Thursday, June 29, 2017


OK, I have to admit that left to my own devices I would never have stopped here at McGinns Pistachio Tree Ranch, and that would have been too bad. So it's a good thing a fun-loving, adventurous, gregarious member of the family was piloting the car that day instead of me since I'm a bonafide people-avoiding, tourist-trap-phobic, stick-in-the-mud curmudgeon. (All right already! It's not necessary for everyone to agree so enthusiastically!)

McGinns, home of the world's largest pistachio, is a family run place (The current generation have added the grape vines.) that got its start during the Iran embargo of the late 70's which suddenly made it economically feasible to home-grow pistachios.

In addition to the touristy-trinket side of the shop, and the wine bar, the ice-cream bar, and, of course, a lot of nuts for sale, for a couple bucks you can hop on a big green, mega-golfcarty kind of thing and take a guided tour of the  ranch.

I highly recommend taking this tour!! But then again I'm a geek that finds learning new things fascinating. . . Even if learning isn't your thing, just remember that after the tour you can exchange your ticket-stub at the ice-cream bar for a big fat homemade cookie!

I'll try not to subject you to the dialog from the entire tour, but I just have to spout off a few of the things I learned.

  • Mcginn's has over 12,000 pistachio trees and 6000 grape-vines
  • It takes 4 years for a pistachio tree to start producing and then only a few pounds worth
  • A mature tree will produce 50 to over 100 pounds of processed nuts depending on the year
  • Each tree is hand-grafted onto a disease-resistant root stock
  • Only female trees produce nuts but each grove has a couple male trees on the downwind side.
  • During summer irrigation season each tree gets 25 - 30 gallons of water once a week.

And I have to give special attention to a couple more cool facts.

There are a few large, blooming rose-bushes incongruously scattered around in the groves. Being particularly sensitive things, these roses are the grove's version of mine-canaries, giving advance warning of any issues that might affect the trees.

And finally; remember the red pistachios we used to stain our fingers, mouths, teeth, and furniture with years ago?? Pistachios are drupes. That means like pecans and coconuts they grow under a fleshy outer skin. If the skins of harvested pistachios are not dried and removed right away (It's raining, there's too much harvest to spread out in the sun all at one time, etc.) this outer skin ferments, staining the hard shell underneath and it's pretty ugly looking. The way around that was to cover up the staining with a bright red dye. Today modern processing machines strip the outer skin off the nuts quickly so the staining no longer has a chance to occur and the dye is not necessary. In fact, what with the persistent questions about the safety of red dyes in food, it's pretty much impossible to find red pistachios anymore.

But here's the point where I feel it's my duty to give a word of warning about stopping at McGinn's.

Of course most visitors are probably going to buy some pistachios while they're there. I mean, come on! That's pretty much the law when you stop at a pistachio ranch!

And I was not immune to this consumerist urge. In fact after picking up one bag it occurred to me that I was still a good week away from home (Easter Weekend was coming up and since I am holiday-crowd phobic it put an expiration date on my trip, otherwise I'd have been even farther out from returning home.) and I got to thinking that history has shown when left to my own devices I'm pretty susceptible to the temptation of sampling the goods, yet if I returned home with nothing but an empty bag of one of our favorite nuts I'd be in deep shit, so I picked up a second bag, vowing that I would eat from the first but not break the seal on the second until back home again when we could share it. (And, for the sake of my continued health, I stuck to my vow!)

But; and here's the warning part; when you're standing among bins and rows and shelves of shelled, unshelled, natural, flavored, spiced, and brittled (One of their specialties.) nuts stacked from floor to nearly as high as the average fingertip can reach, there's a strange size-envy phenomenon that occurs.

My two little 8 oz bags of shelled pistachios looked so small and puny there in my hands among all this nutty bounty it was embarrassing! So I surreptitiously slipped them back onto the shelf and pulled down a couple one pound bags instead.

Well somewhere just beyond the front door, the grip of this phenomenon quickly faded and halfway to The Van I was wishing I had brought along a hand-cart, or maybe a Sherpa. What was I thinking?! Two pounds of shelled pistachios is one hell of a lot of nuts!

I should probably stop at a truck-scale and see if I need to add some air to the tires. . .

Monday, June 26, 2017

Valley of Fires Recreation Area

Again, as with Living Desert Gardens and Zoo, Dog Canyon, and Three Rivers Petroglyphs, there could be location confusion here too.

Don't mix up the BLM operated Valley of Fires Recreation Area I'm talking about (To confuse things even more, based on old maps this might have actually been a New Mexico State Park in the past!!) with Valley of Fires State Park in Nevada.

We're still here in the Tularosa Basin, about 4 or 5 miles northeast of the basin town of Carrizozo on a low ridge poking up in the middle of the Malpais lava flow. (More confusion possible since malpais is Spanish for bad-lands and there are many other places, including at least one more right here in New Mexico, named that.!)

At 1500 to 2000 years old, this is among the youngest lava-flows in the 48-states, but looking out at this I'm kind of glad I wasn't hanging around to watch it happen!

For most visitors the key attraction here is the Malpais Nature Trail that wanders out onto the lava flow itself.

This slightly less than one mile loop is paved and fully accessible,

but there are also spots along the way where the intrepid can wander out onto the lava itself. But the footing out there is not very forgiving so be careful! One slip and you could get sliced up worse than a tie caught in a shredder at the office Christmas party, and footwear won't fair any better so opt for sturdy if you plan on wandering off the paved trail.

There is a bit of a drop from the trail's start, there up on the ridge, down to the flow itself, but the gentle, ADA compliant switchbacks take care of that.

This is a fee area with a self-pay station at the entrance out by the highway, but it's still worth-while going on down to the visitor center to pick up a guide to the trail before setting out on it.

In addition to the numbered stations with their corresponding information printed in the trail guide, there are a number of additional information plaques along the trail. These are getting rather sunburned and a little fuzzy, but are still readable with some patience.

The right side is as they actually appear, the left is where I have used an editing program to enhance the clarity.

There's also a couple of kid-of-all-ages-friendly education centers

along the way like this fauna-themed one. (Again, this image has been enhanced through editing for clarity.)

It's amazing what will grow on the lava, (Can you imagine how hot this stuff gets in the summer sun!!) everything from lichens

to this 400 year old thing!  No! I mean the Juniper, not The Daughter!! (Though, come to think of it, it has been a long time, and I mean a really long time, since she took her first plane trip at the age of one month. . .)

It doesn't really look all that alive does it?  (The Juniper dammit! I'm talking about the Juniper!!)

But it is!  Robustly alive in fact.

We were there the week before Easter

and many of the plants growing in seemingly impossible places out on the lava

were blooming nicely, thank-you very much!

Eventually we'd wandered the entire loop and it was time for us to start the climb back up to the parking area.

There is a much more primitive trail across the lava down at the southern end of the ridge the campsites sit on, We were told that this trail has seen some recent maintenance and improvement, but once we were back in the comfort of the car that was off the books for us. Something to check out next time.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Once Again I Pick the Dinosaur of Batteries

During my recent post on replacing the Tripp-Lite inverter/charger with an IOTA charger I mentioned that I was also replacing the batteries. Actually the battery replacement is what triggered the charger replacement. After all, despite its failed inverter the Tripp-Lite was still serviceable as a charger, but as long as I was going to be messing around in the electrical compartment anyway . . .

The death of, and need to replace my 200 amp-hours of battery is what prompted the replacement of the Tripp-Lite with the IOTA

It all started because the summers in Central Texas are a tad warm, with daily highs running from the low 90’s to the low 100’s for a good solid three months. During those three months the humidity runs in the 90’s as well, and with all that water in the air hanging on to the heat it means that nighttime temps only dip by 10 to 15 degrees.

Me, I’m pretty stubborn (or stupid depending on who you talk to) and continue to spend the majority of my day either outside or in the barn which is not air-conditioned, but the supplies in The Van that wouldn’t fare as well as I do under those conditions get stuffed into her fridge for the duration. Beans, rice, sugar, dried foods, toothpaste, deodorant, lip balm, and anything else that could be affected by prolonged heat, all goes into the fridge which is turned on to its warmest setting, in my case that’s 50 degrees in the fridge section and 42 in the freezer section.

So with new batteries in hand I gathered a few simple tools and supplies to drop them into place.

Which is why, even though I don’t do much camping during the summer, the 12V system still gets a decent workout.

Even parked in the partial shade of an oak tree and accounting for some cloudy days, the solar panel/battery combination has proven up to the task of keeping the fridge running all summer, but that doesn’t mean I skip keeping an eye on things. Every morning I stick my head inside The Van and check the fridge thermometer and the 12V system monitor panel.

Good thing too because one morning, pretty much without warning, the battery voltage had dropped to below 12 volts overnight despite less than a 20% discharge. (Yes, I knew the batteries were showing signs of aging but to go from low-normal to essentially dead that quickly was unexpected.)

After horsing the new batteries into the boxes the next step was to use a wire brush to clean up the eyelets on the ends of the cables

According to my records the current batteries have been in use for just shy of three years. Even accounting for the fact that they are lowly wet-cells that’s just barely long enough to be reasonable and – well – turns out that’s on me this time. My excuse? The time honored but true none-the-less; "I forgot"

Then to ensure a good solid connection that will conduct well and won’t corrode over time I smeared each eyelet with GB Ox-Gard (This stuff is conductive so watch where you smear it!)

After three frustrating rounds of maintenance-free AGM's, when I switched back to wet-cell because the performanceof the AGM’s was not justifying their expense I apparently didn’t pick up all my marbles and completely twigged out on topping up the water.  Yeah, that's right, I forgot. . . And when I did finally pull the caps there was no water to be seen!

I tried topping up the cells, which took about a half-gallon of distilled water between the two batteries, and then hitting them with an equalize charge, but over the next couple days I did some draw-down testing which only confirmed that I had killed them both.

Before connecting the batteries back into the system.

Oh don't get me wrong, adding water and equalizing helped and the batteries were still serviceable at a reduced capacity, but for how long? Based on my experience with those tiny but expensive motorcycle batteries, not very! (I have now converted all my small engines over to Walmart's $20 U1's. This usually means relocating the battery and building a new carrier but it beats the hell out of buying tiny little, and decidedly delicate, original replacements at $70 or more a shot!) I rely heavily on The Van's house batteries so would rather call them dead now than get caught short somewhere and have to deal with them on the road.

I'm pretty sure some of you started shaking you heads at my regressive choice of battery back there at the first photo, after all, that's the equivalent of choosing to drive a truck with manual transmission and crank-down windows and who in their right mind would do that in this day and age, right?!

Well read on!

Despite AGM’s looking better on paper (Granted, mostly marketing paper but paper none-the-less.) after carefully analyzing the actual costs of the three sets of AGM’s I had used up in a little more than ten years of real-life usage, I switched back to wet-cell three years ago because I could not justify the nearly 200% cost premium of the AGM’s anymore.

Now in the past three years there have been some amazing strides in battery technology and right now Lithium Ion are all the rage. Ohh goody!!  New toys!  

Except Li-ion’s are pricey things with a capital P! so are even more worthy of a careful cost analysis.
and here’s what happened when I ran the numbers:

Then finally putting the tops back on the battery boxes and sealing them up. Very important with wet-cells since they out-gas as a normal part of the charge cycle and I definitely don’t want explosive hydrogen floating around inside The Van!!

* Li-ion batteries can be discharged to 80% as compared to wet-cell’s (AGM and gell too) 50%. With my 200 Ah setup that means that instead of 100 Ah of usable power I could get 160 Ah. I’ve been getting along fine with my 100 Ah but more is better, right? So add this to the nice-to-have column.

* Unlike wet-cell, Li-ion batteries can deliver their power at an incredible rate without damaging themselves, and can also be recharged at equally unbelievable rates if you have the equipment to do so. This is great for electric vehicles, golf-carts and mobile devices, but not so much for RV’s. With the limited capacity found in most RV’s because of space and funds, taking advantage of the Li-ion fantastic discharge rate would be a lot like the M16 I carried back in the dark-ages when I was in uniform. At 600 rounds per minute that sucker could empty a 30-round banana clip in seconds, but then what? “Ummm, time-out guys. I need to reload. . .”  So put this one in the ‘ehh, so what’ column.

* Even with the on-board smart-charge electronics necessary for the common man to keep Li-ion’s healthy over the long term, 200 amp-hours of Li-ion weighs in at more than 40 pounds less than the same capacity of wet-cell. And this only gets better if you figure it based on usable amp-hours. Great! Add this to the plus column.

* With the proper onboard smart-charge electronics, I can use my existing charge controllers, solar and shore-power, to keep the Li-ion’s topped up. Another one to add to the plus column.

* Li-ion’s are supposed to have a 2000 to 5000 cycle life-span compared to the wet-cell’s 500 to 1000. To be fair here let’s take the low end of both, which means I will have to replace the wet-cells 4 times for every one time for Li-ion, and if the life-cycle of the Li-ion’s trend towards the higher end it only gets better. Sounds like another one for the plus column, but for now let’s just hold onto that one.

So right now I have one in the nice-to-have, one in the ‘ehh, so what’ , and two in the plus column with a potential third to follow, Based on that the Li-ion’s are looking like a winner – but - 
When I said earlier that Li-ion’s are pricey, that might be an understatement! To purchase a fully tricked out pair of group-27 100 amp-hour Li-ion’s costs $2600, to replace my pair of lowly NAPA 8301’s cost $270. Broken down by usable amp-hours over expected life of the battery the numbers come out like this

Usable Ah per cycle
Expected Cycles
Usable lifetime Ah’s
Cost per usable lifetime Ah

This is rather simplistic, but even though the Li-ion’s are getting there in terms of cost effectiveness, they still cost a premium over the wet-cells; so lowly wet-cells it is.

Who knows, in 3 or 4 years when I’m in the market for new batteries again maybe the numbers will come up differently, but for now I’m sticking to the wet-cells.

Of course next time around I’m going to have to add in an estimated expiration date on both The Van and my ability to use it. If the longevity claims of the Li-ion’s hold up over time in actual RV-type usage, as opposed to electric car usage which is entirely different, extrapolating based on my experience with the wet-cells, one set of Li-ion’s could last 20 years and I’m not sure I see much sense in paying money to buy something for the next guy to use.

 In the mean time I’ve already added checking the water levels to my quarterly maintenance schedule.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

If you drive north on US 54 about 30 miles out of Alamogordo there's a right turn onto County Road B30. (Bottom left corner of the map below.) If you see this poor, highly embarrassed donkey tucked in beside a building on the right you just missed the turn. (OK PETA people, don't get your panties in a bunch. It's a fiberglass sculpture.)

If you make the turn then drive over the rr tracks and stick with that road for about 13 miles and 2000 feet of elevation gain, just clipping the southern end of a ridge-line and a corner of the reservation along the way, at the end of the road you come to Three Rivers Campground. (Top right corner of the map above)

This is a National Forest campground with 12 sites, water, trashcans, and vault toilets. (Motorcoaches don't bother as the max length is 26 feet) Oh, and apparently cell service is quite good at the campground due to towers on a ridge to the west.

For entertainment, in addition to the river there's trails in the area, but this is the White Mountain Wilderness and the trails tend to be uphill when outbound, to the tune of about 1000 feet per mile!

So if that's not your thing, about 5 miles after turning onto the county road the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site is on the left.

Don't confuse this with the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque. The site I'm talking about is a BLM site in the Tularosa basin.

It is a fee site but a geezer card takes care of that so I don't know what how much it costs and the BLM is, and I quote "currently working through a website transition process, and we appreciate your patience! The recreation information on the BLM’s website will be launched in the coming months".so I couldn't look it up on-line.


The Daughter was photo-bombing again. . .

          damn kids!! But whatryagoonadoo?

There's a visitor center, there on the left, flush toilets in the building just right of center, picnic tables, and a couple parking-lot style campsites.

And, of course, a few petroglyphs. Over 21,000 of them!! all pecked into a fairly small basaltic ridge thrusting up out of the basin. (The trail is just over a one mile round trip out to the shaded rest area and back.)

Best guess is that these date from the time of the Jornada Mogollon people. I once read that anthropologists, using data from digs worldwide as well as more modern studies of isolated Amazonian tribes, estimate that prehistoric, pre-civilization, peoples spent 3 to 6 hours a day on obtaining and processing basic needs and the rest of the time resting and playing. Given the amount of graffiti up here on this ridge I would have to say they are right!

Be sure and pick up a trail-guide at the visitor center

 The numbered points on the map correspond to signposts on the trail

and information in the guide.

The trail isn't a flat, paved, stroll in the park, but it isn't all that rugged.

If you can handle a couple flights of stairs

you can handle this trail just fine.

But don't rush it. There's tons of petroglyphs up here and the more you look the more you see.

Apparently even pre-historic people had some rough mornings

and had to put their face on before going out in public. Note the earrings.

Between 200 AD and around somewhere 1500 AD (When the Spanish turned up and the Mogollon disappeared, probably due to European diseases) a Jornada Mogollon man stood right here where I am with his basic, and to us primitive, tools in hand, yet when he looked out across the arid basin to the base of Sacramento Mountain escarpment, and up through the pinon-juniper zone, followed by the pine-oak then fir-aspen belts, then the spruce zone and finally the 11,000 foot peak we call Sierra Blanca today, what he saw was everything he needed to survive, and even thrive, in this land.

               That must have been a powerful and satisfying feeling.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Politicization of White Sands National Monument

When you live in Alamogordo and have out-of-town visitors turn up it's pretty much written in the rules that you have to take them to White Sands National Monument. No, really! I can show you the page where it says so!

I was here at the Monument many years ago when passing through the area. How many years I'm not sure but it was before I started blogging, well before I was retired. My favorite part of that visit was hiking the Dune Life Nature Trail which is within a couple miles of the park entrance.

This was a self-guided hike over and around the dunes with numbered stations that corresponded with information on a handout you could get from the visitor center. (Did you know that some of the plants here, which pretty much all get their start on bare ground between the dunes, will continue to grow upward as the dunes blow in and will end up with root systems as tall as the dunes they're sitting on?!)

Little did I know at the time that I will likely never be able to walk that trail again.

One of the several abandoned pullouts along the road safety corridor. No longer available to anybody but lawbreakers and Border Patrol.

It seems that the first 4 miles of the Monument's road have now been designated a 'road safety corridor' and you are not allowed to even slow down, let alone stop, anywhere along there. (Although we were forced to stop right in the middle of this no-stop zone by a ranger that was inexplicably blocking the road. As we sat and waited he would release a single vehicle every 5 minutes or so, allowing it to continue on deeper into the monument, but keep the rest of us waiting. I guess after a while he got tired of this senseless crap, maybe his coffee had run out, because eventually he let the rest of the growing line go by en-mass with no explanation.)

I have since tried to look up this 'road safety corridor' but found nothing to explain it. There is a different kind of  road safety corridor that is all about stretches of federal highways with a higher than normal incidence of wrecks where enforcement and traffic fines are increased, but I'm sure they would be hard put to pass that reasoning off on this short dead-end two-lane stretch of 35 MPH road, and even if they could that still doesn't explain the no-slowing, no-stopping rule.

For lack of any other explanation my personal take is that this restriction has nothing to do with safety at all and everything to do with the odious 'Internal Border Control Check Station' that is just south of the park entrance stopping all northbound traffic.

These stations are where everybody, including citizens traveling withing their own country, (They don't give a damn.) is subject to being scanned for explosives, radiation, and warm bodies tucked into hidden compartments, looked up on the computer (Via your license plate) to see if you are worthy or not, sniffed by dogs and questioned by armed guards, (Does this sound like the modernized version of Nazi checkpoints throughout conquered Europe??) all because, in part Border Control didn't do their job - well, you know - at the border. . . but mainly because of a power-grab by Homeland Security and the government in general. (If you let them have it they will take it and never give it back. The founders of this country, whom we have grievously let down, knew this well and tried to put safeguards in place, but the greedy and power-hungry will always find a way if not enough are willing to stand against them.)

Everybody knows where these fixed check stations are so now Border Control needs to appropriate even more vehicles and manpower in order to run around the nearby countryside attempting to nab anyone trying to walk around the checkpoint. Of course it makes their job easier if the only vehicles stopping in the area are the ones picking up 'bypassers'. (And it doesn't matter if you are a citizen or not, if caught on foot in the area, even if you are doing nothing more than exercising your right to walk on public land, you will, at the very least, be escorted from the area with a stern talking to.)

Unfortunately the Dune Life Nature Trail is right in the middle of this zone so it has been lost to all of us, now and most likely well into the future. (The Monument web site states that this and the Playa trails are "temporarily" closed but I'm not buying that crap!)

Fortunately the Interdune Boardwalk is beyond the so-called safety corridor and still accessible.

There's a plethora of information along the not-quite half mile boardwalk

And in the places where people haven't jumped over the side and Nike'ed the ground with designer footprints (You are asked to stay on the boardwalk in this sensitive area but apparently that's asking too much of some of us!) the fine sand retains prints of passing insects,

wandering birds

and even dancing plants!

So take your time on the boardwalk and enjoy this unique habitat,

because with the demise of both the Dune Life Nature and Playa Trails this is pretty much it other than the sledding.

One word of warning about traversing the boardwalk though. The composite deck and handrail are laid over an aluminum support structure and the combination of bone-dry air and relentless wind (Note the firm grip on the straw hat!) builds up quite a static charge just waiting to wallop your ass!

Ahh yes, the sledding!  Back in Alamo this morning we all jammed into one car. It wasn't the smallest car you can get, but it's not all that big either, yet there was no question that we find space for a couple of sledding disks because that's what you do at White Sands!

Apparently there used to be three sledding disks but on a previous trip someone (They are in this photo and know who they are!) took a bit of a flying leap and broke one of them. . .

But even with only two sleds, after making the climb up

there was the sledding down

Only problem with that

is that there are no lifts or tow-lines out here. . .

Fortunately one really cool (Yep, pun intended.) feature about the gypsum sand of White Sands is that even under the summer sun the sand stays cool, in fact bury your feet a few inched down on a blazing summer day and the sand is downright chilly!

Before we leave White Sands, this is why the Tularosa basin is hazy most afternoons during the windy season. The spring sun starts to warm the relatively cool air near the ground in the morning, which sends said air skyward, which causes cool air to come rushing, viciously I might add, down the mountains to fill the gap, and so on and so on.

The very fine gypsum sand, more like dust really, is picked up off the dunes by this action and lifted to amazing heights. It's a wonder there's any left!!

But for now it's time to go because I'm taking my fair share of sand with me and it's going to take a while to get all of it out of - well - everywhere. . .