Friday morning, heading north out of El Paso into New Mexico on I-10, we play hide and seek with the Rio Grande, but we have to say “Adios, big river, we’ll see you in a couple of days in Albuquerque” as we make a detour onto Hwy 70, heading northwest to White Sands.
White Sands, New Mexico – 275 square miles of white desert sands west of the San Andres Mountains, home to NASA’s White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, but our destination is neither of those; rather, it’s the park at White Sands National Monument we’re heading to. The missile range surrounds the park and was first used after World War II for testing rockets captured from German forces; nowadays the range is used for testing “experimental” weapons, apparently a couple of times a week, during which time the park is closed. We’re hoping for the best as we approach. We’ve already been warned by the fellow at the New Mexico visitor center that our chances of camping out tonight at White Sands are slim to none because of Sunday’s Death March, a 44 mile walk commemorating the war dead that departs from White Sands, that attracts a significant number of marchers. Missiles and death marches – what have we gotten ourselves into? All we want to do is walk in the spectacular white sand and sleep under the stars.
Our contemplation of the ways of the world is nothing if not broadened as we have to slow down for the checkpoint up ahead. As the uniformed guard approached our car, my first thought was that this was a sentry for the missile range, but no, what it is is Border Patrol – 50 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border. The highways leading in and out of El Paso were dotted with signs that warned us not to pick up hitchhikers, a reminder that Mexico is just to our south and illegal immigration is a daily reality in these parts, not just an abstract topic of conversation for a couple of New Englanders who happen to be in the area. Whichever way we look at it, though, we couldn’t fit a hitchhiker, illegal or not, in the car, what with the clothes, books and musical instruments crammed in with all the rest of our paraphernalia in the back seat and trunk, and the guard waves us through after a couple of rudimentary questions. Up ahead is the entrance to the park, and we’re in.
The woman at the front desk gives us a warm welcome that includes dire warnings about dehydration and how easy it is to get lost in the dunes after dark, and she hands us a pamphlet titled “FOR YOUR SAFETY,” an eight-panel pamphlet that describes what you should do if you come across unexploded ordnance (Don’t touch!). It’s getting more exciting by the minute. The story of the young couple, half-frozen and totally lost in the sea of sand in the middle of the night and had to be helicoptered out, was definitely the highlight of her welcome speech.
Undeterred, we book a campsite – there are only 10 sites, reservations are not accepted, and it’s first come, first served; it turns out we’re the first to book a site for the night (apparently the death marchers have enough to deal with without worrying about explosive devices) and have our choice of sites. That’s easy – we’ll take one with a view. Water bottles filled, map in hand, we jump in the car and head up the eight mile road into the dunes, passing many families with picnic hampers, beach umbrellas and folding chairs. Kids on their flying saucers, whooshing down the dunes. It’s a day at the beach, New Mexico style.
We park Dexy in the lot and head off on foot the 0.7 mile to our campsite. What a trip to hike through the white sand, and soon there is no one but Bridget and me. But footprints up and down the dunes ahead of us indicate that we’re not alone out here. It’s beautiful – miles and miles of white sand – but it tests the leg muscles, especially on the uphill, when every step sinks you in the sand past your ankles.
Ah, but it was worth every step of it. Once we got our tent up and gear unloaded, we set out to do what you do when you’re surrounded by miles and miles of open expanse – take in the beauty of it all. It’s still only March, but the sun is beating down on the hot sand. As we scramble up one dune and slide and roll down another, and do it again and again, our feet feel like they’re burning up. But we discover that if we sit still and dig our feet in just below the surface, the sand beneath is cool – we find out later that this is because, unlike in most deserts, here the sand reflects, rather than absorbs, the sun’s rays and that whatever moisture there is quickly evaporates. There is a lot going on in this ecosystem, but we’re not pondering it – we just lie back and soak it all in.
The wind is a powerful instrument – the air is still now, but it is humbling to look around and know that the wind has pushed these dunes into place, and keeps pushing. At once time stands still, but it doesn’t really – we found out later that in the course of a year, the wind will move each dune about 30 feet; so even though we have this snapshot in time, look again and it will be something new. Therein lies the beauty – looking at the patterns the winds have created in the sand, each dune a different picture.
Evening comes around we meet up with the group that is taking a stroll among the dunes led by the woman who welcomed us earlier today. We learn about how the dunes move, the various types of dunes at White Sands, the various plants and critters that call this place home and just what this white sand is: gypsum and calcium sulphate. There are other gypsum fields in the world, but by far White Sands is the largest.
Among the group awaiting sunset are Nora Loera and her three children, Jesus, Aron and Ariel Aguirre, who, like us, are camping overnight. Ah, to be a kid again to see this place through their eyes.
And the sunset …
Those of us heading over to our campsites had to get a move on … once the sun sets, it gets dark very quickly and is next to impossible to see where you’re heading. We celebrate with Nora and her kids that we’ve actually made it to where we’re supposed to be and say our good-nights as we head to our respective sites. Not only is it dark, it’s cold – the wind is whipping up a storm of sand. Bridget and I grab our sleeping bags and wool socks and climb to the top of the nearest dune, lie back and take in the panoramic scene taking place up above. The nighttime sky is huge out here – dotted with its stars and planets. And for the first time in my life I can make out all of Orion … we don’t get that in New Hampshire, that’s for sure. While Bridget took photos of the nighttime sky, I lay back on this caledonia night, with Van’s “Astral Weeks” coming out of the iPod, just soaking up all this magnificence and feeling incredibly humble, just like our forefathers must have felt when they made up their stories that gave meaning to the celestial skies.