to the sorrow and survival of two Indian tribes. The center recalls the suffering of the Diné (Navajo) after thousands of them were forcibly and murderously marched by the U.S. Army from their homeland in northwestern New Mexico to imprisonment at Fort Sumner, on the far eastern side of the territory. The forced marches came to be known as The Long Walk. The Diné were joined at "the Fort" by other prisoners, the Ndé (Mescalero Apache) from southern New Mexico.

You may think “museum” as you approach the Bosque Redondo Memorial but it really isn't.

It's a state sponsored historical site, an international site of consciousness, intended to raise awareness of the horrific treatment the two native groups experienced, and some survived, in the 1860s. Inside visitors will find art, historical documents and artifacts, interpretive signs and other displays that tell their story. Visitors also will find thoughtfully appointed quiet areas throughout the memorial where guests can privately reflect upon what they've learned during their visit.

The Bosque Redondo Memorial marks the place “where misery laid down its head every night.” Thousands of people were held against their will, suffering starvation, exploitation, cultural dismemberment and often, death.

The ultimate triumph of both the Diné and the Ndé over their captors is so remarkable, and historically significant, it's surprising that no one’s made a dramatic movie about it (yet) although there is a documentary film from 2009.

Bosque Redondo was the site of the signing of the 1868 Treaty between the U.S. and the Diné, a document that guides the relationship between the tribe and the federal government today. The Ndé also signed a treaty, albeit after they left Fort Sumner.

The impetus of the current memorial came from a 1990 letter signed by several Diné high school students who called out for more recognition of their people’s suffering and survival at the Bosque Redondo site. 

The students had toured a small museum near the site of the old fort and were stunned that the deadly imprisonment of their ancestors, and the signing of the 1868 Treaty, were mere footnotes beside robust histories of Billy the Kid and the U.S. Army. You can read the letter that compelled the state to build the memorial while visiting the site or on the memorial’s website.

The Kid’s gravestone, the Bosque Redondo Memorial and another popular local attraction, Bosque Redondo Lake, are found about six miles southeast of the town of Fort Sumner in an area surrounded by family farms and ranches where visitors can see sheep, cattle, goats and horses grazing contently.

 Campers and day visitors can enjoy Bosque Redondo Lake and its camp sites, bird watching, fishing and hiking and biking trails. The Pecos River flows nearby in wet years, feeding the area’s wealth of ponds and lakes. The area also features Fort Sumner and Santa Rosa State Parks where visitors can enjoy some great fishing for walleye, bass, catfish and trout. Reservations for overnight camping at these parks can be made through the New Mexico State Park’s website. 

In addition to the Bosque Redondo Memorial visitors can also visit a private museum dedicated to Billy the Kid as well as his grave site. The Billy the Kid Museum also has an RV park if camping at one of the area lakes is not available.

Back in town visitors might enjoy stopping in at Addison’s Drug Store where an art deco-style soda fountain is still in operation. Kept in working order since the 1940s, its shiny blue and chrome décor will charm you while you sip a soda or spoon up a thick shake. Booths in the back harbor friendly locals who will tell you exactly how to find Billy the Kid's grave.

Dave’s Grocery, a family owned market that any small town “west of the Pecos” would be happy to have, featured fresh vegetables, ground beef and a separate section for hardware. During our recent visit the male clerks were dressed in jeans and button down shirts and happily serving a steady stream of little kids and their mommas, retirees and tourists. There's also a couple of cannabis stores in town, a shop selling locally produced honey, drive-in burger and and ice cream joint and a very busy NAPA auto parts store. 

There’s also two substantial convenience stores in town including an Allsup's, known throughout New Mexico for their deep fried chimichangas and burritos.  We found the service during our visit refreshingly friendly in these post-Covid times, with many clerks offering friendly greetings and good humor. In fact, everyone we encountered during our visit throughout Fort Sumner, from the ladies at Addison’s soda fountain to the folks at the Bosque Redondo Memorial, were warm and greeted us politely. 

For non-campers, there’s plenty of hotel rooms at several different establishments in town. During our visit we stayed at the Super 8, which featured huge photographic prints of Shiprock, Tse Bit’a’ i, or the "rock with wings,” an iconic volcanic formation near the Four Corners area, and other images tied to the Diné homeland.

And around town some empty storefront windows are still decorated with advertisements for the 2018,  150th anniversary of the signing of the 1868 Treaty that set the Indians free and commemorated at the memorial and throughout Fort Sumner.

Fort Sumner's small town charm and vibrancy speaks of a promising future and its recognition and acceptance of its violent and sobering past does too. 

 The author is a former Farmington Daily Times reporter who along with fellow reporter, Debi Tracy Olsen, earned an E.H. Shaffer Award for Journalism for their series documenting The Long Walk in the early 1990s. They visited the memorial together during this trip. 

Things to do and see around Fort Sumner, NM:

·       Bosque Redondo Memorial – open Thursdays through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., $7 adult; children enter for free; Museums of New Mexico Cultural Pass accepted. https://nmhistoricsites.org/bosque-redondo.

      Billy the Kid’s grave site https://www.fortsumner.net/parksrec/page/billy-kid%E2%80%99s-gravesite

      Billy the Kid Museum – Open Monday through Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Adults $5; Seniors $4; Children 7 to 15, $3, and under 6, free. Closed some holidays and first two weeks of the year. https://billythekidmuseumfortsumner.com/index.html

Bosque Redondo Lake Park -- Well-kept day and overnight spots at this small lake with lots of bird life. No entrance fee observed.

Sumner State Lake Park -- reservations needed for camp sites. https://www.emnrd.nm.gov/spd/find-a-park/sumner-lake-state-park/

Santa Rosa Lake State Park https://www.emnrd.nm.gov/spd/find-a-park/santa-rosa-lake-state-park/ . Several non-reservation camping spots available.

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