I left Las Cruces in the early morning, joining the interstate with no problem at all. This was, I realized with a sigh, my last Epic Drive. At some point today I would arrive in Albuquerque, and from there I would only go as far as Santa Fe, barely an hour away. The thought of metropolitan traffic made me nervous; until this point, the largest city I’d driven in solo was Montgomery. (It may be the ‘big city’ to we peasants, but it’s a mere 300K souls.) But what’s an adventure without daunting confrontations? Into the unknown! Drive on, and on, and on!
I passed through my second border patrol thirty minutes north of the city, and found it a far quicker process than before, possibly because the interstate created more traffic and they had no interest in delaying the process. Just as I left, though, I ran into my first problem: a mysterious noise, quite loud, and one that changed how the car felt. I changed lanes to see if it was a pavement issue, but it continued. The noise seemed to diminish as I slowed down, but it was still present and alarming. Some small part of my brain wanted to panic, but I had prepared for this. I had my car company’s roadside assistance number, I had food and water in the car, and if I had no signal, I could hike back to the border patrol station. If nothing else, a pedestrian walking on the interstate would magically produce a cop to tell me that walking on the interstate is forbidden. I pulled over and investigated, but the tires were intact and nothing was hanging down from the car’s underbelly. Its insides looked…well, intact. Restarting the car produced the same noise as I got going.
What to do, what to do? I needed to Decide, because every mile I drove was a mile I’d have to walk back to the border patrol if I had no signal. I kept going, though, tempting fate, figuring I’d see if the noise changed as I drove faster or slower. As I drove, I realized the car was still performing; it just felt…….different. I could feel wind even though I’d turned the AC off. And the noise didn’t seem to be coming from the engine, but from behind….me….
I turned around. Sure enough, the rear-left window was down. I’d accidentally rolled that window down while trying to roll down my driver side window, for the border patrol, and not noticed it. I had a good laugh at myself, and then commented aloud that I was a thousand miles from home; if I only made a fool out of myself once a day, I was doing pretty good. Crisis solved, I blitzed ahead, enjoying the phenomenal landscape. There were mountains behind me, mountains before me, mountains to my left and to my right. This was no valley, New Mexico is merely all agog with mountains. I’d seen so many mountains at this point I’d stopped trying to name them. (I’ve mentioned that I still don’t know if those were the San Andres or Sacramento mountains near Alamagordo, behind White Sands.)
My target was Socorro, the interstate exit that would lead me further into the interior, on a pilgrimage of nerdnance. In the plains of San Agustin, fields the size of New York City, SCIENCE was afoot. I was enroute to the Very Large Array, the place featured in Contact and Cosmos. This wasn’t just a museum — this was an actual science facility. The telescopes I would see weren’t monuments,but tools at work. Carlsbad, White Sands, and the Very Large Array: the objects of my desire for months.
I didn’t realize, though, how vast New Mexico counties actually were. Half an hour of driving through Socorro County at speeds over 80 MPH, I couldn’t help but notice that Socorro proper wasn’t appearing on the signs anymore. Albuquerque kept getting closer and closer, and I wondered if I’d somehow missed it. If I continued this way I would arrive in Albuquerque around lunch, far earlier than intended and too soon to even check in. What would I do with myself? I wanted to turn around and ask for directions, but I’d entered a stretch without turnoffs. After I’d given up hope, though, signs for the VLA turnoff began appearing. I looked up a map of New Mexico later and discovered that Socorro County is enormous; in area, it is SIX TIMES the size of my home county.
At Socorro, I stopped at a gas station to put a fume or two in the tank (a miracle, that little Kia Rio) and confirmed my directions. After buying a Crystal Pepsi for nostalgia’s sake (and discarding it for taste’s sake), I headed into the Socorro countryside. I found there even more beautiful country. It was….the West. Not the southwest, but the west. There were rolling hills dotted with shrubbish trees, vast fields of cows, and mountains in the distance. It was country beauty, but at a grander scale than Alabama pine forests would allow me to see — and soon the plains became even more pleasant to the eye,because they had radar dishes in them!
The command center of the dishes sat deep within the plains, four miles from the road, though visitors encounter a museum first. A small theater offered a 20 minute film about the radio telescopes now surrounding us, narrated by Dr. Arroway- I mean, Jodie Foster herself. I was surprised to learn that the dishes are the mere exoskeletons of their 1970s original selves: their innards have been completely rebuilt to keep the array at the cutting edge. The dishes are moved — very carefully — by railroad tracks, as it turned out. They’re always spread out in one of three Y patterns, but even at their closest the dishes are never as tightly formed as they were during the filming of Contact. (Speaking of which, the dishes continued to collect data even during the movie.)
The museum provides a walking tour out to one of the dishes, explaining their mechanics and such, before directing visitors back to the Command Center, where if you stand really close to the window you can distract and annoy an actual scientist. I imagine the rookies are stuck with the window desks. The data interpretation is done in the city of Socorro itself, I learned, and the people who control the dishes really do have to commute in either from Socorro (50 miles) or Magalena (20 miles). I’d driven through Magdalena, and be warned: they’re serious about controlling speed. As soon as the limit falls from 65 to 30, there’s a watchful patrolman.
I spent around two hours at the Array itself, between the movies and my lingering walk. What a sight those dishes were, 95 feet across and casting a great shadow on the land. From the balcony of the command center, I could see one of the telescopes being pulled in, eeeever so slowly. I completed the tour by driving out to the maintenance barn, where I found it is impossible to get both the barn and a dish in the same shot without trespassing. Having completed my pilgrimage, I returned to the road and ABQ.
As I drew nearer to northern New Mexico, the landscape changed; for the first time all week (omitting White Sands) I was seeing desert terrain. Canyons, dried creekbeds (sorry, ‘rivers’), and even naked earth. The closer I drew to Albuquerque, though, the less I focused on the landscape and the more I focused on the road. Two lanes turned into five, a torrent of metal moving at 90 MPH, and I was soon in the thick of it. My task was simple: transfer from one interstate to the other, then immediately exit it and look for my motel. I’d printed off a Google Earth view and could tell the motels were the largest buildings in that area. It would stand out, but I was rattled by two instances of very nearly being hit, and instead of smoothly moving from one interstate to the other, found myself on a neverending frontage road. I managed to find my way, though, and the desk clerk at my motel gave me directions for getting into Old Town without the interstate. I ended the evening by trying a chain store I’d never seen before — Del Taco — and discovered that it makes Taco Bell look authentic. They gave me FRIES with a chimichanga. Good lord.
Next up…ALBUQUERQUE! It may be spread across several posts.