Alamogordo seemed like familiar territory to us after our years in Ridgecrest, California. This small town serves White Sands Missile Range, Space ship model just as Ridgecrest serves a similar role for the Navy. Alamogordo capitalizes on the history of the area with an impressive new museum of Space History which is set at the foot of a mountain, overlooking the town. After taking an elevator to the fourth floor, we walked down through several levels of models and mock-ups of everything from a Space Shuttle cabin to displays of Cosmonaut space suits, past photos of the first astronauts and replicas of European and Canadian satellites. The exhibits included a small number of military weapons but concentrated on the theme of space exploration, the science of astronautics, and the possibilities for the future, ending with photos and posters of the X-Prize, recently won by Bert Rutan and his Mojave, California, based company, Scaled Composites.

New Mexico will be participating in space exploration in the future, sponsoring an annual competition the X-Prize Cup, first contest to be held next year, with several categories: Fastest turn-around time; maximum number of passengers carried in one flight, total number of passengers carried during the total X Prize Cup event, maximum altitude attained, and fastest flight time from take-off to landing. Pahoehoe (ropy) lava

West of Alamogordo we found ourselves in beautiful high desert country, with occasional, dramatic mountains appearing at the far edge of flat lands. As we neared the Rio Grande valley, pastureland and desert gave way to vineyards and orchards -- especially pecans and pistachios.

We stopped for a walk at the Valley of Fires Recreation Area, a long, narrow stretch of lava, also called Malpais. Here the lava was the product not of volcanos but of many vents in the valley floor, dating back about 1,500 years. . We could see one cinder cone, which is thought to be the last vent that opened. The lava was of two types: ropy, snaky puddles and blocky rocks. They are called by the Hawaiian terms pahoehoe (ropy) and aa (pronounced ah ah) blocky lava. In the cool, sunny morning the walk was pleasant though unexciting. We decided that the residents of the half-dozen RVs in the campground probably greatly enjoyed early morning and evening walks when the small desert animals may be more in evidence. El Bosque del Apache

Space science has a presence in Socorro as well. This little town houses workers at White Sands as well as students at New Mexico Tech, an impressive institution of 1800 students from freshman to Ph.D., with pleasant-looking dorms and golf course. A National Science Foundation radio-astronomy lab is a major building on campus. Other residents may work at the Very Large Array of antennas located west of town.

We managed to cram a bundle of disparate experiences into our short stay here. Coming int to town we stopped at the Owl Bar, which we learned afterwards is a local landmark. Inside the small, dimly-lit cafe the major piece of furniture is a giant mahogany bar, first owned by Conrad Hilton when he was just starting out in the restaurant business. The Owl specializes in green chili as stew, side dish or as part of their signature chili-burgers. You could heat your house with this chili. Just smelling it brings tears to one's eyes.

Our friend Austin joined us from Santa Fe for a visit to El Bosque del Apache, a wildlife refuge well-known for hosting sandhill cranes and Fort Craig ruins snowgeese, as well as thousands of ducks, during the winters. We were fortunate to find several flocks of the large grey birds feeding in a pasture near the sanctuary entrance; we learned later that local farmers cooperate with the Refuge in a barter arrangement, whereby they plant alfalfa, milo and other grains, and keep the alfalfa for their efforts. This affords the birds a reliable source of food during their sojourn. We missed the snow geese but had plenty of chances to watch the social behavior of both cranes and ducks. Groups would form at water's edge, then something would excite them and they'd lift off in a cloud of wings, returning with a swoop back near their original location.

South of El Bosque del Apache are the ruins of Fort Craig. This fort was established to protect the travelers along the Rio Grande from the Apache Indians, but became notable also as the site of one of the major Western battles of the Civil War. This Army fort was a tempting target for Confederate General Henry Sibley, whose personal ambitions went far beyond his orders to capture the fort and secure supplies and horses before Socorro mission moving on to Albuquerque. Sibley hoped to establish his own empire ruling the southwest. An alcoholic whose drinking became especially intense before and during battles, was incapable of directing any strategy. His subordinate officers did their best, and many of them were skilled and talented leaders, but the Confederate forces were in terrible shape even before the battle of Val Verde, near Fort Craig. The men suffered from hunger and exposure -- some were barefoot at the time and few had full uniforms. The result of the battle was the failure of the larger Confederate plan to attack the larger cities to the north.

By 1885 railroads were in place and the Apache threats had virtually disappeared. Lacking a mission, the Fort gradually fell into disuse and was abandoned. For the next hundred years, vandals, souvenir hunters, and weather accelerated its ruin. In 1985 the Bureal of Land Management began a restoration effort which has been partially successful -- that is, the sites of many of the buildings have been identified and marked, and walls and partial walls can help visitors re-create the fort as it stood in its glory. During the summer here, re-enactors replay the battle of Val Verde and the daily life of soliders and civilians of Fort Craig. The mission altar

On this morning we had the whole place to ourselves. It was so quiet we could hear the rustle of grasses. We were, perhaps, most impressed at the size of the fort, the capacity of the buildings and the distances between them. For ambitious soldiers willing to endure the extremes of heat and cold it must have been a rewarding time.

Our tour of Socorro itself took us around the central plaza and to the Mission, which has been built and re-built over the years and is now a pleasant, light-filled adobe church whose alterpieces and windows shine as only newly cleaned and restored -- or new -- elements can shine.

We enjoyed exploring with Austin, whose knowledge of western history helps us understand many of the sights we might otherwise have missed.