Alibi V.25 No.21 • May 26-June 1, 2016 

Day Tripper

Revelations on the Plains

A Toyota pickup, Contact and the Very Large Array

VLA
Dirty Velvet

In a 1992 Toyota truck with prairie dog skulls on the dash, my partner and I drove the 77 miles south to Socorro, and then another 50 west on US Route 60. There on the plains of San Agustin, bounded by mountains in every direction, is the Very Large Array, otherwise tenderly known as the VLA. The VLA is a composite of 27 radio telescopes that more-or-less comprise the largest telescope unit in the world. You may have seen it on “Cosmos” or in Contact or some late incarnation of Terminator. While the day-to-day may not be as exciting as Jodi Foster communing with aliens, the research that happens at the expansive facility is important and fascinating. Peering into the farthest reaches of space, these telescopes see in fine detail, providing insights into the births—and deaths—of universes not so different from our own.

In preparation for our sojourn, we packed burritos from Winning's and a gallon of tap water. In sandals, cut offs and sunglasses, we sped south. We listened to nearly a whole Mountain Goats album before we made it to Socorro where travelers can easily find gas, sustenance and beer. From Socorro, the route bears westward toward the mountain village of Magdalena. Tucked into the Magdalena Mountains, the town's namesake, this artsy village boasts at least two rock shops, 60 miles of nearby hiking trails, cute cafes and package liquor stores.

In transit to the Very Large Array, a spur-of-the-moment turn took us down Highway 107, a dirt road that cuts a pass through the mountains, the Cibola National Forest on either side. I turned to my partner and said, “This is God's country, Pony.” We peaked the crest of a hill and careened wildly down the other side, “Weird God,” he said. Pronghorn ran through clusters of dust-colored calves, scattering them through overgrown juniper as we continued on at 45 mph, a speed that felt wild in that still country. A turkey vulture serenely vacated the road with a long-dead snake in its mouth, making way for us as we veered south. This detour is not suggested if its rained recently or you are without a capable vehicle, or if you are short on time, because this day trip extension added at least 40 miles to our outing.

We arrived at the VLA, finally, around 3pm, one hour before the small visitor's center closed (the rest of the site is open until sunset). After a delightful chat with the 20-year resident of Magdalena working at the gift shop and the purchase of far too many wares (including a guitar pick with the cryptic inscription: “The VLA, it is what it is”) we watched the short documentary about the center narrated by the ever-present Jodi Foster and made our way outside.

VLA with hand
Dirty Velvet
Each telescope at the site is 82-feet across and weighs more than 200 tons. It might be my small obsession with both the novel and film adaptation of Contact that makes the place, with its 27 wide, white dishes open to the sky, feel otherworldly. The wind whipped across the plain and the place was nearly empty except for a guy named Ted from Anchorage who was riding his motorcycle all over the West. “That's not a thing you see everyday,” he said, posing for a picture in which he was dwarfed by one of the vast telescopes.

Twenty-seven eyes gazing tirelessly into the beyond, scanning horizon to horizon, always searching. In Contact, Dr. Eleanor Arroway says that as a product of her research at the VLA, she has “a vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how rare, and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves.” She goes on to say that she wishes that everyone could have that experience. I'm not promising any revelations, but the springboard to your own experience might just be tucked into a valley only two hours away.