The Saaris’ (Sorta) Safe Sojourn – PART 2: Winterlude

When last we left off, we were basking in the warm sunlight at the Questa Lodge and RV Resort in Questa, NM. Things took quite a turn thereafter, as we will see …

Oct 25-26 (Sunday, Monday): We left the Questa park around 8:30, embarking on a six-plus hour drive to the Mountain Meadows RV Park near Alamogordo, NM. Our original destination was going to be an RV Park 50 miles south of Albuquerque, which would have only been a three-hour drive. However, the weather forecast was for an arctic front descending into New Mexico Sunday afternoon and evening, with heavy snow through much of the state. So, we decided to hightail it further south in hopes of avoiding the type of weather we left home to avoid in the first place. The drive was very interesting as we passed through a wide variety of terrain – some long, straight segments through desert plains filled with scrub brush and small trees until we reached Taos, then a steady climb into the foothills of the adjacent mountains, then down through the lovely Rio Grande River gorge to more flat, scrubby desert leading to Santa Fe and eventually to the Mountain Meadows Park.

Trees alongside the Rio Grande River

Since we spent most of the day driving, we didn’t do much more on Sunday than settle into our spot and watch the local TV weather reports confirming cold temperatures, rain, and snow in the northern region we had just vacated. The park was nice, with views of distant mountains to the east and west, but in marked contrast to our previous stops on the sojourn, it was essentially full to its 20-site capacity. There was a very clean building with laundry, shower, and restroom facilities, including automatic sanitizer machines (a nice touch for the Year of the Pandemic). And even though the park was fully occupied, everyone mostly stayed in their RVs, so I didn’t encounter anyone else on my trips to the restroom and shower.

Mountain Meadows RV Park site
Landscape near the Mountain Meadows RV Park

On Monday morning, the weather was still pretty nice – temperatures in the upper fifties, but quite windy. We drove out of the park in the RV, leaving our electrical cord and welcome mat behind to signal that we were coming back that afternoon, and drove about 30 miles to the former White Sands National Monument. We were surprised to find out that it was designated as the 62nd National Park in December of 2019, thus making it the newest in the nation — so new that all but one of the signs we saw still had the National Monument designation. The National Park comprises about half of a 275 square-mile section of the Tularosa Basin consisting entirely of glistening white gypsum sand dunes formed from an ancient seabed. We first stopped at the Visitor Center to buy a postcard (for a certain set of close relatives) and a tee-shirt (for me), though we could not actually go into the gift shop due to Covid restrictions. We then drove into the park on Dunes Drive, gaining free entry with my National Parks Senior Pass (all you old farts out there really should get one – it’s the best deal you’ll ever get) and made our way to the Dune Life Nature Trail. I’ve never seen anything like it, rolling dunes as far as you can see in all directions, shaped by the wind into beautiful formations and providing an ecosystem with a variety of sparsely placed trees and shrubs and dozens of small birds, mammals, and insects.

Old sign outside the Visitor Center
The White Sands National Park gypsum sand dunes
Parking area for the Dunes Life Nature Trail
Pedestal formation
Landscaped by the wind

After our fascinating White Sands visit, we stopped at a kitschy gift shop near the RV Park that featured a statue claiming to be the world’s largest pistachio, where we bought some pistachios grown in the adjacent orchard (delicious), some caramel cashews (OK), and some pistachio infused wine (awful).

World’s largest pistachio?

When we got back to the RV Park, we were surprised to find an enormous RV beginning to set up in our site. The park manager rushed over in her golf cart to explain that she had forgotten we were still staying overnight in her hurry to find a spot for two travelers who had been battling heavy snow to the north in Tucumcari and desperately needed a place to stay. But the situation was soon rectified as another site had opened up and the big rig moved to that spot and we settled back in. We soon realized that, while our electric cord was still in place, the welcome mat was nowhere to be found. It turned out that it had blown away in the wind and caught on the property fence line, and the manager’s husband had collected it during daily rounds. By this time, it was clear that the cold weather would soon be upon us, so we didn’t hook up to the site water supply, using the RV’s fresh water tank instead, and we didn’t extend the “bump out” on the side of the RV. We hunkered down for the night as first rain and then snow began pelting down, wondering if we would be able to safely drive to our next destination in the morning.

Oct 27-29 (Tuesday – Thursday): We arose Tuesday morning to find ourselves in a winter wonderland. The skylight was totally covered, and I had the brilliant idea to open it and see how deep the snow might be. I could only open the skylight a little bit, and Pat just shook her head as I was doused by a snow shower, but my educated guess was that there was an inch or two on top. I went outside to find the ground covered – again, maybe an inch or two – light snow still falling, and a five-inch drift across the RV’s windshield. I brushed the snow off the windshield and mirrors, went to the restroom, and came back to the RV ready to take off. In deference to Pat, I agreed to wait an hour or so to see how things developed. It was clear to me that she wanted to stay another night, and I almost agreed to call the manager and ask if we could. But the snow stopped, and the ground cover began to melt, and it looked much like a normal day in Minnesota, so there was no stopping me. Off we went toward the Wolf RV Park near Deming, NM.

Morning view at Mountain Meadows (rig on the left is the would-be usurper)

The drive started off well, with mostly dry roads and little wind as we retraced our route to White Sands, acknowledging the new “National Park” sign as we passed by, and kept going west on I70. We experienced only intermittent snow flurries, and the temperature hovered around 34 degrees as we headed toward Las Cruces. But then we realized we were gradually going up as the highway reached the foothills of the Organ Mountains. Up and up we went, as the temperature went down and down and the snow began to intensify. We overtook some semi-trucks laboring up the grade, and I pulled around them in the left lane rather than slowing way down. I could feel some bad vibes coming from the passenger seat and quickly glanced over to see Pat with eyes closed, gripping the armrest tightly. I chuckled inwardly at her timidity as an SUV roared past me and I pulled out to pass yet another sluggish truck. The road began to curve as I slowly passed the semi and then realized the road was now completely covered in white. All bravado evaporated as I glanced at the dashboard and saw the temperature had dropped to 26 degrees, then looked back up to see the SUV fishtailing onto the left shoulder ahead. So maybe traveling wasn’t the very best idea of the day, after all? There we were, essentially stuck in the left lane on a snow-covered road with a potential spinout a hundred yards up the road.

Luckily, the SUV recovered, we passed the truck and eased back into the right lane, and I hung on for another five minutes as the road wiggled through the highest pass in the mountains and began to descend, once again becoming dry and safe. The temperature began to rise again as we drove downhill into Las Cruces, where we decided to pull off at a gas station and have lunch in the RV. By the time we were ready to start off once more, the snow was pelting down hard and I had to brush off my mirror again, but it eased off and the freeway was clear all the way to Deming. We did encounter a major slowdown where some jackknifed trucks were being cleared away, presumably from earlier in the morning, but otherwise the rest of the trip was uneventful.

Driving toward Las Cruces

We drove about 10 miles from Deming along a series of ever-smaller roads, drifted over with snow in several places, and finally a gravel road leading to the entrance gate of the Wolf RV Park, an adults-only campground with 33 RV sites and the tagline “Welcome to simple tranquility.” It was tranquil, all right, located in the middle of the desert about a mile away from I10, with only a few isolated buildings nearby. The manager was very clear that, if we were arriving from one of the “high-risk” states (including Minnesota and every other one except Hawaii, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine), we would need to self-quarantine at our site for up to 14 days – no going to town for groceries, no going to the laundry room, no walking around the park – just lock ourselves away. Hmmmmm. To our great good fortune, we were arriving from Alamogordo, New Mexico! (Interesting how the previous New Mexico park managers never brought this up, eh?) An hour after we were settled into our site, it began to snow. After dinner, I unhooked the water supply so our hose wouldn’t freeze as the low temperature dropped to 24 degrees. As I stepped out of the RV on Wednesday morning, I wondered if our 2,000-mile journey so far had all been a dream and we were really back in Minnesota.

Tuesday afternoon at Wolf RV Park
Wednesday Morning at Wolf RV Park
Wednesday afternoon at Wolf RV Park

But then it began to warm up. By Thursday afternoon it was in the 60s. As we strolled around the park and on the gravel roads in the surrounding desert, basking in the sunshine, I realized that the last few days had been nothing but a reminder of why we left Minnesota, just a brief winterlude, if you will. Our plan now is to stay at the Wolf RV Park until after Election Day (when we will hopefully have a decisive Biden/Harris victory and a Senate flip to celebrate) before heading west into Arizona.

Thursday view of Wolf RV Park (at left amid the trees)

Here’s an updated map of the Sojourn thus far:

Still so far, so good. Stay tuned as the adventure continues …

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