A Giant UFO Festival with All the Outer Space Vibes

It’s going to be out of this world!

Was it an alien encounter, a weather balloon, or a flying saucer? The event known as the Roswell Incident quickly swept through the nation in 1947. The “UFO Capital of the World” is known internationally by UFO enthusiasts and deniers alike!

Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beware, Earthlings, soon you will be abducted and dropped into a land full of alien fun. If you love UFOs, Sci-Fi, and all things extraterrestrial, the Roswell UFO Festival this summer is the place to be. This is the only RV road trip that will take you to outer space!

Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Roswell UFO Festival is a 3-day event happening on July 1-3, 2022. This fest will be filled with tons of music, photo ops, and activities (most of them free) for everyone. This destination Festival will include plenty of immersive experiences, live music, local food, out-of-this-world photo ops as well as other family-friendly events happening all over the city.

Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is a great place to visit if you plan to go on a road trip with family or friends this July. If you plan to stay for the three days, make camping reservations early since the fest is quite popular.

The festival will have guest speakers, space-loving authors, live entertainment, a costume contest, a light parade, a reenactment tour, and even the cutest pet costume contest (Saturday, 10 am), and parade. Family-friendly activities will also be part of the schedule. You will be learning how to create your very own alien hat and other fun crafts.

Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the adorable ET to the vast alien universe of Star Wars, American Culture loves all things alien. But the city of Roswell plays an essential part in our fascination with UFO appearances beyond movies. 

Related: 4 Things to Know Before Visiting New Mexico

Roswell has been at the heart of the UFO scene since July 1947 when the military announced it had found the remains of a crashed UFO in the desert nearby.

Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seventy-five years ago, a rancher named W.W. Mack Brazel checked his sheep after a thunderstorm and found debris made of a strange metal scattered in many directions. He noticed a shallow trench cut into the desert floor. As the story goes, Mac Brazel drove his rusty pickup to the county seat of Roswell to inform authorities that something had crashed and scattered metallic debris across his ranch land.

Figuring it must have come from the nearby Army airfield, officers accompanied him back to the ranch and what they witnessed in the desert has, in the decades since, mushroomed to become the most widely publicized event in UFO lore.

Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Days after something shiny crashed in the New Mexico desert, the Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release that said the military had recovered the remains of a “flying disc.” Although quickly discounted as erroneous, the announcement laid the groundwork for one of the most enduring UFO stories of all time. There had been 16 reported unidentified flying object sightings reported that year during the several months preceding what would be known as the Roswell Incident.

Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So—what is the truth? Well, plan to attend the Roswell UFO Festival and judge for yourself. Roswell has become the epitome of everything alien and is even called the “UFO Capital of the World.” The city is home to a UFO Museum and a planetarium that you can visit during the festival.

Related: What Really Happened at Roswell?

Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to Will Rogers, Roswell was the prettiest little town in the west. Money magazine has called it one of the 10 most peaceful places to retire. Hugh Bayless, in his book, The Best Towns in America, listed Roswell as one of the 50 most desirable communities in which to live.

Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The festival is a loved tradition in the city of Roswell, so you’ll see people of all ages and backgrounds enjoying the festivities. Many will be wearing costumes, hats, makeup, matching outfits with their pets, or creating their own UFO vehicles for the parades. 

Both UFO enthusiasts and skeptics alike are welcome to join the fun. 

Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Besides the activities, parades, movie screenings, panels, and contests, you will also be able to shop alien and UFO unique souvenirs and presents and even have some awesome thematic food and drinks. 

During the UFO Festival you will love the entire festivity in Roswell. But what to do if you arrive a week before or stay a few days after the festival?

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to visit the world-famous UFO Museum and Research Center, Bottomless Lakes State Park, Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge, Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art (free admission), Roswell Museum and Art Center (free admission), Walker Aviation Museum (free admission), Spring River Zoo (free admission), all of which are located in Roswell.

Related: Spotlight on New Mexico: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking for more fun near Roswell? You can plan a day trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park or enjoy gaming at the Casinos and Ruidoso Downs race track in Ruidoso, New Mexico. Visit Lincoln and see where Billy the Kid made his last escape. There are countless sightseeing places you can explore in a day.

If you are ready to experience tons of alien fun, let this UFO festival “abduct” you this summer. You won’t regret it.  

Worth Pondering…

Well, at least my mom knows what species I am.

Monument Hopping: El Malpais and El Morro

Trek back through time

Hiking El Malpais and El Morro national monuments prompt a different view of the past.

If people had been there to see it—and there’s a chance Ancestral Acoma or Zuni people were—lava flowing across what’s now El Malpais National Monument might have looked a little like a dark ocean swelling with waves. 

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When an eruption began, magma poured and oozed from an erupting vent or fissures in the earth spreading across the ground into channels. Everything in its path would be knocked over, surrounded, buried, or ignited by the extremely hot temperature of lava. As the liquid fire continued to flow, it sometimes moved underneath and lifted a blackened crust.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As it reached the rim of sandstone mesas around the southeastern edge of El Malpais, lava rolled away from the rock walls, slipped into cracks, or filled in corners. Here, some of the continent’s newest rock now abuts the sandy floor of the ancient inland sea. 

Behind the park’s western visitor center, lava ran over Precambrian granite. So it’s 1.5-billion-year-old rock and on top of it is a 10,000-year-old rock.

Related: New Mexico’s Land of Fire & Ice: Hike through Volcanic Rock and Ice Caves at This National Monument

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Managed by the National Park Service (NPS), El Malpais has the unusual distinction of having a twin park in El Morro National Monument to its west along State Route 53. Together they offer an action-packed adventure. 

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I contemplated the geological forces as we drove west on State Route 53 crossing a landscape that has reshaped itself over thousands of years. Every time I stepped out of my car, I shifted back in time by thousands of years. At the eastern edge of the park, the newest flows are about 3,000 years old, give or take a millennium—just a blink of an eye in geologic time. Elsewhere, the lava was last liquid 150,000 to 170,000 years ago.  

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surviving in this region has long meant journeying around, not the shortest path to your destination but the one that passed by water sources which are how Spaniards began visiting what’s now El Morro National Monument. A drive of fewer than 30 minutes takes you from one park to the next. But for anyone on horseback, it would have taken at least a day. Back then, the road we now call State Route 53 which threads between heaps of lava rock and sandstone would have been a major trade route.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For thousands of years, people have found their way to a small pond fed by a reliable spring below a towering cliff. There, they rested, watered their horses, and camped under a diamond-specked sky. Quite a few labored to chisel their names into the sandstone wall.

Travelers knew to head to El Morro’s massive, cream-colored sandstone buttress for the pool of water at its base, the only reliable source in a region with no perpetual streams or rivers.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rain and snowmelt still gather there, in a deep-green pool ringed by cattails that rattle in the breeze. Spaniards stopped here on their way to preach to the Zuni and Hopi or to colonize the region. Later, government survey teams and homesteaders spreading into the new U.S. territories in the Southwest did, too. They used knife blades or horseshoe nails to sign their names and record their destinations and purposes, even a poem, on the soft surface of the 200-foot-tall monolith of Inscription Rock. Those markings layer alongside much older petroglyphs and pictographs.

Related: A Monumental Road Trip through New Mexico’s National Monuments

A short, steep hike leads to the mesa-top home of an Ancestral Zuni village perched on sandstone. The trail loops past a few rooms and kivas after dipping and twisting over sandstone bleached as white as the clouds above. 

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today that wall at El Morro National Monument serves as a guest book of history. Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate “passed by here” in 1598; hundreds of others did so as well, before and after. Inscription Rock is just one reason to put El Morro on your must-see list.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A superintendent in the 1920s scrubbed out signatures added after 1906 when El Morro became a national monument assessing them as illegal graffiti and leaving bald patches on the surface. No record remains of who made the arduous drive to see the area’s second national monument or who visited around 1918, during a major war and another pandemic. Now, as water works through and over the sandstone, the etchings’ lines soften, lichen obscures some, and rockfall has taken down others. It’s hard to hold history in place.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Admission is free—to the visitor center, the half-mile paved Inscription Trail, and even the campground. If you’re up for a little challenge tack on another mile or so and clamber up the Headland Trail. On the mesa top, you can explore the ruins of Atsinna Pueblo and snag some snaps of the nearby Zuni Mountains and remnants of ancient volcanoes.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But in these faded bluffs, in the creases of lava flows, I start to see landscape-scale reminders that history is also happening now. We don’t live at the end of the timeline, a terminus point from which history is a fixed and distant object we look back on. Rather, it’s something that is in constant flux, written moment by moment. 

Related: Adventure in Albuquerque: Petroglyph National Monument

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor centers for El Malpais (off I-40 at exit 85) and El Morro (between mile markers 44 and 45 on State Route 53) provide restrooms, maps, and rangers’ advice.

Travel on an ancient pathway by hiking the eight-mile Acoma-Zuni or Zuni-Acoma Trail (depending on your direction of travel). Trailheads are on SR-117 and SR-53 so set up a car shuttle.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A three-mile loop hike at El Calderon off SR-53 skirts cave entrances and climbs a cinder cone. Wildflowers may be abundant.

At El Morro, a trail passes along the base of Inscription Rock then switchbacks 200 feet up the mesa passing through an ancient pueblo before looping back to the visitor center in just over two miles.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camp at El Morro is one of nine sites spread among the junipers, each with a fire pit, a picnic table, and a view of stars thick overhead in this official International Dark Sky Park. Open on a first-come, first-served basis with water available seasonally.

Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

Warning: Lots of Nuts Inside

This is one really big nut

Two of the largest pistachio tree groves in New Mexico, PistachioLand and Eagle Ranch are destinations that can be enjoyed by all ages. Located in the Tularosa Basin outside of Alamogordo they are easy day trips from Las Cruces and can be combined with a visit to White Sands National Park. With an average of 287 days of sunshine, outdoor activities abound throughout the area. 

World’s Largest Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tularosa Basin has the perfect climate for growing pistachios, pecans, and grapes.  There are numerous wineries and nut farms where you can enjoy delicious wine and nut tastings and beautiful views of the Sacramento Mountains.

McGinn’s PistachioLand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

PistachioLand is the home of the World’s Largest Pistachio, Pistachio Tree Ranch, McGinn’s Country Store, and Arena Blanca Winery. Experience their motorized farm tour, take your photo with the World’s Largest Pistachio, shop inside their country store, sit on the porch with views of the mountains, try their free samples at the pistachio bar, enjoy the wine tasting room, and grab a sweet treat in PistachioLand ice cream parlor.

Eagle Ranch Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eagle Ranch is the home of New Mexico’s largest producing pistachio groves with approximately 13,000 trees. Wines were added to the product line in 2002. The main store, on the ranch in Alamogordo, offers farm tours that showcase how pistachios are grown and processed. A second store is conveniently located in the historic village of Mesilla.

Related Article: World’s Largest Pistachio Nut

Eagle Ranch Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pistachio probably originated in Central Asia where large stands of wild trees are found in areas known today as Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Evidence indicates that fruits of the tree have been eaten for over 8,000 years. The first commercial plantings in these countries were most likely started from seeds collected from the best wild trees.

The tree was introduced into Mediterranean Europe at about the beginning of the Christian era. The elevation and climate in the Tularosa Basin is almost identical to the pistachio producing areas of Iran and Turkey.

McGinn’s PistachioLand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The scientific name for the pistachio is Pistacia vera L. It is a member of the Anacardiaceae family which contains such widely known plants as the cashew, mango, sumach, and poison ivy.

Pistachio trees grow in dry climates and can reach up to 39 feet in height. In the spring, the trees develop grape-like clusters of green colored fruits, known as drupes, which gradually harden and turn red.

Eagle Ranch Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Within the fruit is a green and purple seed which is the edible part of the fruit. As the fruits ripen, the shell hardens and splits open with a pop exposing the seed within. The fruits are picked, hulled, dried, and often roasted before being sold.

Because pistachios are the seed of a drupe, they are not a true botanical nut. In fact, they’re the edible seed of the pistachio tree fruit. However, in the culinary world pistachios are treated as nuts and they’re also classified as a tree nut allergen.

McGinn’s PistachioLand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is a deciduous tree requiring approximately 1,000 hours of temperature at or below 45 degrees in order to grow normally after its winter dormancy. Pistachio nut trees are generally suited for areas where summers are long, hot, and dry and the winters are moderately cold. A native desert tree, it does not tolerate high humidity in the growing season.

Related Article: Celebrating all things Pistachio on National Pistachio Day

Although the pistachio was first introduced into California by the US Department of Agriculture about 1904, little interest was generated until the 1950s. Since that time pistachios have become a significant farm commodity in California.

Eagle Ranch Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plantings have also been made in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in those areas that meet the climate criteria. The tree flourishes and bears well in well-drained soils, but its root system will not tolerate prolonged wet conditions. It seems more tolerant to alkaline and saline conditions than most other commercial trees. The vigor and productive life of the tree is extremely long lasting. In the mid-East, there are trees on record of having productivity of several hundred years.

McGinn’s PistachioLand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pistachio is a small tree, reaching about 30 feet of height at full maturity. Usual commercial plantings are approximately 120 trees per acre. The trees begin to produce nuts in the fourth or fifth year after planting with good production taking 8 to 10 years and full bearing maturity occurring after 15 to 20 years. Average yield per tree is one-half pound the fifth year increasing to 20 pounds at maturity.

McGinn’s PistachioLand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A large percentage of pistachios are marketed in the shell for eating-out-of-the-hand snack food. Pistachios are a rich source of essential nutrients, fiber, and protein. Low in saturated fat and cholesterol free, increasing numbers of people are discovering how enjoyable this delicious nut can be.

Eagle Ranch Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fun Pistachio Trivia

  • Pistachios are called “smiling nut” in the Middle East
  • Pistachio shells usually split naturally when ripe
  • Pistachios are wind-pollinated and one male tree is required for up to 30 female trees
  • In China pistachios are called “happy nut”
  • Pistachios are said to have grown in the hanging gardens of Babylon and were a favorite of King Nebuchadnezzar
  • The Kerman variety is grown in the US
McGinn’s PistachioLand © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I think pistachios are delicious!

Read Next: The New Mexico Green Chile Peppers Guide

 Worth Pondering…

If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

The New Mexico Green Chile Peppers Guide

Introducing the New Mexico green chile peppers

Long, hot sunny days and cool nights, Rio Grande waters, and a high desert altitude make for perfect New Mexico chile peppers. Red or green, a robust Big Jim or sweeter Sandia, chiles are the stuff of family life and tradition in New Mexico.

Hatch chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the broad floodplain along the Rio Grande north and south of Las Cruces, lush green plants droop with heavy loads of chiles—thick-walled varieties for harvesting green and roasting and thinner Sandia types that’ll ripen to rubies and be dried for ristras, chile powder, and just plain decoration.

Salsas, chorizos, burritos, and enchiladas are great with green chiles. But have you tried burgers, wine, margaritas, stews, and pizza oozing with genuine green or red Hatch chiles? If not, read on for a gastronomical and cultural journey of the green and fiery kind.

Hatch chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hatch Chile Story

The term “Hatch Chile” or “Hatch Green Chile” actually refers to chile peppers grown in the Hatch Valley of Southern New Mexico, known as the Chile Capital of the World.

Mesilla Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Several different chile pepper varieties are grown in Hatch and in the nearby Mesilla Valley ranging from mild flavor to extra-extra-hot flavor. Growing conditions for Hatch chiles and Mesilla Valley chiles are nearly identical and the resulting quality and flavor of both are indistinguishable from each other. The stars are all aligned here for the best chile-growing with the alkaline soil, water for irrigation, warm days, and cool nights the chiles need.

All flavors of Hatch green chile peppers as well as Mesilla Valley green chile peppers are available during the chile harvest season (July to October).

Related Article: The Fiery Appeal of Hot Chile Peppers

The genetic base for the Hatch green chiles and Mesilla Valley green chiles (in fact all New Mexican chile peppers) can be traced back to the improved chile varieties introduced by New Mexico State University (then New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts) and developed by Dr. Fabián Garcia in the early 1900s.

Ristras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starting in 1894, Fabián Garcia crossed several local pod types to improve them for the region. He sought larger, smoother peppers that were better for canning. Following many years of crossing and growing, he released a variety called New Mexico No. 9 in 1913. Today, chile pepper studies continue at the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico, founded by Paul Bosland to study New Mexican peppers and others from around the world.

Unlike other peppers, Hatch chiles come in different seed varieties that cover the full spectrum of heat levels. Typically, the mild to medium-hot varieties are more readily available. Then, there is red vs. green peppers. For those that didn’t know, red peppers are the same, but have simply been left on the plant longer to ripen.

Ristras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico green chiles are piquant and crisp becoming sweeter as they age to red chiles. Small and oblong, they grow to an average of 5 to 8 inches with smooth, shiny skins of light green to emerald before ripening to a deep red-brown when dried.

Mild in flavor, these green chiles range from 500 to 3,500 Scoville Heat Units (which extends past 1 million for ghost peppers and such); Big Jims are milder, Sandias are hotter and grown for ripening, Lumbres are hotter still, and the list goes on.

Chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t confuse them with Anaheim or California chile peppers though they may have originated from the same organic strain. New Mexico green chiles have a distinct flavor of their own.

Authentic New Mexico green chiles are grown in southern New Mexico in the Hatch Valley where only six cultivars of this variety of Capsicum annuum are grown. Though some states and even countries are using the name “Hatch Green Chiles,” only those grown in New Mexico are worthy of the name. In the same way, there are several thousands of sparkling wines but only one is Champagne! One Hatch, one chile!

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Hatch Chile Peppers

Hatch chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Bit of History

It is widely believed that cultivated chile peppers were introduced to the United States in 1609 by the Spanish conquistador Captain General Juan de Onate, the founder of Sante Fe. However, there are contentions that chile peppers may have come earlier during the 1582 Antonio Espejo Expedition. What is a fact is that as soon as the Spanish settled in New Mexico, cultivation of green chile peppers expanded and exploded in an exponential rate.

La Posta, Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chemical Heat

Capsaicin, a chemical found in concentrated amounts in chile peppers can be found in the membranes surrounding the seeds. If you want less heat, then remove the seeds and the membranes.

Chile-infused products © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Health Benefits

Dried New Mexico green chiles are good sources of iron, niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin. Cholesterol-free and low in calories and sodium, these chiles also contain Vitamins A, B, and C. In fact one medium green pepper is thought to have as much vitamin C as six medium oranges. High-fiber and fat-free, indulge in the greenest of them for high flavor.

Researchers at the University of Vermont have found that eating chili peppers was associated with a 13 percent reduction in overall mortality—people who ate them lived longer. That was primarily due to a reduction in heart disease and stroke.

Chile peppers © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plant Facts & Figures

New Mexico chiles grow into compact heights of 20 to 30 inches with indefinite stems. The pods are elongated oblong shapes with blunt points and may be as small as 2 inches to as long as 12 inches. They are usually dark green before ripening into various shades of red. Leaves are medium green, mostly smooth and grow as long as 3 inches and as wide as 2 inches.

Related Article: Chile Peppers 101

Green chile plants mature in about 80 days and grow the entire year. However, harvest time is late summer to early autumn and is a long-standing communal and cultural affair in New Mexico.

Ristras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Beauty of Ristras

Come late summer or early fall, green chiles are harvested throughout the Mesilla Valley, particularly the Hatch area where farms, usually family-held for several generations, have their own harvest traditions. From communal roastings with beer and margaritas, burger and steak cookouts with salsas and enchiladas, to the Hatch Chile Festival during the Labor Day weekend, one thing is for sure—ristras are awesome.

Ristras are strings and braids of dried green and red ripened chiles which are usually hung around storefronts, rooftops, and even home porches. Beautifully strung, these decorative garlands are also supposed to bring good luck.

La Posta, Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chile or Chili Confusion

Before you get confused for the whole of New Mexico there is only chile with an “e” when talking about the plant and the pepper. Chili is the delicious dish of ground beef and beans. But go beyond state lines especially in Texas where chili with an “i” refers to both the plant and the dish.

La Posta, Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How Hot is Hot?

Talk about heat! The 7 Pot Douglah is an extremely hot pepper (SCOVILLE HEAT UNITS: 923,889 – 1,853,986 SHU) from Trinidad. Its skin is notably dark chocolate brown and somewhat pimpled. It starts off green but matures to a rich brown. It is one of the Hottest Peppers in the World. Aside from the color, it looks very much like other superhot chili peppers, roughly habanero shaped, about two inches long. The hottest 7 Pot Douglas is about 232 times hotter than the hottest jalapeno pepper and more than 5 times a very hot habanero pepper.

Related Article: Light Your Fires on National Chili Day

La Posta, Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hooked on the Heat

My introduction to green chiles came long ago at a variety of restaurants in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and Mesilla. My palate sizzled with capsaicin. Endorphins fizzed in my veins like butter. It was the start of a lifelong love affair and chiles have been a constant in my diet ever since. Once you get hooked, you can’t get unhooked. It’s an addiction, but it’s a good one!

Worth Pondering…

Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.

—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss

Celebrating all things Pistachio on National Pistachio Day

Celebrating Pistachios annually on February 26, known as National Pistachio Day and World Pistachio Day and loving them all year long

Hard to believe, but it wasn’t until 1976 that Americans harvested the first commercial crop of pistachios. They had been enjoying the nut since about the 1800s but it was not until the 1930s that the love for pistachios really took off. What may have made the little tree nut so admired, though, is the invention of pistachio ice cream in the 1940s by James W. Parkinson of Philadelphia.

Pistachios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

February 26th recognizes all things pistachio and National Pistachio Day is the day to celebrate! Pistachio lovers rejoice as they eat their favorite nut all day long. For those who do not eat pistachios, buy some and give them to someone who does. Crack them open and eat them up or enjoy them in ice cream or your favorite pistachio dessert!

The pistachio probably originated in Central Asia where large stands of wild trees are found in areas known today as Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Evidence indicates that the fruits of the tree have been eaten for over 8,000 years. The first commercial plantings in these countries were most likely started from seeds collected from the best wild trees. Legend has it that for the promise of good fortune lovers met beneath the trees to hear the pistachios crack open on moonlit nights. 

Eagle Ranch Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thanks to their high nutritional value and long storage life, pistachios were an indispensable form of sustenance among early explorers and traders including travelers across the ancient Silk Road that connected China with the West. In the first century A.D., Emperor Vitellius introduced Rome to the pistachio. Apicius, Rome’s Julia Child of the time, included pistachios in his classical cookbook.

Related Article: World’s Largest Pistachio Nut

The scientific name for pistachio is Pistacia vera L. It is a member of the Anacardiaceae family which contains such widely known plants as cashew, mango, sumach, and poison ivy.

McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pistachio trees grow in dry climates and can reach up to 39 feet in height. In the spring, the trees develop grape-like clusters of green-colored fruits, known as drupes, which gradually harden and turn red.

Within the fruit is a green and purple seed which is the edible part of the fruit. As the fruits ripen, the shell hardens and splits open with a pop exposing the seed within. The fruits are picked, hulled, dried, and often roasted before being sold.

Because pistachios are the seed of a drupe, they are not a true botanical nut. In fact, they’re the edible seed of the pistachio tree fruit. However, in the culinary world pistachios are treated as nuts and they’re also classified as a tree nut allergen.

Eagle Ranch Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is a deciduous tree requiring approximately 1,000 hours of temperature at or below 45 degrees in order to grow normally after its winter dormancy. Pistachio trees are generally suited for areas where summers are long, hot, and dry and the winters are moderately cold. A native desert tree, it does not tolerate high humidity in the growing season.

The pistachio nut is one of the most popular tree nuts in the world and is valued globally for its nutritional value, health, and sensory attributes, and economic importance.

Pistachios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pistachio nuts are relatively low in sugar (approximately 10 percent) and high in protein (20 percent) and oil (50 percent) contents. The oil is 90 percent unsaturated fatty acids, 70 percent of which is oleic acid and 20 percent the more desirable linoleic acid.

McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A large percentage of pistachios are marketed in the shell for eating-out-of-the-hand snack food. Pistachios are a rich source of essential nutrients, fiber, and protein. Low in saturated fat and cholesterol-free, increasing numbers of people are discovering how enjoyable this delicious nut can be.

Related: 12 Must-See Roadside Attractions for the Perfect Road Trip

Although the pistachio was first introduced into California by the US Department of Agriculture about 1904, little interest was generated until the 1950s. Since that time pistachios have become a significant farm commodity in California.

World’s Largest Pistachio at McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plantings have also been made in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in those areas that meet the climate criteria. The tree flourishes and bears well in well-drained soils but its root system will not tolerate prolonged wet conditions. It seems more tolerant to alkaline and saline conditions than most other commercial trees. The vigor and productive life of the tree are extremely long-lasting. In the mid-East, there are trees on record of having productivity of several hundred years.

McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usual commercial plantings are approximately 120 trees per acre. The trees begin to produce nuts in the fourth or fifth year after planting with good production taking 8 to 10 years and full bearing maturity occurring after 15 to 20 years. The average yield per tree is one-half pound the fifth year increasing to 20 pounds at maturity.

Pistachios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pistachios have always been on the pricier end of the nut scale costing three or four times as much as other nuts. Generally eaten roasted and salted as a dessert nut, the pistachio is often used in cooking as a garnish or decoration in sweet and savory dishes.

China is the top pistachio consumer worldwide with annual consumption of 80,000 tons while the United States consumes 45,000 tons. Russia follows with consumption of 15,000 tons followed by India at 10,000 tons.

Related: Wake Up In New Mexico

Pistachios ripen in late summer or early fall growing so energetically that the kernel splits the shell. These trees are wind-pollinated which means one male tree can produce enough pollen for 25 nut-bearing female trees. Female trees produce their first nuts at age five and can bear fruit for up to 200 years.

Pistachios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Pistachio Day activities

1. Be a “pistachi”-oholic for the day

Try and go nuts today by incorporating pistachios into every meal. These versatile nuts have a powerful flavor that can elevate a sweet or savory dish throughout your day. Start off with a stack of pistachio pancakes, ease into lunch with pistachio, pomegranate, and arugula salad, then enjoy pistachio encrusted salmon for dinner, and top it all off with some pistachio gelato.

Eagle Ranch Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Give the gift of good health

Think of ways to food swap some of your not-so-good snacks with pistachios and introduce your friends to these green goodies too. They’re healthy, delicious, and by wrestling them from their shells, they help down your food intake (Ever heard of the Pistachio Effect?). Pistachios might be the golden (green) ticket to helping you and your friends keep those new year diet resolutions.

World’s Largest Pistachio at McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Eat your heart out

These green nuts will make your heart smile too. Heart-healthy monounsaturated fat makes up the majority of the fat in pistachios, so they decrease bad cholesterol and even lower your risk of heart disease. There’s no better way to celebrate than getting your snack on, guilt-free. Grab a handful (or two) and go nuts!

McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fun Facts

What’s in a name?

That which we call pistachio is known as the “smiling nut” in Iran and the “happy nut” in China. They’re also known as the “green almond.” Where’s the green come from? Pistachios are the “colorful” nut, owing to their green and purple hue to antioxidants.

Pistachios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chock full of nutrition

Pistachios are a good source of protein, fiber, magnesium, thiamin, and phosphorus. They’re an excellent source of vitamin B6, copper, and manganese.

McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Surprise relationships

Among its “kissing cousins”: pistachios are related to the mango and the spice sumac.

A queen-sized craving

Perhaps the original royal nut, the Queen of Sheba loved pistachios. In fact, she demanded that the entire region’s pistachio harvest be set aside for her.

Pistachios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here’s to your heart

Scientific evidence suggests that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as pistachios, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Read Next: Light Your Fires on National Chili Day

Worth Pondering…

The pistachio: it’s just like our politics. When the two sides are divided, that’s when the nuts come out.

―Stephen Colbert

Three Southwest Towns You Need To Visit This Winter

Instead of driving on snowy and dangerous icy roads this winter, take your RV south for the season.

These towns in Arizona and New Mexico have some amazing attractions as well as RV nearby RV parks and campgrounds.

Quartsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quartzsite, Arizona

Travel through this dusty outpost between April and November and you might wonder why this wide spot along Interstate 10 is such a popular snowbird destination for RVers. But visit in January and you’ll quickly see why: it morphs into a non-stop social event for RVing snowbirds.

Quartzsite © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dozens of inexpensive Quartzsite RV parks have room for seasonal guests and short-term visitors alike. Tens of thousands of snowbirds boondock at one of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) designed visitor areas that surround Quartzsite. A long-term permit allows snowbirds to stay at a BLM-designated Long Term Visitor Area for $180 between September 15 and April 15 (a total of 7 months), or for any length of time between those two dates.

Quartzsite RV Show © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The LTVA short-visit permit ($40) allows the use of BLM-designated LTVAs for any 14-consecutive-day period from September 15th to April 15th The only caveat? You’ll go without hookups. The only “amenities” are beautiful desert sunsets with wide-open views of the surrounding area.

Related Article: Most Beautiful Towns in the Southwest

Quartzsite RV Show © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quartzsite RV Show is the largest gathering of RVs and RVers on Earth. 2022 dates are January 22-30. Endless flea market shopping opportunities and RV club social events galore give you plenty to do.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad, New Mexico

Not to be confused with the California city of the same name, Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico is a peaceful city along the Pecos River. This town is the gateway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park with more than 100 underground caves.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park consists of a network of cave passages filled with stalagmites, stalactites, and other formations. The largest chamber, “The Big Room” is 8.2 acres and the largest accessible cave chamber in North America.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most people like to explore at their own pace on the Self-Guided Tours, but if you prefer having a guide with more information, consider taking one of their ranger-led tours. You can enter the caves by hiking down the steep 1.25-mile Natural Entrance Trail, or by simply taking an elevator down into the caves.

Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Camping in the Southwest

The national park doesn’t allow overnight camping, but there are lots of RV parks and campgrounds in the area.

Las Cruces and the Organ Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Las Cruces is less than an hour from the Texas border in southeastern New Mexico. The town sits in the shadow of the Organ Mountains and is a short drive from the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

Las Cruces Farmers and Craft Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Organ Mountains are a steep, angular mountain range with rocky spires that jut majestically above the Chihuahuan Desert floor to an elevation of 9,000 feet. This picturesque area of rocky peaks, narrow canyons, and open woodlands ranges from Chihuahuan Desert habitat to ponderosa pine in the highest elevations.  Located adjacent to and on the east side of Las Cruces, this area provides opportunities for photography, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, camping, and wildlife viewing.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dripping Springs Natural Area is also close to Las Cruces with easy hiking trails among huge rock spires. White Sands National Monument is less than an hour away with huge sand dunes that you can hike or sled down.

Related Article: Five National Parks to Visit on the Ultimate Southwestern Desert Road Trip

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step back in time and visit Old Mesilla, one of the oldest and most unique settlements of southern New Mexico. Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid walked the streets. The famous trial of Billy the Kid was held here. Today Mesilla is a part of living history. Great care has been given to preserving the original adobe buildings and the beautiful plaza. People from all over the world stop to experience the history, art, architecture, quaint shopping, and unique dining that Mesilla has to offer.

Las Cruces Mainstreet Downtown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also want to stop and browse the town’s huge year-round Farmers and Crafts Market. Their famous downtown market includes over 300 local farmers, artists, bakers, and vendors selling fresh produce and handmade artisan goods.

Related Article: Stay Warm This Winter in these Unique Towns in the American Southwest

You’ll find numerous RV parks and campgrounds are in the area including a nearby state park and a BLM campground.

Worth Pondering…

May the joy of today, bring forth happiness for tomorrow—and may the cold northern air stay up north!

The Best States for Snowbird Camping

One of the best parts of the RV lifestyle is the ability to simply follow warm weather wherever it may lead

While the pandemic increased the appeal of camping and outdoor recreation in the last 18 months, Google Trends data confirms that interest has in fact been growing rapidly for longer than that. Overall search interest in RVing was flat or on a slight decline for most of the 2000s and early 2010s. In more recent years, interest has grown rapidly, reaching an all-time high in 2020. Now, search interest in RVing during the offseason is comparable to peak season search interest from a decade ago.

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This interest is also apparent across different demographic groups. The population of older Americans and Canadians—who have long been a major segment of the RV market—is growing as more Baby Boomers reach retirement age. But demand for RVs is also strong among Millennials and Gen Z, 49 percent of whom grew up with RVing and tend to be married, educated, and full-time working parents. Around two in five RV owners are aged 18 to 44, showing that camping and RVing have wide appeal.

Jekyll Island, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While overall interest has increased, camping and outdoor recreational activities still follow seasonal patterns with most campers venturing outdoors during the summer months when temperatures are warmer. However, many states have excellent camping options year-round. Southern states from east to the west offer temperate winter climates, less precipitation, and ample natural attractions and parklands to entice outdoor recreation enthusiasts.

Laughlin, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

However, there is considerable variance across the Sunbelt states and within each state. For instance in Arizona expect freezing temperatures and snow in Flagstaff and sunny and warm temperatures in Phoenix, Yuma, and Tucson.

Rockport-Fulton, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While there are many factors to consider when determining the best states for warm winter recreation, I selected average maximum temperature, average minimum temperature, average monthly precipitation, and the total land area allocated to parks and wildlife.

Bay St. Louis, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather statistics are long-term averages for December–February, sourced from NOAA, and land area statistics are from the USDA. In the event of a tie, the state with the higher average winter maximum temperature was ranked above.

Related: The Absolutely Best State Park Camping for Snowbirds

Based on the above model, here are the 10 best states for warm winter camping.

Dauphin Island, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Alabama

Composite index: 62.6

Average maximum temperature: 57.7

Mobile, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Average minimum temperature: 35.3

Average monthly precipitation (inches): 5.2

Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 548,000

Okefenokee, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Georgia

Composite index: 67.5

Average maximum temperature: 58.6

Cumberland Island, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Average minimum temperature: 35.9

Average monthly precipitation (inches): 4.3

Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 747,000

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. North Carolina

Composite index: 67.8

Average maximum temperature: 51.9

Average minimum temperature: 30.3

Average monthly precipitation (inches): 3.8

Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 1,575,000

Related: Parks That Snowbirds Should Explore This Winter

Mainstreet Downtown Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. New Mexico

Composite index: 69.9

Average maximum temperature: 49.3

Elephant Lake Butte State Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Average minimum temperature: 21.2

Average monthly precipitation (inches): 0.7

Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 2,720,000

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Nevada

Composite index: 70.5

Average maximum temperature: 42.8

Above Hoover Dam, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Average minimum temperature: 20.7

Average monthly precipitation (inches): 1.1

Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 6,580,000

Breaux Bridge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Louisiana

Composite index: 74.5

Average maximum temperature: 61.4

Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Average minimum temperature: 40.4

Average monthly precipitation (inches): 5.1

Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 1,276,000

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. California

Composite index: 79.3

Average maximum temperature: 53.5

Related: 10 RV Parks in the Southwest that Snowbirds Love

Coachella Valley Preserve, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Average minimum temperature: 33.6

Average monthly precipitation (inches): 3.9

Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 19,623,000

Corpus Christi, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Texas

Composite index: 83.3

Average maximum temperature: 59.7

Padre Island, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Average minimum temperature: 34.9

Average monthly precipitation (inches): 1.6

Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 3,167,000

Ajo, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Arizona

Composite index: 85.7

Average maximum temperature: 54.9

Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Average minimum temperature: 29.7

Average monthly precipitation (inches): 1.2

Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 7,704,000

Related: What Makes Arizona Such a Hotspot for Snowbirds?

Venice, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Florida

Composite index: 87.5

Average maximum temperature: 69.9

Average minimum temperature: 47.4

Average monthly precipitation (inches): 2.9

Total parks and wildlife area (acres): 3,920,000

Mount Dora, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While this model provided useful fodder for further discussion, it yielded both predictable and surprising results. It is no surprise that Florida, Arizona, Texas, and California ranked 1-4, but I had to wonder how North Carolina made the list while South Carolina and Mississippi did not.

Worth Pondering…

As Anne Murray sings in the popular song, “Snowbird”:

“Spread your tiny wings and fly away

And take the snow back with you

Where it came from on that day

So, little snowbird, take me with you when you go

To that land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow…”

The Fiery Appeal of Hot Chile Peppers

Enthusiasts are drawn to their colorful culinary potential—or simply the thrill of the challenge

Grab a glistening, hot chile pepper—one jewel-toned beauty with a volcanic pedigree—and take the dare. Just know that once you pop that capsicum into your mouth, there is no turning back. No amount of water, beer, milk, or bread can fully put out the flame. 

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, for every coughing and gasping amateur daredevil, there are dozens of die-hard chile-heads for whom the pain of eating hot peppers is all pleasure. The seared taste buds, watery eyes, and sinus-clearing fumes are part of the attraction, along with the hunt for evermore pungent pepper thrills. 

Red chiles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bringing the Heat

Humans have been eating peppers for at least 9,000 years. While archaeologists pinpoint the eastern coast of Mexico as the cradle of cultivation, there’s evidence that around the same time, indigenous peoples were harvesting and eating wild peppers from what is now the southwestern United States through Mexico and south to Peru. 

Pecans, pistachios, and chiles at McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch, Almagardo, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nobody knows exactly why humans crave the culinary drama of hot peppers, but scientists have come up with a few theories. The word addiction has been bandied about, in part because capsaicin, the substance that gives chiles their signature punch, causes pain followed by an immediate release of endorphins. Endorphins floating around the brain trigger a sense of euphoria. In addition, capsaicin releases chemicals that reduce the sensation of pain (which is why it is a popular ingredient in topical pain relievers). 

Related: Chile Peppers 101

Red chiles at Farmers and Craft Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How Hot Is Hot?

In 1912, Parke-Davis Co. pharmacist Wilbur Scoville began exploring the capsaicin kick of different types of peppers. He wasn’t aiming for chile-head immortality but for a more efficient way to produce a capsaicin-laced liniment. He crushed chiles combined them with sugar water and had a panel of taste-testers take sips. Over time, Scoville diluted the chiles with more and more water until the tasters could no longer detect any heat in their cups. The pharmacist rated different chiles based on how much water was required to negate the capsaicin. 

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scoville called his process the Scoville Organoleptic Test. Today, in his honor, pepper punch is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) arranged on the Scoville Scale. No taste-tester tongues were harmed in the ranking process. Now, SHUs are measured using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), a process that measures the heat-generating chemicals in chiles.

Hot sauces at Billy’s Boudin, Scott, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For context, pure capsaicin ranks at 15 to 16 million SHUs, and sweet bell peppers come in at 0. In between is the Carolina Reaper at 2.2 million, orange habaneros at 150,000 to 325,000, cayenne peppers at 30,000 to 50,000, and jalapeños at 2,500 to 8,000.

Related: Feel the Burn

Pepper growers continue to try to out-spice each other with new tongue-searing cultivars. At any given time, a new hybrid could explode to the top of the scale.

Red chiles at Farmers and Crafts Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sensory Perception

What are the mechanisms through which the human body responds to the varying degree of heat in chile peppers? As it turns out we didn’t know until very recently. In fact, in 1997, Dr. David Julius discovered the neural pathway that gets activated by capsaicin, causing spicy foods to feel “hot” when consumed.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, on October 4, 2021, David Julius, a physiologist, and Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular biologist and neuroscientist, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The men were honored for their research into human sensory perception; each had, independently of the other, discovered mechanisms through which human bodies respond to touch and temperature.

Red chiles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The importance of the five senses cannot be understated. They are mediums through which we experience and understand the world around us, transforming external stimuli into electrical signals that our brain translate into the sensations of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. How exactly this transformation works out on a molecular level, however, was long unclear and still remains one of the most elusive questions in modern science.

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dr. Julius currently serves as the chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of California in San Francisco. In 1997, his team of researchers compiled a library of neural pathways that are activated by capsaicin, a compound that gives spicy foods like chile peppers their burning sensation when consumed. Along the way, Dr. Julius discovered TRPV1, the ion channel that acts as our primary capsaicin receptor.

Chiles growing in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico

In order to truly appreciate Dr. Julius’ discovery, a bit of context may be in order. Unless you build up a tolerance, eating spicy foods is painful. Peppers (and wasabi) give off a strange sensation that your mouth is on fire and for the longest time researchers simply couldn’t figure out why this was the case.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dr. Julius answered this question by showing us that TRPV1 is responsible for keeping our bodies safe from high temperatures. The channel responds not only to capsaicin but also to temperatures that are greater than 110 degrees Fahrenheit. TRPV1 also acts up when we are injured or sunburned, causing damaged tissue to feel hot to the touch. In all cases, the channel transmits a signal that our brains turn into the sensation of heat.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Matter of Taste

Chile aficionados know their way around the Scoville Scale but they also insist that chile varieties like grape varieties and wines have terroir. Put simply, terroir is a subtle turn of flavor based on the location where a pepper is grown. By this measure, a Hatch green chile from New Mexico will taste distinctly different from the same variety grown in California. 

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Hatch Chile Peppers

Tabasco Country Store, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Likewise, different peppers carry different signature taste prints. Habaneros are known for their fruity, floral flavors; jalapeños tend to be herbaceous; Thai chiles have an earthy flavor; Tabasco peppers have a slightly smoky taste. 

Experimenting with chiles of different pedigrees and forms—fresh, dried, crushed, powdered—could become a lifelong obsession. At what point does the chile overpower the food? What blends work together? What chile paste perfectly accentuates a stew, a kebab, barbecued ribs, or a block of tofu?

La Posta Restaurant, Mesilla, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, while you’re pondering, shopping, and cooking remember one thing: capsaicin, the thing that brings the truth-or-dare pleasure and pain to hot peppers has exactly no flavor. None! So if you’re expecting to add a sweet, tart, or vegetal aura to your food, start with a pepper you can actually taste before moving up the scale. 

Red chile flavored pistachios at Eagle Ranch, Almadargo, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Hot Pepper Sauces

Chile-heads love to sample and collect hot sauces for the flavor and potency of the specific elixirs as well as for the opportunity to grab a portable pepper fix. For most, the hot sauce hobby has the makings of a lifelong obsession simply because there are so, so many different commercially produced sauces to try.

Related: 4 Things to Know Before Visiting New Mexico

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Market researchers quantify the U.S. hot pepper sauce market at around $1.2 billion as of 2018 with the spicy condiment snaring more than $2.3 globally. At any given time, more than 100 major brands are vying for a share of that pie.

Red chiles at Farmers and Crafts Market, Las Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The invention of hot sauce is credited to the ancient Aztecs who cultivated chili peppers to add some flavor and nutritional value to their limited food choices. By the time the conquistadors arrived, the Aztecs were already mixing peppers, herbs, and water into sauces and serving them on ancient versions of the corn tortilla.

Fast forward several hundred years and hot sauces have spread from their birthplace in Central America to North America, Europe, Asia, and outer space. Walk into your average grocery store and you’ll be confronted with a dazzling array of hot sauce bottles filled with liquids in red, green, yellow, and orange. Different brands come with different types of peppers, ingredients, spice levels, and suggested food pairings—and not all are created equal.

Tabasco Factory, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Edmund McIlhenny, a banker from Avery Island, Louisiana, founded Tabasco in 1868. The recipe evolved over time. A soldier returning from Mexico in 1840 gave McIlhenny, a known gardener, seeds from wild peppers he had collected. McIlhenny planted the seeds and the peppers that grew became the basis for Tabasco sauce. McIlhenny named the unique Mexican pepper strain for the sauce which he had already named for a region in Mexico. 

Tabasco Country Store, Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To this day, Tabasco is made from the McIlhenny family’s original recipe: Tabasco peppers, vinegar, and salt aged in oak barrels for up to three years. Tabasco peppers are handpicked when they turn a deep red, which apparently signifies optimal flavor and heat.

Related: Avery Island: Touring Tabasco & Jungle Gardens

Tabasco © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tabasco has many competitors including regional hot sauces, sauces with international pedigrees, and sauces created for different cooking techniques. I’ve tried many of them including:

  • Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce which was engineered in New Iberia
  • Tapatío, a popular Mexico hot sauce with a guy with a sombrero on it that’s not actually a Mexican hot sauce but made in California
  • Cholula (Choe-loo-la), named for a 2,500-year-old city in Mexico but actually manufactured in Chapala in the Mexican state of Jalisco—not Cholula—and instantly identifiable by its signature wooden bottle cap
  • Crystal Hot Sauce, the best-selling Louisiana hot sauce that has been in New Orleans since 1923 and popular around the world
  • Frank’s Hot Sauce, a Louisiana-born sauce made from Cayenne red peppers, distilled vinegar, water, salt, and garlic powder

Worth Pondering…

Delectable chile-con-carne… composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile—a compound full of singular saver and a fiery zest.

—O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss

10 Amazing Places to RV in November

If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in November

Winter has officially arrived in the northern states and Canada which means getting up and going home in the dark usually in the cold and blowing snow. It is snowbird season, time to head south until the sunlight finally peeps through again around March or April. Happily, San Antonio and other southern cities are basking in a mellow, pre-Christmas glow.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in August, September, and October. Also, check out my recommendations from November 2020.

Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway, Georgia

Discover history, culture, and autumn beauty along Georgia’s scenic byways. The 41-mile loop of the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is the only route in the state that’s also designated a National Scenic Byway. Coursing through the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the route traverses several state highways including SR-17/75, SR-180, and SR-348. Panoramic views are plentiful, none more spectacular than the one from Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest point at 4,784 feet. Visitors can still walk the roughly half-mile, uphill paved path to the observation tower at the summit.

Brasstown Bald © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outdoor activities abound along the route, especially hiking. The Appalachian Trail crosses the byway in two spots, at Unicoi Gap and Hogpen Gap. Parking areas at each trailhead allow day visitors to take out-and-back hikes on the famed 2,190-mile trail connecting Georgia to Maine. Download an interactive map from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at appalachiantrail.org. Other short trails lead to cascading waterfalls such as Raven Cliff Falls, High Shoals Falls, and the impressive double cascade of Anna Ruby Falls.

Related: The 8 Best Things to Do this Fall in Georgia

Vogel State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three state parks are on or near the byway. Anglers come to Smithgall Woods State Park to cast a line in the celebrated trout stream of Duke’s Creek. Take a trip through the treetops on the Unicoi Zipline and Aerial Adventure Tour at Unicoi State Park and Lodge. Vogel State Park, one of Georgia’s two original state parks, sits at the base of Blood Mountain near the byway and offers a great view of the mountain from its 20-acre lake with a beach. Accommodations at Vogel and Unicoi include cottages and RV campsites. Smithgall Woods has cottages but no individual campsites.

Helen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The closest town to the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway is Helen, the small Bavarian-themed town with an array of shopping, dining, and lodging options.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The San Antonio River Walk

The San Antonio River Walk boasts sightseeing, shopping, dining, and incredibly rich history. This world-renowned 15-mile waterway has been setting the standard for river walks internationally for decades. Visit La Villita Historic Arts Village, a community and home to nearly 30 shops and galleries selling locally made jewelry, pottery, folk art, textiles, and other handcrafted items by local artists. Plus, in the midst of these tree-lined walkways and plazas, enjoy a savory culinary experience at the area restaurants with options ranging from traditional Mexican flavors to steakhouse favorites. Or step into Casa Rio which is the oldest restaurant on the banks of the River Walk.

San Antonio River Walk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Next, visit the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) to learn about the city’s rich cultural heritage. (SAMA) takes you around the world and through five thousand years of art in a complex of buildings that once housed the Lone Star Brewery. SAMA is renowned for the most comprehensive ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art collection in the southern United States.

Mission San José © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Finally, trek to visit the four historic missions at the San Antonio’s Missions National Historical Park. Along with the Alamo, the park was named the first World Heritage Site in Texas by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science, and Culture (UNESCO) and includes the city’s four southernmost Spanish colonial missions—Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada. In the 18th century, Spanish priests established these five Catholic missions along the San Antonio River. The missions are walled compounds encompassing a church and buildings where the priests and local Native Americans lived.

Related: The 20 Best Road Trips from San Antonio

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico

As an RVer who loves visiting new areas and returning to favorite haunts, I’ve often asked my favorite areas to explore. It’s always interesting to see the confusion on the faces of the questioners when my response is New Mexico.

“But isn’t that just aliens and, like, the desert?”

Las Cruces Farmers & Crafts Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re into alien stuff and the desert, you’ll certainly find them here. But you’ll also find so much more. New Mexico is incredibly diverse. While visiting the Land of Enchantment, I’ve camped in the desert, hiked up huge white sand dunes, and down into deep caverns. I’ve explored diverse craft and farmer’s markets and wandered through some of the most amazing art installations and galleries. New Mexico is where I’ve eaten the best meals, explored pecan and pistachio farms, and watched the most epic sunsets of my life. I’ve met incredibly talented artists along the way and visited historic churches and pueblos.

The aliens of Roswell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What I’m saying is: New Mexico is special. It’s quirky and mystical and down to earth all at once. It’s full of adventure and relaxation and history. It’s also the home to one of the newest designated National Park—White Sands—a truly otherworldly experience. Need more reasons to visit?

Related: Wake Up In New Mexico

La Posta de Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the adventure followed by hatch chili cheeseburgers and craft beer!

Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “If you ever go to New Mexico, it will itch you for the rest of your life.” I couldn’t agree more.

Forest Center, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Largest Trees in the World

Located in the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are two separate parks but due to their proximity to one another, they’re often visited together.

Sherman Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park is home to two notable natural wonders: Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,505 feet above sea level, and the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world by volume. Both are impressive sights!

Kings Canyon National Park to the north of Sequoia is also home to giant trees including the largest remaining grove on the planet at Redwood Canyon. The landscape in Kings Canyon rivals that of Yosemite with towering granite canyon walls, lush meadows, and the picturesque King River that flows throughout the park.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While both parks together make up a whopping 865,964 acres, over 90 percent of that land is designated wilderness with no roads or vehicle access. There are numerous opportunities for incredible overnight backpacking trips in the backcountry, though, if you want to plan for that on your California road trip.

Seaside © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seaside, Florida

In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey played a guy who unknowingly stars in a reality show, set in an impossibly idyllic beach town. That’s Seaside, and it required very little effort to make Truman’s hometown seem like a paradise of pastel-colored houses and dreamlike beaches. It’s worth a stop if you want to squeal with delight while strolling through town and stopping at landmarks like the famous white post office. When the post office was built just over 30 years ago, it was only the second civic building in Seaside and was established o create the perception that the community was “real” at a time when Seaside and surrounding communities were just beginning to emerge.

Seaside © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the coolest features of Seaside is Airstream Row. A group of restaurants—like Crepes du Soleil and Frost Bites—set up shop in Airstreams along 30A, lending a little funk to the picturesque scenery. If you prefer to sit down with a grand view of the water, grab a table at Bud & Alley’s which serves classic Gulf fare like grilled head-on shrimp and seafood gumbo.

Seaside © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are more than cute eateries and buildings in Seaside. Sundog Books is an absolute must: an independent bookstore that’s been open for 30 years. If you need a beach read, or just want to support a cool local business, this is a worthy stop.

World’s Largest Pistachio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lots of Nuts Inside

Two of the largest pistachio tree grooves in New Mexico, PistachioLand and Eagle Ranch are destinations that can be enjoyed by all ages. Located in the Tularosa Basin outside of Alamogordo they are easy day trips from Las Cruces and can be combined with a visit to White Sands National Park. With an average of 287 days of sunshine, outdoor activities abound throughout the area. 

Eagle Ranch Pistachios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Tularosa Basin has the perfect climate for growing pistachios, pecans, and grapes.  There are numerous wineries and nut farms where you can enjoy delicious wine and nut tastings and beautiful views of the Sacramento Mountains.

Eagle Ranch pistachios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

PistachioLand is the home of the World’s Largest Pistachio, Pistachio Tree Ranch, McGinn’s Country Store, and Arena Blanca Winery. Experience their motorized farm tour, take your photo with the World’s Largest Pistachio, shop inside their country store, sit on the porch with views of the mountains, try their free samples at the pistachio bar, enjoy the wine tasting room, and grab a sweet treat in PistachioLand ice cream parlor.

Free samples at McGinn’s Country Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eagle Ranch is the home of New Mexico’s largest producing pistachio groves with approximately 13,000 trees. Wines were added to the product line in 2002. The main store, on the ranch in Alamogordo, offers farm tours that showcase how pistachios are grown and processed. A second store is conveniently located in the historic village of Mesilla.

St. Mary’s © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Mary’s, Georgia

Many folks pass through St. Mary’s on their way to Cumberland Island. But this seaside gem is more than just a place to kill a few hours between ferries. Shops and eateries cluster around the picturesque waterfront. (Swing by Lang’s Marina Restaurant for mouthwatering crab cakes.) The St. Mary’s Submarine Museum entices visitors with an extensive collection of memorabilia and photographs. And you’d probably be surprised to learn this postcard-worthy port can lay claim to the oldest continuously operating church in Georgia.

Kemah Boardwalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kemah Boardwalk, Kemah, Texas

Kemah is a city on Galveston Bay and a place I think doesn’t get enough hype. Many people pass right by, heading for the island. But, only 20 miles from downtown Houston right on the bay sits Kemah Boardwalk with entertainment galore for the whole family. It offers an amusement park with fun and exciting rides, waterfront dining, festivals, and seaside shows. Shopping and dining are a huge part of the boardwalk.

Kemah Boardwalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We went on a cool day in November to walk around the bay and noticed that some rides and attractions were not operating plus it was a bit chilly but we were still entertained by the sights, sounds, and dining options. There are also other dining alternatives in the nearby Kemah Lighthouse District. Kemah Boardwalk is open year-round.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Although Montezuma Castle National Monument is a small site, its history runs deep. Located in the Verde Valley 25 miles south of Sedona, it was established in 1906 to preserve Indigenous American culture. The compact site almost feels like a diorama of an ancient village built by the Sinagua people who inhabited the valley as far back as 650. A short pathway lined with sycamores and catclaw mimosa trees leads to the limestone cliff where a 20-room building peeks out from above.

Beaver Creek at Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built by the Sinagua people around 1050, the castle is a well-preserved example of architectural ingenuity. The placement of rooms on the south-facing cliff helps regulate summer and winter temperatures. Its elevated location provides protection from Beaver Creek’s annual flooding, plus it functions as a lookout. 

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive 11 miles north to see the Montezuma Well which is part of the national monument. Along with the limestone sinkhole, cliff dwellings and irrigation channels are characteristic of the prehistoric people who have lived in the area dating back to 11,000. The water in the well which is 386 feet across has high levels of arsenic and other chemicals but it still supports endemic species such as water scorpions, snails, mud turtles, and leeches.

Olive tree along the Tehama Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tehama Trail, California

The Tehama Trail is a surprisingly fertile area—a prime place for farms and ranches. Many invite visitors to stop in and buy fresh produce, artisanal olive oils, and other local food products.

Lucero Olive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trail links together nearly two dozen vineyards, orchards, grass-fed beef ranchers, and other specialty meat producers. Hop onto the route at any point but the driving tour technically begins in Corning, a town known for olives. Stop by the iconic Olive Pit for samples of traditional olives, or try more exotic options, like herb-and-garlic-cheese-stuffed Sicilian olives. Head over to Lucero Olive Oil to sample artisanal olive oils and vinegar and shop for gifts.

Lucero Olive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue along the trail to sample and buy heirloom tomatoes, juice-down-your-chin peaches and plums, and berries as well as fresh pies and honey. Swing by New Clairvaux Vineyard in tiny Vina, just south of Redding where Trappist monks invite you to sample their Barbera, Pinot Grigio, and other varietals in a large tasting room on the monastery grounds.

Sandhill cranes prepare for takeoff at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Established in 1939 to protect migrating waterfowl, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is home to more than 350 species of birds. Tens of thousands of Snow Geese and Sandhill Crane winter in the refuge as well as Ross’s Geese and many species of duck. Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge host a Festival of the Cranes in November (weekend before Thanksgiving) that includes events, classes, and even a photography contest. A 12-mile auto tour and numerous hiking trails are the primary means of exploring the refuge.

Related: The Mind-Blowing Enchantment of New Mexico: San Antonio & Bosque del Apache

Worth Pondering…

Days decrease,

And autumn grows, autumn in everything.

―Robert Browning

The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Step back in time and discover a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House community

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof. Search for the fingerprints of ancient workers in the mortar. Listen for an echo of ritual drums in the reconstructed Great Kiva.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called “great houses,” each with a “great kiva”—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. Excavation of the West Ruin in the 1900s uncovered thousands of well-preserved artifacts that provide a glimpse into the life of Ancestral Pueblo people connecting people of the past with people and traditions of today. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many Southwestern American Indians today maintain deep spiritual ties with this ancestral site.  Visitors today can learn about these remarkable people and their descendants and connect with the monument’s timeless landscape and stories. A short trail winds through this massive site offering an intimate experience. Along the way, visitors will discover original roofs, plaster walls, a reed mat left by the inhabitants, intriguing T-shaped doorways, and north-facing corner doors. The trail culminates with the reconstructed great kiva, a building that inherently inspires contemplation, wonder, and an ancient sense of sacredness. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A summer visit to the ruins is sure to be a hot one with temperatures ranging from 80 degrees to 100 degrees—and on some days reaching over 100. Fall brings pleasant days and crisp nights, while winter temperatures range between 20 degrees and 50 degrees with cold nights reaching 0. The most unpredictable season is spring with windy, cold, wet, or warm and dry weather.  

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor Center

See Earl’s house! The visitor center started as the home of pioneering archeologist Earl Morris. Here you receive an orientation to the archeological site and pick up a trail guide. See beautiful 900-year old artifacts in the museum. Watch the 15-minute video, Aztec Ruins: Footprints of the Past to hear diverse perspectives from Pueblo people, Navajo tribal members, and archeologists. The Visitor Center is open whenever the park is open except during after-hours outdoors programs (example: moon tours and solstice observations).

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tours

Explore the Aztec Ruins with a self-guided visitor trail. The half-mile trail winds through an ancestral Pueblo Great House, a reconstructed great kiva, and through original rooms with intact timber roofs. Help preserve the ruins—and stay safe—by remaining on the trail. Ranger-guided East Ruin Tours and Full Moon Walks are offered monthly from June through August and are weather-dependent. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once you’ve visited the ruins, meander to the Animas River via a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail or peruse museum exhibits and 900-year old artifacts. The Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk are both located inside the historic picnic area. Park staff and volunteers grow traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds. If you’re planning a summer visit, take a tour and see the wild plants that sustained folks in the Southwest for thousands of years. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife in the Park

Surprisingly, the park supports a wide variety of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. The riparian and pinon-juniper woodland areas, patches of abandoned farmlands, orchards, and desert scrubs all provide a habitat for 28 documented mammal species, at least 70 bird species, three amphibians, and 10 reptiles. 

As surrounding residential developments expand, the ruins have become an increasingly important haven for species of concern despite the park’s relatively small size. 

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec West Self-Guided Trail

Explore the ancestral Pueblo “Great House” that was the social, economic, and political center of the region after Chaco. A self-guided half-mile walk winds through original rooms. Along the way discover skillful stone masonry, remarkably well-preserved wood roofing, and original mortar in some walls. The interpretive trail guide combines modern archeological findings with traditional Native American perspectives. Enter the ceremonial Great Kiva. This awesome semi-subterranean structure over 40 feet in diameter is the oldest and largest reconstructed building of its kind.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk

The Heritage Garden and the Native Plants Walk are both inside the shady and historic picnic area. Traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds are grown by park staff and volunteers. Tours are offered in the summer. The Native Plants Walk is located on the west side of the picnic area near the parking lot. Take a quick stroll and see the wild plants that people in the Southwest have relied on for thousands of years.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Old Spanish National Historic Trail to Downtown Aztec

The Old Spanish Trail was the first recorded trade caravan from Santa Fe west to Los Angeles. The first journey was led by Antonio Armijo in 1829 and it was so difficult the traders never took that exact same route again. Since it is difficult to find the trail on the ground today no one can say with certainty how close the caravan actually came to Aztec Ruins. Today you can follow the nationally designated trail from the picnic area over the bridge across the Animas River (0.5 miles) and into historic downtown Aztec (1.5 miles) for shopping and dining.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 318 acres

Date Established: January 24, 1923

Location: Northwestern New Mexico, 14 miles northeast of Farmington

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Elevation: 5,600 feet

Park Entrance Fee: As of May 1, 2018, this is a fee-free park

Park Operating Hours: Daily 9:00 am-5:00 pm Mountain Time; closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.

Parking: RV and bus parking available

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather Conditions: Summer high temperatures range from 80-100 degrees; Fall usually pleasant with mild days and crisp nights; Winter daytime temperatures range from 20-50 degrees with cold nights that can reach 0 degrees, snow is periodic but accumulations are typically only 1-2 inches; Spring is can be windy, cold, and wet, or still, warm, and dry.

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

Worth Pondering…

What’s old collapses, times change, and new life blossoms in the ruins.

— Friedrich Schiller