Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear— Prowlin’ and growlin’ and sniffin’ the air— He can find a fire before it starts to flame— That is why they call him Smokey— That is how he got his name. —Smokey the Bear song I learned in 4th grade
I said goodbye to the Plains of Saint Augustin with its Very Large Array and began my descent toward the Rio Grande, a river steeped in history. At first the road behaved. I continued to pedal across high desert plains which led me to breakfast in the sleepy town of Magdalena.
Once, it had been roaring. In the late 1800s, a railroad had snaked its way up the canyon from Socorro and the cowboys had come whooping into town, driving large herds of cattle to be loaded on rail cars and shipped off to distant markets. When the railroad left, much of the town’s livelihood left with it. Today, Magdalena still bills itself as a trailhead town… that and a gateway to the stars.
Somewhere on the other side of town, the highway dropped out from under me. It was a yee-haw! moment. Or maybe I should call it a Dun Gon! moment. Back in its heyday, Magdalena had been a famous rodeo town hosting some of the top bronco and bull riders of the time. Dun Gon was a priceless commodity to the rodeo world, a horse that was almost impossible to ride. He would start with a series of bone jarring jumps and then shoot for the sky, twisting as he went. Riders who dared to climb on were ‘dun gon.’ They took flying lessons that always ended in crashes.
I understood the feeling as my bike shot down the mountain with me desperately pulling on the reins. “Whoa, boy!” Fortunately, I kept in my saddle and shortly afterwards found myself in Socorro. I would have hung out in the town but the Rio Grande was calling. My destination was the town of San Antonio (New Mexico), about 11 miles down Interstate 25.
I joined a small road that paralleled the freeway and wondered if it had once been part of the historic El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Royal Road of the Interior Land), that followed the Rio Grande near Socorro. The Spaniards had used the El Camino Real as a major trade route between Mexico City and Santa Fe, New Mexico starting in 1598, some 22 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, and some 32 years before my ancestors first set foot on North America.
At one point, the road shot off to the west, a direction I didn’t want to go. I was left with the options of following it, pedaling back toward Socorro or climbing over the freeway fence. I reluctantly went for the fence, concerned that a highway patrolman might catch me high-centered on the barbed wire, an ouchy position to be in. I worry about things like that. I made it over fine except for the 3, 872 stickers that lodged in my socks. That could be a slight exaggeration, by one or two.
I was soon chomping down on a hamburger in San Antonio. It tasted so good, I went for a second— the advantage of burning 6000 calories a day. Since it was a balmy spring afternoon, I went for a walk that took me through town and over to the Rio Grande River. Its water was brown and sluggish. I had seen it dashing and clear when backpacking up near its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, but dams and farming had taken their toll. Not too far away in Texas, I thought to myself, people from Mexico were swimming through its muddy water, dreaming of a better life for themselves and their children. Now, we’ve built walls to prevent that.
Mosquitos, who don’t care about such things, drove me back toward my tent.
The next day I climbed on Highway 380 out of San Antonio, the road that would take me across New Mexico and much of Texas. There was a brief ascent out of the Rio Grand Valley and then the country opened up again to forever vistas. Far off to the southeast, the low Oscura Mountains could be seen hanging on the horizon.
In between was the Jornada del Muerto (journey of death) Valley. Early Spaniards had named the valley when they chose a shortcut across it for the El Camino Real. Intense heat, lack of water and irritated Apaches had been responsible for the designation. I was making something of a habit out of bicycling across such places. I quickly found the heat and lack of water, but fortunately, no irritated Apaches.
I do not believe that civilization will be wiped out in a war fought with the atomic bomb. Perhaps two-thirds of the people of the earth will be killed. –Albert Einstein
On Monday, July 16, 1945 at 5:29:45 in the morning Mountain Time, a fourth reason was added for naming the desert valley, Jornada del Muerto— the world’s first atomic bomb was set off on the edge of it. A bad genie was let out of a bag that to this day still haunts our existence.
The circumstances surrounding the test seem strange, even primitive considering the results. Four days before, scientists were still assembling the plutonium core of what they called the gadget in the bedroom of a nearby ranch house the military had confiscated (not that the rancher would have wanted to be anywhere near). On the day of the test, a surplus forest service fire tower was recruited for holding the bomb. As they raised ‘the gadget’ into position, mattresses were stacked under the tower in case it fell.
Nobody knew for sure what the results would be. The Los Alamos scientists, who had been responsible for creating the bomb, took bets on how powerful it would be. The Nobel Prize winning scientist Enrico Fermi, known as the father of the nuclear age, was willing to bet anyone that the bomb would wipe out all life on earth, or at least take out New Mexico. And yet, on the day of the test, the scientists were hunkered down in bunkers a few miles away to see what they had wrought. Robert Oppenheimer named the site Trinity. He could have chosen Armageddon.
I paused on my bike trip at a wayside to commemorate the site. I looked out across the valley to where the bomb had lit up the early morning sky, contemplated the death and destruction it led to, and shared a few moments of silence with the desert.
I spent the night in Carrizozo before cycling up into the Capitan Mountains the next day. I was sweating my way up into the high country when I came across a sign that proclaimed Smokey the Bear had been found nearby as a cub in 1950. His mom had sent him up a tree to protect him from a rampaging forest fire. Someone had shot a hole in the sign, a common occurrence out west. An irreverent thought about the right to arm bears passed through my mind.
Smokey had been shipped off to the National Zoo in Washington DC and gone on to become a national, even international symbol, for the prevention of forest fires. It is said that he developed quite a taste for peanut butter sandwiches and received so much mail that the US Postal Service gave him his own zip code. I visited him once in Washington. When he passed on to bear heaven in 1976, his remains were shipped back to the small town of Capitan. I ate breakfast at a restaurant near his grave site and paid my respects. You can visit the grave today. Bring a peanut butter sandwich.
NEXT BLOG: We visit Lincoln, NM, where Billy the Kid and his six-shooter once ruled and then head on down to Roswell, site of the 1947 UFO crash. It is hard to find a more alien-oriented town.
Note: To those of you just joining this blog, I am writing a series of posts about a 10,000 mile solo bicycle trip I took around North America in 1989. The majority of photos were recently taken when my wife, Peggy, and I retraced the route, a trip we have just completed.