DUNE IT WELL

I watched longingly as we sped past the world’s largest pistachio. The condition of the singular primitive, narrow road ascending Monjeau Point had meant we had to inch the Suburban along, making the fourteen-mile journey take much longer than we had anticipated. We had planned on arriving at White Sands National Monument around midday and securing one of the ten first-come campsites. Now the afternoon had gotten late, and with no backup for where we might spend the night, J was tense and pushing the speed limit. The probability of stopping for pistachio-themed attractions was nil.

Highway 70 sloped steadily downward towards the monument, and we could see the stripe of white cutting across the horizon long before we were anywhere near it. Despite our lateness we stopped for some sandwiches, not wanting to to leave our hunger at the mercy of the monument’s snack stand. A particularly humbling parking attempt at the sandwich shop caused tensions to erupt. However, we found staying angry around sandwiches difficult, and with apologies made, crossed the last few miles to the park.

As we bombed down the highway towards White Sands, we could eventually see a thick, white ribbon slicing across the ruddy leather-colored floor of the valley that opened up before us. The mountains at the far end were so far away they sat on a flat plane, a deep blue silhouette. The scenery was stark and stirring. With everything so visible for miles all around, your eyes tend to play tricks, and with the speed limit so high, the distances seem to melt like candy in the sun. We stopped in Alamogordo for some sandwiches, then headed off past the airbase and the missile testing range before finally arriving at White Sands.

Midday Sun Over White Sands National Monument
Dunes for days, White Sands National Monument

We arrived at the visitor’s center in time to nab one of the last two sites. Our situation settled for the evening, we were able to relax. Water bottles were filled and a sled and wax procured. J seemed to charm the woman running the register, and she told us where to find the best dunes for sledding. With dusk quickly approaching, we hurried to make our way to camp.

Midday sun silhouetting San Andres Mountains at White Sands National Monument
An intense midday sun silhouetting the San Andres Mountains, White Sands National Monument

The trailhead was 8 miles in, at the end of Dunes Drive. We watched a bulldozer employed in the perpetual restraint of the drifting dunes from the artery. Halfway through, the paved road gave way to hard-packed gypsum. I had conceded to purchasing my first pair of hiking boots for this trip, and was still annoyed by the considerable sum spent on such homely footwear. I was not going to dole out for a proper pack in addition. Now we began the game of Tetris that was stuffing a tent, two sleeping bags, two sleeping pads, four water bottles, two jackets, clothes, snacks, our journals, phones, flashlights, a flask, and a sled in the two small backpacks J had received as swag during his tenure as a world-traveling bartender. Both being prideful, we were not about to be bested by inanimate objects.

One part exertion and two parts dogged stubbornness and we had managed the thing. Having only broken a mild sweat, we celebrated our success with the last swigs of our Russell’s Reserve. Attitudes sufficiently recalibrated, we ascended the dunes for the mile hike into the site.

We were able to lock down one of the two remaining campsites for a song thanks to our National Park Pass, and with a plastic sled and wax in hand, we shouldered our packs and started into the dunes. After a little more than a mile, we had arrived at our site, where we pitched a tent for the second time on the journey, in significantly speedier and more relaxed fashion than the first. We had enough time to take a few shots down the dunes on the sled before the sun set, and still grinning like idiot children, we watched it fall behind the mountains. The whole valley became a slowly shifting bowl of fiery watercolors, as darker and darker shades of blue and purple crept over the sky from the East.

The dunes severely contrasted in light and dark, White Sands National Monument
The dunes severely contrasted in light and dark, White Sands National Monument

The afternoon sun seared against the sand, contrasting the dunes in light and shadow. Our dark forms stretched long into the distance, a small caravan. I wondered if I’d still be pouring sand from my boots months from now. We found our site and got down to the business of setting up. The dune mocked us, putting up much more opposition against our stakes then you would expect from a pile of sand. Crisp evening winds began whipping the tent, worsening the situation. With three stakes sufficiently in the ground, we hurled our things in the tent and hoped for the best.

We weren’t anywhere near the fabled sledding dunes we had been recommended, but figuring one dune was as good as the next, decided to break in the sled. We waxed it, marched up the top of a dune, and down J went. He tossed it back up to me. I surveyed the lane he had made, then moved lower on the hill. A few attempts were enough to grasp the embarrassing depth of my chickenshittedness, and I was thankful for the excuse of the sun beginning its dip behind the mountains to call it a day.

The San Andres Mountains aglow at sunset, White Sands National Monument
The San Andres Mountains aglow at sunset, White Sands National Monument

We watched, the mountains cast in fiery corals and dusty lilacs, the sky a swirl of pigment against the gypsum dunes. Small clusters of hikers stood scattered on crests in every direction, sharing in the spectacle. It was intimate, standing quietly among these pods of strangers, and we marveled at having the opportunity.

Rolling gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument
Rolling gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument

I opted to lay down for a short nap before getting back up to write. Unfortunately, my attempt devolved (or evolved, depending on how optimistic you want to be) into a small coma. I woke up fully around midnight to a brilliantly alabaster moon and a sky full of every star imaginable. I stayed awake for a while, taking a short barefoot walk out onto the now imperial violet dunes, then returned to crash out again. At 4am, I woke to find the moon had retired for the evening, and the sky was vast and luminous. Both of us unable to return to sleep, we talked and rested, excitedly rising well before the alarm went off to get ready for sunrise.

A tent set up atop a dune at sunset, the San Andres Mountains silhouetted in the background, at White Sands National Monument
Our (not quite) campsite was breathtaking, White Sands National Monument

Exhausted from the day’s mental strain, we dozed lazily. However, the moon’s brazen appearance roused me. Startled, I thought a ranger, making rounds, had directed a flashlight at our tent. I stepped outside. The moon was audaciously low in the night sky, its immodest brilliance illuminating the sand in a pure white. I watched the lights of the small city of Alamogordo, piercing against the blackness, and amused myself contorting my figure in twists and bends, torturing my moonshadow into knots.

My stargazing was disrupted by a man stumbling up the dunes. He was loaded down with supplies and winded from the hike. He surveyed the canyon between us then looked over his shoulder, calling out in a language I didn’t recognize. A woman’s voice echoed back through the night. He descended the dune and began setting up camp on the delicate interdunal region below. The moon’s intense glow provided me with a clear sightline into his awkward struggle. Moments later the woman shuffled over the ridge, out of breath and laughing. But her presence gave little support to the endeavor, and I watched in awe, their amateurish ineptitude filling me with an undeserved sense of accomplishment.

Eventually, they were able to secure their tent. But my bemusement turned to anger as I watched them gather brush from the preserved land to fuel a fire, which was expressly prohibited. I seethed. I wanted to shame them. However, my self-preservative instincts kicked in, rationally reminding me that I was outnumbered, unarmed, and lacking anything more refined than grunts and hand gestures to communicate with. Dejected, I went back into the tent to put the scene out of my mind, but I would definitely be telling a ranger in the morning.

We woke early, the sky still alight with stars. The moon had vacated the heavens, and in its absence, they gleamed brightly through the tent’s mesh ceiling, our whispers the only sound in the pre-dawn silence. Hours passed and I grew ever more impatient with the sun’s reluctance to get started. My excitement finally agitated J from his sleeping bag, and we set to packing.

Daybreak at White Sands National Monument
The sun slept in. White Sands National Monument

We scaled another dune, surprised by the array of tracks left by the desert’s inhabitants during the night. The lights of Alamogordo were now barely visible against the impending sunrise. Rays broke over Benson Ridge, colored fractals once again flooding the valley with a display of the sun’s talents. Almost immediately the temperature began to rise, and we were glad to be able to hike back before its power became violent. While disassembling our gear, J noticed a stake nearby. I looked it over. We had erroneously placed our tent at the wrong marker. I could probably cancel that talk with the ranger.

Sunrise at White Sands National Monument
Sunrise, White Sands National Monument

As we waited impatiently for Helios to get out of traffic and get to work, we realized that while we had certainly shared many sunrises in the past, they were rarely shared with such participation and intentionality. We enjoyed the quiet of the sands, then basked in the almost deafening glow of the sun. Eager to get in some sledding, we broke camp and sought out the good dunes one of the ladies in the gift shop had let us in on. Scanning the candidates to the sides of the road, we pulled off and spotted a perfect, nigh-virgin, East-facing dune. Just past the Alkali Flat trail, as promised. We spent a good chunk of the morning shooting down the dune and laughing, and had our fill just as the skies began to sear with heat.

J at sunrise at White Sands National Monument
J contemplating existence – and breakfast. White Sands National Monument

We drove to the foretold sledding dunes, eager to redeem my pathetic showing from the day before. As it happens, one dune is not as good as the next. These were massive, with sharp, steep banks that ran almost perpendicular to the ground. I was terrified. Again, I made J go first. The hill was sheer, but the sand provided a good deal of traction, and he didn’t seem to go that fast. I rallied, the knowledge that this was literally, child’s play nudging me to the precipice. That ride is faster than it looks.

Y sledding at White Sands National Monument
Graceful as ever, White Sands National Monument

We exhausted our appetites for sledding and took a tour down the interdunal boardwalk. Exhibits along the walk detailed common indigenous animal tracks, educating us to the fact that beetles, lizards, birds, and even a kit fox had all sauntered past us during the night. We learned about the fragile desert crust protecting the ecosystem and the tenacity of the soaptree yucca. The yucca visible atop the dunes were actually embedded in the interdunal floor, their rapid growth enabling them to rise above the ever-changing drifts as they blow by. Eventually, the dune passes completely over, leaving the yucca exposed and unable to support its own weight, its evolved adaptability the cause of its demise.

Soaptree Yucca stalks peeking above the dunes, at White Sands National Monument
Soaptree Yucca stalks peeking above the dunes, White Sands National Monument

We returned our sledding equipment for a modest partial reimbursement before setting off for the Valley of Fires. The fires of the valley had quavered into ash well over 5,000 years prior, but the site still burned with energy. The thematic shift in color and creation of setting was not lost on us, and we marveled at the unrefined and sharp immediacy of the lava field. Even as nature had aggressively colonized the area, even evolved around it, as was the case in White Sands, there was a rawness to the land. It refused to be cowed by root, beast or weather. The paved trail we used to circuit a portion of the field was a redundant reminder that we were mere spectators.

Valley of Fires, New Mexico
Just us, an obsidian desert, and the government missile testing range for miles, Valley of Fires

The Valley of Fires occupied a desolate stretch of 380, surrounded by mountains and White Sands Missile Range. On missile test days, the road is closed to traffic, making an inconvenient island of the small town of Carrizozo nearby. Its name conjured conflagrant visions, making it an irresistible stop on our way to Santa Fe, but the sentiment appeared to be an uncommon one. We had the recreation area to ourselves. The solitude compounded the majesty of the gnarled landscape. Created when Little Black Peak erupted, sending its contents 44 miles South into the Tularosa Basin, it is lined in petrified black rock 160 ft thick. The dark, craggy deposits produce a land inverse, yet equally hostile, to the one we had left.

Jagged Lava Crevice at Valley of Fires, New Mexico
Exploring jagged crevices off-trail, Valley of Fires

We followed the trail over top of the rugged formations. Cacti, juniper trees, and desert brush had all whittled homes within the jagged configurations, flourishing in a land that looked, at first glance, uninhabitable. The trail’s exhibits were worn and bleached by the sun, giving them a look befitting their placement amongst the nature they were meant to describe. We accepted a marker’s urges to explore off-trail, enthusiastically scouting furrows and caves. J, perhaps feeling inspired by the harsh landscape, lobbed our water bottle back to the path. It burst in a dramatic gush, undoubtedly doubling the yearly rainfall of the splash zone. However, the arid wind was relief enough against the torrid, midday sun, and we stayed a while longer, eyeing Golden Eagles as they circled and dove overhead.

Lava layers at Valley of Fires, New Mexico
A landscape physically inverse, yet equally hostile to the one we had just left, Valley of Fires

The rest of the day was a long slog to Santa Fe, broken up only by instances of the unbroken majesty of New Mexico, Land of Enchantment. It truly is absolutely beautiful here, and I can certainly see why some would gladly call it home. As much as humanity tends to despoil most of what it touches, it offers so much that I wouldn’t want to live without. I will always be glad to bask and worship in nature, but a world with many deities is altogether a more entertaining one, and both the cities and wildernesses of this world hold multitudes I constantly yearn to discover.

Y atop a dune at White Sands National Monument
Everything the light touches is Y’s. White Sands National Monument

 

ROSWELL’S THAT ENDS WELL

I drew open the curtains to the second story room of the Super 8, relatively luxurious compared to the stronghold of despair that had been our San Antonio motel. The Eagle Mountains stood in the near distance. The previous night’s drive from San Antonio had been one of quiet solitude. Our headlights and those of the occasional comrade the only disruption in the intense darkness on this desolate stretch of I-10. Having arrived late into the night, we had all but collapsed the moment we got to the room. Now, with the landscape illuminated, we could see we had crossed into big sky country, just 40 miles Northeast of Mexico.

Van Horn would be our last night in Texas for who knows how long, and that experience is about the sum of the town. The drive across the 2nd largest state was smooth and beautiful, and felt like a major accomplishment. The road cut down a valley, with green mountains nosing into the cloud deck on our left, easing into a floor covered in vegetation. To our right stretched terrain that looked sparse and dry by comparison, more yellows and browns than green, and far off in the distance, we could see the deep blue outline of a range of mountains. The scenery seemed to wall us in, turning the vanishing point of the road into the end of a long hallway. Aside from the car and its stereo, it was quiet, and the tiny space we occupied felt all the more inconsequential. This territory seemed poised to eat us alive. It felt hungry, but like a true opportunist, it had learned to subsist on the scraps civilization had let fall between the cracks. The houses here seemed more like interlopers than places to hang a hat.

An overcast day in a West Texas valley alongside Texas 54
Don’t pick up hitchhikers

We turned onto Texas 54, a road whose sole purpose was to connect the satellite city of Van Horn to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and New Mexico beyond. No towns or turn-offs lay between Van Horn and the park and within two miles all signs of humanity had been erased. A roadrunner watched us pass from the safety of the shoulder.

Texas’s 85mph speed limit seems a clear indicator that they could not care less if people crash out here, as long as no one is inconvenienced by the possibility of having to rescue survivors. Pushing a full 100mph, we cut through the landscape swiftly, but the expanse of the vista distorted our perception, making the drive feel serene. The road curved around the Beach Mountains on our left, and the temperature dropped. The glorious morning we had enjoyed a few miles back replaced by smoke gray skies. The Baylor Mountains ahead to our right had created a valley between the two ranges which maintained its own weather system. We pulled off the road, watching dark clouds break over the Beach Mountains in waves that came crashing down the side toward the dale below.

We broke from the ranges, but a new one loomed before us, its towering peak obscured by clouds. Vegetation thinned, morphing from lush, sage greens to soft tans as the road followed the rim of a salt flat. Despite the sun’s efforts to break through the cloud cover, a light rain began to fall.

The road climbed the peak, rising above the rain, and we became enveloped by dense mist. We entered the lot of the park’s visitor’s center and were greeted by a scene reminiscent of a horror movie, empty, unwelcoming, and cloaked in heavy fog. Inside we weaved through taxidermied fauna displayed to impart the variety of life inhabiting the mountains. We accepted a trail map from a very bored looking ranger (caretaker?) and followed the walkway around the visitor’s center to the adjacent Pinery Trail.

Pinery Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Pinery Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

The short trail cut a path through white gypsum that stretched out on either side. Juniper trees, grey and craggy, cut fingers through the thick mist. Markers pointed out soaptree yucca and a Mexican orange bush on the way to the ruins of a Butterfield Stagecoach Station. One had a quote from celebrated Pittsburgh author and environmentalist Rachel Carson, and it felt like providence seeing her words as we began our journey into untamed lands. Red-tailed hawks swooped low overhead, barely visible through opaque fog. Our hair and clothes collected tiny droplets. The worsening weather ensured we were not going to be hiking up any peaks.

“Whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of our spiritual growth.” – Rachel Carson
A bare juniper tree in a fog-covered portion of Guadalupe Mountains National Park
The fog was substantial, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We traveled to Guadalupe National Park, ascending to the edge of the clouds. The park was wreathed in mist, notching another rare moment we just happened to be right on time for. The grounds were spooky, to put it simply, compounded by the lack of fellow visitors. We took a walk to the ruins of a stagecoach mail depot, the first overland connection on the continent before being replaced by rail. It was surreal to see the hawks silently swoop in and out of the haze overhead and watch the juniper branches tremble under the light drizzle. We drove down to another part of the park and walked the floor of McKittrick Canyon for a mile or so. Here, the fog made the canyon’s ridges look as if we had been transported to the Highlands of Scotland, provided one didn’t look too hard at the flora. We were falling in love with the land, and our walk out of the gorge saw us roughing out a future trip

McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
McKittrick Canyon, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We hoped the McKittrick Canyon trail would drop us below the layer of fog. Birds circled the jutting cliffs above, their screeches echoing off the canyon walls. We descended layered stone steps into a dry creek bed where a jackrabbit was scrounging. The diversity of plant life was striking against the jutting stone backdrop. Affected by the landscape’s particular beauty, we vowed to come back to explore it more fully.

Desperately hungry, we stopped outside Carlsbad for some truly tragic burritos (why would anyone place the fillings on the outside?), and a good dose of tacky administered in the form bar stools that morphed the sitter’s ass into that of a horse’s, then headed to the caves for their nightly Bat Flight program. We made our way down sloping ramps to the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave. A ranger was dutifully employing bat facts to entertain the small crowd that had resiliently assembled in the rain (Their 1200 species make up 20% of the world’s classified mammals!). She finished her presentation, warning everyone to speak in whispers and step softly. Indeed, the amphitheater magnified even the softest sounds. They began exiting the cave in choreographed movements, forming a pod as they circled the mouth, increasing in number. Then they would swoop up in a single mass and fly off into one direction or the next, while another cloud began the process at the mouth below.

A bar stool made to look like the rear of a horse
The Cactus Cafe’s most redeeming attribute

The drive down and out of the fog took us into New Mexico in short order, where we arrived at Carlsbad National Park. We were too late for the cavern, but had already consigned that for the future trip we had just discussed, so we were more than happy to watch our second bat colony emergence of the trip. The bats emerged in seemingly endless waves from the mouth of the cavern into the wet, grey, early dusk, flapping off towards the Pecos River in search of food. It is difficult for me to conceive approaching these things in such an exuberant and curious manner, let alone doing them, were it not for a partner at least as game as I. Rather than counting my pipe dreams for yet another year in Pittsburgh, I am continually fortunate to relay the Kurt Vonnegut adage to Y: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

We watched until the cold and an unattended, stomping child got the better of us, making it to the car just as the sky let loose. The rain became torrential, pummeling the car in waves. A truck came up fast behind us on the unlit road, barely making us out in time to swerve into the next lane. Shaken by the close call, we stopped for provisions. Russell’s Reserve whiskey was insolently on sale and we grabbed a six-pack of white spiced ale from an outfit in Albuquerque. A local behind us in line voiced his approval of our beer selection, then immediately negated it by suggesting we visit the local Buffalo Wild Wings. We headed to the motel, eager to warm up with a little aid from American hero Jim Russell.

The foul weather had scrapped our plans for camping for the night, so we took advantage of the opportunity to tackle some writing rather than be hunched and defeated, cornered in a tent in soggy wilderness. I enjoy camping and the outdoors, but given the option to avoid precipitation, it’s only the more lunatic fringe of the outdoor type that will relish pulling out their rain gear. We happily booked two nights in Roswell and celebrated life just a hair too hard that evening, aided by some whiskey and delicious beer from the Marble Brewery.

I awoke to a confidently smiling Y and the smell of Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers, which effectively kickstarted my hungover ass. We drove into downtown Roswell, the main drag festooned with aliens of every shape and shade; even the streetlights are made to look like the heads of the infamous Greys (or Greens, depending on how deep your rabbit hole goes). The International UFO Museum was the perfect cross-section of conspiracy theories and history, along with a hefty dose of self-aware, grade-A American camp. Worth every penny of the $5 a head. While I don’t wholly ascribe to the vast array of sinister plots and theories that circle Roswell like tired, ancient buzzards, it’s fairly obvious the government covered something up and continues to do so today. If you believe the government of this United States of America hasn’t ever lied to its people, you’re an absolute nincompoop.

Public Art Commemorating Elizabeth Garrett in Roswell, New Mexico
“Okay, it’s to the tune of “Smoke on the Water”, on three…”

Given our similar threshold for consumption, I assumed J wouldn’t be faring well when I woke unable to string a thought together. A persistent throbbing made sleep implausible and I went to procure some food. JBCs working hard to right our wrongs, we were able to get it together enough to head downtown to indulge in some kitsch at the International UFO Museum and Research Center. The front windows had been painted to commemorate its 70th Anniversary. One window had been painted with “1947-2017”, the years of its occupancy, the other touted its “25 years of continued success.” I guess the first 45 didn’t go so well.

A diorama of an alien in a stasis chamber at the International UFO Museum and Research Center
Exposing the great tanning bed conspiracy in Roswell, International UFO Museum and Research Center

There were scale models of aliens being experimented on and a flying saucer that lit up and spun. However, there was also surprisingly thorough coverage of sightings throughout history and the events of 1947 Roswell. I’ve never been much of a believer in little green men (though it seems undeniable that somewhere in this vast universe, other life exists), and the museum didn’t wholly convert me. However, the US government initially stated that they were in possession of a crashed alien aircraft. Then they rescinded the statement, and forced the farmer who discovered the site to do the same. Then they insisted they had found debris from a crashed weather balloon that nobody claimed to be missing. As years passed and witness accounts came out suggesting bodies had been present at the crash site, the government changed its story once more, implying they had actually seen dummies used to test paratrooper equipment. Dummies that weren’t even manufactured until two years later in 1949. I’m not definitively saying there are three aliens below ground in the CIA’s high-security facility hidden in the hills outside Roswell, but I might be more convinced there weren’t if the military lied better than a third grader without his homework.

A wood carving replica of the ancient Mayan carving purported to be an ancient astronaut at the International UFO Museum and Research Center
“Oh, no. No. No, I’m a Rocket Man. Rocket Man,” International UFO Museum and Research Center

A little research into the nearby Roswell Space Center didn’t uncover much about the vague attraction other than it cost $2. Online reviews heralded it as having “lots of room to walk around” and was “near a Subway,” (both true). We threw caution to the wind and decided to forfeit the $4. What is Roswell if not a place to embrace the unknown?

We walked up the ramp covered in alien footprints into what was, in truth, a gift shop. The admission price is for entrance to the Spacewalk. It’s a black-light masterpiece, showcasing surprisingly masterful murals and dioramas. Some are of moments in Roswell’s history, some are just general space scenes. Regardless, it was cool and entirely worth $2.

A black light painting depicting a person break dancing in the vast expanse of space
A black light experience cooler than your weird Uncle’s velvet paintings, Roswell Space Center

We walked around downtown for a bit, reveling in the absurdity of the main drag. Streetlamps are designed with black “eyes” to resemble aliens, there are life-size alien statues, storefronts hawking stuffed alien dolls, and others decorated with alien figures playing poker. J pointed out a mural adorning the window of a hairdresser’s shop in which, ironically, the aliens all had terrible hair. The female aliens had been painted a bit heavyset, and I leaned in towards J, “If they can manage interspace travel, I’m pretty sure they’ve gotten adult obesity under control.”

Green and pink aliens painted onto a window with horrible haircuts and diet issues
Diabetic footwear fashion that’s truly out of this world

We crossed the street and headed to the Roswell Space Center, which is everything a black-light laden, $2 tourist trap could ever hope to be. We obviously loved it. Ravenous from traversing the cold black of outer space, we went to Chef Todzilla’s. As usual, Y exhibited her preternatural ability to suss out great food where most would lamely drive to the nearest McDonald’s (although Roswell’s boasts an extensively done-up UFO theme). We stopped at a bar next door to wash down the delicious burgers and to plan out our camping trip to White Sands National Monument before heading back to the hotel for more writing. Roswell is a lovely place to visit, but the town is full of tragically hilarious reminders that on a Saturday night, efforts to impress on first, second or third dates were being made at places like Buffalo Wild Wings or Tia Juana’s, all but promising a steep downward trend.

We stopped for another round of burgers, because having burgers twice in a day is not a reason to pass up a place called Chef Todzilla’s Gourmet Burgers and Mobile Cuisine. It was the recently erected brick and mortar outpost of a popular food truck, and Todzilla had come by the title Chef honestly. We wondered aloud how we were the only ones there on a weekend night. After a couple of drinks, we went to take pictures in front of the famous UFO-shaped McDonald’s. We got there and saw that McDonald’s had completely diluted its interstellar weirdness by marring its spaceship edifice with the addition of a playplace. I took solace in the fact that if the kids of Roswell were going to ruin an ostentatious tourist trap with something so trivial as a playground, at least they would be enjoying it from a vantage point where they would be forced to witness the pitiful meatmarket that was the B-Dubs parking lot on a Saturday night.

We had a quick and unceremonious breakfast at the UFO McDonald’s before heading off for Monjeau Point, topping off a summit over 9000 feet tall. The drive up was more than a little nerve-wracking, being on a narrow dirt road peppered with the sort of bumps and dips that make you appreciate the greedy pull gravity has on your top-heavy behemoth of a vehicle. Lulled into slightly less white-knuckle status by the sounds of Blur and the lamentations of Damon Albarn, we made it to the top, affirming that the view was indeed worth it, and we had yet to scale the tower steps. Climbing another job well done by the CCC, we nearly lost our breath in the gusting wind. The scars of previous forest blazes seemed amplified by the lush blue sky, and we scanned the horizon in all directions until the chill of elevation set in.

The Monjeau Point Fire Lookout Tower in Lincoln National Forest
The Fire Lookout Tower, Monjeau Point

The next morning we embarked on scaling Monjeau Point. Narrow, winding back roads devolved into a mix of dirt and gravel for the last 7 miles to the summit. We looked forward to utilizing the Suburban’s V8 engine, but the car slipped on the rugged road, and gravel sharply pelted its impractically low undercarriage. It seems the Chevy Suburban is neither suited for city driving nor rigorous terrain, and is merely a minivan labeled as an SUV to coddle the egos of suburbanites too insecure to stomach having lost their edge. J carefully advanced, which was made more difficult anytime a car approached on the narrow road, forcing us right to the edge of the cliff as it squeezed by. I tried to remain calm, and not to look down.

We pulled into a lot near the peak and took a moment to gather ourselves. The fire lookout tower sits 9,641ft up, at the tip of the mountain. After a quick pause to stare down a youth who had thrown a plastic bottle on the ground, we began our ascent. We stepped onto the landing, which afforded spectacular views of the Lincoln National Forest below. The sky was the majestic blue of a photo filter, and we stood planted against buffeting winds that seemed capable of pushing us over the ledge, beholding the valley’s beauty amidst the voracity of nature.

A view of Lincoln National Forest from atop Monjeau Pont's Fire Lookout Tower
A truly natural high, Monjeau Point
Two Traveling Texans