Sunday, February 28, 2010

Monica and I have taken several trips to New Mexico recently. 
The natives call their State the land of enchantment. 
Monica and I call it the land of dichotomy. 
And, it is charming. I'll explain....
New Mexico is steeped in the stories of off world visitors. It can ignite the imaginations of those who believe in UFOs and alien conspiracies. Just think of Area 51 and Roswell. Its' landscape often lends itself to what our imaginations would conjure up as an alien landscape.
Are the stories true?
I don't know.
But what is true is the important research being performed today at the Very Large Array (VLA) near Magdalena NM. Its' scale and presence are as alien as you can get, yet it carries the very human traits of curiosity and quest for knowledge into the "out there."
In a nutshell, the facility consists of roughly twenty seven of these dishes (minus the small earth creature we refer to as "Monica.")
The dishes are set on rail road tracks and the tracks are in the shape of a giant letter Y. Each of the three sets of tracks making up the Y has nine dishes on it, which allows the scientists to move the dishes as close to, or as far from each other as they need. This spacing enables the array to focus on very small or very large areas of the heavens. Each track is NINE miles long, which probably engendered the "Very" in the Very Large Array name.
So, exactly what is going on here? The dishes are listening for the light waves that originated in celestial bodies throughout the universe. Well, you say, big deal. A telescope can see light waves, right?

Only up to a point. The dishes are focused on the invisible (to us and optical telescopes, that is) radio wave part of the light spectrum. Light waves, like x rays and microwaves and infra red light, etc.. Because the dishes are able to detect this otherwise invisible information and because the dishes can penetrate solid (visible) objects, they can see further into the universe and thus much further back in time than normal telescopes. Almost back to the "big bang"(in astronomical time of course) which created the universe. This array is the largest array of several that are located around the globe and they are all connected to each other via computers. By all means, beam yourself into this facility if your visiting the area. I think you'll enjoy it as much as we did.

Up above, I used the word "dichotomy."
Because, while New Mexico thrusts your imagination into the future, its' towns and people pull you back into the present and past.
Looks like a picture out of a Disney interpretation of typical middle America. But it's not a representation at all. It's the Town Green in Socorro NM. And yes, those are real Girl Scouts holding the flags and real local politicians proudly thumping their breasts about a wonderful local accomplishment. Don't ask what it was, but I'm sure it must have been really good! 
And just as the VLA shoots you into the future, the San Miguel Mission near town center transports you back to the Seventeenth Century
This is by no means a wealthy town, but this Mission is clearly venerated and meticulously maintained by the locals. Built around 1615 to 1626 by the local Native Americans, under the direction of Franciscan Monks, extensive renovations were performed in 1816 (probably constructing over a portion of the older Mission.)
From the outside, it's a beautiful structure. 
And the inside has been just as lovingly restored. The purple gauze placed over all the interior religious relics (due to Lent) serves to soften and make the restored works appear even more dramatic than they normally would have.

And then, dichotomy strikes again.
As much as San Miguel Mission has been preserved, there are relics of the past in New Mexico that while celebrated, are left to rust!
In the dusty and funky (see the picture above) old town of Magdalena (between the VLA and Socorro) lies the long abandoned ghost town of Kelly.
Big and booming while the mine was producing its' load (of what I've no idea) and just as quickly abandoned when the mine shut down. These towns are celebrated but not maintained, but they're really interesting to find and explore (note: some are on private land and you must respect whatever local customs prevail. And be CAREFUL out there. You can get hurt. These ain't no amusement parks.
Kelly has a church that must have been used in the recent past, because it's not completely falling down.
Some of these towns are not easily gotten to. We wanted to go to the larger ghost town of Riley, about twenty to thirty miles north. But we were warned that we would have to ford a stream just before arriving at Riley and due to the unusually heavy snows and subsequent melt, this would be difficult. Even for the monster trucks that the locals drive! We didn't attempt it. I think you must have an all wheel drive vehicle with some decent ground clearance for many of these adventures. 

Which leads me to the next picture (what a segway!!)
Not for nothin, but we finally bit the bullet and bought an all wheel drive vehicle with decent ground clearance, a Subaru Forester. So far, it has exceeded all of our expectations and opened up an all new genre of exploration. 

Now, on to caveat emptor,
FOOD. Many of these small towns have very limited food choices. Magdalena for example, has two restaurants open for dinner, provided it's between Thursday and Sunday.
Except Saturday.
Then it's one.
Now, I'm not saying that the food is not good. Quite the contrary. Considering the size of these towns, it's fine. And as long as you like steak, order anything on the menu. Provided it's steak (OK, I'm exaggerating a little bit, but not too much!)
The place pictured above is in Datil, on the other side of the VLA. We went there because it was Saturday and on Saturday.....well you know.
Good steak. 
But you'll have to eat under the unrelenting stare of the deer above the table. 
I don't think the deer approved!

Still more blog postings to come about our trips to New Mexico, Arizona and adventures with the Subaru.
And don't forget. As always. just left click on any picture with your mouse to see a full size version.