The reader will appreciate that there was no internet on our journey in our convertible Mini and that we are safely back home as I write this after traveling through the wilds of New Mexico and Texas. That said, the story did go on and I will try to faithfully relay this amazing adventure as best I can.
After a nice lunch in Sedona — an appetizer of grilled cactus, shrimp, black beans puree, chipotle aioli, avocado, and a cold beer — we decided to study the hunting patterns, habitat, and mating practices of Tadarida brasiliensis, also known as the Brazilian free tailed bat. This particular bat — one of 100’s of known species of bats around the world — travels thousands of miles from Central America and Mexico to the United States every year. The razor-sharp teethed predators have a voracious appetite. Some colonies — or roosts as they are called — are as large as millions of bats and will devour up to 250 tons of insects every night. We decide to leave our bug spray behind and make for these magnificent creatures. First, we drive north out of the canyon towards Flagstaff and then to Albuquerque, New Mexico to visit some important relatives along our path.
We drive along Route 66 eastward once we hit Flagstaff. The clouds from the previous rainstorm that devastated parts of Arizona, brought freeways to a halt, flooded homes and pastures, and left more than a few poor souls dead were beginning to clear and became beautiful against the backdrop of the blue violet sky. The dampness from the rain left the sandstone bright and a gorgeous hue of orange-red that the animators of Disney’s Cars with their creativity and technology could not recreate.
We drop into Albuquerque well into the night and we make for the home of Susan and Paul James (last name withheld), my aunt and uncle. They have lived in New Mexico along with a majority of their children and children’s children since I can remember, when our families would get together for summers or Christmas holidays. My uncle is a retired scientist for the Air Force Weapons Lab back in THE days of the Cold War with Nixon and Brezhnev; the KGB backed Iranian revolution; the Soviet war in Afghanistan; and later Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev; and finally the breakup of the Soviet Union. There’s not a lot of publishing going on back in those days from PhD’s in the AFWL as you would imagine. This is all I could find after a quick search – it’s from a graduate paper titled (of course), “A Regenerative Carbon Dioxide Base Dynamic Laser” published in 1975.
"To Dr. James [..] of the Air Force Weapons Lab for his suggestion of using a Heat Exchanger to Preheat the nitrogen gas, thank you."
Since then, and thanks to my uncle’s advice, preheating nitrogen has pretty much become common practice when putting together regenerative CO2-based dynamic lasers. In fact, kids are getting this stuff in elementary school!
Long since retired, humanity surprisingly still here on this planet, this amazing couple has spent much of their time in the service of others through both church and community.
Below is my travel team posing with appreciation in front of a restored fully functioning vintage 1960’s Avion travel trailer in his back yard among his orchard.
As much as we enjoyed our time together it was time to get back on the road. This is the life of an adventure traveler. As chiroptologists, we must make the south border of New Mexico before dusk. It is at this time that we will be able to study a half million Brazilian free tailed bats as they leave their cavern and travel for miles, to be both prey and predator in the night sky hopefully to come back at early dawn. We make for the town of Vaughn, southeast of us, and then down highway 285 directly south.
We decide on gassing up and getting a warm meal once we get to the town of Vaughn. We thought some nice Thai noodles, not too heavy, or maybe one of those Asian-Spanish fusion dishes and some green tea would be in order. Even Catalonian tapas might be nice. Starving and excited, our caravan rides into the main center of town.
Luckily, we found a single gas station, filled our tanks, and started driving south again. We decided to make for the infamous southern New Mexican town of Roswell in the middle of nowhere. This is the location of the only verifiable UFO sighting known in the U.S. The remains are kept in a hangar at the Roswell Army Air Field near town. The incident happened in 1947 when an extraterrestrial spaceship crashed on a local ranch. The “incident,” which US officials called a conventional weather balloon, was brought back to the public’s attention in 1970 thanks to the keen work of ufologists who uncovered that one or more alien spacecraft(s) had crash-landed and that the extraterrestrial coolants had been recovered by the military and covered up. Evidence was all around us as we made our way through town looking for food.
This thing really happened!
After further research, we learned that in 1990 under the Freedom of Information Act, the US military published reports under Project Mogul. The ufologists were right. It wasn’t a weather balloon. It was a surveillance balloon used to detect Soviet nuclear testing (hence the cover up.) Since then Roswell is known for, “The world’s most famous, most exhaustively investigated, and most thoroughly debunked UFO claim.”
For adventure seekers, there is no reason to go to Roswell. There is, however, a very good Thai food place called Lemon Grass. The owners moved for some reason from Las Vegas to this adrenaline laced economy.
For the next part of our journey I was forced to leave my camera as no electronic equipment was allowed as it would interfere with the navigation of these flying mammals. We made it past Carlsbad, NM and went another 30 miles deep into the arid hills of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We made it just before dusk at 7pm. There was a well done visitors center and at this time of day only a few travelers sat around the cave and waited while a twenty-something Federal Park ranger told us interesting facts about this particular cavern and the species that inhabit it. We learned of this bat’s miraculous migration at 8-10,000 feet altitude, chasing a very large and particular moth that does the same. It is a mystery how they found this cavern at all. We also learn that the pups and the adult bats do not stay together during nursing but in two separate groups. The mother must find her pup in a roost of 500,000 other baby bats by a single call at the same time some 200,000 other mother bats are doing the same. As we listened, it happened: the bats begin to come out. They circle clockwise gaining about twenty feet in altitude and then make a long river of like-minded bats as they make their way across the evening sky. The photo below I found, and is the closest thing I saw to match the experience which went on for a very long time. Something noticeable was the smell. The air actually got hotter and there was a not very pleasant “bat-smell” that was pervasive. The other remarkable thing was the sound — a rhythmic humming.
It begins to rain, and we have another hour or more drive to our camp at Pine Springs Mountain Campground in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. I stopped for a few supplies and we drove in the dark rain. It began to pour as we found a camp site and we put up our tent. My travel companions made the bedding while I cooked up some hot soup and opened up more than one bottle of Spanish Riojo, soaking under a tree with my headlamp, my only light, while my travel companions sat in the tent discussing boy problems. This was much different than our camping trip in Sedona, and it was exhilarating as the thunder rocked against the canyon walls and the rain drops increased in size until they almost hurt upon hitting your skin.
The next morning, I made breakfast — a pot of coffee and some fruit — and assessed the situation and our environment. It was a beautiful camp site and I highly recommend it. But, to my horror, I realized that I forgot the Coffee-mate creamer. I have two travel companions that will kill me if they do not get their coffee and, being a tad pretentious, they refuse to drink their coffee black like most adventurers. I walk around in the rain until a lone passer by asked in German what I was doing. I explain, in English, that I’m in desperate need of creamer. He leads me in the rain to his car and produces two packets of creamer and sugar. Thank God. When the coffee was done, I startled him by knocking on his car window and producing a hot cup of Joe — the first one from the pot.
We get back inside the tent and have a travel team meeting to decide out next move.
We decide to forgo the descent back into the cavern. I point out that there is no rain in the cave, but I think the smell of the guano was still strong in their nostrils and I was out voted, three travel companions to one lone adventurer.
We make for Dallas. This drive is littered with small oil towns. It was a long trip. We stop at Odessa TX for some pizza. I doubt Anthony Bourdain will ever do a travel show documentary on pizza parlors of Odessa. If there is a single thing the reader should take away, it is not to stop at Odessa for pizza and try to plan your fuel miles accordingly so you do not have to stop at Odessa before reaching Dallas or Fort Worth TX.
It was about 8 o’clock in the evening when we made it to our final destination: Dallas, TX. Our adventure is done and we toast ourselves with the remaining bottle of wine left over from our rain camp.