Sunday morning, Socorro
San Miguel Church, Socorro
It was Sunday, so we started the day by attending mass at the historic church of San Miguel in Socorro. Or rather, in the church’s very functional parish hall, as unfortunately the church was closed for what is apparently much-needed renovation, as past neglect of the adobe structure has led to extensive water damage. It was a lovely service nevertheless, as one local couple were celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary (their 65th, if I remember correctly) and a big fuss was made of them by the priest and community.
San Miguel Church
But it was a disappointment not to be able to see inside the church, as it has a lot of history. The first mission was built here between 1615 and 1626, as Nuestra Señora del Socorro – Our Lady of Succour. But during the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the local Piros and the Spanish settlers fled south, and it wasn’t until around 1800, that a small group of Spaniards resettled Socorro and rebuilt the by-then ruined church.
According to a small leaflet about Socorro’s history which we picked up at the local tourism board, ‘There are 4 sub floors under the church. Records show that four priests & General Manuel Armijo, the last governor of the Territory of New Mexico, are buried under the church. Some descendants of the early settlers say that in the early 1800s, an Apache Indian raid was halted when they saw a man with wings and shining sword hovering over the church door. Shortly afterward, a petition was made to the Bishop to change the name of the church to San Miguel (St. Michael), the Angelic Protector of the people.’
The local history website http://socorro-history.org/HISTORY/smiguel/church.html has a more detailed history and also mentions that the church reopened after extensive work in 2015, in time to celebrate its 400 year anniversary.
San Miguel Church
Before leaving this pleasing small town we checked out one more sight. Just south of the Plaza is this odd-looking memorial.
This is a fragment from Jumbo, a rather cute name for a rather sinister object. Jumbo was the huge steel vessel designed to contain the explosion of the first ever nuclear device, which was detonated at the Trinity Site 35 miles southeast of Socorro on 16th July 1945. It was 25 feet long, 12 feet in diameter and weighed 214 tons. It was not actually used for that first explosion but as it was just 800 feet from ground zero it did suffer some damage, and in later experiments had its ends blown out. It is thus a slightly disturbing souvenir of those early experiments in atomic warfare. Even today a number of townspeople apparently remember the light of the first atomic blast at White Sands Missile Range.
Main Street, Magdalena
In planning our route I could have opted at this point to carry on north up I25 to Albuquerque and the northern part of the state, but their were several sights to the west that had grabbed our attention, so instead we left Socorro on the much quieter Highway 60, heading out onto the Plains of San Augustin. A few miles west of Socorro we stopped at the only real town (albeit a small one) on this stretch of road, Magdalena.
It would be quite easy to miss Magdalena, but we were very glad we had stopped to explore a little. There’s nothing in particular to see but the handful of old buildings scattered along the highway are a photographer’s dream!
Although it is a sleepy place today, like many in the state Magdalena was once a bustling town. A spur of the Santa Fe Railroad terminated here, to serve mines and ranches in the surrounding area. Lead, zinc, and silver miners would ship their ore out from Magdalena, and ranchers throughout western New Mexico and eastern Arizona drove their cattle here. These miners and ranchers bought their supplies from the many mercantile establishments in the town and stayed at its several hotels. During its most prosperous years, 1884-1925, many fine buildings and houses were built in Magdalena, and several can still be seen.
Old bank, Magdalena
The former Bank of Magdalena sits on the corner of North Main Street and US 60. This commercial building was built between 1908 and 1913 and has ornamental brickwork in its arches and along the cornice of the parapets. The old signs, and the tourism website (http://magdalena-nm.com/trails-end/walking_tour.html), suggest that it has also served as a café (and possibly still does?) although when we were there in September 2011 it appeared to be in use as the offices of the local newspaper.
Another brick building of note is the Ilfeld Warehouse in North Main Street, built in 1913 in the Mission Revival Style. Charles Ilfeld owned one of the largest mercantile companies in New Mexico, having begun his career supplying general merchandise from his store in Las Vegas, NM, during the 1870's. As he expanded, Magdalena became a central warehouse serving ranchers and small businesses across southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Mercantile outlets such as this were essential to ranchers because they were allowed to buy supplies against receipts from the sale of cattle and sheep each year.
Opposite the Ilfield Warehouse is at the old Santa Fe Depot in North Main Street. The old (1915) railroad building is listed on the National Register and now serves as the Village Hall and Library. It was perhaps unsurprisingly closed on our Sunday morning visit, as was the small Box Car Museum also on the site, but you don’t need to go inside the museum to see this old box car from the Santa Fe Railroad which is on permanent display here.
Santa Fe box car, Magdalena Depot
The Very Large Array
Further west along Highway 60 we reached one of the main sights that had drawn us to this part of the state. The Very Large Array, or VLA as it is commonly known, is an amazing sight, and one not to be missed if you are anywhere near this part of New Mexico, in my opinion! The huge radio telescopes, 27 of them, rise majestically out of the huge, otherwise almost empty, Plains of San Augustin like visitors from another world altogether. But these are not visitors from another world, but searchers for such a world.
The Very Large Array from afar
These massive dishes (25 m/82 feet in diameter, and weighing 230 tons) are antennae, arranged in a Y formation and set on equally massive tracks that allow them to be bunched fairly close together (just a kilometre apart) or spread out over 36 kilometres. I don’t pretend to fully understand the science, but the broad principle is that by combining the signals picked up from several antennae scientists can map radio sources from across the universe. Quite apart from their scientific significance I also found the dishes rather beautiful, and incredibly photogenic.
We did the self-guided walking tour which allowed us to get really close to one of the dishes and also taught us all we ever wanted to know (possibly more!) about radio astronomy. The tour was free (I note they now charge $6 which is very reasonable for what you get to see), although we were invited to make a small donation for the accompanying leaflet.
We started in the Visitor Centre, where a short video explained the principles of radio astronomy and the workings of the VLA. Other exhibits covered some of the same ground but also expand on the explanations, and there were some beautiful images of outer space made with the telescopes.
Dish at The Very Large Array
But for us the main attractions lay outside, so we quickly headed out of the back door, collecting one of the leaflets to guide us. The walking tour covers about half a mile, I would say, and is clearly signposted. There were a number of stops along the way, with information about each in the leaflet, but the main highlight for sure was arriving right at the base of one of the antennae and getting a powerful sense of its huge size. We were in luck as it adjusted its position while we stood there, turning to point towards some new, unseen and distant object.
Getting close to the dishes
A close look at a dish and antenna
From here we looped around to arrive at the main research building, where a terrace gives a general view of the whole array. Photos taken from here show just how tiny people appear next to the dishes.
View from the Research Centre
Back at the Visitor Centre we bought a couple of postcards and revisited a couple of the exhibits that had taken on fresh relevance after our walk, and got some cold drinks from the vending machine.
On our way back to the main road we stopped at the point where Highway 52 crosses the railroad, as there are good distant views of the VLA and of the railroad stretching into the distance across the plains.
Our hire car near the VLA
Railroad crossing near the VLA
When I saw Pie Town on the map I knew we had to go there! Any town named after food has to be worth a visit, yes? And while getting to Pie Town involves a long drive across empty plains, for us the effort was well rewarded.
Pie Town sign
The town really is named after the humble pie! It got its name in the 1920s when an entrepreneur got the idea of opening a restaurant and serving pies to homesteaders and to early cross-country motorists. But the coming of the interstate (I40 cuts across the state a little to the north of here) meant that the traffic dried up and the pie market collapsed.
It was only revived in 1994 when a disappointed visitor to the town took matters into their own hands and opened the Pie-O-Neer Café. Soon afterwards a second pie-selling establishment followed, the Pie Town Café, and today pies are firmly back on the menu in Pie Town; there is even an annual Pie Festival (http://piefestival.org/).
The Pie-O-Neer Café
In truth, calling Pie Town a town is a bit of a misnomer. It has just 45 inhabitants and a handful of other buildings in addition to the two cafés. But it’s a quirky, photogenic spot, just the sort of place that epitomises back-roads Americana. Old rusting cars, equally rusty signs, the aforementioned windmills, the fading paint-work on the cafés ...
These may not be exactly beautiful but they have a certain faded charm and are very photogenic.
We couldn’t come to Pie Town and not eat pie! The cornily-named Pie-O-Neer Café is closed at weekends, but fortunately we found the Pie Town Café open for business and doing a roaring trade with passing tourists like ourselves, bikers and a few locals. Luckily there was a small table free on one side of the room, which was simple but welcoming in appearance, dominated by a large counter displaying, naturally, a large selection of pies.
It was lunch-time and the menu had a variety of tempting dishes, both New Mexican (burritos, tacos) and classic US staples. But we’d had a fairly meagre ‘complimentary’ breakfast at our hotel in Socorro, so we both decided a second breakfast was in order – eggs, great fried potatoes with a touch of chilli (this is New Mexico!) and crispy bacon, plus an orange juice each.
Cute salt and pepper pots
Then it was time for pie. The slices looked very generous, so we decided to share one, and of the many on display opted for cherry. We had to wait a little while to taste it however. The one negative about this café was the slow service – there was just one harassed waitress (possibly the owner) and a girl bussing tables, who helped out a bit by carrying out plates of food but didn’t seem up to the task of taking orders. With all the tables full inside, a few outside, and people coming and going all the time it was perhaps not surprising that we sat for quite a while after our eggs and bacon waiting for the plates to be cleared and our pie order taken. We were enjoying watching all the bustle, but we still had a long way to drive, so in the end I got up and placed our order at the counter, which worked fine.
Apart from eating pie the main sight here is the DanCyn' Windmill Museum. This is one of those eccentric personal projects that dot the roadsides of the US and make touring here such a delight! Dan and Cyndi Lee apparently created their DanCyn' Windmill Museum (get the pun on their names?!) in order ‘to capture the rich heritage of the area’. There are seven vintage windmills standing on the site, and since our visit they have developed the museum further by erecting an old log cabin on the plot. Although they seem to no longer have the website I consulted at the time of first writing about this trip on Virtual Tourist, I am confident that this is the cabin referred to there, which they were in the process of restoring and which was Dan’s boyhood home:
‘Dan's father worked on the York Ranch north of Pie Town, too far away for the children to attend school, so Dan's mother stayed near town in various houses so that she could keep the children in school. She drove the school bus and each day they hauled water in a large milk-can for the family. Dan was let out on the road before reaching home to gather firewood for the evening. At the time they stayed in the cabin, there were six in the family. Weekends were spent on the ranch with his father.’
The museum is open ‘when Dan and Cyndi are home’ but we didn’t like to bother them on a Sunday and in any case were able to get plenty of photos from the roadside. I hadn’t read about the cabin before our visit or I might have been tempted to disturb their Sunday in the hopes of finding it now installed!
Church of the Sacred Heart in Quemado
From Pie Town Highway 60 continues westwards towards the border with Arizona, and twenty miles down the road is the next little town, Quemado. Here the small stone Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, with its tiny graveyard, is very photogenic, from the outside at least. I would have loved to have seen the inside too, but it was Sunday and a Mass was in progress, so I didn’t enter.
El Malpais National Monument
View from Sandstone Bluffs, El Malpais National Monument
Quemado was the furthest point west that we came on this trip, as here we turned north on Highway 36 and branched off on Highway 117 which runs through one section of the El Malpais National Monument – the other lies further west and was a bit too far off our route. But although we were only here for an afternoon it was long enough to do a couple of short walks and to drive up to the Sandstone Bluffs to see the awesome vista above.
El Malpais is Spanish for Badlands, and you can easily see how the area got this name, as much of it is formed from the outpourings of lava from McCartys Volcano. It is bleak in a way, but also ruggedly beautiful, and that view from Sandstone Bluffs is one that will stay with me for a long while.
Entering the park from the south we weren’t able to stop off first at the Visitor Centre, which is on the outskirts of the city of Grants (where we would spend the night) so we relied on the information in our Moon Handbook to New Mexico and my pre-holiday research.
Our first stop was at the Lava Falls trail-head, just inside the park, where a trail leads across the McCartys flow, the result of a series of eruptions of nearby McCartys Volcano around 3,000 years ago. Here you can pick up a leaflet about the trail. We decided against doing the full length of it as we had only limited time in the park. Although this trail is only a mile in length you do need to take your time here as the route is marked out by cairns and you have to navigate carefully, only leaving one cairn when you are sure you can see the next ahead of you.
The lava field
But we did walk the first few hundred yards in order to really appreciate this unreal landscape. As soon as you get beyond sight of the small parking lot you are surrounded by lava and it can seem quite disorientating. The lava here is relatively ‘young’ in geological terms, having been deposited just 3,000 years ago. Even in a short stretch of the trail you can see various formations which are described in the leaflet – Ropy Pahoehoe (smooth basalt with lines like rope), Lava Toes (small lobes of lava formed when hot lava breaks out of semi-hardened lava), A’a (rough broken basalt), pressure ridges and more. As the leaflet explains:
‘Cracks, ripples and bubbles tell a more intricate story. When lava spilled out of McCartys crater, it did not just settle over the ground in a smooth, even layer. It was a dynamic force that took on distinctive features as it flowed over the land. Pressure ridges collided and cracked; collapses sunk into empty cavities; squeeze-ups pushed their way to the surface through weak spots.’
Daisies and lava
What fascinated me more than the different formations, however, was the way in which plants had made a home in what seemed to be a totally inhospitable environment. There was no sign of soil, yet grasses and flowers peeked from every crevice, and lichens crept across bare rocks. These also served to make my photos more interesting (I hope!) as black lava alone can look very dull.
La Ventana Arch
La Ventana is the second largest natural arch in New Mexico, at 135 feet, and was eroded from sandstone deposited during the age of the dinosaurs.
It actually lies not in the National Monument (incidentally, as a Brit I always find it odd that a large area of land can be called a ‘monument’, which to us is usually a statue or other stone structure!) but in the neighbouring El Malpais National Conservation Area. The arch is very accessible (just a short walk along a gently climbing trail) and is a very impressive sight, although having seen the arches in Arches National Park some years ago we were a little disappointed that it wasn’t possible to get to a position where this arch can be seen silhouetted against the sky. Well, maybe it is possible, but it would involve a lot of scrambling across a rocky hillside dotted with warning signs about not going off the trail!
La Ventana Arch from the trail - the last photo taken at the closest accessible point
The first part of the trail was paved and could be easily followed by someone in a wheelchair. After a while however, the paving turned to a rougher stony track, but not before we had seen the arch in the distance. From here it ascended slightly but it was a very easy walk which most people will manage in about 10 minutes or so.
Sandstone Bluffs Overlook
This was probably my favourite of the three stops we made in El Malpais, towards the northern end of this section of the park. An easy drive on a gravel road (fine in a 2WD) brought us to a ridge of sandstone high above the lava flows. From here we had a magnificent view of the El Malpais lava flows below and the sweeping expanse of the landscape beyond. Standing here our feet were on 200-million-year-old sandstone formed by ancient seas, while below us were the beds of much younger (3,000 year-old) lava that swept through and around the bluffs when McCartys Volcano erupted, and beyond lie the distant range around Mount Taylor.
There are no marked trails here, you simply park in the large parking lot and explore wherever you want to. We just walked along the edge of the bluff to get a variety of views, but you can, if you don’t mind heights and have the time that we lacked, walk further out on to the jutting peninsula of sandstone. You need to be aware though that there are no rails or walls here separating you from a very steep drop here, wherever you choose to walk.
View from Sandstone Bluffs Overlook
Unfortunately, soon after our arrival here the sun decided to dip behind the late afternoon clouds, and showed no sign of revealing itself again (we were to have a storm later in the evening). This made the landscape a little flatter than I would have liked in the photos, especially my panorama shot above which really doesn’t do justice to the amazing vista. But it does give a really good sense of the scale from the tiny figures just visible on the outcrop on the right. In the distance in this photo you can see a range of mountains, with Mount Taylor towards the left-hand end of the range and Gallo Peak towards the right. Taylor was named for the 12th American President, Zachary Taylor. It is the highest point around here at 11,301 feet and is known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people, who believe it to be the home of the Rainmaker of the North. Gallo is also known as Ram Peak by the Acoma and is 8,664 feet high.
Overnight in Grants
That disappearing sun was our cue to leave the park in search of accommodation for the night. We hadn’t pre-booked accommodation in Grants and had originally intended to look for something near the centre to take advantage of a local restaurant or bar, but when we drove into town everything looked pretty quiet, late on this Sunday afternoon, and the Mexican restaurant recommended in our guidebook was very decidedly closed, so there seemed no point in staying here.
Our nice big bedroom!
While we’re not enamoured of the motel strips found on the outskirts of US towns as a general rule, on this occasion it seemed to be the most obvious choice, and with what looked like a storm brewing we opted for a motel with its own restaurant, the Best Western. It proved to be a good choice, starting with the undeserved discount we received on check-in – the receptionist asked if we were AAA members, we said not, and she gave us the discount anyway!
Our room was one of their standard ones but was more than adequate for our needs – a good size, with two queen beds and located at the back of the building in a quiet corner. We couldn’t really hear any traffic at all here, and although we could hear the trains whistling now and then during the night, I had no complaints as I love to hear them blow. We also got a great view of that approaching storm, as a bonus!
Stormy Grants sunset
Chris in the restaurant
We ate in the motel’s restaurant that evening, the New Mexico Steakhouse, and I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food here. The décor wasn’t bad for a hotel restaurant either, if not particularly imaginative: faded textiles, large booths around the edge, and lots of old Western paraphernalia attached to the walls. There were saddles, stirrups, rifles, but also assorted household items such as jugs and enamel bowls – the sort of stuff we’d been seeing piled high in so-called ‘antique’ shops (aka junk no one else had a home for) but which worked well in this setting. The service was friendly, and the sole waiter coped well with a reasonably busy room. We were pleased to be shown to one of the booths even though there were just two of us, and he immediately offered to bring beers from the bar across the lobby if we wanted a larger selection than the few on the menu, which we did!
Pollo Santa Fe
Chris decided to keep things simple and went for the traditional cheeseburger (he could also have had one served New Mexican style with green chilli). I chose the Pollo Santa Fe, a chicken breast covered with melted cheese and green chilli sauce, served with rice and beans, and in a fit of guilt at how unhealthily I had been eating, added a house salad. This latter came with a good blue cheese dressing (yes, I know I said healthy, but ...) and was a generous enough size for us to share. My chicken dish was delicious and I really enjoyed it.
We then decided on a night-cap in the sports-themed Rookies Bar which was very large and very empty – just us and the barmaid! It seemed that most of the people who’d been eating in the restaurant were staying in other nearby motels and had come over to eat here as it was probably the best choice in this rather uninspiring strip. So after one drink we left and relaxed in front of the large TV in our room before another fairly early night. It had been a busy day, with our longest drive of the trip so far.
Incidentally the Best Western seems now to be a Red Lion Hotel, and both it and the steak house restaurant get much less positive reviews than I gave them eight years ago on Virtual Tourist.