Tuesday, December 24, 2002
It had been a while since we had had a good cup of coffee, so that was the first item on the morning's agenda. We found a bohemian looking place in downtown Albuquerque and gratefully parked the car. It was a tasty and satisfying meal, with the sole drawback being the dreadful service. Still, when Dave finally got his latte, things weren't quite so bleak.
Afterwards, we decided to polish off New Mexico, and head on over to Arizona toward Phoenix. Shortly after entering Arizona, we stopped at a rest stop that dazzled us with its welcoming and appealing aura:
The scenery was actually beautiful, though, and the road we had chosen not only met our navigational purposes, but also had the added bonus of leading us right past the Very Large Array. Dave was psyched about going there since it was someplace he had always wanted to visit, but I hadn't really ever heard much about it. When we first approached the VLA, we could only barely spot the tiny antennas far, far away.
It was impossible to guess at the scale of them. By the time we turned off the highway to take the 4 mile drive to the visitors center, the size of the things really began to sink in.
The VLA has a really nice set up for visitors (apparently the movie studio that filmed "Contact" out there gave the VLA a pile of money to improve it). It's a little museum type building that explains what you're seeing, and then provides brochures for a self-guided tour that let you actually go right up next to one of the antennas and get a gander. When we emerged from the visitors center, the snow was dazzling white and sparkled like diamonds, the sky shown bright cobalt blue. We stopped at the "Whisper Gallery" which demonstrated how focusing waves in a dish could carry things over long distances. It made me giggle to stand back to back with Dave, some 30 feet apart, each of us facing a giant dish with a microphone-like protrusion in the middle. But we could hear every word the other whispered - it was a hoot.
Then we walked out to the antenna that is designated for viewing, closest to the VLA Central Site. To stand next to the thing and conceive of it being moved on a regular basis gives one an instantaneous sense of awe.
Amazing VLA facts (feel free to skip if this bores you):
Each antenna weighs 230 tons
There are 27 antennas in all, arrayed on a Y shaped set of railroad tracks. Each arm of the Y is 13 miles long. In the tighest configuration, the antennas are all crowded to within 2000 feet of the array center and the largest configuration is where the antennas stretch out to 13 miles from the center.
The resolution of the array can be varied by changing the separation of the antennas. The antennas are carried along the array arms by a special, self-propelled transporter moving on tracks. It takes 2-8 hours to relocate an antenna. One or two weeks are needed to reconfigure the whole array.
Dave hauled out his old pal Bill (a long-ago gift from Erin that has amassed quite the collection of vacation photo souvenirs) and took a splendid shot.
When we returned to the road, we could see snow showers blowing over the mountains in the distance, and were unsure whether we'd be caught in it or not. As we drove along, the snowy scenery was made even more beautiful by the sharp winter twilight which dramatized the contrasts in every shape and shadow, light peeking out between huge clouds of falling snow that moved across the terrain.
It was peaceful - very few other cars on the road, the middle of nowhere. Aaaahhhh....Christmas eve, the sun is setting on a remote stretch of New Mexico highway just as a light snow begins to fall and...A COP PULLED US OVER!!! Wrote Dave up a ticket for doing 65 in a 55. Dave thought he was cute, so he didn't bristle. I concluded that the cop was just pissed off at having to work on Christmas eve and was taking it out on us. Jerk. That does it - I'm NEVER going back to Pie Town.
We careened over the mountainous highways with the cruise control engaged until we reached the town of Show Low, Arizona. It was about time to stop and eat some dinner, and we spied the Branding Iron Inn on our first pass through town during the reconnaissance run. On our way back to the Branding Iron, I noticed a small grouping of Christmas lights and got Dave to pull over. There, in an awkward sort of square, we plunged through deep powdery snow to get to a huge bronze statue we had spotted. It was of two cowboys playing poker, one showing the deuce of clubs in his hand. There was an informative plaque relating the story of how two fellas who were living on the same piece of land decided to play poker for it. One of the cowboys (holding a three) commanded that the other "Show Low" but alas the other had the deuce of clubs, winning the hand. The main boulevard in Show Low is brazenly named "Deuce of Clubs".
We broke a trail back to the car, and drove back to the Branding Iron restaurant for a steak. We had an unsurprising but perfectly delicious meal with all the traditional trimmings. Our waitress tipped us off that the owner had some fascinating tales to tell about last summer's Rodeo forest fire that came to within 1/4 mile of where we were sitting. The proprietress had hung pictures behind the cash register, one that made it look like as though the fire was directly behind the restaurant. Her tales were totally engaging and personalized a tragedy that had just seemed interesting before. When we emerged, we were treated to a beautiful display of light created by Christmas lights encased in icicles.
It began to feel like such a comfortable place that we decided unanimously and effortlessly on the spot to make Show Low our evening stopover. Fortunately, right next to the Branding Iron restaurant was a charming 50s motor court motel iced with glowing icicle lights.
It was the clear choice. The room even came with a fountain - water poured from the tub spigot incessantly. Its greatest asset, however, was its proximity to the swanky Branding Iron Saloon - Show Low's premiere watering hole. There was no more than 100 feet between our door and the Saloon's entrance.
When we walked in we found a large room, dominated by the requisite pool tables and arcade games, but boasting a single long bar spanning one whole side of the room. Dave and I chose two stools in the middle of the bar, optimally placed for observing every bit of the goings on. As I flopped down, I spooked a late middle aged woman hovering over the adjacent stool. She was in her 50s with triple-process bleached blond hair, a polyester liquid silver shirt tied at the waist, and sporting a large concho belt that rode the naked skin just above her hips. Acrylic nails accented ancient looking hands covered thickly with rings and bracelets. In a Disney cartoon, she would be an abused Afghan, drawn with huge eyelashes. A prominent scab dotted the bridge of her nose, and she was quick to inform me and everyone else that would listen she had been beaten up.
I ordered a Cape Cod to drink, and our bartender said, "Sorry, I don't know how to make those, hon." "Well, it's just cranberry juice and vodka..." I offered. "OOOHhhh! I always wondered what that was called!" she cooed gratefully. Her outfit mesmerized me: black leather pants and fringed motorcycle vest, a red polyester satin bustier, an elaborately carved crucifix, all topped off with a red plush Santa hat covering her frizzy shoulder length hair. She had clearly learned how to be a mistress of fashion in her 50-something years on this planet.
In the meantime, Dave was getting to know his neighbors. Before long he had struck up a conversation with a Mexican fellow named Fred that was there with his pal, getting good and liquored up for Christmas. Just like us. The place teemed with locals and it seemed that most of them knew one another. We watched the story unfold with the sneaking sensation that we might well have stumbled onto the holodeck and it happened to be playing a David Lynch movie. Dave overheard one of the locals plying our bartender for details on Liquid Silver's nose job:
Customer: "What happened to her?"
Bartender: "She got beat up."
Customer: "Aaa-GIN!" Sigh.
We watched Liquid Silver dance her way around the room, and were even treated to hand motions when one of her favorite songs came on the jukebox. After while, Liquid Silver and I even went over to the jukebox and picked some music out together, our common love for Tom Petty spurring us ever forward. A solemn man in his mid-30s came in and took Liquid Silver's seat at the bar. When he removed his jacket, he was sporting a white wife beater shirt that showed off his barbed wire tattoo. When she saw him sit down, she began to careen about like a loose atom, lighting on one molecule and then another. Everyone, apparently, had a site to which she was able to bind.
When she flitted back over to Barbed Wire Boy, I heard them exchange dialog that was so timeless, it couldn't be scripted:
"Well...what happened this time?" he said quietly.
"It's not the sort of thing you want to talk about on Christmas eve..." she purred softly.
It felt wonderful to sit and watch this marvelous parade of humanity, drink a bunch of whatever-they're-calleds, and inhabit the life of other people far away from your own experience. I was a tiny bit frightened my observations would stray into the area of judgment, but the vodka helped steer me toward unconditional positive regard and helped me to glow a bit.
As I passed by an older couple who were embroiled in a pool match with close friends, the tall silver-haired boyfriend stooped over and put his arm around me and asked with a smile, "My girlfriend and I were just wondering to ourselves what are you going to be when you grow up?" He said it in such an affectionate and pleasant way, that I laughed uproariously and said, "Why the hell do I have to grow up?" We all concurred that it wasn't necessary.
Liquid Silver bundled up to go out into the night, stopping for a heartfelt tearful hug before disappearing on the arm of Barbed Wire Boy. It felt a bit like sending your 54-year-old daughter off with a solicitous but unknown companion for the night.
With the absence of the endlessly unfolding drama of Liquid Silver, the energy to sustain our interest began to diminish. Dave proposed darts, and every once in a while one of mine would go into the board. When the time seemed right, we bid adieu to our companions and ducked out into the night air for a short walk to our room. The roar of the water running into the drain quickly lulled us to sleep.