The Lure of the Tularosa
by Jay W. Sharp
From the windows of our second floor room on the west side of The Lodge, my wife, Martha, and I could look over the dark green tops of the ponderosa pine trees, down the forested slopes of the Sacramento Mountains, and into the thinly vegetated Chihuahuan Desert shrublands of south central New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. We could see, through the shimmering haze of the summer day, the gypsum dune fields of the White Sands National Monument. From our mountain refuge a mile above the desert floor, the Tularosa seemed ethereal, alien, forbidding, and mysterious.
As we knew from many trips across the Tularosa, the heart of the basin lies between the Sacramento Mountains on the east and the Organ and San Andres Mountains on the west. It runs more than 100 miles south to north. It spans 30 to 60 miles east to west. The bleak product of a restless earth and a desert environment, the Tularosa seems like an improbable stage for a long and dramatic chapter in human history.
The next morning we left The Lodge—a fine and historic century-old Victorian-style inn just south of the village of Cloudcroft. We drove westward through Fresnal Canyon, between stratified stone walls, and down into the desert. The stark basin floor seemed to materialize out of the veil of haze “with a kind of force and clarity that seemed not natural but supernatural,” as Edward Abbey said in Fire on the Mountain. In a less romanticized view, C. L. Sonnichsen, in Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West, said that “The Tularosa country is a parched desert where everything, from cactus to cowman, carries a weapon of some sort, and the only creatures who sleep with both eyes closed are dead.”
The Geologic Past
As we drove southwestward across Sonnichsen’s “parched desert” toward our home in Las Cruces, we could see chapters in the geologic history of the Tularosa written in the shale and limestone strata of the Sacramento and San Andres mountain ranges, in the blinding gypsum dunes of White Sands, and even in the sandy soils of the desert shrublands. The Tularosa is, in fact, a textbook product of the monumental forces and the infinite patience of Nature.
The Tularosa had its beginning tens of millions of years ago, not as a basin, but rather as part of an elongated north-to-south bulge shaped much like the hull of a capsized oil tanker. About 10 million years ago, the bulge began to collapse, fracturing linearly along its eastern and western sides. At a rate of a fraction of an inch per year, the center block sank thousands of feet into the earth’s crust, finally becoming a basin. The ragged edges remained standing as fragments of the bulge; they would become the Sacramentos on the east side of the basin and the San Andres on the west side. You can still see the geologic family relationships in the layers of stone in the mountain ranges.
About 10,000 years ago, as the Ice Ages drew to a close, much of the Tularosa Basin had filled with water that drained from its mountain neighbors, forming a land-locked lake that spread over hundreds of square miles of land and deposited sediments that measure thousands of feet in depth. As a desert climate took hold over the millennia, the basin received less and less runoff. The great lake finally evaporated, leaving behind loosely consolidated, sandy materials across the desert floor and shallow playas at the lower elevations. With the passage of time, the basin’s lowest playa – now named Lucero – filled with gypsum drawn from the limestone strata of the mountains. This bare remnant of the once-great lake now yields the material that the region’s predominant southwest winds use as the raw material for building and sculpting the dunes of White Sands.
Roughly 5000 years ago, the Tularosa’s northern end experienced a dramatically different type of geologic event when molten rock from the earth’s interior erupted through a structural fracture called a “vent,” and over a period of several decades, it crept relentlessly through the basin like a slow moving river, extending for a distance of nearly 50 miles. Eventually, “...the lava grew cool and viscid,” said David Quammen in his article “Yin and Yang in the Tularosa Basin,” which appeared in the Audubon Magazine in January of 1985. “Wrinkled with corrugations on its surface, pocked with gas bubbles, it slowed to a sloppy halt, congealing like a runnel of candlewax.” Seen from the air, the black basalt of the lava flow contrasts sharply with the gypsum of White Sands, symbolizing, perhaps, the extremes of the desert. The Spanish-speaking people of the Tularosa called the lava flow the “malpais,” or the badlands.
The Human Story
As Martha and I pass through the Tularosa, we always wonder what strange magnetism has attracted human beings for so many centuries into this land-bound sandy basin, this “parched desert,” especially when, presumably, they could have settled in the more fertile Rio Grande or Colorado River drainages to the west or the Pecos River drainage to the east.
Whatever the explanation, we know, from archaeological work, that prehistoric peoples occupied the Tularosa for many thousands of years. Famed archaeologist R. S. “Scotty” MacNeish found evidence that humans occupied a shallow cave in the southern Tularosa tens of thousands of years ago, making the site perhaps the earliest ever discovered in North America. My wife, in an archaeological survey of talus slopes in the southwestern Tularosa some years ago, found a Folsom point, an artifact left by big game hunters of the late Ice Ages, 10,000 years ago, when the great lake of the Tularosa still received heavy runoff from the mountains. Archaeologists have found ample evidence of occupations by people of the Mogollon tradition from the time of early first-millennium pithouse farming hamlets to late prehistoric pueblos, with some of the artifacts and rock art suggesting trade and spiritual links with the great city-state cultures of southern Mexico.
From historical records, we know that the Mescalero Apaches migrated into the region centuries ago to escape Comanche and Kiowa marauders from the north. The Mescaleros would come to regard the 12,000-foot-high Sierra Blanca in the Sacramentos and the 9,000-foot-high Salinas Peak in the San Andres as sacred markers of their homeland. They raised ferocious opposition to the early Spanish and Americans who would explore and settle the Tularosa. They followed a trail westward across the Tularosa, between the malpais and White Sands, to cross over the San Andres range to raid caravans on the trail between El Paso and Santa Fe.
American soldiers, miners, cattle barons, adventurers, drifters, lawmen, outlaws and gunfighters who came to the Tularosa in the second half of the 19th century wrote their names – William Bonney (aka Billy the Kid), Pat Garrett, Albert Fountain, Oliver Lee, Albert Fall, and many others – into the fables of the West. They gave historians, novelists and Hollywood scriptwriters a rich wellspring of lore for spinning out the kinds of yarns that today define the persona and legend of the frontier.
If the story of the human species in the Tularosa began with small family groups who lived in caves, chiseled weapons from stone and animal bone, and hunted the game and harvested the wild plants of the land, it has continued in the 20th and 21st centuries with scientists and engineers who not only have developed and proven perhaps the most fearsome high-tech weaponry in the world but who also laid the foundation for American rocketry. Robert Oppenheimer and his ingenious nuclear physicists and Wernher von Braun and his German rocket scientist defectors worked in the Tularosa Basin and entered their names in the legend of warfare and space flight. Today, the mushroom-shaped cloud of mankind’s first nuclear detonation, the high arcing contrails of the early V-2 rockets, and the March 30, 1982, landing of the Space Shuttle Columbia all remain fresh in the minds of residents of the Tularosa Basin, even as a new rockets and missiles, Nighthawk stealth fighter aircraft and dazzling Army training maneuvers remind them of the work that continues behind the secure and patrolled fences of the White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base and Fort Bliss.
Exploring the Tularosa
Even though the U. S. military restricts public access to most of the Tularosa, you will still discover a mother lode of places to explore.
San Augustine Pass – If you begin in Las Cruces and drive northeast on U. S. Highway 70, you will soon come to the historic 5,700-foot-high San Augustine Pass, which lies between the Organ Mountain range on the south side and the San Andres Range on the north side. It was near here, just west of the pass, that Confederate Colonel John R. Baylor, with 300 men, captured some 500 heat-exhausted Union troops and all their supplies and equipment without firing a shot in the summer of 1861. It was near here, in the Organ Mountain foothills above the small community of Organ, that miners extracted millions of dollars in silver, lead and copper during the late 19th century. From Highway 70, you can still see the tailings of their mines. It was from the San Augustine pass, in Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ classic novella, Paso Por Aqui, that the legendary lawman, six-foot four-inch tall Pat Garrett, and his deputy, Clint Llewellyn, surveyed the Tularosa for some sign of a fleeing and softhearted robber named Ross McEwen. It was on the east side of the pass, a ways north of the road, that Garrett owned a small ranch. And it was at the pass, near San Augustine Spring, that cowboy Wayne Brazel – or someone – shot Garrett in the back on March 1, 1908.
Aguirre Springs National Recreation Site – A mile or so east of the pass, now overlooking the Tularosa, you will come to the turnoff to the four-mile drive to Aguirre Springs, a national recreation site nestled into the east side of the granitic Organ Mountains and administered by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, or the BLM. Aguirre Springs, at the elevation of the transition between desert shrublands and mountain woodlands, has several dozen sequestered campsites. It has a surprising abundance of wildlife, including some 80 species of animals, 185 species of birds and 60 species of reptiles and amphibians. I have seen herds of more than 30 mule deer browsing in the brush near the entrance road. I have seen golden eagles soaring above the mountain slopes. Aguirre Spring has two of southern New Mexico’s finest short hikes—the 6-mile Baylor Pass Trail and the 4-mile Pine Tree Trail. Both trails ascend through wooded areas of pinyon pine, one-seed juniper, alligator juniper and Gambel oaks at the lower mountain elevations into forested stands of ponderosa pine at the higher elevations. From the highest point on the Baylor Pass Trail, at a saddle in the Organ Mountains, you will have an overview of the fabled Rio Grande valley to the west and the Tularosa Basin to the east. Along the Pine Tree Trail, you will be able to see, on a clear day, across the Tularosa Basin to the Sierra Blanca peak in the Sacramento Mountains.
White Sands Missile Range Museum and Missile Park – Several miles northeast of the Aguirre Springs turnoff, on Highway 70, you will come to another turnoff, this one leading four miles southward to the White Sands Missile Range Missile Park and Museum. The park’s several dozen missiles, representative of those tested over six decades at the White Sands facility, stand like a kind of metallic crop grown from the seeds sown by Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket scientists. That symbol of the origins of modern rocketry – a V-2 missile – one of only five remaining in the world, will soon reside in its own building, apart from its descendants, in a place of special honor. While the Germans used the V-2 to visit terror and death on Great Briton during World War II, von Braun and his team used it after the war as a technological springboard for developing new rockets to hurl warheads at potential enemies, launch satellites into earth orbit and beyond, and to propel human passengers into space. As a remembrance of his work, von Braun’s airplane stands in the park beside missiles he shepherded through testing and development at White Sands. More ominous and menacing is the casing of a bomb almost identical to the one known, famously, as “Fat Man,” the crude-looking, football-shaped, 11-foot long, 5-ton nuclear weapon that the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It brought an end to World War II. It ratified the horrendous destructive power of “Little Boy,” the nuclear weapon that the U. S. had dropped on Hiroshima just three days earlier. Together, Fat Man and Little Boy cast the dark cloud of potential nuclear cataclysm over the human race forever.
Albert Fountain Murder Site – Back on Highway 70, at a nondescript patch of the Tularosa desert a few miles northeast of the White Sands Missile Range turnoff, you will find on the south side of the road another historic marker, this one memorializing the site of the sensational February 1, 1896, murder of Albert Fountain and his 8-year-old son Henry. Fountain – Civil War soldier, Indian fighter, lawyer, politician and newspaper editor – led struggles for New Mexico statehood, education and civil rights and campaigns against cattle barons, rustlers and injustice. He made enemies of powerful men, including Tularosa cattle rancher Oliver Lee and opposing lawyer Albert Fall. Fountain and his son died at the hands of unknown assailants. His body, and that of the child, vanished, leaving behind suspicions and bitter controversy that continued into recent times.
White Sands National Monument – Another 20 or so miles, in a perfectly straight line to the northeast on Highway 70, you will arrive at the White Sands National Monument, at 275 square miles, the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Driven by the southwestern winds, the dunes advance slowly but relentlessly, like huge waves, rising, falling, then rising again over time. They engulf plants, which struggle to climb above the gathering gypsum. Strangely, in the blowouts, the dunes accommodate a few cottonwoods, thirsty trees that find nourishment in water trapped at shallow depths in the loosely consolidated soils of the desert floor. With luck, you will arrive at White Sands, operated by the National Park Service, at a time for a scheduled monthly visit to the Lucero playa, a casual stroll at sunset, a nighttime program on astronomy or a celestial event, or a celebration of a full moon over the white dunes. In any event, you will undoubtedly fill your shoes with white gypsum sand, which will stay with you as a reminder of your visit well after you return home.
Oliver Lee Memorial State Park – You reach Oliver Lee Memorial State Park from White Sands by following Highway 70 for 15 miles to Alamogordo then turning south on U. S. Highway 54 for a dozen miles to the park turnoff. (Between White Sands and Alamogordo, you will pass Holloman Air Force Base on the left, sometimes seeing Nighthawk stealth fighter aircraft slicing through the air overhead.) In the late 19th and early 20th century, Oliver Lee – Tularosa rancher, politician and suspected cattle rustler – used the site of the park as his ranch headquarters, presiding over nearly a million acres. Defended by the lawyer Albert Fall, Lee, with fellow rancher Jim Gilliland, stood charged with the murders of Albert Fountain and his son. After one of the most sensational trials in the history of the Southwest, Lee and Gilliland, the only suspects ever indicted, won acquittal. Lee’s ranch house, near the mouth of Dog Canyon at the base of the Sacramentos, has been restored, giving a sense of rural life in the Tularosa around the turn of the century. (You’ll have to call ahead to learn about arrangements for tours of the inside of the house.) From the park visitor center, you can make a fairly strenuous hike for several miles up Dog Canyon, following a spectacular trail the Mescalero Apache warriors used as an escape route during the days of the Indian Wars. You can also follow a shorter and much easier “interpretive” trail, which will take you past the site of the cabin of Frenchy Rochas, a cantankerous and reclusive Frenchman who, according to some, argued with Oliver Lee over water rights. Frenchy turned up dead one day, with a gunshot wound in his chest. He had forfeited his water rights.
Three Rivers Petroglyph Site – From the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, you turn north on Highway 54, return to Alamogordo, drive 12 miles to Tularosa, and continue 17 more miles to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site turnoff. (By definition, petroglyphs are images scribed or chiseled into stone. Pictographs are images painted on stone.) Three Rivers, a product of the Mogollon people between about A. D. 900 and 1400, is, according to the preeminent Native American art historian J. J. Brody, “...one of the densest concentrations of art in any medium anywhere in the world.” As you wonder along the self-guided trails through the 21,000 images on the boulders of Three Rivers (administered by the BLM), you will find a bewildering array of geometric designs. You’ll see depictions of recognizable species of wildlife and insects as well as highly stylized and diverse views of mythological figures. You’ll discover portrayals of human figures, including many in ceremonial dress and masks. Polly Schaafsma, leading authority in the rock art of the deserts of the Southwest, said that the Three Rivers “...imagery documents much that is significant in the history of ongoing religious beliefs and practices in the Pueblo Southwest.” Just south of the petroglyph site, you will find the remains of a Mogollon pit house village, presumably the home of the people who produced the Three Rivers rock art.
The Malpais, or The Valley of Fires Recreation Area – From the turnoff to Three Rivers, you reach the malpais, or The Valley of Fires Recreation Area, by heading north for 28 miles on Highway 54 to Carrizozo and turning west for four miles on U. S. Highway 380 to the park. In the recreation area, you will find a paved three-quarter-mile-long nature trail that takes you through a small part of the lava flow, which altogether covers some 125 square miles at depths of as much as 165 feet thick. On the trail, you will find ripples, buckles, bubbles and tubes frozen in black stone. You will find Chihuahuan Desert plants – prickly pear cactus, cholla, hedgehog cactus, lechugilla, sotol and others – that have taken up residence within fissures in the basalt. You may see rodents and reptiles that have developed dark coloration, like the basalt itself, helping camouflage them from predators who hunt the malpais.
The Trinity Site – If in the dark hour before the dawn of July 16, 1945, you had stood in the primal landscape of the malpais and looked toward the 8,000-foot-high Oscura Mountains 20 miles to the west, you would have seen a titanic explosion. You would have seen the awful bloom of a globe of fire that dwarfed the mountains. Moments later, you might have felt the earth shudder. Still later, you would learn that the concussion had shattered windows in homes and buildings 120 miles away. You would have borne witness to the event that ushered the world into the nuclear age. For better or for worse. The first explosion of an atomic bomb. According to a historical account prepared by the White Sands Missile Range, a military policeman who witnessed the event said, “The heat was like opening up an oven door, even at 10 miles.” One of the scientists said, “suddenly, not only was there a bright light but where we were, 10 miles away, there was the heat of the sun on our faces... Then, only minutes later, the real sun rose and again you felt the same heat to the face from the sunrise. So we saw two sunrises.” Twice each year, on the first Saturdays in April and October from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm., you can visit ground zero, the Trinity Site, and you can tour the humble old adobe house where scientists assembled the components that changed the course of human history. You will find the turnoff to the site, on the south side of Highway 380, about 53 miles west of Carrizozo or 12 miles east of San Antonio, New Mexico.
Other Places – There are other places you can visit in the Tularosa Basin, including, for instance, Alamogordo’s Space Museum, where you will find exhibits both from manned space flight and missile development programs; La Luz, a quaint village that grew up near a mission chapel built by Spanish Franciscan friars in 1719; and Tularosa, a community that grew from Hispanic roots and suffered from Mescalero Apache raids.
You will find excellent lodging and restaurants in Las Cruces and satisfactory places in Alamogordo. If, after you explore the Tularosa Basin, you are beginning to feel a yearning to escape the “parched desert” for a respite, I would suggest that you drive up to Cloudcroft for a stay at The Lodge. Call for reservations. Request a room on the second floor on the west side. You will be able to look out over the dark green tops of the ponderosa pine trees, down the forested slopes of the Sacramento Mountains, and into the Tularosa Basin. You will be able to see the gypsum dune fields of the White Sands National Monument. From a mile above the desert floor, the Tularosa will seem ethereal, alien, forbidding, and mysterious.
For Additional Information
Aguirre Springs National Recreation Site (BLM, Las Cruces, New Mexico, office)
White Sands Missile Range Missile Park & Museum
Ph. 1-505-678-8824, 1-505-678-1134 or 1-505-678-1700
White Sands National Monument, National Park Service
Ph. 1-505-679-2599 or 1-505-479-6124
Oliver Lee Memorial State Park
Three Rivers Petroglyph Site
Ph. 1-505-525-8228 (BLM Las Cruces, New Mexico, office)
Valley of Fires
Ph. 1-505-627-0272 (BLM Roswell, New Mexico, office)
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