Excursions: Oliver Lee State Park

The weather took a sudden chill in mid-November with that Arctic blast coming down from the north. I may be a New Englander by origin, but I've gotten relatively acclimated to Roswell's milder winter temperatures, so the abrupt cold caught me off guard as much as it did everyone else. 

When it warmed back up to the 70s one Saturday then, I decided to take advantage of it by investigating Oliver Lee State Park in Alamogordo. I'd been to Alamogordo once before about a year ago, but during that trip I spent most of the day at the Museum of Space History (which you should check out). Oliver Lee was a new adventure then, and what a wonderful surprise this turned out to be.

I'd seen some pictures of the park when I was checking its hours, but I still wasn't fully expecting the extent of its grand vistas. 


It was a gorgeous day, with warm temperatures and an opaque, periwinkle sky that intensified the purple shadows of my mountainous surroundings. The intensity of the sky, the magnitude of the landscape, and the sharp clarity of the light all made this place seem very otherworldly to me. It was like wandering through the paintings of Chesley Bonestell, that iconic sci-fi artist who painted backdrops for numerous sci-fi movies, as well as the illustrations for Werner von Braun's Man Will Conquer Space Soon! articles, published in Collier's during the 1950s. 

Not everything I saw was on a grand scale, however. There were several tiny beauties as well, such as these petite flowers. I placed my finger beside them to demonstrate their scale.

As the afternoon progressed, the splendid light that defines the radiance and clarity of the New Mexico landscape draped the plants in a diaphanous veil of glowing light. 

Naturally I'd brought my sketching materials with me, so I did some drawing was I was relishing the scenery. 

The sky for this sketch really needed an opaque medium like gouache to capture that wonderful solid, periwinkle sky. I also should have used purple for the rocky formations instead of black to capture the atmospheric perspective. Oh well, you make due with what you have. 

I'm fascinated by the form and life cycle of horsetails, an extremely ancient plant. It's a vascular plant (which has the defined structure of xylem and phloem distribution that allows it to grow to great sizes and heights) that reproduces through spores rather than seeds.

This plant is an ocotillo, and when I drew this I was imaging covering a vase or platter with a scene like this. As I was drawing it I realized that it bore an uncanny resemblance to a scene I sketched of Jenny Lake in Wyoming several years ago, although in that case it was a stand of recently-burned trees against a bluish landscape. Deja vu immediately followed.

I'd seen several of these during my hike, but the flowers were yellow. This red one, by contrast, was unusual.

I would have liked to have sketched longer and tackled more of the grand vistas that captivated my imagination, but the challenge with hiking and sketching in a new place is that you want to keep exploring, to keep turning round the next bend to see what lies ahead. This curiosity makes it challenging to sit down and focus on one scene exclusively, even if it's only for a few minutes. With the shorter days moreover, time is ever more fleeting on these trips. You can only do what you can with the time you have, and make the best of it.

Besides, it gives me all the more reason to go back.