One of America's Great Sand Boxes
02/04/2010 60 °F
It was hard to believe, but we were snowed out in southern Texas. We spent a day trapped in the van, cold and bored, watching the thick blanket of fog obscure the normally dramatic Guadalupe mountains of west Texas. We planned on hiking up to the highest point, Guadalupe Peak at 8749 ft. but with the heavy clouds it didn’t really seem worth it, as the visibility was at about 50 ft. So we tried to wait it out, hoping that the next day would be better. We woke up to an inch of snow drizzled over everything, and even thicker fog had settled over us. It was cold and the dampness seemed to seep into your bones and cling there with an icy grip. With such poor conditions, we faced another cold day of boredom, something we really didn’t want to do again. It was time to give up and try to improve our predicament.
We decided to drive back west toward the Hueco Tanks (a rock climbing Mecca) just east of El Paso. As we drove around the southern tip of the Guadalupe mountains, the temperature warmed up and we finally escaped the cold blanket of gloom we were in and welcomed the sun into our lives once again. It was like being reborn, re-energized and rejuvenated all in a matter of 20 miles. Hueco Tanks State Park had kindly put up a sign informing us that the campground was full, saving us 20 miles of driving. With our options being pared down one after another, we decided that since the sun was out again, maybe we should give the White Sands another try. We visited the park a couple of days earlier, and while we were there, a storm front moved in. The wind picked up, and began to whip the sand. If the wind is blowing hard, the sand becomes a natural sandblaster scouring everything around. It’s not a lot of fun to be in. We hoped this time the wind would be calm, and since it was sunny, we could make a grand day of it. So that’s what we did.
The white sands of White Sands National Monument are found in south central New Mexico. Located on route 70 between Las Cruces and Alamogordo, the monument is easy to find and makes a great place to stop for an afternoon. It really is one of America’s great sand boxes. The park covers a good portion of the 275 square miles of the white gypsum dune field. The dunes are formed by the strong winds whistling down from the San Andres Mountains. The winds form four different kinds of dunes: dome, Barchan, transverse, and parabolic. The dunes reach heights ranging between 20 and 50 ft high. The dunes are constantly shifting with the wind, and each time you visit the park, the terrain will be different.
The park road heads due west from the highway, starting off as asphalt, but quickly turning to hard packed sand. The park maintenance crew uses huge snow plows to move the shifting sand off of the road. It seems like a lost cause, the sand is indifferent and will soon blow over the road, blocking the way. If it was me, I’d simply give in and let the sand have its way. It’s more enjoyable to stretch your legs in this sandy paradise anyway.
It’s easy to access the dunes. Simply drive in until you see a likeable parking spot deep in heart of the dunes. The first thing I’ll do is take my shoes and socks off. I’ll grab the gear that I’ll need and start walking into the dunes until I can’t see any signs of other people. That’s not hard to do, people don’t really stray far from their vehicles anymore. Then when I find myself smiling at the pure joy that comes from being alive in such a beautiful setting it’s time to play. I like to jump off the dunes, roll down the dunes, make sand pictures, meditate, hike around, look for some of the shy critters that call this place home, such as the bleached earless lizard, the kit fox, or kangaroo rat.
The sand is extremely photogenic. The dunes make for one of my favorite subjects to shoot. It suits color and black and white, I’ve had very good results with both. I tend to like the simple and effective black and white photos for the dunes. I like the sharp line of the top of the dune leading off to more dunes and eventually the distant mountains. The wind lines are hypnotizing, a repeating pattern like the imprint of a gigantic dried up river bed. Nature has a way of repeating itself in beautiful lines.
My latest source of fun in the dunes has been sand boarding. I’ve always wanted to try it. The dunes aren’t overly huge, maybe 20 to 50 feet high, but they looked like they had good potential for some fun runs. I unscrewed the trucks off of my long board and so had a ready made sand board. It took a little trial and error to make the boards glide over the sand. It helped to balance more to the rear of the board allowed the nose to slide above the sand. Then it was just a matter of controlling your speed, and figuring out how to turn. It was a great success. I can’t wait to find other sand dune areas and surf some more sand.
As you might expect, sand will get everywhere and into everything. Forget about keeping it out of your car. Your car floor will take on a whitish sheen from the sand. It will infiltrate every crack and crevice of your clothing and body. I like to turn my pockets inside out and see how much sand I’ve collected at the end of the day. My head will make a good scratching sound if I try running my fingers through my hair. The soft white sand particles will rain down like an April shower. Bald people don’t have this problem. It’s not uncommon to see hordes of bald men hiking around and looking smug with their shiny heads in pristine shape. Bully for them!
As the sun set, I turned my sand board back into a long board and packed up all of our gear for the day, I was exhausted and sweaty, sand clinging to the dampness. My muscles were fatigued, I was incredibly thirsty and a bit sun burned. Above all, I was happy with how the day turned out. We had perfect conditions at the white sands: sixty degrees, sunny, and not a breath of wind. It was a great way to recover from the icy grip of winter weather we had just endured. The van had sand everywhere, and we squirmed around in our dusty clothes being chaffed by the sand inside the waistband of our underpants. We drove up to the Valley of Fires campground (another great stop) outside of Carrizozo and took a much needed shower and ate a delightful dinner under all the stars of New Mexico. That was a day to remember.