VERY LARGE ARRAY
Our first stop was the VLA or Very Large Array. We first read about it on our friend's blog Man in the Maze. The name was of interest to me. Rather than National Radio Astronomy Observatory, it was named Very Large Array. Kind of nondescript, don't you agree? After having been there, though, it is a perfectly fitting name. Set in the backdrop of the high desert of New Mexico are these very large, white dish receivers that listen to outer space. There are 27 of them lined up in a huge "Y" pattern, and they are all connected to a super computer that processes and stores all the data they receive. It can do 3 billion processes per second! This pattern and collective of data from different angles creates the essence of one enormous radio antenna that can be seen from space. From the radio waves emitted by objects in space, they can create images of stars, black holes, and other galaxies.
We had the place to ourselves on a sunny, but extremely windy, day. First we watched the 20 minute documentary about the observatory - how they collect the data, move the receivers on a specialized rail system, interpret the data in conjunction with other observatories such as the Hubble telescope to "see" deep into outer space. The best part for me was getting to actually go out and see the real deal after watching the movie. It was like science class from school, but in 3D. A trail led us to one of the 27 radio antennas, and we were dwarfed by their size. We all ooohhh'd and aaaahhh'd while Morgan danced in the wind. Several movies were shot on location like one of the Terminators and Contact with Jodie Foster. We added those to our mental Netflix queue and grabbed some lunch in the Airstream.
WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT
After we left the VLA, we headed southeast to White Sands National Monument. We got there just in time to pick up the Junior Ranger books for the kids before the visitor center closed. White Sands was beautiful, serene, and expansive. It also played tricks on our minds because it looked like a massive snow storm had hit the area. White sand was piled high on the sides of the road just like our roads back home after the snow plow had come by. No hats needed. No gloves. Bare feet in the soft sand were perfectly comfortable. Rolling drifts of stark white sand in the setting sun....absolutely breathtaking.
We made it to Oliver Lee State Park (which is about 20 minutes from White Sands) right at dark. There was one electric site left and it happened to be a pull through, so no backing in the dark. Perfect. After getting the kids in bed, Troy and I sat outside in our lawn chairs and gazed at the stars. There was no light from a town nearby so we could see the night sky spilling over with stars of every size and brightness.
We woke to discover a mountain and canyon behind us that the Apache Indians lived in and defended aggressively. It was an ideal place to live in an area with so little rainfall each year because a stream flowed through the canyon providing both water and protection. We would have liked to have spent more time exploring; however, we wanted to get to Carlsbad Caverns before they closed at 3pm, so we decided to forgo a hike through the canyon. Even with this decision, we still got a later start than we wanted because Morgan fell down on the road and scraped the scabs from a previous fall off her knees. It was tragic. Many tears and hugs and bandages later, we were finally on our way.