One of the best things about my travel writing gig is that I’m always rushing off to some place new. Sometimes, though, that can be one of the worst things too. Attempts to go everywhere and see everything some times leave out the best times, the quiet times, the off-the-beaten path times, so this weekend I went back to re-explore white sands.
In the past month I’ve been to lots of extraordinary places. If I were in elementary school, I’d have no shortage of things to write about for the ubiquitous What-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essay. The Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest, are both natural wonders that will not be soon forgotten, but White Sands is on yet another level. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being on another planet. Walking through the soft gypsum sand, sinking in to the dunes, looking off a sharp modernist precipice at waves upon waves of sand. In a place where the tones are black and white somehow your existence is marked through color and light, the piercing daytime sun, the hushed pale hues of the New Mexico sunset, the stark black outlines of the dunes against the moon light. Light is color here. Far is near and some times down is up. Even the lights of Alamogordo in the distance are tempered by the darkness of the missile range and dancing lights of air traffic at the base. It’s this lack of context that makes White Sands so beautiful, but also brings it an element of danger. The climate is rough and with no landmarks it can be easy to lose your way. It’s even hard to find a foot print in the fine sand, or to leave one in the crusty lake beds between the dunes and yet there is little restriction placed on where or how you can explore the park. You can sled or hike or ride your bike, but to truly know this place is to sleep in the soft sand under the full moon and to watch the sunrise. In those cool, fleeting pre-dawn hours the dunes are alive with tiny insects and other creatures that call it home, but by the time the sun is high in the sky, the place becomes unbearable for activity and the daytime siesta begins. Day is night and night day.