2015: Alamogordo, NM

New Mexico Space Museum

May 8


We'd already seen the one big attraction nearby, White Sands; but I found a couple of other touristy activities to keep us occupied for a second day. Alamogordo is pretty flat for the most part, but up on a nearby hillside is the New Mexico Museum of Space History. It was originally built in 1976 as the International Space Hall of Fame, the idea of a former local mayor. After a couple of name changes over the years, it undertook its current moniker in 2001.

The museum is a four-story cube, with the top three floors devoted to exhibits. It also includes an IMAX theater, and since the next film would be shown soon, we started there. The film was about cave exploration, and apart from making me queasy at the beginning, it was OK but nothing spectacular. With the improvements in other kinds of film technology these days, I think IMAX isn't as impressive as it used to be.

Moon over Cronkite.

We returned to the main building to start our exploration. One of my favorite items, which was only tangentially related to space, was a large moon-replica on the wall which used to hang behind Walter Cronkite during CBS coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. After that, unfortunately, there was only about half a floor's worth of interesting stuff.

Mission patches. Moon rock in plastic pyramid.  Lunar sample case. Apollo guidance system.
Skylab toilet. Lunar life support pack. Space meals. Built-in straws. Russian Soyuz spacesuit. 1961 chimp capsule & suit.

This museum, like all of them so far, also had an outside yard with some space-related items on display. I found it more attractive viewed from the upper floors of the museum than down on the ground.

Space junkyard.  Sonic Wind rocket sled. Rocket engine for Saturn V.
The classy part of town.

After we finished with the museum, we went to find some lunch in town.

I'm sure there is a junkier, less attractive town in the USA than Alamogordo. But I don't think I've been there yet. Mike took us on a scenic route through the very best parts, including tumble-down trailers, weedy vacant lots, and miles of orange construction barrels. We finally found fast-food row, and I decided that even a McDonald's was the safest bet here.

Giant nut and friend.

Our afternoon plan was to tour one of the two local pistachio farms. Why do they grow pistachios here? I don't know, but I hope to find out.

Both of the local farms were very near our RV park, so after lunch we had time to go back to Behemoth and chill for about an hour. The first farm, McGill's, is directly across the highway and its claim-to-fame is the World's Biggest Pistachio. Well, of course I had to have a picture of THAT.

But we were going on down the road to the second place, Heart of the Desert, which advertised a daily farm tour at 1:30 p.m. The tour started out in the gift shop with an introduction by our ever-so-chirpy guide Melissa, and a short film about the farm. Turns out I got an answer to my question (why here?) right away: the climate in Alamogordo is exactly like the pistachio's native habitat in the Middle East! I never thought of California, which grows 98% of the U.S. production of pistachios, as having a Middle Eastern climate, but whatever; I guess with the current drought we're getting close. (Melissa was quick to point out, over and over, how SMALL their farm is compared to the growers in California.)

Other fun facts: pistachio trees are sexed, like avocados; male and female flowers grow on different trees. They plant about one male tree upwind of every 15-20 female trees, and the wind takes care of the pollination. One mature tree produces about twenty pounds of edible nutmeats. It takes five years for a tree to start production, about ten years to reach full production, and a tree can produce for hundreds of years. Pistachios grow in clusters like grapes. Like pecans or walnuts, they have two layers protecting the nutmeat: a soft leathery outer husk and an inner, hard shell. When they are ready to be harvested, the outer husk turns pinkish.

Nutty tour group. Row of pistachio trees. Grape-nuts?
No eating allowed! Ain't we cute.

We spent a total of about ten minutes with the actual trees; it seemed that the majority of the tour would be indoors in various facilities. Initial stop: the sorting and roasting building, but not before we donned some ever-so-attractive hair nets.

First we watched four intensely bored ladies on two conveyer belts doing a final hand-sort. Most of the sorting is done by machine, but the final inspection is done by hand to weed out stained or otherwise undesirable product. I kept watching for either Lucy or Ethel to start stuffing some into their shirts, their hats, or their mouths.

Needle sorter.

There was an interesting cylinder-shaped machine called a needle sorter. On most pistachios, the inner hard shell pops open on its own (you see this opened shell when you buy in-the-shell pistachios). About 10% don't open and in the biz these are called "tights". The needle sorter has are hundreds of sewing-type needles attached to the inside surface at about a 30-degree angle. These needles snag the open-shells while the tights pass right through. Who comes up with this stuff?!?

Roasting oven.

Melissa seemed especially proud of the roasting oven, pointing out a labor-intensive process that involves roasting each tray of pistachios twice to get them evenly cooked, providing that extra personal touch that only a SMALL house can do, not like those GIANT California growers! I thought the oven looked like something out of a bad 1950's sci-fi film. Mike said it reminded him of a pizza oven.

Y'all come back, now!

The tour finished up through cold storage and shipping. We ended up back in the gift shop, where we chatted up a young man and woman who are both stationed at nearby Holloman AFB, training to fly drones! We bought them each a scoop of white chocolate pistachio ice cream, which was excellent. Then we spent way too much money on pistachio products to take back home as gifts for our neighbors. As we rolled out of the parking lot, their mascot Happy Nut gave us a big wave bye-bye. So long, you big nut!

That evening, I took Peanut out for his walk. We'd been out a couple of times before and he was getting pretty comfortable - too much so, perhaps - with the neighborhood. He was exploring the rock garden in front of the office when another camp resident came walking by. Peanut tensed up and I watched him carefully, even crouching down to keep my hands on him, but suddenly he went berserk, twisting and rolling and clawing and biting like a furry dervish, and before I knew it I had a big gash in my hand and he had slipped his harness and was gone like a shot. Panic!! I ran after him, but he had ducked under a wooden fence. I was near the rig, so I pounded on the side to alert Mike, then ran to the corner of the fence. Here came Peanut again, dashing by me and underneath the motorcoach. Well, that was better than running into traffic. Mike tried to coax him out, but in a minute or so Peanut jumped onto the steps by himself. He knew where home and safety were! We got him inside and I tended my bleeding hand. I think our walking days are over.