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Across the Plains of San Augustin to Arizona
[Small Town America] US 60 Part 12
David McLane (davemclane)     Print Article 
Published 2010-01-05 11:43 (KST)   
When we headed west on US 60 late in the afternoon, the storm clouds were moving in. As we had planned, we stopped at the ruins of the Abo mission as it was close to the highway. Nobody was there and nothing was left of the building except the walls looking out on a grey hooded sky.

Abó Mission Church, Mountainair, N.M.
©2010 D. McLane


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e didn't see anything in particular as we descended to Interstate 25, which followed the Rio Grande river to Socorro. We camped that night at Wal-Mart and headed west out of the Rio Grande valley and up towards the same elevation we'd left the day before, 6,500 feet (1,980 m). Only this time it was up and into clouds and lightly blowing snow. It had started to clear as we came to the outskirts of Magdalena, leaving maybe an inch of snow.

Magdalena, N.M. after light snowfall
©2010 D. McLane

We'd heard that Magdalena had been trying to transform itself into tourist destination and had opened art galleries, some rock and mineral shops, and had an RV park but it looked like most were closed for the season, including the information center.

There was an information board that said the Magdalena Mountains off to the west topped out at 10,783 feet (3,286 m) and the bench along the edge of the mountains is the Magdalena Fault which divides the mountains from the plains below.

One of the few places that looked open was the US 60 Trading Post and Gallery, featuring Navajo Hand Made Jewelry.

US 60 Trading Post, Magdalena, N.M.
©2010 D. McLane

We went inside to find the shopkeeper and a couple. When the shopkeeper asked if he could help us, we told him what we were doing, traveling US 60 from Virginia Beach, Virginia, asking how people in small towns were doing. He said, "Best to ask him," pointing to the other guy.

Roger Apachit
©2010 D. McLane

The other guy said he and his wife had been working on a ranch for the summer and were now heading back to where they lived on the reservation. When I asked if he was from the Alamo Band Navajo Tribe he said, yes, but they call themselves Dine', not Navajo. He said there were some 3,000 people on the reservation which was upgrading with new buildings going up, a wellness center, grocery and laundromat already in place. The tribe split off from the Long Walk from Fort Sumner in 1868 and is a mixture of Dine' and Apache.

At this point, the shopkeeper joined the conversation and said they were cousins and had the same grandfather. His name was Victor Chavez and was part Dine' and part Spanish while the other guy was Roger Apachit and part Dine', part Apache. There was a third cousin, James Chaves who spelled his family name with an 's' as that was how it was originally written in Spanish. Although I'd been around Dine' before I'd never heard them speak their language very much except when I was traveling in Northern Arizona and could pick up a Dine' radio station. But here there were two languages in constant play: English when talking with me and Dine' when they talked together. Roger's wife never said anything in English, she only spoke Dine' with the two men. So interesting to hear the language of the Navajo Code Talkers which transmitted secret communications on the battlefields of WWII and played an important part in ending the war.

Both Victor and Roger said they'd been forced to attend school in Magdalena where Dine' was forbidden. If a teacher found you speaking it, you had to wash your mouth out with laundry soap. But, as Victor said, "You never forget your own language," and nowadays they had a great interest in "getting back their own culture," which can be traced to the Athabaskans in North Western Canada who came across the Bering land bridge thousands of years ago.

As we were getting ready to leave, they asked if I could shoot a picture of all three of them.

Left to right: Victor Chavez, Roger Apachit, I Don't Care (Roger's wife)
©2010 D. McLane

THE NEXT STOP WAS THE VLA, a half-hour away to the west on the Plains of San Augustin. The VLA (Very Large Array) is a radio telescope operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and consists of 27 antennas that are connected together to form single telescope.

Instead of one single antenna, the 27 smaller antenna are spread in a Y-shaped array with each arm being 13 miles (21 km) long: if you miss the turnoff to the visitor center you drive across the path of the north arm. There's a slight rise in the road to the visitor center which affords the best view.

VLA, Plains of San Augustin, N.M.
©2010 D. McLane

The width of the array effects the resolution of the telescope which is generally found in one four standard configurations, the largest spreads out to the full length of each arm and gives the finest detail. It takes some weeks to realign the arrays which are moved (slowly -- each weighs 230 tons) by a transporter along railroad tracks.

Inside the antennas the receivers are kept at -427쨘 F (15쨘 Kelvin) to reduce internally generated noise. The signals are amplified several million times and sent to the Control Building where they're processed by a special purpose computer called the Correlator. Other computers monitor the components on the antennas, and in the Control Building. The data coming from the VLA would be impossible to comprehend without computers, just as we'd still believe the Earth was the center of the universe without Galileo's optical invention, the telescope.

While the visitor center has some useful displays and a video of how the VLA came to be, you can't enter the Control Building or go out among the antennas. However you can go over to the Antenna Assembly Building and see the Transporter, and you can get close and personal to one antenna next to the Control Building.

Single VLA antenna
©2010 D. McLane

Even though I was there, and even though I took the above photo, and even though the stairs give some idea of its size, it's still difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that the dish is 82 feet (25 m) in diameter and the aluminum panels inside are accurate to 0.5 millimeters (20 thousands of an inch).

THERE WASN'T A LOT BETWEEN THE VLA AND SPRINGERVILLE, Arizona: almost no traffic, and low-hanging clouds that made it hard to see very far ahead. We passed a few cattle foraging in tawny grass and one small town, Pie Town, that looked like it would be interesting if something was open.

Cattle, US 60, N.M.
©2010 D. McLane

The only thing that caused us to stop was the Top of the World Land Company which had a good-sized store where we could get a cup of coffee and use the high-speed internet service if we wanted. Tom and Vicki Csurilla are the owners and developers of the 2,000 acre (809 ha) subdivision which features 10-20 acre (4-8 ha) parcels starting at $2.900 per acre. They said that most of the people moving there are ex-city folk getting ready to retire who come for the natural, historic and cultural resource along the Continental Divide. The Continental Divide National Scenic trail is America's longest mountain trail and stretches 3,100 miles (4,989 km) along the backbone of the Rocky Mountains. An interesting place if you want to get away from it all.

WE DIDN'T GET TO SPRINGERVILLE, ARIZ. UNTIL AFTER DARK. Cold, blowing snow, and no likely place to camp: for the first time on our journey around the country we went for a motel. The White Mountain had the lowest price and was owned and operated by Dennis and Linda LaValley, originally from Vermont, who had renovated the original 1936 building into a warm oasis with soft beds, hot water, and no blowing snow.

White Mountain Motel, Springerville, Ariz.
©2010 D. McLane

By the next morning the wind had stopped and the sky looked like the sun might break through, but still the kind of clear cold you get at 7,000 feet (2,133 m).
I will also be posting this story to Open.Salon a few days after it I've sent it to OMNI and will then send a newsalert containing links to both websites to my mailing list
©2010 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David McLane

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