New Mexico for Fun and Profit

Sun goes down, astronomers get up.

Sun goes down, astronomers get up.


It’s been a couple of years since I last traveled for work (at least to anyplace interesting). Fortunately, I was recently awarded two half-nights on the 3.5 meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in the mountains above Alamagordo, New Mexico.  The mission: take high-resolution optical spectra of the nucleus of the giant galaxy M87 (as one does).  Jaded egghead that I am, I was still pretty excited to put teaching, family, and all the other travails of early 2017 behind me and head for a little focused science (and play) time in south-central New Mexico. It was a great opportunity for science and a little exploration on my own recognizance in approximately equal measure.


Plan A was that I’d fly into El Paso around noon, drive up to Las Cruces and the nearby Organ Mountains, and spend the evening in a very minimalist bivouac at Aguirre Springs exploring the local trails. However, a flight delayed by 3 hours and very windy conditions (not to mention the fact that even in the desert, January is cold!) opted me into a hotel in Cruces instead. I consoled myself over the lost night under the (bitterly cold, windy, lonely) stars with a sunset run up the conveniently located Tortugas Mountain just outside town. My flight had passed directly over Cruces on the way in and I’d spied out some good running routes there; definitely the first time I’ve scouted something from the air!  The reward was a dozen species of aggressively spiky plants, steep, technical trails, and a killer view of the west side of the Organs.

Tortugas Mountain run


I left Cruces at dawn and drove across the Tularosa Basin from Cruces to Alamagordo stopping at White Sands National Monument (a possible camping location for Friday night?). White Sands is a nifty small park right in the center of the valley and surrounded on most sides by an active military missile range. The sand itself is sparkling white gypsum and looks like snow. I drove to the end of the road (dodging road graders moving drifts out of the way), parked at the far end, and started out on the Alkali Flats trail for a little running adventure.

Five miles of trail on flat ground should be a pretty easy 45 minutes right? Whoa no! Loose sand, fiercely bright sunlight, and steep dunes made for a challenging run. The temperature when I left the car was hovering around freezing, so I dressed in long sleeves, light hat, and gloves before setting off. By the time I got back to the car a heavy hour later, I was stripped down almost to the point of indecency, sweating like a chupacabra, with at least a half pound of sand in each shoe and amazed that the temperature had skyrocketed so quickly. Au contrair; the thermometer read a bare 36 degrees!

Despite the heavy going, it was one of the most beautiful runs I’ve ever done. The trail is a loop marked by sporadic orange posts stuck in the dunes. You find your way—directly or not—from one to the next off into the brilliant dunefields toward the mountains crisply visible hemming in the basin on all sides. I quickly learned what kinds of sand would support a footstep and provide easier progress up a dune and which sand would shatter all around in a tiny avalanche down the steep face of the dune. On the return leg, there is a lot of jumping down the steep eastern dune faces which is impossible to do cleanly. You just sort of leap down in the midst of a roiling avalanche of sand and try to make it look graceful.

Searching for shai-hulud in the dune sea.

Searching for shai-hulud in the dune sea.

White Sands is often compared to Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. Despite the obvious color and composition differences, they are quite different places. The dunes as White Sands are smaller, but the area is much larger (I saw them both from the air and can verify this) and they feel very different.  Highly recommended. Bring a sled and a spare pare of shoes and socks because sand will get into everything.

Alkali Flats run


Enough of fun, time for work! I stopped for groceries in Alamagordo and then drove uneventfully up the mountains gaining 4000’ of elevation in short order. What greeted me up there was a much more familiar world from the desert below; tall pines, deep snow, and temperatures in the teens. The Apache Point Observatory is a small facility run by a consortium of universities hosting two large-ish telescopes and two smaller, “university grade” ‘scopes. The famous Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope has been mapping the sky in a revolutionary way for nearly 20 years and occupies a pier sticking out precipitously off the western side of the ridge (it does good things for airflow). I was there for two half-nights on the larger 3.5 meter telescope located on the height of land (9000-some feet). The telescopes are surrounded by a handful of low support buildings of various sorts; dorms, kitchens, and mechanical buildings, and frequented by a flock of wild turkeys.

Putting the telescope to bed for the night.

Putting the telescope to bed for the night.

My two half-nights were, unfortunately, the second half of each night, so I had the irritating task of adjusting my sleep schedule cold turkey. Most observing at APO is done remotely by scientists sitting at home on the couch and controlling the telescope through their laptop with the guidance of the professional observers stationed on-sight. Accordingly, most of the people up on the mountain are professional observers and techs who mostly do their own thing in the main control building. John and I were the only two visitors, so we (and John’s wife Debra) had an early dinner in our dorm kitchen and tried to get to bed. I managed to get to sleep by 7:30 which made waking up at 10:30 not too bad. The night shift was actually pretty smooth with lots of conversation and less coffee consumption than you’d imagine. We got great data as I learned the ropes on the big optics. I was glad to get back to bed again by 7:30 the next morning (and up again at 10:30). This weird double-sleep schedule held for the next night as well and really was surprisingly workable.

A very elderly moon rising just before the sun.

A very elderly moon rising just before the sun.

Night one was gorgeously dark and clear with so many stars (once your eyes adjusted) that it was hard to make out the constellations. My occasional forays out to (attempt to) photograph the sky with my point-and-shoot were very cold (-8 C plus wind chill) and I thankfully returned to the warm control room to start another triplet of ten minute science exposures. Night two started well, but quickly became hazy with the final 90 minutes before dawn lost to clouds.

Morning twilight after a very successful first night.

Morning twilight after a very successful first night.

Friday morning I made the decision that I’d rest up that night at APO rather than attempting to camp somewhere that evening. It was nice. I spent the afternoon working, photographing, and exploring. There are a set of trails up on the mountain, but with a foot of snow everywhere, it would be heavy going. Instead, I ran the road over to the adjacent Sacramento Peak and did a loop around the largely-abandoned National Solar Observatory facilities. Solar telescopes are very different than traditional night-observing instruments, but no less impressive from below.

NSO run


I’d exhausted the things to do up at APO and had already explored White Sands to my satisfaction.  Even with a couple hours of driving, I’d have a few hours to kill; I had no other option but to mess with Texas.  I got up early, drove down the mountain to Alamagordo, then blasted across 80 miles of desert toward El Paso and returning my rental car.

Farewell to the Franklin Mountains, El Paso, and (right below us), Mexico.

Farewell to the Franklin Mountains, El Paso, and (right below us), Mexico.

Our telescope operator lives in El Paso and recommended the Franklin Mountains as a nice spot to explore.  I parked at the top of the Transmountain Highway and ran the Ron Coleman trail south toward Mammoth Rock and South Franklin Mountain. The trail was very technical in places and pretty steep, but the mountains are smaller than they looked so I gained the ridge (and the welcome sunlight) pretty quickly. The summits of South Franklin themselves are fenced off and home to various mysterious radio masts, but the rest of the peak was fantastic; sharp rocks and plants, great views of three states (two American, one Mexican) and the twinned metropoli of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. There were quite a number of other people out on a nice January morning and it was a great way to end the trip.

texasFranklin Mountains exploration

Unlike the flight out, the return trip was flawless.  The El Paso airport is small, efficient, and comfortable; the kind of place that arriving two hours before your flight really isn’t necessary.  After a very mellow flight, I arrived home much refreshed and recharged about both personal and work life.  I obtained all the astronomical observations I could need, explored a handful of new places, and got to witness some exceptional beauty.

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