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Corvette Road Trip - Desert Storming

Strafing the American Southwest in a paddle-shift C6

Sep 1, 2011
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The afternoon rain was apocalyptic. I don't mean a polite drizzle or even a steady downpour with a few isolated splats. I'm talking about a real, West Texas, gully-washin' frog- strangler here. I'd already slowed from the posted speed of 80 mph to 55, the wipers were on high, and I was peering through the windshield desperately trying to see what was ahead. All of a sudden, it felt like the engine had quit, and the car started to fishtail...

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But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My wife, Karen, and I had had enough. The weather guy said we could look forward to yet another day of 100-plus degrees, high humidity, and absolutely no chance of rain. And so we packed up the C6 and headed for the Texas border—quite an excursion when you live near San Antonio. We were approaching Fort Stockton on I-10 when the deluge hit.

For the second time in the space of a few moments, the C6 seemed die, but this time I noticed that the traction-control light was illuminated. Even with fairly new Goodyear Eagles, the Corvette was hydroplaning. So I slowed down even more, and every few seconds the brakes would apply themselves, the engine would back off, and a-sliding we would go. Still, the Vette's computerized minder always kept us pointed in a straight line, providing real-world validation of this valuable safety system.

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After successfully making it through the downpour and across the border into New Mexico, we decided to visit the town of Columbus. The stop was no coincidence. In 1956, my parents bought a farm in Hillsboro, Virginia, that had sat unoccupied since the early 1900s. The house, now on the National Historic Register, was built in the 1850s by a mining engineer named Purcell. Purcell was later killed in Columbus during the reign of terror conducted by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

Columbus is also the site of a famous Villa raid in which eight soldiers from the 13th U.S. Cavalry and 10 American civilians were killed. (The Mexicans suffered more than 70 KIA.) As a result, President Wilson ordered "Black Jack" Pershing into Mexico to kill or arrest Villa. Ol' Pancho managed to avoid Pershing and was never captured. Columbus today is just a sleepy New Mexico village. We did, however, find a couple of gems there, including a 1912 American LaFrance fire engine.

What made this pumper unique was that it could pump both water and foam—a helpful feature in the bone-dry desert. Our other discovery was a circa 1915 Jeffrey two-wheel-steer armored car—a veritable coffin on wheels. One can only imagine how hot it got inside this steel, Model T-framed, Vickers- machine-gun-toting behemoth. (Trivia: Jeffery later joined Nash, which was ultimately absorbed by Chrysler.) After this small side trip, we decided it was time to head for the mountains and, hopefully, cooler temps.

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Up U.S. 180 through Silver City to Reserve we went. From here we took some spectacular back roads up to U.S. 60 and the town of Quemado. Near Quemado, just south of Magdalena, is the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope, located on the Plain of Jars. The VLA comprises 27 individual telescopes, each mounted on part of a Y-shaped railroad track. A computer aims all of them at an exact point in space, and the resulting pictures boast the resolution of an antenna 22 miles across!

We eventually reached Santa Fe, stopped at Tomasita's for a green-chili roast-beef burrito, and then headed across northern New Mexico to the Rio Chama Valley. We did make a quick stop for a picture at the famous Ghost Ranch outside Abiquiu, the home of artist Georgia O'Keefe and incredibly blue skies full of puffy white clouds.

The human history of the Rio Chama Valley is rich with tales of struggle, innovation, and survival. Indigenous peoples of the Southwest have inhabited the Valley for at least 1,000 years, making this area one of the richest regions for archeology in the U.S.

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After the Mexican-American war ended in 1848, the Rio Chama Valley was opened for settlement. In 1866, Camp Plummer was established near the present-day town of Tierra Amarilla. With protection from raiding Utes, European settlers expanded their influence in the region. About this time, the little village of Chama was about to make history.

In February 1880, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad began construction of the narrow-gauge (3 feet wide) San Juan Extension, a route that ran for 200 miles from Colorado through New Mexico and back into Colorado. Railroad service to Chama began in February 1881, and the old station at the Santa Fe terminus is now the aforementioned Tomasita's restaurant.

Today, this history is there for all to see and taste. In addition to the wonderful food and cultural activities, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad is the finest and most spectacular example of a steam-era mountain railroad in North America. The railroad's equipment and the vast landscapes of the Colorado-New Mexico border exist as if they were frozen in the first half of the 20th century.

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Built 127 years ago, the Cumbres is a 64-mile, fully operational steam railroad. In the fall, the route provides beautiful views of changing aspen as the train wends its way across the mountainous terrain. We elected to take a motor coach from Chama to Antonito, Colorado, and then take the train downhill back to Chama.

What a ride! The old train, chugged, swayed, and clacked its way down the mountain, at one point reaching a breathtaking top speed of 19 mph. The coal-fired 1920s Baldwin steam engine just chugged away, never missing a beat. There are only three of these locomotives that still run, and the Cumbres has two of them.

One of the coolest things about this old line is that several of the valleys it runs above are accessible only by train or "unimproved" dirt roads. Another neat thing is that it really is a mountain railroad that hugs the tops of canyons and valleys as it chugs its way to Chama.

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We spent two delightful days in this cool mountain town before the road again called. So we packed the Vette and headed out, our route to be established as we went. Somehow we wound up going through Gunnison, Alamosa, and back to Antonito. More gorgeous views and serpentine roads greeted us, and the C6's six-speed, paddle-shift automatic made for thrilling driving along the way. At Tres Piedras, we cut onto U.S. 64 to see the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.

Located about 10 miles west of Taos, New Mexico, this bridge towers a vertigo-inducing 650 feet above the BLM-administered Rio Grande. The site is popular with whitewater rafters, thanks to the fast-moving currents and breathtaking scenery. (We used to call this area the "Winnebago Rapids," in honor of the hapless visitor who forgot to set his brakes and watched his Winnie go over the side of the bridge and plunge into the river below.)

From the bridge, we took the short drive into Taos and stopped at Michael's, an outstanding place to eat with a world-class bakery. After downing two delectable chocolate éclairs and obtaining some fresh-baked cookies for the road, we headed out once again, this time for Mora, New Mexico.

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If you're a Louis L'Amour fan, then Mora should ring a bell. It was the home of the Sackett clan, whose members starred in many a shoot-'em-up. Located at more than 7,100 feet, Mora is still a quiet little village and a great place to visit. From here, we headed to Las Vegas, New Mexico, for a good night's sleep.

We were starting to get homesick at this point and decided to wrap up our road trip by heading for Sumner—near Clovis, New Mexico—and then home. Our C6 had run like a champ the whole way, pulling an average fuel economy of 29.4 mpg according to the trip computer. Unfortunately, the combination of regular rain and windblown desert grit meant the car was also was positively filthy before we even started back through Texas.

Fort Sumner's mission was the internment of Navajo and Mescalero Apache Indians from 1863 through 1868. The fort was closed in 1868, then sold to a prominent New Mexico landowner. In 1870, the man's son befriended legendary outlaw William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid. It was in this house that the Kid was reportedly killed by Pat Garrett, and his body is said to be buried in the old military cemetery at the fort.

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From Fort Sumner it was a short hop to Clovis and Cannon AFB. Cannon is named after a former Commander of the Tactical Air Command and is currently the home of the 27th AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command). Its mission includes infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of special-operations forces; air refueling of special-ops rotary-wing and tilt-rotor aircraft; and precision fire support. As a retired National Guard Master Sergeant who flew in C-130s, I found the base's V-22 Ospreys, AC-130H gunships, and MC-130H Combat Talon IIs to be particularly impressive.

Finally, we turned our Corvette east from Clovis and eventually arrived home in Kerrville, Texas, where it was cool and raining. Kind of figures, huh?



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