I remember scanning over google earth on my phone on our way into the south west admiring the satellite images of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico. When I saw White Sands National monument I thought it was a glitch on Google’s part. A beaming white patch in the middle of brown, black earth. Zoom in, and it only looks more strange. When we go to national parks I try not to study the pictures online too hard as I like to be surprised. Nothing could have prepared us for this unreal alternative world. White Sands National Monument has been protected and recognized since 1933. It is the largest deposit of gypsum in the world. With no ocean to escape to, the gypsum runs off of the surrounding San Andres and Sacramento Mountains via water, and collects in a lake bellow and eventually blows southwest creating a massive dune field. The park, in rock time, is new and still changing.
We decided to head straight to the park once the trailer was settled in Alamogordo. We borrowed some saucer sleds from the campground host, because apparently the sand was sled-able. The sun started to set and the wind was relentless as we drove past the park gates. That didn’t deter us. The white dunes start almost abruptly, like a giant emptied his shoe after a beach day. We yelped and awed at the sites driving in. I kept expecting to see ocean, but instead the horizon kept opening up to what seemed to be an endless sliding landscape of blinding white, until the horizon finally met the distant mountains.
“There are people on the dunes”, I said leaning half way out of the car window. I couldn't believe you were allowed to climb on them. We were used to fragile beach dunes, perfect sand and grass holding the island’s coast line from slipping into the sea. Here the landscape moves and shifts constantly, and much more quickly. After an hour or so, the spring winds will ease all evidence of foot prints. The local plants and creatures have developed ways to deal with the slow motion of sand. The tamarisk salt cedar bush for example drives its roots into the dunes, then holds and collects moisture around each root. That in turn, hardens the surrounding sand to create a cement like dome around the living root structure of the cedar. We know this because when that dune it grew in moves on, the cedar becomes a tower in a valley waiting for the next sand dune to roll over and cover it again.
Once we were out of the car, we found that the sleds worked great. I cant describe the pleasure of that pure sand with the absence of humidity from the ocean. Nothing sticks to your skin, but instead pours off of you leaving a light dusting and a gypsum sparkle on your now, very likely sun burnt arms and legs. As dusk fell the wind picked up even more. We armed our faces with sun glasses and bandanas. The blinding surroundings took on a new form and the modern world dissolved into horizon.
“This place becomes something entirely different once the sun is gone”, I remarked to Walker. “I bet we could camp here over night”, he replied. The next night we did just that. We got up early to claim a camping permit, which are limited, and parked the adventure wagon in a lot half way into the park and hiked the rest of the way in to find a campsite.
That night the wind had settled, and a half moon priced a clear sky. We set up our tent and made dinner, then roamed the surrounding lunar landscape. Because of the pure white sand bouncing every inch of starlight, there were no need for lanterns, even with a portion of the moon. It was so disorienting walking over the hills and dips, what with flat shadows and a hushed silence you rarely experience. Burrowing owl hoots chattered there way into the glittering valleys once in a while. A night desert chill crept in across the landscape and I laid against a steep dune, burying most of my body. The gypsum still held warmth from the day and I felt suspended in the same heavens I was gazing up at.
It was a dream, until suddenly the silent sky broke with a thundering fighter jet. We followed its light where it landed not too far away. Over half of the gypsum dune field was designated The White Sands Missile Range 1941, the largest military testing site in the United States and contains the Trinity Site, host to the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on Earth. A frigid reminder, that left us wondering how much longer we have with natural wonders such as these.