Life on Mars
Piquing our Curiosity about a suspiciously familiar landscape.
It occurred to me as the latest Mars rover, the aptly named Curiosity, began beaming pictures back to Earth after its technologically magical landing on the Red Planet, that the Martian landscape of the Gale Crater landing site, also aptly named "Bradbury," looked strangely familiar. Was it just the visual echo of images sent home by its smaller rover predecessors? Could I be remembering scenes from the box-office disappointment John Carter, its title so stupidly truncated from John Carter of Mars so audiences may have thought the movie was about the Noah Wyle character from "E.R."?
Then it hit me. Mars looks like the desert Southwest.
Specifically, there are scenes of flat, rock-studded Martian expanses, with low, treeless mountains in the distance, that could have been shot in the Bootheel or not far off I-10 as it arrows from Lordsburg into Arizona. Mount Sharp, a rough rise within the crater where Curiosity landed, looks like any number of stubby mountains around here — not the towering, snowcapped peaks of the Rockies to our north, but the periodic interruptions in the flatness we see so often hereabouts. There's an image from the Curiosity's "mastcam" that looks as though, if only the camera had kept going a bit farther, surely a highway sign pointing to Rodeo, NM, would pop into view. Where's the Silver City billboard promoting "Four Gentle Seasons"? And isn't that the San Simon rest area, just over the border into Arizona, behind that Martian hill?
True, even the most barren stretches of southwest New Mexico reveal a few pops of vegetation. You strain to see a yucca or scrubby little mesquite somewhere in the pebbly emptiness captured by Curiosity, not to mention a stray, windblown Wal-Mart bag (the unofficial New Mexico state plant, we were informed soon after moving here). Mars could use a couple of shuttered Mexican eateries, too, and a billboard or two promising the oxymoronic "Fresh Jerky!" Where, for that matter, do the Martians buy their onyx chess sets without guidance from signs that also proudly proclaim, "We gots T-shirts!"?
Like most transplants, we had to learn to love those harshest, most Martian of New Mexico landscapes. Oh, it's easy to admire the Organ Mountains, which always look as though some Hollywood set designer has painted them as a backdrop to Las Cruces. The surprisingly pine-studded elevations surrounding Silver City immediately reminded us of the Black Hills back in our home state of South Dakota, site of countless childhood vacations. (Though we looked in vain for the "Gravity Runs Backwards!" tourist traps of the Black Hills, not to mention Mount Rushmore.) What's not to love?
On our first trip to Silver City — 10 years ago next month! — the drive from Las Cruces to Deming along I-10 left us, however, fearing we'd come a long way for nothing. How could we ever learn to tolerate, much less love, such a barren expanse? The highlight of the whole stretch was the gas station and shop at Akela, painted to look like an Old West town. (Maybe gravity would run backwards inside?)
The charm of our arrival lunch in Mesilla, after driving up from the airport in El Paso, fell away with every desolate mile much as the tortilla chips at Pepper's Café had vanished. All that remained as I-10 ticked by was an empty bowl of pitiless desert. Until we made the turn onto Hwy. 180 toward Silver City, the unspoken question hanging in the air of our rental car was: "Is it all like this?"
Happily, of course, it isn't. But familiarity has also made us fonder of even the least obviously scenic stretches of the Southwest — those places that led my visiting sister-in-law to inquire, "Don't you have any colors besides brown?"
Yes, we do! We know now that even the most barren hillsides, gifted with generous spring rains, can blaze golden with poppies. In late summer, sunflowers line the highway. Rabbit-bush plants, gauzily gray-green, sway with numberless tiny yellow blossoms. Toward Arizona, ocotillos pout with lipstick-hued blooms and even the cacti put forth flowers, some yellow and some Creamsicle-colored.
We even have liquid water, in season. When monsoons deliver, arid washes and so-called rivers not only gurgle wetly but can sweep away unwary crossers and even cars. On our most recent trip to Tucson, even the San Pedro River at Benson, Ariz., was flowing — yes, with actual wet water, from bank to bank, not just a trickle down the middle.
But even without this seasonal eye candy, the most Martian-like stretches of the region we now call home can be, if not exactly lovable, then at least impressive. Much as we blink with amazement at the images that Curiosity's cameras are sending back, so too can we at least nod with appreciation that anywhere can be that starkly harsh. We can whistle with amazement that anything could live in the most unforgiving stretches of the Southwest. No wonder Cochise and his Apaches could hold out against the "blue coats" down here; the wonder isn't that the cavalry found this country inhospitable, but that the Apaches could survive in such a place.
Come to think about it, can we really be sure that Curiosity isn't parked just off I-10 someplace? Consider the improbable nature of the technological feat of landing a craft roughly the size and weight of a car on a planet where the atmosphere is too thin for parachutes to do the job; instead, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory employed something called a "sky crane." Huffington Post blogger Philip Neches puts the challenge this way: "I tell my golf-obsessed friends that what JPL accomplished is like teeing off at Saint Andrews and making a hole in one at Pebble Beach — with the same ball."
Isn't it more likely that NASA simply loaded the Curiosity onto one of those ubiquitous Swift trucks (always the slowest on the road, in defiance of their name) that prowl I-10 and dumped it behind a mesa someplace? The landing footage could all have been computer generated, and the "Mars" images we're seeing now might be just (lightly) Photoshopped scenes of our own desert Southwest.
Conspiracy buffs have long speculated that the Apollo moon landing was faked — but, c'mon, that's too complicated to be plausible. And do you really believe a stand-up guy like the (sadly, recently deceased) Neil Armstrong would have been complicit in such a scheme? Or that it could have been kept quiet since 1969? Heck, they couldn't even shut up the Navy SEALS — Navy SEALs we're talking about here! — about the Osama bin Laden raid.
Plopping a "Mars rover" someplace in the Bootheel or on the other side of "Fraggle Rock" (as it's long been graffitied) off I-10, though, would be a piece of cake. Maybe the guys who did the dropoff get some bad burritos in Deming and are never seen again, if you know what I mean. After that, who's the wiser? The JPL joystick "drivers" can enter navigational commands to their heart's content and, sure enough, Curiosity goes toodling across the "Martian" landscape. If they'd never visited our southwestern corner of the Southwest, they'd never believe such a setting could be on Earth!
I'm not saying that's the case, mind you, but I will be keeping an eye out for stray NASA technology next time I'm driving in the harsher parts of our area. It would be no stranger than "fresh jerky" or onyx chess sets.
Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell grew up reading way too much science fiction.