Ride Report: Day 13

Day 13 / Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The decision to stay on pavement through New Mexico was made easier after seeing the forecast for rain over the next few days. Craig's wife, Karen, the cowboy family I met in Wyoming, said she grew up in New Mexico and told me to be wary of the rains there as they're known to move in real fast with heavy intensity. Plus, I had read that the CDR trail through New Mexico was mainly mud that quickly turned to a slick soup when wet. The dry river beds, arroyos, on the trail are also prime candidates for flash-flooding. Knowing all this, I planned a route on pavement to follow the CDR down to the Mexican border over the next three days before heading back home to Chicago.

I set off down US-84 riding through red rock formations and getting a taste for the arid terrain that characterizes this state. At Abiquiu Reservoir, I turned west on NM-96 towards the town of Cuba. The road went through a few small towns and climbed up and down through forested areas.

With my left foot still throbbing and knowing that the northern New Mexico part of the CDR route was quite rocky, I decided to stay on pavement through the state.

Red rock formations south of Chama on US 64.

Abiquiu Reservoir

My good friend Allen is from Farmington, but I was heading south to Cuba.

Heading southwest out of Cuba on NM-197, I was heading into the desert basin region, with straight-as-an-arrow roads surrounded by small shrubs. Passing through Grants on the Interstate, I picked up some fried chicken gizzards at a gas station. Heading southwest on NM-117, I stopped and enjoyed the views at the sandstone bluffs in El Malpais (badlands) National Monument, looking over the vast McCarties lava flow, dated to around 3,000 years ago and comparable to the currently active Kilauea lava flow in Hawaii. Looking at a satellite image of the area puts the lava flow in perspective as it stretches over 30 miles across a huge valley. This lava sheet formation is being studied by NASA scientists to help in surface feature identification on other planets, such as Mars, where past volcanism has occurred. The harshness of the environment on the lava flow restricts vegetation growth but those that do get a foothold seem to last a long time, with small trees being dated to 200 years old as reduced numbers of animals are around to prey on them. The cracks in the lava help trap water for the deep-rooted trees to survive.

I pushed on south heading towards Pie Town and after the sandstone bluffs merged into the ground, it was back to wide open terrain with bright blue skies. Having no visual markers near the horizon, the clouds appeared much closer to me and having straight roads with no traffic, I could afford to let my mind wander and play with the shapes in the clouds.

I came across the CDR route into Pie Town and seeing the soft moist mud, I continued on the pavement, knowing rains were due anytime now in the afternoon. However, I did end up taking some more off-road, NM-603, as I was trying to avoid a looming dark cloud to the west, which was throwing lightning to the ground. The road was alright but it seemed to be a paved road at some time in its past that was allowed to slowly deteriorate away, with washboard in many places.

Twisty pavement on NM-197 heading to Grants.

Straight as an arrow heading into the desert.

At the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook in El Malpais (badlands) National Monument looking out across the vast McCarty's Lava Flow, dated to around 3,000 years ago and comparable to the currently active Kilauea lava flow in Hawaii.

Sandstone bluffs along NM 117.

Sandstone bluffs along NM 117.

La Ventana Natural Arch, eroded from sandstone deposited during the Dinosaur Era (more than 65 million years ago).

Short trees growing in the lava flow, which can be around 200 years old or more but have stunted growth due to the harshness of the environment.

Sandstone bluffs along NM 117.

Reading up about the lava flow.

The CDR route to Pie Town, which I decided against seeing the soft mud and the expected afternoon rains.

On such open ground, the clouds feel much closer and provide enough entertainment in the otherwise barren landscape.

Montana might have grabbed the Big Sky tag line, but how's this for New Mexico's big sky. The road is at the bottom right.

Turns in the road are always appreciated after super long straight sections.

Cutting across on NM-603 towards Pie Town. I did say no more off road but I was trying to avoid riding through that dark cloud on the right with lightning.

A random old sign post with the infamous Hwy 666, which was taken down due to its religious connotations with the Christian devil and the sign being stolen too often.

Bad timing as the famous pie shop closed an hour before (3pm).

I arrived at the famous Pie Town cafe only to realize that they had closed an hour before. This little town is known for serving some delicious pies to travelers on the Continental Divide.

From here, I headed east towards the main attraction for me in this area, the Very Large Array radio telescope system. Spotting it on the map and doing some quick research on my phone, I figured I could easily spend a few hours there the next day touring the site, as it's open to visitors. Crossing the Plains of San Augustin on the straight US-60, being an astronomy enthusiast, I was getting excited as the view of the radio antennas slowly came into view, like desert sunflowers looking up to the sky and beyond. I also realized I was in luck for good photo opportunities as the antennas were spaced closely together instead of being spread far apart across the vast plain. This site was chosen for the telescope system as it's rural (reducing human radio interferences), high attitude at 6970 ft (increasing signal collection from space) and flat (allowing for a large array on rails).

With these radio antenna, their main purpose is not to listen for radio audio signals, like SETI is doing, waiting to hear traces of other advanced civilizations, but they actually collect radio waves coming from astronomical sources and produce visual images. The regular optical images that our eyes can see are just one small sliver of all the different forms of light on the electromagnetic spectrum. Higher than visible light frequencies are ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma rays, the most energetic light waves and lower than visible light comes infrared, microwave and radio, the longest wave lengths.

After it was discovered in the 1930s that large astronomical objects emit radio waves, astronomers have vastly increased our understanding of the Universe. Radio waves come from objects varying from our Sun to the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy near Sagittarius to the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, coming from very near in time to the Big Bang.

Since the signals are very weak and can easily be electrically noisy, many antennas are usually used together to produce a higher quality image. By moving the 27 antennas at the VLA from being very close together (600 meters from the center) to very far away along railroad tracks (21 kms from the center), images can be produced of very large objects spanning thousands of light-years (the distance light travels in a year at 671 million miles per hour) or very high resolution of distant small objects at billions of light-years away. One of the tracks from the array crosses the highway, US-60 and antennas are periodically rolled across the road on a transporter as the site's configuration changes. To take this a step further, antennas placed around the world can be digitally synchronized to act as one giant radio dish the size of the Earth. In the future, massive radio astronomy will be conducted from space with far-flung antennas, perhaps forming an equivalent radio dish the size of the solar system.

Crossing the Plains of San Augustin on US 60 and catching the first glimpse of some dish antennas in the distance.

The dishes are part of the Very Large Array radio telescope, located 50 miles west of Socorro. This was also the site for the Jodie Foster movie Contact.

Being an astronomy enthusiast, I was excited to visit the site, which is open to the public.

Radio waves are typically associated with over-the-air audio broadcasts but actually over-the-air TV broadcasts are also technically considered radio waves, along with cellphone communication. And in this manner, our Earth has been projecting its own radio waves into space from all our radio and television broadcasts since the late 19th century. If other advanced extra-terrestrial civilizations are listening in to us, they probably need very strong receivers as our radio emissions will blend into the background noise of space within a few light-years from Earth and the earliest transmissions have only reached 60 light-years or so till now. And so far, it looks like there're no other advanced civilizations within a 200 light-year radius from Earth, but man's quest to find other intelligent beings in the Cosmos continues.

I first heard about the VLA from Carl Sagan's movie Contact, in which Jodie Foster's character receives a signal from space leading to a fantastical journey through the cosmos capturing the imagination of space-lovers worldwide. The site was also heavily featured in Carl Sagan's documentary series, Cosmos, which covered a wide range of topics varying from the origin of life to our place in the Universe, presenting scientific knowledge gained by the human race up to that point. It's still the most widely seen PBS series and has currently been seen by at least 500 million people worldwide. The series positively affected my outlook on life when I discovered it a few years ago.

How beautiful to see nature interacting with man's high technology. Pronghorn galloping across the array site.

It was getting late in the day and I planned to visit the next morning.

Signature New Mexico thunderstorms moving in fast across the high plains with lightning in the distance.

Wanting to camp close to the VLA, I entered the Montosa RV park a few miles from the site and didn't see anybody around in the rundown camp offices. Seeing and hearing thunderous clouds moving across the high altitude plains, I decided to camp under the outdoor pavilion at the campsite. As I prepared dinner of couscous with tuna and asparagus, I plugged in my audio book of Contact read by Jodie Foster. Call it cheesy if you want, but the one thing I always try to do is create the perfect moment for every situation, such as having appropriate music. And what better way to listen to a story about space than lying quietly in the dark on abandoned picnic tables next to an array of radio telescopes featured heavily in the story.

Next: Day 14, VLA and Southern New Mexico

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