Moving to Oklahoma has opened up the West to long weekend driving trips and made some of the magical places of my imagination accessible to this land bound creature who prefers to avoid planes whenever possible.
I never imagined that I would get to visit White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, which is less than an hour from the Mexican border. Driving south, the land is right out of the old cowboy movies – semi-arid scrub across high plains that rise up suddenly into mountains and disappear as quickly as they arose. As we approached Alamogordo, the mountain ranges did begin to enclose around us and the dark shadows of the Organ Mountains caused the white gypsum to glow a blinding white. White Sands is high desert, comprising of, by far, the largest deposit of surface gypsum in the world. In fact, there is no other place like it on Earth.
I don’t think it is possible to take a bad photograph here – even at high noon. While children on March Break attacked the dunes with sleds and the tools of my childhood winters while wearing shorts and braving the over 90 degree air on the sunny sides of the snow white dunes, I took a walk across the whiteness in search of isolation. That isolation is easily found over a couple of dunes, leaving me to wonder if it was I that had been abandoned. It is easy to lose your way in this blinding sea. Fortunately there was little wind and my own footprints served to take me back.
Even if only for a few moments, the sand spoke and it was like listening to the white noise of a waterfall of diamonds. The mountains turned blue and purple through the prism filter of white gypsum winds carrying the scent of ancient seas.
As the sun began to draw down to the mountains, the organized sunset walk began with a group of about 30 people and many cameras. The colours of the sky and the reflecting light quality on the gypsum pillars raised up by the determined roots of high desert plants are almost impossible to describe. This is one of the few places in New Mexico where walking barefoot is not a dangerous dodge of serpents and scorpions, so the softening of the light and breeze while taking a barefoot stroll is a sensory overload of gentleness. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves…
If only we had 30 more minutes on the dunes after the horizon began to darken…. As we rushed north of Alamogordo, headed for Albuquerque, the crescent moon rose over the mountains. Unlike the hook of crescents of central and northern Ontario, the crescent moon rises in a shape of a fine chalice bearing the sphere of its own shadow, perfectly horizontal to the mountains. They say the full moon is the best time to step out on a White Sands Sunset Stroll. I beg to differ. Next time, I’ll bring the equipment to capture a beauty as breathtaking as the dunes themselves.
One last thing I feel I need to share…
Traveling at night often deprives one of the views of traveling by day, but New Mexico proves to be as haunting in the dark. As we climbed in the endless darkness for what seemed like forever, an orange glow like the lights of distant construction vehicles rose high above us on some invisible ridge. For fifteen minutes we drove on and soon what this orange glow actually was became clear – and frightening. The smoke, of what we were later to learn were controlled burns, glowed red orange and flickered with the unseen flames of a bushfire. Soon the scent of slow burning wood invaded the cabin and the fires themselves became visible, lighting up the undersides of the crowns of burning trees like ghostly figures in Dante’s Inferno.
And we are reminded that each place has its element, where I am accustomed to the wrath of air and ever present water; the Southwest feels the wrath of fire and scorched earth.
Coming up… Santa Fe, Turquoise Trail, Petroglyphs and Old Town Albuquerque