Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Shooting Selfies in a Sandstorm, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wind

Yes, that's me, swathed in fashionable black and Tuareg silver, braving the 60mph gusts and near-whiteout conditions at White Sands in a pair of cheap swim goggles from Walmart.
It was another epic trip to White Sands National Monument.  Almost every spring for over 12 years my son, Max, and I have headed down to the breathtaking Tularosa Basin to spend a few days wandering the white dunes, by far the largest gypsum dune field on Earth. 
Usually I watch the weather like a hawk and time our trip for tranquil windless days...admittedly, a bit of a stretch for spring in New Mexico.  But not this year.  Instead, because we wanted to catch the last tour of the season to Lake Lucero, and because Max needed to schedule time off work well in advance, we were locked into the last weekend of April.  And as it turned out, they were predicting wind...lots of wind.  For several days in a row. 

We had arrived on Saturday, just as the wind was kicking up.  We got our room in Alamogordo and drove out to the sands to see how conditions were.  Gypsum sand and alkali dust were obscuring the horizon, and it quickly became obvious that if we wanted to preserve our eyesight we were going to have to find something with more coverage than sunglasses.  So we beat a hasty retreat, drove back to Alamogordo, took in a matinee of Captain America, and then went to Walmart (alas) to buy swim goggles, the only thing I could think of that might be readily available with good protection.  Then we headed back out to the dunes for the REAL wind.  This view is looking west towards the alkali flats and the San Andres mountains, which are completely obscured by flying sand and dust.   

Oh, and we also found that black rayon headscarf Max is wearing.  I prefer headscarves to hats, and Max decided he'd try it too, and since pretty much everything he'd brought to wear was black he looked like a pirate.  With a sock on his camera lens.  Let me tell you about the sock.  On the way down he was panicking a bit because he had brought his expensive camera and was worried about sand getting in the lens.  After thinking it over he decided to cut one of his socks in half and put it on his camera lens.  It worked, but it totally spoiled the fashion statement. 

On top of that, almost all my clothes were black too and we ended up looking very dramatic against the white gypsum sand.  I was wearing some of my old Tuareg silver to complete the effect...I figured it was lonely for the Sahara and would enjoy a good sandstorm. 
By the way, this was the very same day that the gamers and film crews were digging up the old ET video games at the Alamogordo landfill, if you heard about that.  Max, an avid gamer, tried in vain to explain to me exactly why that was important, but it was an ongoing source of amusement for us that weekend.  For example, the next morning I was reading the BBC World News on my phone over coffee and discovered that the ET story had made the headlines...that's right, the world news headlines.  A little later when we walked out of the hotel lobby to meet the Lake Lucero tour group, there was an actual DeLorean parked directly in front, with a lifesize ET riding shotgun and a flux capacitor sitting in the back seat.  I am not making this up. 
Onward to Lake Lucero...
And what a difference a day makes!  This is from the trail to the lake at an old ranch site, looking northwest towards the San Andres mountains.  The lake is only accessible by guided tour, since this part of the monument is shared by White Sands Missile Range.
The honey mesquite was in bloom.
Lake Lucero is the mother of the white sands.  Most of the time it is dry, but in very wet years it will fill with water.  You're looking at millions of shards of selenite crystals glinting in the sun.  Over millennia, the selenite (gypsum) washed down from the mountains and reformed as crystals in the alkaline mud of the lake bed.  As the lake dried, the soft crystals weathered out of the earth and gradually broke down into the grains of sand that form the white dunes to the northeast.  They're still doing it today.

Selenite crystals protruding from the lakebed.  These were only a few inches tall.
Heading back up the trail to the car.  You can see more selenite shards emerging from the ground at left.  What a beautiful day...but the winds were cranking up again.  Max wanted to revisit the Space Museum in Alamogordo after many years, so we spent the afternoon there and then went back to White Sands for...
...more wind.
It was actually an amazing experience to be out there for such a raw, elemental experience.  I found it to be surprisingly beautiful.  The wind obscured the horizon and enveloped us completely, absolutely wild and fierce...and yet, there is a gentleness and tranquility to White Sands that came through even in the midst of the sandstorm.
I love this image of Max under that huge sky.

Great.  Max, you look like a terrorist.  Except for the sock. 
The next morning, a perfect day!  Getting ready to set out on an all-day dune wander.  That's a great view of my Black Madonna tat, my portable shrine.  

This is what I dream of in the winter...a pure crystalline, blue-and-white world.  Glittering sand, blue sky, and silence.  Except for the jets from nearby Holloman AFB that fly overhead once in a while...which I actually love watching.  They're so fascinating, and Max always knows exactly what they are. 
A mysterious object near the edge of the dune field.  It turned out to be a huge chunk of Styrofoam, at least three feet to a side, transformed by wind and weathering into a work of art.  It must have blown in from the missile range to the west.  Max was fascinated. 
The afternoon light on the dunes.
At the end of the day we went to the eastern side of the dunes, where dunes are lower and full of beautiful plants.  This section is softer and gentler in feeling, and without wind there are countless wonderful little tracks in the sand from all sorts of creatures.  The shrub is a hoary rosemary mint.
The flowers of the hoary rosemary mint look like tiny lavender orchids.  It always amazes me how such exquisite and delicate plants can just shrug off the fierce sun and sandstorms.  Rosemary mint is so named because if you rub the leaves in the spring they smell like mint, and if you rub them in the fall they smell like rosemary.  It think it's my favorite plant of the dunes.
A last view of the afternoon.  Farewell to the dunes for another year...enough beef jerky and dried fruit.  Time for a margarita and some real food!
The sands gave us a surprising and sweet last farewell: an evening star, with a very happy solitary desert bee inside.  I've seen evening stars around Tucson but never knew they grew here.  They only open in the late afternoon and close at dusk. 
...That's it for White Sands! 
I'll be posting a blog on my shamanic project soon...


pam summers said...

Thanks, Dawn for sharing that adventure and the beautiful pictures. I was lucky enough to go there once and loved it, after we left there we got into lighting storm, lighting striking everywhere - it was breath taking until it started raining so hard we had to take refuge in the closest motel; it was either that or buy a boat.

pam summers said...

Thanks, Dawn for sharing that adventure and the beautiful pictures. I was lucky enough to go there once and loved it, after we left there we got into lighting storm, lighting striking everywhere - it was breath taking until it started raining so hard we had to take refuge in the closest motel; it was either that or buy a boat.