(Not too hard and not too soft)
A guy once asked me of all the states I have been in, which is my favorite. Without missing a beat I answered “euphoria.” Ah, those were the days. Never mind. The truth; it is an unanswerable question for me. I could take any state and winnow down everything good and make it sound like a paradise. Yes, even New Jersey. Actually, I like New Jersey, especially the Pine Barrens with their occult urban legends. So, let us look at one decisive factor, camping. Now I can offer a realistic opinion.
The answer may surprise you. After decades of camping in all 47 states…, oh yeah, there are 50 now. I am really old. Anyway, my many experiences have led me to the state I am now roaming around, New Mexico. You are either squinting or shaking your head, unless you have been here. I admit, I thought the same thing, ‘what the heck is in New Mexico?’ Several past articles have featured New Mexico, but in the last year a new perspective has arisen. Much of it is a function of age. These days I am looking for a bit more comfort than I was in my thirties. Still, a concrete paved RV park is not for me. One might say that I am between a tent and a soft place. Thus, discovering New Mexico State Parks has been a great boon.
One thing that was totally unexpected is lakes. This is the desert southwest. Does that sound like lake country to you? Me neither. Not only are there several beautiful lakes in New Mexico, but you can choose from several camping environments, something to suit almost everyone. Almost? There are no spas, five-star restaurants or golf courses. True, many sites will accommodate a forty-five footer with four slide-outs, but that is trumped by the fact that one may have to set one’s pedicured piggies on desert sand. Not to mention – oh but I will – that there is no dog walking service for Fluffykins and if she is allowed to wander about she may very well be eaten or end up with a nose the size of a Buick after being bitten by a rattlesnake.
So, let us take a look at Elephant Butte Lake, one of New Mexico’s State Parks and the premier park in the south. Campsites are large and level with a cabana or sheltered patio, a picnic table, fire ring and barbeque grill, plus electric and water hookups. Unlike a true RV park the natural environment has been well maintained. Flora flourishes and animals such as Gambel’s quail, cottontail and jackrabbits, songbirds and lizards are frequent visitors to every campsite. One of my favorites, coyotes will sing you to sleep most every night, which is why their scientific name Canis latrans means ‘song dog.’ They are also what will eat little Fluffykins. Worth noting is that all desert areas are home to poisonous snakes, scorpions and some menacing looking arachnids that will spike anyone’s phobia. Also, on the list of things that bite, are a single bobcat and mountain lion that inhabit almost every desert area depending upon food availability, which also includes Fluffykins. Perhaps by now you have gotten the ‘hint’ that little dogs should be kept close.
To take one step down in comfort, toward a real camping experience, there are campsites with the same lay-out, but no hookups. Some are not in the main campground loops and have a much more appealing view. These sites have water, but electric is up to you (I strongly suggest solar power). You are almost in real camping mode now, but wait, there’s more.
Unlike most other states New Mexico allows campers to get right into the heart of it by camping in outback areas where you might not see another person for a week, or on the lake or river shore. Most of these areas are accessible by RV, though the road might look a little more like a cow path than super-highway. Fortunately, most of these roads are short. There is nothing at the camp area unless you take it with you. This is as close to ‘real’ camping as it gets in an RV. This is where the dirt road meets the water. This is my haven of happiness.
In a world where some people attempt to remove any and all dangers and uncertainties from life; this is not the place for them to go. Every year RVs get stuck in or swallowed up by sand, or end up playing “Yellow Submarine” in the lake due to windstorm micro-bursts or ‘captain’s error.’ At the high mountain lakes, like Eagle Nest, black bears forage along the shore. But the most horrifying sight of all; the creatures that will make you shudder are commonly found running loose; they are children. Not yours; yours are perfect angels, but everyone else’s. Case in point, I was sitting serenely in camp one day when a boy stopped with his dog to let it pee on my kayak while he watched and giggled. His camp was about 300 yards away, but he seemed to think he had to come all the way to mine for his pooch to pee. Now, this might be a useful parenting tip. Without raising my voice I looked straight at him and grimly stated, “That was a bad thing to do. You must be rather disappointing to your parents.” Five minutes later he returned to apologize. I smiled and told him I must have been wrong because taking such responsibility would certainly make his parents proud.
Whether in a comfy camp close to others and every amenity offered or in a remote camp by the lakeshore with only yourself to rely on, or somewhere in between, the most wonderful thing about the New Mexico State Parks system is that you get to decide. You have options. Camping should be about fun. And who knows better than you what is fun? So, on your next outdoor adventure; which road will you take?
Sidebar on safety: If you are not accustomed to driving on unpaved desert roads here are a few safety tips. Guys, this is when you hand it to your wife to read because safety tips are somewhat like driving directions to a man. 1) Learn to recognize solid ground. If it looks soft don’t chance it, get out and walk the road until you are satisfied it will hold your vehicle. This is mostly a function of experience. Tire tracks made by previous vehicles will be where the ground is most compacted and safe. On a desert flat that appears solid, yet sort of crusty, look for small holes in the ground. Prairie dogs are one of the cutest desert critters, but their underground condos are very extensive and a heavy vehicle can drop right through a prairie dog’s ceiling and totally ruin their lunch. The ground close to sage, creosote or most desert bushes is usually soft, partly due to the myriad of small animals that live under them. 2) Do not travel these roads at night. If you just thought, ‘why?’ I would suggest you always stay on the pavement. 3) Have a roadside assistance policy that is upgraded to include RVs. 4) Getting ‘stuck’ is a relative term. Just because your RV spins a little does not mean it is truly stuck. First, as soon as you hear/feel tires spinning take your foot off the gas pedal. Do not try rocking back-and-forth or powering out, you will dig a very deep hole. Well, the frame will limit the depth. The shallowest rut is the easiest to get out of without assistance. Also, do not dig unless have always wanted to visit China and speak a smattering of Mandarin. There is a trick we desert rats know, which I will let you in on. Starting at the front of the drive (usually rear) wheels, scrape a ramp sloping gradually forward on both sides. Now gently, so not to deform the ramp, sprinkle water over it. This might need to be done a couple times, slightly packing the ramp in between. Be patient. The wet ramps will harden. While they harden collect brush (be careful of snakes) to cover the ramps. That will make them even stronger and add traction. Now slowly drive out of the mess you got yourself into. Of course there is an alternative. Jump out of the RV in a rage, cuss, throw your keys and call for roadside assistance. If you choose that method do not forget to have them send a locksmith because you are never going to find those keys.