Historic photos to be featured at President’s Office Art Show
Trinidad Campus / September 3, 2019 / by Greg Boyce
Calvin Smith grew up in the oil fields near Hobbs, New Mexico and lived in a company camp until he went to college. Since those humble beginnings he has traveled the world trying to unlock the mysteries that have faded over time and understand the people who came before us. When he was much younger, back in the 1960s, he spent a lot of time in the Mescalero Sands of eastern New Mexico. That included camping there the entire summer of 1967. Many years later thousands of acres were designated an Outstanding Natural Area because of Smith’s extensive work. While many would see a hostile and desolate land, Smith saw the beauty of nature and an eclectic mixture of stubborn plants and animals. His photographic documentation of the area will be featured in the next President’s Office Art Show at Trinidad State.
The show will open with a reception on September 19 from 4 to 5 p.m. Smith will be there to answer questions and light refreshments will be served. Then from 5 to 6 p.m. in the Pioneer Room, Smith will do a presentation on the months he spent over a period of years studying the area. Those who miss the reception can view the show during normal office hours until Thanksgiving in the Berg Building, Room 218.
Smith’s exploration of the Mescalero Sands began in 1961, when Smith was 21. He had heard about a rumored massacre site in the area, but when he investigated, he found that wasn’t the case. “There were rims of wagon wheels, exposed out of the sand,” Smith recalls, “But as it turned out, it was a squatter from the 1920s by the name of Lon Levi who had decided he’d put a field in at the edge of the Mescalero Sands.”
Over the next decade and more, Smith would visit the dunes and catalog what he found. He got married in 1965 and then spent the summer of 1967 there with his former wife. Nearly all the photographs in the show were taken that summer. They collected about 300 specimens of plant, reptiles, mammals and insects. They also found fulgurite, which are tubes of glass created in the sand by lightning strikes. They lived in a tent for three months and it was an unusual summer. Normally brutally hot, it rained 86 of those 92 days. Once a tornado came through. “The only way in was with four wheel drive. I had an old Jeep,” Smith recalled. It was 10 miles to U.S. Highway 380. “The water was good. The water table was 37 feet.” They hauled water from a nearby windmill-powered well on a cattle ranch.
Most would find this adventure grueling. For Smith and his then wife, also an archaeologist, this was glorious fun. “We had a work tent and then we had a living tent. I had hauled in an old refrigerator and my parents would meet us every week with ice and we’d put the ice in the old refrigerator. I had buried it in the sand. It was a fun summer.” Now pushing 79, Smith smiles at the memory. “I shot probably a thousand slides. I don’t know how I paid for them because I didn’t have any money.”
Smith suspected the white tail deer he occasionally spotted could be a sub-species because their markings were different than the white tails he’d seen in Texas. He eventually trapped, studied and released two, but was not able to prove they were unique. He believes that herd of only about thirty, later died out. Ironically, their winter food supply was mostly wild watermelons that the aforementioned Levi had planted in the 1920s.
Smith worked for 14 years to get the area designated an Outstanding Natural Area. It finally happened in 1980 because of the sand dunes lizard, now called the dunes sagebrush lizard or sceloporus arenicolus. This lizard is only found in that region of New Mexico and four adjacent counties in western Texas.
The area is still accessible only by four wheel drive vehicle and covers 6,293 acres. Ten miles north and adjacent to the highway, 45 miles east of Roswell, the Bureau of Land Management set aside 600 acres of dunes for use by all-terrain vehicles and dune buggies.