Monday, May 31, 2010

Pot Thief Tour 2010 - Day 18

NB: Because we are sometimes without internet in rural parts of New Mexico, I cannot always make daily posts. As you have noted, I have combined a few days. I may also send a back post on the same day as a new post. The signing tour has no plot, so the order hardly matters.

After my signing at COAS Bookstore in Las Cruces, we went to a birthday party for the granddaughter of Donaciano Gonzales who served me as Assistant to the President at NMSU. ‘Assistant to the President’ is academic speak for lobbyist. Donnie did a great job. The percentage of appropriation increase for NMSU was the highest of all state institutions each year of my presidency. But college presidents are notorious for boring their audiences by bragging about how well their institutions have done, so I will say no more about that topic.

Instead, I want to make a point about diversity. Donnie’s son Donald was married the day before my signing. At his granddaughter’s birthday party after the signing, we met three friends of the groom. One was Indian (not a Native American, but a person from India). One had the Scottish name Hammish but was Jewish, and the other was an Anglo of some variety. I also met one of Donnie’s long-terms friends named David Ulibarri, a Basque name. And Donnie’s grandson by his daughter Andrea has blond curly hair. Is this a great country or what?

Pot Thief Tour 2010 - Day 17

Today’s signing was at COAS Bookstore in Las Cruces, home of New Mexico State University. Since I served as president of NMSU back in the nineties, members of the faculty and staff from the State’s Land-Grant University came by to say hello. Kurt Anderson is head of the Sunspot Observatory just outside of Cloudcroft. Sunspot is the leading solar observatory in the world and part of the reason why NMSU has one of the best astronomy departments on the planet.

Kurt told me about an experiment they are conducting at Sunspot to verify Einstein’s theory of equivalence, a corollary of E=MC2. The theory of equivalence posits that the gravitational pull of an object is a function of its heat as well as its mass. This has never been proved. If Einstein’s theory is true, then the Sun’s gravitation force should be in part a function of its heat. The folks at Sunspot are trying to prove this by measuring the Sun’s effect on our moon. They have been measuring periodically the moon’s distance from the earth by bouncing a laser beam off objects left on the moon by astronauts. These measurements need to be extremely precise because the calculation of the effect of the heat part of the Sun’s pull on the moon shows that it would distort its orbit by less than an inch!

The experimenters also need to know how far they are from the center of the earth in order for the measurements to be useful. You may think that would be simple – just measure their altitude. But altitude is not a constant. Temperature, air masses, and even plate tectonics push the Sunspot Observatory several inches away from or closer to the center of the earth. Thus, they have to take simultaneous measurements of the altitude of the observatory and its distance from the moon.

They have been taking these measurements for a couple of years and will continue for several more in order to have enough data to support a finding, but the evidence so far seems to support Einstein’s hypothesis. Why are we not surprised by this? Maybe that’s why the next book in my series is The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein.

Kurt bought two copies of The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy. I signed one copy for him then asked how he wanted me to sign the second copy. “Sign it to Patsy Tombaugh,” he said.

I had no idea Patsy was still alive. Her husband, Clyde Tombaugh, was a faculty member at NMSU. He was also the discoverer of the planet Pluto and a number of other important things such as the fact that the red spot on Jupiter is a storm. I dedicated The Thief Who Studied Ptolemy to Clyde who died in 1997 at the age of 97. I was delighted to learn that Patsy is still alive and humbled and honored to sign a book for her.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Pot Thief Tour 2010 - Day 15

The Rio Grande is arguably the most storied river in the United States. The Mississippi is about 20% longer and drains a larger area, but the Rio Grande forms part of our border and plays a major role in the western and cowboy lore that forms an important part of American culture.

I’m an old cowhand

From the Rio Grande

But my legs aren’t bowed

And my skin ain’t tanned.

Those memorable lyrics by Johnny Mercer of Savannah, Georgia have been sung by, among countless others, Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, The Sons of the Pioneers, Johnnie Ray, Jack Teagarden, Patsy Montana, Frank Sinatra, and Harry Connick Jr. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, as their characters Lucy and Ethel, sang it in an episode of I Love Lucy. Of course ‘cowhand’ and ‘Rio Grande’ don’t rhyme, but even Spanish speakers out here call it the ‘Rio Grand.’

The great river begins in the Colorado Rockies and travels almost two thousand miles to the Gulf of Mexico. It splits New Mexico in half, entering the state in the trackless wilderness just west of Ute Mountain. It then forms the Rio Grande Gorge, a breathtaking narrow canyon where the river at the bottom is designated as one of America’s wild and scenic rivers by the National Parks Service. The Gorge is home to world class Class V white water, steep pocketed rock climbing, and ancient petroglyphs.

The Rio Grande becomes a wider and tamer river when it leaves the mountains, and dams further south have rendered it docile. The largest of those dams in New Mexico is Elephant Butte which creates a reservoir forty miles long covering about 40,000 areas. Ironically, this man-made lake is next to the infamous Jornada del Muerto, so named by the Spanish conquistadors because of the lack of water.

Not far from the dam is the town of Engle, built in 1879 as a station on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. It became a shipping point for cattle and ore. The construction of Elephant Butte Dam (1911-16) swelled the town’s population to 500, but most of those left after the dam was completed. Travel east from Engle was later eliminated by the creation of White Sands Missile range. The Engle post office, opened in 1881, was closed in 1955.
Only six people live in Engle today, and only three or four original buildings still stand, including the old schoolhouse where church services continue to be held on the third Sunday of each month. A sing declares “Preaching, Gospel reading, and singing.”

Engle is the headquarters for the Armendariz Ranch, now owned by Ted Turner. Trains still pass through town, but they don’t stop.

So why did I come to this end-of-the-road town? Because it is where the Gruet family has the vineyards that yield the grapes that make Gruet Champagne, the favorite bubbly of Hubert Schuss and Yrs Truly.

Pot Thief Tour 2010 - Day 15

Today we visited the Resumidero Campground off Forest Road 93 in the Santa Fe National Forest. I remember from my days as a plumber in El Paso that sumidero is the Spanish word for drain. (I was the only native speaker of English among the fifteen employees of United Plumbing, so I quickly added plumbing terms to my Spanish vocabulary). I don’t know what adding‘re’ as a prefix does to sumidero, but Aggie Villanueva says it means sink hole.

Aggie lives in Regina (pronounced rre-hee -nah in New Mexico, and be sure to roll that first ‘r’), a collection of cabins and houses in the forest above Cuba. She shares her cabin with three dogs, and a mouse has taken up residency in her pick-up. All of them seem quite content. Aggie is an author and artist, attracted to New Mexico like so many others by the dry air, clean-scented forests, and magnificent vistas. I urge you to take a look at her fantastic photography at

Aggie was married at the Resumidero Campground. The marriage didn’t last, but her love for the area has endured, and she took us to see waterfalls, rock formations, beaver dams, and high alpine meadows in the Land of Enchantment. Our picnic on a Forest Service table was joined by a chipmunk who devoured two big leaves of romaine lettuce and several grapes. There were also birds, butterflies, and bees. In a break with tradition, there were no ants.

Tomorrow we head south for a signing in Las Cruces, but we have enough time for a stopover in Engle, a small village most people – even New Mexicans - have never heard of. I’ll tell you tomorrow why we want to go there.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pot Thief Tour 2010 - Day 14

We spent yesterday in Madrid. Not Spain, the one in New Mexico. It’s eighteen miles southeast of Santa Fe and half a century away. The little mining boom town that was virtually a ghost town for most of the Twentieth Century after the ore veins played out has been resurrected by hippies, some from the original batch, now retired but still seeking something outside mainstream culture, and some from the new generation who seem even more lost than the originals. They are joined by some yuppies who have opened galleries and cafes. The place is now a Mecca for tourists, including everything from retirees in their rolling motorhomes to bikers.

The closest thing to a bookstore in Madrid is a set of shelves on the porch of the general store. You can donate books if you like. You can take one if you leave one, or you can buy one for a dollar. I made a mental note to start picking up used copies of the Pot Thief books to leave in places like this.