Southern New Mexico is a wide open and mysterious place with lots to offer photographers. The landscape is an interesting dichotomy between desert flats, mountain ranges, expansive river valleys, and the contemporary and historic impression that man leaves on the land. With so many interesting things to see, I was excited to be leading the first southern New Mexico tour for Backcountry Journeys.
The first day of a tour is always exciting. This is when the group comes together for the first time to talk about their backgrounds and expectations for the trip. I always love this first meeting.
After a brief chat at the hotel, we headed across town to eat at one of Albuquerque’s top rated local restaurants – Sadie’s of New Mexico. Sadie’s features a wonderful mix of traditional Mexican food and foods made with the cultural influence of the rich New Mexican tapestry.
For dinner, me and other guests ate the stuffed sopaipilla made with spicy shredded chicken and a side of beans and rice. While we waited on our food, the server brought us Sadie’s regionally famous salsa served with fresh chips. When the main entree was delivered, I immediately knew why the server recommended the stuffed sopaipilla.
Served with a side of red sauce, the chicken was tender with a nice blend of spices with an added crunch from the sopaipilla with which the chicken was wrapped. The beans added a salty side dish while the fresh tostadas blended nice with the Mexican rice.
After dinner and brisk conversation we return to our lodging for the night to prepare for a long day of photography.
Up early, we headed from our hotel in Albuquerque south to the small desert town of San Antonio. Just eight miles south of the small town, the world famous Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge sits along the banks of the Rio Grande River. While the Rio Grande River is perhaps best known as the notorious border between Texas and Mexico, running through the New Mexican desert it brings life giving water to an otherwise arid and inhospitable land.
In the refuge, water is diverted from the river through irrigation ditches that refuge managers use to flood fields for waterfowl and to water corn and triticale crops that are grown to feed the wildlife on the refuge.
We arrived at the refuge right at sunrise. While the crowds were piled up at a pond full of cranes on the highway leading in to the refuge, I chose the path less traveled and took the group immediately to the refuge interior where I had scouted some interesting wildlife a day earlier.
It was the right call.
Immediately we saw a band of javelinas and spent fifteen minutes photographing them from just a few yards from the vehicle. Continuing through the refuge we spent the rest of the morning photographing flying geese, cranes, and a bonus northern harrier who was hunting over the marshlands.
For lunch, we headed into San Antonio to eat at The Buckhorn. The Buckhorn is a regionally famous restaurant know for their green chili cheeseburgers made with fresh New Mexico hatch chilis. So good are the burgers, the owner and head chef once beat Bobby Flay in a Food Network episode of Throwdown.
After lunch we headed east through the Rio Grande Valley on our way to Alamogordo. Along the way we passed by the Trinity Site where, in 1945, the world’s first nuclear weapon was detonated. Arriving in Carrizozo we spent a brief amount of time touring the town to see the vintage buildings before heading to the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains. While the desert is lonely now, the area once thrived as mining claims popped up in the hills. What’s left of these settlements are ghost towns.
Ancho, Jacarilla, and White Oaks were places that because of depleting resources once boomed and then ultimately busted. Now all that’s left of the old towns are a smattering of dilapidated buildings that the desert will slowly consume. All told, the town of White Oaks alone saw $20 million in gold mined from the area before the claim dried and the town’s people disappeared.
At 5am we were driving through the desert on our way to White Sands National Monument. The desert at his time of the morning is dark and empty and soon we were parked at the base of an immense sand dune. Climbing to the top of the dune in the dark, the stars were on full display over white gypsum sands. The opportunity was a great way for the participants to delve into night photography and we spent the precious time before sunrise photographing first the stars, then the dunes during the blue hour, and then at the golden rays of sunrise.
White Sands are the remnants of an ancient sea bed, covering more than 275 square miles, and sit at the base of the San Andreas Mountains. The whole area is ringed by mountains caused by a fault rift to create one of the largest endorheic basins in North America named the Tularosa Basin.
After photographing the dunes, we headed back to Bosque del Apache and along the way, photographed pronghorn antelopes grazing alongside the highway. Back at the refuge we spent some time along the desert gardens where scores of songbirds flit around the native vegetation. After that, we photographed snow geese in flight, mallards feeding, and sandhill cranes feeding alongside the road where the birds were animated and engaging.
As a final bonus on our way back to the headquarters at last light, we found and photographed one of the biggest desert mule deer I’ve ever seen. Soon thereafter, we found yet another pack of javelinas that fed just outside the vehicle while the group shot photos.
On day four we were at the refuge before sunrise to witness perhaps one of the most iconic scenes at the refuge – the blastoff. Here, thousands of geese take flight at once and create a cacophony that’s not easily described. You have to witness the sight to understand.
After the geese took off we made our way around to one of the farm fields where the birds would eventually land and we took multiple photographs of the beautiful birds in flight.
Just down the road, we found a huge flock of the Merriam’s sub species of wild turkeys. The turkeys were feeding in one of the farm fields and the flock probably numbered more than one hundred individuals.
With a working lunch at hand we headed back to the hotel where we did a workshop on Lightroom workflow and image management. Soon thereafter, we loaded up once again and headed to the Kelly Mine – another ghost town on the outskirts of Magdalena, New Mexico. The Kelly Mine is an old lead mine at the base of a mountain above Magdelana. The headframe and smelter stack is all that’s left but it is an astounding testament to the industrialization of the west.
From there we headed out to the Plains of San Augustin to the Very Large Array (VLA) complex. The VLA is a series of 27 radio antennae that, when grouped together, form an immense 15-mile wide radio telescope that can detect non-visible light rays from space. Each dish is more than 60 feet tall and can move independently from each other. The installation is so visibly stunning, chances are you’ve seen the facility on movies like Contact.
On the last morning we headed out one last time to the refuge. With thousands of bird images we decided to search for mammals this morning and we weren’t disappointed. Just after sunrise, we found a nice mule deer buck showing rut behavior around a group of does. For several minutes he postured and chased the does around while the group photographed the scene.
The mark of a good trip is that when the trip is over, no one wants to leave. I think I speak for the rest of the group when I say that’s how we all felt.
If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words. Since 1989, he’sbeen traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.
A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.
After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production. His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape. The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.
Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence, but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.
Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.
You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.russellgraves.com