The Very Large Array (VLA) and The Box

The third morning in the Sierra Blanca Mountains we awoke to 35mph sustained winds and high temperatures that were not so high. We had intended on taking advantage of the lack of snow and doing a high elevation hike near the town of Cloudcroft, but high temperatures there were forecasted for just above freezing and the winds were even stronger than in Ruidoso. After a short discussion we decided to pack up and head west instead to the VLA, or the Very Large Array near Magdalena, NM which had slightly lower predicted wind speeds and higher temperatures.

The VLA is the world’s largest telescope, picking up radio waves which are the most common light source in the universe (though invisible to the human eye). Consisting of 27 90-foot tall, 82-foot diameter antennas, the array is able to be configured in various Y-shaped patterns – tight formations to see faint objects and gaseous objects and dispersed patterns in order to focus on granular details – moved as necessary by red transporters along 40 miles of railways and then mounted on concrete piers. At their greatest distance apart, the antennas stretch 22 miles across the grasslands of ancient lakebed that formed the Plain of San Augustin. Here, away from radio interference and nestled in the arid landscape between the mountain ranges, the antennas probe the furthest depths of the universe. The data from each of the these 27 “eyes” travels along fiber optic cables to the correlator, a massive supercomputer that combines the data to create a comprehensive “picture” of what the telescope has observed.

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We had left the VLA and were driving back east to I-25 when we spotted a BLM sign for something called “The Box.” Tom had looked it up on our drive out the telescope and discovered it was a rock climbing and bouldering area but we figured there would be some open land on which to walk with Abby for awhile so we turned off and parked at the first pullout. We walked own the gravel road past one canyon with about 20 or so climbers and continued walking parallel to the volcanic cliffs for more than a mile before reaching a network of informal climbers trails leading into a second canyon. We had thought we’d be walking for an hour total and so hadn’t brought any water with us so we agreed to walk a half mile or so into the second canyon on the advice of some climbers before turning around. Lucky for me Tom chose the up-canyon route which provided us with quite a beautiful vista before we turned around to walk the 2 miles back to the car. We decided this was definitely a place worthy of further exploration and have a plan to return for some cross-country hiking and cliff scrambling, weather permitting.

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