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Senior Correspondent

Alamogordo is famous for the White Sands Missile Range, where during the Cold War we tested and stored the anti-ballistic missiles that carried the hydrogen bombs intended to wipe the Soviet Union off the face of this earth, if it appeared “necessary” to do so. Adjacent to the Missile Range is Hollaman Air Force Base, home of the Stealth Bomber and the F33. I decided to drop by for a visit –– Alamogordo, that is, not the Base or the Missile Range. I don’t think I would have been welcome there.

The drive to Alamogordo, about 200 miles to the southeast of Albuquerque, was through desolate, unimpressive scenery. Gone were the rich red, orange and pink mountains and rocks between Gallup and Albuquerque, the high mesas (which my GPS lady pronounces messas) and towering mountain ranges. There were mountain ranges to the east and west, but they seemed far away and uninteresting. About half way there I stopped at one of the roadside picnic areas that New Mexico provides, basically picnic benches, shade and bathrooms. Before I made my turkey and avocado sandwich from the ingredients in my cooler, a man with flowing dark hair and a bright, friendly smile walked up to me, handed me a crude wooden cross made of two uneven pieces of wooden glued together and said, “Jesus loves you.” Oh boy, I thought. We exchanged introductions and chatted. He was a baby boomer and told me about his trip to Napa. I was a little reticent at first. I thought I was going to get a lecture about how to save my soul, but he never mentioned Jesus again. It was quite a pleasant conversation out in the middle of nowhere. I later noticed that he gave crosses to each person as they drove up and got out of their cars. He was still there when I finished my lunch and drove on.

The most interesting scenery during this drive was the Valley of Fires. For miles I saw rugged, uneven black rock that was obviously lava, but there was no evidence of a volcano anywhere. At the visitors center I learned that the most recent lava flow there was about 1,500 years ago, and it is the largest and most recent non-volcanic lava flow in the United States. The lava just seeped up out of the ground. (I think “seeped” is the past tense of “seep”.) I chatted with a man way too old be be a baby boomer (even older than I am, so I have the right to call him an old man) who was the volunteer nature guide at the visitor’s center. He told me more than I really wanted to know about Valley of Fires. He said that he was born and lived his entire life in the little town of Carrizozo a few miles down the road. Later when I drove through Carrizozo I was amazed that anybody would spend his whole life there. There was literally nothing there but a gas station, convenience store, post office and a few dozen houses, probably a bar, though I didn’t notice one.

The White Sands Missile Range and adjacent Holman Air Base cover an enormous area surrounding Alamogordo. I saw signs for it at least 30 miles north of the town. It felt rather spooky. I didn’t want to get too close. I didn’t see any Stealth Bombers or fighter jets in the air, just lots of helicopters. I looked up Holman Air Force Base on Wikipedia, and no articles appeared. Hm.

Two non-scenic conditions dominate a drive through New Mexico: casinos owned by various Native American tribes (though all of New Mexico still seems to call them Indians) and billboards. As I approached Alamogordo, the billboards advertised pistachio nuts and claimed that this area had the largest pistachio grove in the United States. I didn’t resist stopping at their store, which also boasted that it provided wine tasting, and if you spent $10 in the store, you got a free bag of pistachio nuts. So I went wine tasting in southern New Mexico. The wine was mostly awful, but for $12 I bought a bottle of dessert wine that was passable and got my free bag of nuts. The store offered many kinds of purportedly gourmet foods, such as jam, candies, pickles, olives, etc., as well as clothing with the pistachio logos. The amazing thing was the variety of flavored pistachio nuts—garlic, green chili, red chili, chocolate, cinnamon, habanero pepper, mint, rosemary and many others that I no longer recall. I took advantage of their pistachio tasting, too. Out in front of the store was a giant pistachio. After checking into the motel and going through my email, I went to dinner at the only appealing restaurant in town, the Pepper Grill, which wasn’t bad. I had a caesar salad and fresh red trout with steamed vegetables.

The next day, last Wednesday, was going to be a long day. I wanted to stop in El Paso for Mexican food for lunch and drive all the way to Odessa or Midland of oil field fame. Map Quest informed me that without any stops the drive would be about seven hours, by far my longest drive yet.

I looked up Mexican restaurants in El Paso on Yelp. The most highly acclaimed one was Avila’s, which had been there for three generations. I hit the road and made it through uninspiring countryside to Avila’s about 1 p.m. The food matched its billing. I had gorditas with rice and beans. Gorditas, for those of you unfamiliar, are similar to soft tacos, but are made from thick tortillas that are split and stuffed with goodies, in this case, spicy beef, chicken and cheese. Their salsa, which I used liberally on the gorditas, was fresh, hot and tasty. It was some of the best Mexican food I have had the pleasure to enjoy, and I come from Southern California and have traveled extensively in Mexico. Although I have only this one example, El Paso Mexican food seems to be spicier than most California Mexican food, or, for that matter, even the food in Mexico.

About 2 p.m. I was back on the road toward Midland and Odessa, where I was to have an adventure I would have preferred to avoid. I tell you about it in my next post.

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