White Sands in the Land of Enchantment

The Arctic air still found us in El Paso on Monday morning, even though any further south and we’d be in Mexico. Our first hot showers in a couple days warmed us up, thank you Planet Fitness, and we did some exploring. I discovered machaca, maybe my new favorite meal, at a tiny lunch counter named Lucy’s near downtown. Kate’s chile relleno was also the best I’ve ever tasted, so maybe it was just the place. Practically glowing from our Tex-mex lunch, we drove up the Rim Road to the scenic overlook.

From up there the Rio Grande was hard to make out, and El Paso and Ciudad Juárez looked like one city. I’ll try to spare you the politics for this post, I’ll just say that we keep seeing the parks service dealing with the aftermath of the shutdown, and after covering hundreds of miles along the border, the scariest thing we’ve encountered has been well armed border patrol agents. Anyway, we crossed the other border and entered the land of enchantment, New Mexico. Our first stop was Las Cruces, where we hit another scenic overlook, this one complete with a tremendous roadrunner statue made of recycled materials like old shoes, computer parts, and tires.

Another cup of coffee, another fifty miles, and the brown, arid earth of the Chihuahuan Desert began to change as we reached White Sands National Monument. Situated in the Tularosa Basin and surrounded by the Sacramento Mountains on one side and the San Andres on the other, White Sands is the worlds largest area of gypsum dunes. Take the image of the sandy desert you probably have in mind and turn the sand as white as snow, and you’ll get a sense of what it’s like.

It was easy to follow the tracks of footprints in the fine sand, but only a few steps off trail and it felt like you could get lost in the vast, shifting landscape. And that would be bad, one because you’d probably die from dehydration or exposure, but two, because only half of the dunes are within the protection of the national parks service. The other portion is property of the US Military, and they use it as a missile range. We’ve deemed this unique environment with no equal on earth deserving of protection and preservation, as long as we get to use it to practice blowing stuff up. Sorry, I said no politics. Cute story, it seems that the military doesn’t have a perfect track record of keeping the missiles on their side.

We went on a ranger-led sunset stroll and learned the unique set of circumstances that created the gypsum crystals that became the fine white sand all around us, and how the shallow water table below kept the absorbent mineral saturated and heavy. Without the water the 200 plus square miles of dunes would blow away, which was the fate of the world’s second largest stretch of white sands: People tapped the water for ranching and agriculture, and the otherworldly landscape was lost to the winds. The new second largest site is part of Guadalupe National Park, and is about 1 percent the size of White Sands.

Our guide, a wonderful woman from the Bronx down here volunteering, taught us the history of the dunes’ formation and the adaptations of the plants that grow here with knowledge and humor. Everyone we’ve dealt with working for the parks has been great. The sunset was lovely, but nothing compared to the amazing one we had while driving south from San Antonio. We seem to get the best skies on the road, go figure. The cool temperature dropped further, and the desert sun was no longer compensating, so we cranked the heat in the car and drove to Alamogordo. We seem to be finding cottonwood or its Spanish translation everywhere we go, probably because trees mean water, and that’s where people congregate in the desert. You can probably guess what we had for dinner: incredibly good southwestern fare. We feel comfortable eating out on days when we sleep in the car for free, but honestly I’m prepared to go over budget for good Tex-Mex.

Ain’t we cute? But look at the one we got driving into El Paso:

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