Friday, August 31, 2007

The big, big spider and the brave red shoes

I was chased by a very large and (understandably) very aggressive spider on my way to Tucumcari yesterday. It is the time of year when male tarantulas go wandering about in search of mates. The females stay close to home, so the males must go off looking for them, and if a road is in the way the tarantulas march right across.

There is something pretty impressive about a spider of such size that you can see it from a car going 65 miles per hour. We saw seven along the road during our 190 mile round trip, but that was only once we started really looking for them. We pulled over and backed up to get some photos of one fellow who was still out in the middle of the road when we first passed him. My sister stood guard and encouraged him to get to safety before any oncoming traffic reached the spot. He liked her; I know he did. At one point he reached up gently to touch her shoe.

On the other hand, I don't think he liked me or my blue shoes very much. I was maneuvering around, trying to set up the best shot, moving along with the big guy and attempting to keep him in focus. I glanced up over my shoulder to be sure that there weren't any cars coming in my lane, and that's when he snapped. When I looked back down at him he was coming fast, amazingly fast, right at me. My sister says that he reared up in a very threatening fashion, but by that time I was long gone. I apparently screamed, having lost all sense of decorum and delighting my sister who declares that she has never heard such a loud sound out of my librarian self.

Here is another shot of him, probably pawing at the ground and getting ready for another charge.

Go to Desert USA for information, photos, and a short movie about tarantulas in the Southwest:
To see a short video of a tarantula from the Clovis News Journal, go to

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Good Day for Rabbits

Cool damp morning air on sleep-warmed skin. Breeze-blown sprinkler water freckling my cheek. Fiery red orange sun popping loose from the horizon. I use just two speeds on my bike on these early morning prairie rides: "Wind at my back," and "Going the other way."

It's a good day for rabbits; I've seen two already. They are always there, I'm sure, seeing me, but today I have a good eye for them. They start to hop, then freeze when they see me, one eye cautiously looking my way. "I see you, little rabbits" I say softly, and wait for them to move on.

Mary Austin, when writing about the desert in A Land of Little Rain, said this: "Rabbits are a foolish people. They do not fight except with their own kind, nor use their paws except for feet, and appear to have no reason for existence but to furnish meals for meateaters." I think that rabbits dancing in the moonlight might disagree.

Reason for existence? I am glad that I am not judged so harshly. Or am I?

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Bacon's on the Bed, Dear

Well, we had our first camping trip in our new little covered wagon (tent trailer) out on the prairie at Ute Lake this past weekend. Mistakes were made. I'm not ready to talk about how the fishing gear got packed and the fishing licenses got left behind. I don't really care to discuss what it's like to set up a tent trailer for the first time in the dark. I'll probably never tell you what happened when my emergency porta-potty (an empty yogurt container) sprung a leak. I'm also not ready to chat about trying to make coffee on a Saturday morning when you haven't had anything to eat the previous night because you were too tired from setting up the trailer and you discover that the "full" propane tank isn't.

On the other hand, I can't even begin to describe the night sky out there, where sky is mostly what there is. We watched the stars and moon come out (okay, they already came out while we were involved in our monumental struggles with the camper door once it was too dark to read the manual). We watched falling stars and the Milky Way, while in another part of the sky the lightning danced around in a faraway storm. Our wonderful campground host lent us a full propane tank ("that fella in town that fills 'em is only there between 7:30 and 8:00 on alternate mornings and you just missed him") and refused to take any payment at the end of the weekend. I learned to cook full meals without sideboards. It's easy, you just put the plate of bacon over on the bed while you use the big pan on the tiny burner to cook the eggs. We had steaks cooked over a wood fire. We slept with the prairie breezes blowing through our hair, secure in the knowledge that any snakes out doing some nocturnal exploration were probably unable to climb up and join us. We got to listen to Merle Haggard, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Creedence Clearwater Revival simultaneously thanks to our neighbors, together with the soundtrack from Rush Hour 17 (or so), compliments of the guy with the dish on his RV.

In the old, pre-arthritis days, we were purist campers. We were backpackers with serious boots and lightweight tents and infinitely thin foam mattresses. We had tiny backpacker stoves. We only ate what we carried and we packaged up little servings of oatmeal and trail mix. We were strong and we knew how to do camping the right way. Now we drink beer and sit in lawn chairs getting cricks in our necks looking up at the night sky, while marveling at the way that country music and vintage rock can start to blend quite nicely after a bit.

We were too busy with our camping experience to take any photos, although I had carefully packed extra batteries for the camera this time. I've asked the nice folks at the New Mexico State Police web site for permission to use one of their pictures of Ute Lake. I'll post it here if I hear back from them.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Welcome to San Jon

We drove up to Ute Lake yesterday to check it out in preparation for next weekend's maiden voyage of the new Zee RV. It's just a little tent trailer, but it will be absolute luxury to us after years of camping in a tent. Sleeping on the ground has become a lot less attractive as our various arthritic joints act up and, say what you will, I'm just not interested in being down on the ground in the dark along with our friendly nocturnal snakes. So it's a tent trailer for us, the tiniest we could find--not so easy in these days of recreational vehicles so huge that they are being hauled by giant-sized big rigs. I was anxious, once we finally found the perfect little trailer, that someone else would rush in and buy it before we could. As it turned out, the lot owner hardly had the time to take our money, surrounded as he was by customers looking at behemoths costing more than I care to imagine.

On the way to the lake, I had promised a fellow New Mexico fan that I would check out the tiny town of San Jon (pop. 306, 2000 census) as a possible place for her family to move to. I took pictures until my camera batteries ran out--too bad, because there were lots more buildings that I would have liked to have recorded. Luckily, some of them are shown on this web site:

As we came to the edge of the high plains just after passing through Grady we saw a huge windfarm, situated near the dropoff to take advantage of rising wind currents.

We drove right through the windmills, then the road dropped away and we were in a low valley. In addition to the usual grazing cattle, we saw a small herd of antelope along the way.

We spotten San Jon (pronounced "San Hone") off in the distance.

I read somewhere that when the town was named, both English and Spanish speakers were mystified, as "San Jon" makes no sense in either language. However, my friend Tanya, who is a native Spanish speaker, tells me that “sanjón” (San Jon) in Spanish means “deep gully”.

We were greeted by the official sign

and by the town's own more welcoming one.

Driving down the side streets, we located the school complex, a group of buildings that included a nice looking gym. Unfortunately, that's when my camera batteries died. There were many fascinating old buildings, some still in use and some not. Since the I-40 bypassed the town and Route 66, the old Mother Road, is no longer used, San Jon seems to be struggling for survival. There looked to be more buildings sitting empty than being used.

There is, however, a brand new New Mexico Visitor Center, built right off I-40 exit for San Jon. We were surprised to find it open on a Sunday morning, but there it was, surrounded by cars from California, Texas, Arkansas, and New Hampshire (ours, for we haven't gotten the license plate changed yet). The lady inside was kind and welcoming and loaded me up with maps and brochures about the area and the whole state. A couple of local folks inside were talking about a rattler that one of them had just killed and were swapping recipes for cooking the fellow, glancing over their shoulders at the Californians. Just goes to show how lucky I am that I will be sleeping up off the ground next week at Ute Lake.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Down at the Dog Jail

"People think this is a Humane Society shelter. It isn't. It's a dog jail. That's what it is, a dog jail." The kind-faced man in the uniform at the Clovis Animal Shelter was telling me about their facility when I visited yesterday. I had just seen a photo of the Pet of the Week, a little blond chihuahua mix, and had talked a new acquaintance into accompanying me on a visit. To tell the truth, I dreaded going there, because the Clovis facility is a self-described "kill shelter" where dogs and cats are housed for only a few days before being gassed. There just isn't enough money to keep animals for longer than three days for owners to claim lost animals and another three days to get adopted. After that, time has run out for another life. Local animal welfare groups are working toward death by needle, at the very least.

In the meantime, there is a loosely organized bunch of local people who are doing everything they can to save these animal lives. From fostering dogs and cats temporarily, to putting information on the Internet daily in both and in the local paper, to volunteering at free weekend spay/neuter clinics, to adopting even more dogs and cats themselves, they work tirelessly to make a bad situation better. New Mexico has a lot of poverty and I can understand that a family concerned with putting food on the table for their kids is probably unable to even consider paying for rabies shots and spaying or neutering of their pets, so the pet overpopulation problem continues. It is rumored that some well-intentioned people who have decided they can no longer care for their pet might just let him loose somewhere, rather than taking him to the shelter and a pretty good chance of being killed. Of course, a dog or cat suddenly dropped off somewhere probably has an equal chance of being run over, of being eaten by a predator, or simply starving to death.

Is it like this everywhere? I can tell you from personal experience that it is not. In New Hampshire, there is actually a shortage of adoptable dogs and cats due to an extremely successful spay/neuter movement statewide, so dogs are even brought in from kill shelters in other states. The shelters in New Hampshire are humane societies that are well funded by volunteer donations and staffed by both paid and volunteer animal friends. Take a look at the website for the New Hampshire SPCA in Stratham, NH at This is not a kill shelter. Animals are housed in comfortable surroundings until they are adopted; animals with behavior problems that might make them unadoptable are retrained. Volunteers come in to walk dogs and to play with them. There is a large cat socialization area. I have visited this shelter many times without the awful pressure of having to save lives right now. The dogs and cats here are the lucky ones; they are assured of the chance at a good home. Prospective adopters are interviewed, and other pets in the family are brought in to be sure that they are compatible with the new animal. A fairly large adoption fee is charged, with puppies ($235) costing more than adult dogs ($160) to encourage adoption of often-overlooked older animals. There is a low cost program for senior citizens to adopt senior animals. All dogs and cats are spayed or neutered before leaving the facility. Here is a photo of my dog Leny (short for Magdalena, New Mexico), a loveable lab/Sharpei cross who was brought to New Hampshire from a kill shelter in Ohio, and adopted from the Stratham shelter in 2006. She has added so much to our lives.
Could such a shelter program exist in New Mexico? Certainly the wealthier communities are moving in that direction. The Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society ( has a two building, 100 acre facility that includes two five-acre dog parks, hiking trails, and lots of room for walking dogs. It's a place that encourages dog owners and prospective adopters to visit again and again. They take animals from crowded rural shelters and run a mobile spay/neuter clinic that visits smaller and poorer communities.

What can you do to change the situation here in New Mexico? To help out with the shelters, such as the one in Clovis (, I would encourage you to visit and to talk to the good people who do the hard jobs there. Donate the materials that they need. Clovis is looking for "blankets, towels, dryer sheets (such as Bounce), raised/waterproof beds, liquid laundry detergent, bleach, pet shampoos, etc." They are unable to take cash donations. Campaign for a dog licensing program to raise money for shelters. Tell everyone you know to consider adopting a shelter animal, rather than paying for a pedigreed one.

When you take a look at your local shelter, visit the animals. It's not an easy thing to do. When you know that so many lives are at risk, it's hard to look into their eyes. Ask what you can do to help. Take an animal home and give it a good life.

Back to my visit to the Clovis "Dog Jail." My friend and I took the tour, although I was hoping that a nice staff member might bring out just one dog for us to see so we didn't have to face all those doomed eyes. I ended up paying "bail" for two little dogs, one for me and one for my friend. There were plenty more left, waiting and hoping.

Here's our new little Weetzie:

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Best Green Chile Cheeseburger

If you've never lived in New Mexico, you've probably never even heard of a green chile cheeseburger, and you may never have eaten one. Just take my word for it, once you've had hot green chile on your burger, you'll never want any other kind. We became addicted to the burgers at the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico back in the 1990s when we lived in Las Cruces--the beef was the most flavorful I had ever tasted and the New Mexican chile (never chili, that's something different) just couldn't be beat. The Owl is an old cowboy bar where the patrons sign dollar bills and stick them up all over the walls. Every once in a while the dollars are all taken down and donated to the charity voted for by the regulars. From Las Cruces, it was a two hour drive that we gladly made for a special Saturday lunch.

Now that we've moved to Clovis, the Owl is over 300 miles away. I was sure that there had to be a decent green chile cheeseburger somewhere closer, so I asked the regulars on the New Mexico forum of the at They are a great bunch of people, always willing to share their knowledge of this part of the country. I originally asked for "the best green chile cheeseburger in eastern New Mexico," or even west Texas, just so it was within reasonable driving distance of Clovis. There were plenty of opinions and a lively discussion and, before I knew it, we were talking about the best in all of New Mexico. I have summarized our findings, and here they are.

Statewide: Blake’s Lotaburger (great onion rings, too). 76 locations—see them at Lotaburger: Welcome

Alamogordo: Hi-D-Ho Drive In

Cerrillos: Mine Shaft Tavern

Clovis: Bill’s Jumbo Burger; Kelley’s Bar and Grill

Los Lunas: Benny’s (also in Bosque Farms)

San Antonio: The Owl; Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern

Santa Fe: Blue Corn Cafe; Bobcat Bite Restaurant

Texico: Town and Country Food Store

Timberon: High Country Lounge and Grill

Great article about the best burgers: Six Sinful Burgers: ¡Sabroso! Southwest Dining & Entertainment - Las Cruces, New Mexico - Culinary Traveler. The article was about hamburgers in general—but those with a star were praised for their green chile cheeseburgers. Here are the places mentioned.

Carrizozo: The Outpost*
Las Cruces: Dick’s Café*; Day’s Hamburgers
El Paso: The Charcoaler
San Antonio: The Owl Café*; Manny’s Buckhorn Tavern*

For more about chiles, if you just can't get enough: NMSU Chile Pepper Institute: You can become a member, receive a newsletter, or just read the web site, which is full of information about chiles and growing them. Check out their online catalog to order seeds, books, posters, or t-shirts.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Road to Tucumcari

We went off for a ride to find some mountains the other day and we found them after only sixty miles, but in a very surprising way.

We are new to living on the high plains. Every day we are reminded that we are on the plains because we are surrounded in all directions by fairly flat land; but there is nothing to remind us about just how high we are. My brain has learned, after years of living in New England, that if you are on flat land you are probably near the sea, and if you are high up you are probably surrounded by hilly terrain. However, here in Clovis we are actually at an elevation of 4266 feet above sea level, but there are just no visual cues for me about our altitude.

At least not until we took the road to Tucumcari, in search of our mountains. As we drove along the country roads, marveling at the sky and the wonderful colors of the fields, we kept an eye out on the horizon for some nice high mountains. When we passed the town of Ragland, we were confronted with one of those signs that warn trucks of a steep grade ahead. We barely had time to wonder where the grade might be when our vehicle nosed down the way a car will suddenly do in San Francisco when it heads down another steep street.And there were our mountains, below us! There was an abrupt change of landform, soil, vegetation, and of the way we saw our world. From our flat farm and ranch land plains, we headed down to a red-soiled, canyon-cut, rolling valley dotted with creosote bushes. We saw what looked like small black volcanoes at a distance, and beautiful mesas all around with layers of red and cream-colored soil.