By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
I don’t think I’ve seen a normal rainfall year in Tucumcari until this summer.
I’ve seen a few downpours, hailstorms and just enough snow to remind me I don’t live in Southern California any more. Yes, California was warmer, but in Tucumcari I can breathe. In California we didn’t trust air we couldn’t see.
If you travel west on I-40, you end up in Barstow, Calif., which is always undeniably desert, the Mojave Desert, dry and uninviting to the unitiated. The directions from Barstow to Tucumcari are easy. Get on I-40 where it starts at Barstow, get off at Tucumcari about 850 miles later.
Since Barstow and Tucumcari share the same latitude and altitude, 4,000 feet above sea level, it was never a surprise to my wife and I that Tucumcari looks the same as Barstow. We didn’t realize that Tucumcari was supposed to be greener. Finally, this year it is.
Quay County is showing whole fields of green. The Barstow deserts at the best of times show you only green patches in the tan, sandy dust, except for dazzling eruptions of wildflowers in the spring.
Cattle ranching thrives in both places, but whereas Quay County ranches measure about four cows per hundred acres, Mojave desert ranches count about one cow per thousand acres.
The largest wild animal I remember seeing in the Mojave was a jackrabbit. We saw those as often there as we do here. In Quay County, we regularly see deer and antelope. The Mojave, however, seems to produce bigger tortoises and roadrunners than we see in eastern New Mexico. That doesn’t make sense because there seems to be more for them to eat here.
New Mexico, however, yields much larger dinosaur fossils.
Eastern New Mexico’s dinosaur bones sometimes have to ride in large trucks, and they’re found all over the place. And you can’t ignore the big dino footprints at Clayton Lake.
In Southern California, however, if you follow the Las Vegas-bound crowd on I-15 at Barstow, you find a place called Kokoweef on top of the last mountain pass before you coast down to Nevada, relieved that your radiator survived the climb.
If you get off there and go away from the hyper-secured mine, you’ll eventually find a very bad dirt road to a slate field. On one rock that juts out of that field, you’ll find chicken-like tracks enshrined for a distance of maybe four feet. That’s it–Southern California’s single set of dinosaur tracks.
Like Tucumcari, Barstow is a railroad town that looks like it has seen better days. Barstow, however, still hosts an active run yard. And, like Tucumcari, Barstow tries to maintain some of its Route 66 heritage. Tucumcari does a much better job, though.
Most Los Angelenos consider the Mojave to be deep space as they dash for Vegas and enter a state of suspended animation as they whoosh past the creosote and Joshua trees. Like drivers who zoom past Tucumcari on I-40, however, they don’t know what they’re missing.
Both Tucumcari and Barstow may look a little uninviting to the unitiated, but there’s more to both eastern New Mexico’s mesa country and Barstow’s Mojave Desert than most people are willing to see. Stick around either place for a while and they’ll grow on you.
Steve Hansen is the managing editor at the Quay County Sun. He can be reached at shansen@