Cleaning Out the Ol’ Camera Roll #1

Gunther is a Frisbee Dog

I took this photo while Nancy and Gunther were playing Frisbee when we were staying in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in November. The RV park had very long dog runs, which provided the perfect opportunity for Gunther to work on his Frisbee skills. We first discovered that he could catch a Frisbee while we still lived in Denver, and it’s important to keep his skills sharp. We’d originally had a red Frisbee as well, but I inadvertently tossed it over the rock wall of the dog run the first time I threw it (the very first time it was thrown at all, in fact). My Frisbee skills are not sharp like Gunther’s.

Did You Know / Did You Care #4

Nancy and I were surprised to see this field while driving near Mesilla, N.M., a small town that borders Las Cruces. It’s cotton. Did you know / did you care that New Mexico produced 71,500 480-lb bales of cotton in the production year that ended May 1, 2021? Where does New Mexico rank among all cotton-producing states? Not very high. Texas led all states with 4.75 million bales in 2020, and then it dropped off quickly: Georgia had 2.18 million, Arkansas had 1.3 million, and Mississippi had 1.2 million. The no. 10 state, North Carolina, had 540,000 bales – 7.5 times as many bales as New Mexico in 2021. Still, it’s kind of neat to see cotton fields in the desert. We’ve since also seen them south of Deming, N.M., just a few miles north of Mexico. (Apologies for the blurry photo; as I wrote, we weren’t expecting to come across a cotton field.)

Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument

November 28, 2021

The Organ Mountains, situated 10 miles northeast of Las Cruces, are visible from nearly every part of the city. They’re really distinctive, and, while always beautiful, look their best in the evenings as they catch the setting sun. The range extends north and south for a distance of about 20 miles, and the highest peak reaches 9,006 feet in elevation. The Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument, in three different regions, spans almost 500,000 acres of BLM-managed land and surrounds the city of Las Cruces. The Desert Peaks part of the monument is west of Las Cruces and includes the Doña Ana Mountains, the Robledo Mountains, and Sierra De Las Uvas, and the Potrillos Mountains 30 miles southwest of Las Cruces. Nancy and Gunther and I visited the Organ Mountains region of the monument in late November and enjoyed a nice 3.6-mile hike – the monument has a total of 48 miles of hiking trails.

The Organ Mountains were formed from a series of volcanic eruptions that started about 36.5 million years ago and ended 500,000 years later. The mountain range was tilted and uplifted through action of the Rio Grande Rift about 18 million years ago. That tilting, and the erosion in the millennia following, resulted in the distinctive look of the mountains.

One of the first features we encountered on the trail was La Cueva (“the cave” in Spanish), at the base of a huge rock face. It started being inhabited by the Jornada Mogollon natives about 5,000 years ago. Excavations in the 1940s and 1970s uncovered fragments of ceramic pots as well as projectile points and stone scrapers. There are 243 known archeological sites in the monument. La Cueva was later used as an outlaw hideout.

This huge rock face (see the people standing outside the cave at the bottom for a sense of scale) is formed from rock that erupted about 36.5 million years ago, forming a rock type called tuff from a moving river of hot gases, ash, and rocks. Dogs aren’t allowed on the trail going to the cave, so we weren’t able to get close to it. Thanks, Gunther!

We both grew up and spent most of our lives in Colorado, so it’s been exciting to learn about all of the animals and plants of the southwestern desert region. Despite the rugged and arid environment of the monument, almost 150 different grasses, ferns, cacti, trees, shrubs, and herbs have been identified in the area.

The plant in the foreground is desert spoon. Although it looks like a succulent, it’s classified as a shrub. It’s also known as sotol.
The monument is located in a really harsh environment, but there’s a huge variety of plant life. Prickly pear cacti abound, of course, but there are also 15 species of grass. Prior to becoming a monument in 2014, the area was used for many years by ranchers for grazing their cattle.
There were some unexpected finds of plant life. A seasonal stream runs near La Cueva, and it supports some decidedly deciduous trees (that look like they still had to work pretty hard to grow).
These are the spines of a type of barrel cactus called a fishhook, and you can see how it earned that name. We have seen lots of fishhook cactus in the wild and also in cultivated gardens in New Mexico.
On the trail, Nancy, always on the lookout for historic mines, recognized the mound of light-colored rocks in the lower left as a tailings pile. Just a few steps later on the trail, an interpretive sign identified the area as being what remains of the Modoc Mine. The Modoc Mining Company spent a million dollars in 1898 (more than $30 million today) to build the silver and lead mine, a three-story ore mill, and a small townsite. The mine had shafts that tunneled several hundred vertical feet, and a well drilled four hundred feet down supplied water to everything.
Here’s a closeup of some desert spoon spines. As with most plant life in the Chihuahua Desert, it’s best to look and not touch. And definitely don’t lick these spoons. The Spanish word for spoon is “cuchara,” which is the name of a spoon-shaped valley in Colorado’s mountains that’s home to a former ski resort also named Cuchara.
This is looking west from the monument. The city of Las Cruces is behind the dark ridge on the left. Prickly pear cactus in the left foreground; desert spoons in the right. Spoons, spoons, spoons … everywhere!
… And here are some more. Desert spoons send up a flower stalk six to 17 feet tall, but their roots extend only about a foot underground.
The Organ Mountains are really interesting to look at – the erosion over millions of years has resulted in some very picturesque rock formations. All of the lighter green plants in front of the mountains are prickly pear cactus.
After all of the desert plants we’ve seen, it was nice to encounter this old friend growing alongside the trail. I learned about sideoats grama, and many other range grasses, as a high-school student in Vocational Agriculture class.
This pretty grass is splitbeard bluestem, also known as silver bluestem. It was not one of the grasses I learned to identify in high school, so more learning for me now. In late November, of course, all of the grasses had already gone to seed but a few retained their seedheads.
This is black grama, which looks very similar to blue grama that grows in Colorado. Because of its quantity and nutritive value, black grama is a very important natural grass for New Mexico’s cattle ranchers. Blue grama is my favorite species of grass (a close second is big bluestem, a relative of the splitbeard bluesteam above), probably because the mature seed heads look like eyelashes. What’s your favorite species of grass, and why is it also blue grama?

I took the grass photos toward the end of our hike. Although it was relatively short, the hike afforded an opportunity to see a huge variety of plants. We didn’t see very much wildife, but the area supports dozens and dozens of native and migratory bird species, including seven species of hummingbirds and 23 species of towhees and sparrows.

Several historic persons of note, including William H. Bonney (“Billy the Kid”) and Geronimo, are known to have passed through what is now the monument. Twenty-two miles of the Butterfield Overland Trail, which, from 1858 to 1861 ran between St. Louis and San Francisco as a forerunner of the Pony Express, passed through the region. Areas of the monument, prior to coming under BLM management, have also been used for bombing practice by the U.S. Air Force and for astronaut training (not at the same time).

We’ll definitely return to the Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument, and next time we’ll leave Gunther in the Goddard so we can visit some of the features that (understandably) are off-limits to dogs. I’d especially like to see the area in the spring during the wildflower blooming season.

Las Cruces Museum of Nature & Science

November 27, 2021

The City of Las Cruces operates two museums that are co-located on Main Street: a natural history museum and an art museum. Nancy and I visited both in late November after strolling through the Farmers and Crafts Market. The Museum of Nature & Science has several very interesting and well-designed permanent exhibits. I think we appreciated the reptilian and amphibian wonders of the Desert Life exhibit the most, and Nancy made friends with a common snapping turtle named Zilla.

One of the first exhibits is this fine cast of a dimetrodon, which is not a dinosaur but a species of animal (it’s more closely related to mammals than reptiles, but it is not an ancestor of modern mammals) that went extinct 40 million years before dinosaurs came on the scene. Fossils of dimetrodon have been found in what is now the Robledo Mountains area northwest of Las Cruces. Theories differ on the purpose of the spined sail along the back, ranging from use as an actual sail while swimming, to assisting with controlling the temperature of the animal, to helping support the back of the animal while it walked in a side-to-side motion.

Most fossils of Dimetrodon species have been found in the southwestern United States, but one species has been unearthed in Germany and another in Canada. They lived about 300 million years ago, and were 6 to 15 feet long. I didn’t know that animals that are more closely related to present-day mammals than to dinosaurs even existed before dinosaurs ruled the Earth, so I learned something just minutes after stepping into the museum.

Here’s a mounted skeleton of a western diamondback rattlesnake. These reptiles can have up to 300 vertebrae, and their rattles are modified scales. They get a new rattle each time they shed their skin, which is three or four times each year. Adult diamondbacks commonly grow to 4 feet in length. This species is responsible for the greatest number of snakebites in the United States, and is found in the southwestern region of the country as well as the northern half of Mexico.

Tyrannosaurus roamed much of the present-day western United States, including the area that’s now New Mexico, up until the day the dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago. The largest specimens are estimated to have been more than 40 feet long and weigh more almost 8 tons. Sharp-eyed tyrannosaurus enthusiasts will recognize this cast as coming from the skull of Stan, one of the more famous fossils for which there is a nearly complete skeleton. Stan was found in 1992 in South Dakota’s celebrated Hell Creek formation; he has a hole in the back of his skull that’s about the size of a Tyrannosaurus tooth, so make of that what you will.
Some of the museum’s exhibits featured animals not yet fossilized or skeletonized. Here’s an intense-looking Trans-Pecos rat snake; they are very gentle and non-venomous snakes, and usually don’t attempt to bite. They are natives of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the largest grow to about 5 1/2 feet long.
These are Woodhouse’s toads. Kinda grumpy-looking toads, don’t you think? They live in the west-central United States from Texas up north into the Dakotas. They can grow up to about five inches long. One must resist the urge to lick a Woodhouse toad, as they have toxins on their skin to make them taste bad to potential predators. And, I don’t think licking this toad would make it any less grumpy anyway.
Finally we come to Zilla, the museum’s common snapping turtle. This species is native only to the Cimarron and Pecos rivers region of northeastern New Mexico, but populations are now being found in the Rio Grande River in the central third of the state. Common snapping turtles are found in the United States north and east of New Mexico to Canada and the Atlantic Coast. Nancy was really taken with Zilla.
And who wouldn’t be? Contrary to common belief, common snapping turtles probably aren’t capable of biting off a human finger: humans have more force in their jaws than do common snapping turtles. A non-closely related species, the alligator snapping turtle, is definitely capable of biting off fingers, so you’re probably safe sticking your fingers in front of a common snapping turtle but don’t do it in front of an alligator snapping turtle.
According to a staff person at the museum, Zilla is about 25 years old. It’s thought that common snapping turtles can live more than one hundred years in the wild, so who knows how long Zilla will keep going. They keep growing with age and the heaviest one found in the wild weighed about 75 pounds, so they get pretty big.
Here’s a study of Zilla’s front left claws. Snapping turtles’ impressive claws are used for digging for food in the rocks and mud and not, as one might think, in swift slashing offensive attacks. They’re turtles.

We enjoyed the visit to the Museum of Nature & Science. We both learned a lot about animals that live in New Mexico (now and tens of millions of years ago), and Nancy left with her heart warmed by meeting Zilla.

The Farmers & Crafts Market of Las Cruces

November 27, 2021

The city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, dates back to 1849, when it was founded after being surveyed by the U.S. Army. The land on which the town sits was ceded to the United States as a result of 1848’s Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The city was named after three crosses that used to be located north of town.

The year 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of a farmers market in downtown Las Cruces. The Farmers & Crafts Market of Las Cruces, a nonprofit organization, conducts a market along seven blocks of Main Street each Wednesday and Saturday morning throughout the year. Nancy and I enjoyed visiting the vendors on Saturday, Nov. 27. There are more than a hundred vendors selling everything from fresh tomatoes (we bought some) to pistachios (we bought some) to bread (we bought some) to handcrafted pottery and glassware (we didn’t buy any; we live in a home that moves down the road at 65 MPH every couple of weeks).

There are many permanent vendors at the market, as well as a long list of temporary ones, in addition to entertainers along Main Street.

To be honest there weren’t a lot of people selling actual farm goods, but the growing season, even in southern New Mexico, is nearing its end. I was impressed with all of the good smells (mostly from breakfast burritos) and incredibly vibrant colors of the clothes that some of the people were wearing.

They’re doing amazing things with cacti nowadays. Nancy was buying a pound of pistachios from the out-of-focus man in the upper right when I took this photo. We returned to the market a week later, and Nancy bought another pound of pistachios! From the same man!
Chile ristras are not hard to find in New Mexico, especially at farmers markets, but they’re always fun to see. Those are the Organ Mountains in the background.
It’s always fun to see old movie theaters in downtown locations: they’re usually very ornate buildings. The Rio Grande Theatre dates to 1926 and is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. The theater (“theatre” if you’re feeling fancy) survived an urban renewal project from the late 1960s and early 1970s that destroyed many of the older buildings in downtown Las Cruces. The Rio Grande still shows movies, and had a slate of holiday-themed films on its schedule when we were there.
I don’t know when this Woolworth’s on Main Street was opened, but it’s been closed for many years and now the building serves as a church. The door handle is really, really cool, and I wonder how many ring-bedecked fingers it took to give it that wonderful wear. Nancy and I have noticed many references on billboards and business signs in Las Cruces to something called “refrigerated air.” As far as we can tell, it’s the same as air conditioning.

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