Copyright © 2007 By Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Rider Magazine, August 2008
Question: What’s black and white and red all over? Answer: A motorcycle route through the region surrounding Lincoln National Forest in southeast New Mexico.
At the north end of the route, black folds of lava clothe the desert landscape in an eerie moonscape. At the southern end, unbroken acres of dazzling white dunes roll out into infinity. In between, mountains rise to a cool 9000 feet elevation, offering evergreen forests, twisty back roads, cute resort towns, museums, spectacular sunsets, and a refuge from the sizzling black and white desert below.
My ride began at the Valley of Fires Recreation Area, just west of Carrizozo. The stark landscape of the park was created by a volcanic eruption 1000 years ago. Ropey black flows, called pahoihoi in the Hawaiian language, reach over 100 feet thick in some places. An ear-splitting buzz of cicadas in the cottonwood trees provided a sound track. Though the July morning was still early, heat radiated from the black sea of lava. I headed for the hills.
The Capitan Mountains are one of only two mountain ranges in the continental United States which is oriented east-to-west. (The other is California’s Santa Ynez Range.) A road skirting the southern margin of the Capitans brought me swiftly up to altitude.
I’m a wildland fire dispatcher by profession. In the town of Capitan, I indulged in a “busman’s holiday,” stopping to visit a museum dedicated to our firefighting mascot, Smokey Bear.
Smokey’s life began on an advertisement agency canvas, created in 1944 as World War II propaganda. The original two-dimensional Smokey encouraged Americans to “prevent careless fires” and conserve timber supplies which were needed for war.
Six years later, during the 17,000 acre Capitan Gap fire on the north side of Capitan Mountain, an orphan bear cub was rescued from a scorched tree by a forest ranger and brought to town. Ceremoniously named Smokey, this bear toured the country for the next 20 years as the living symbol of fire prevention.
Besides displays about Smokey, the museum presented excellent interpretations about various aspects of my chosen career. In the garden behind the building, I lingered for a reverent moment next to Smokey’s grave.
My next stop, a few sweeping curves up the road, was Lincoln, a frontier town which reached its zenith in the 1880s. The Lincoln State Monument preserves old buildings and historical items from the Lincoln County War during the era of Billy the Kid. I ate lunch there under a shade roof, watching thunder clouds build to the southwest.
Back on the red BMW, I pointed my front tire toward the clouds, but was distracted a few miles further along by Fort Stanton. This frontier outpost, established in 1855, served stints as a tuberculosis hospital at the turn of the century, and as a German internment camp during World War II. A small museum displayed souvenirs from each of Fort Stanton’s incarnations.
The road ran through the mountains southwest of Fort Stanton, following graceful curves past lush alpine meadows. Just before I reached Ruidoso, the heavens opened and I was pummeled by stinging rain and hail. July and the fire season seemed a distant memory.
Ruidoso is well known to thousands of motorcyclists who attend the Golden Aspen Rally in September. I coasted past art galleries and gift shops on Ruidoso’s main street before detouring down a side road to reach Mescalero.
The heavily forested Mescalero Apache Reservation is richer in resources than most Indian reservations. The tribe has successfully capitalized on the region’s natural beauty by creating the Apache Summit ski resort and the Inn of the Mountain Gods casino, to attract visitors and their money.
From Mescalero, my route wound south into Otero County, eventually leading to the hamlet of Cloudcroft. A few motorcycles cruised Main Street slowly; I waved and sipped a coffee and considered my options. A detour out Highway 130 would take me through Mayhill and Weed, tiny towns tucked into the Sacramento Mountains. Another possible side trip was a ride up to the observatory at Sunsites, elevation 9,200 feet. But the storm drifted off, the sun re-emerged, and I suddenly craved the heat of the desert.
Downhill I rode, then, sweeping through generous curves and dropping an astonishing 5,000 feet in less than 15 miles. My gas stop was Alamogordo, a typical military town full of payday loan places, used car dealers, and Chinese buffets. With unlimited time, I could have visited the Museum of Space History and Imax Theater for some indoor entertainment. But instead, I opted for the natural world, white counterpoint to the black lava of Valley of Fire, at White Sands National Monument.
After paying a $ 3.00 entrance fee, I rode past gypsum dunes impossibly white against a blue sky that showed no traces of the storm just past. Frequently along the eight mile scenic drive, I stopped to photograph shadows and the graceful contours of the dunes.
My 200 mile ride ended in a blaze of red sky at Dog Canyon Campground near Alamogordo. Images of the day ran through my head: red motorcycle gliding past black lava and white dunes; a coat of hail on asphalt; a sunset sky the color of flames. Black and white and red all over. A warm breeze rose off the desert, sweeping me into a dreamless sleep.