Most of this week, we were primarily interested in making time. New Jersey to Arizona is a long drive. But the temptation to linger a little in New Mexico on our last day was hard to resist. We had earned a treat.
First, we tried the high desert, climbing up the mountains of the Lincoln National Forest above the town of Alamogordo, NM. We knew that White Sands was nearby, as well as the Holloman Air Force Base, and a good distance north and south, the White Sands Missile Range. Between his fascination with nuclear bomb testing, and my knowledge of defected Nazi scientists (both from my Holocaust studies and James Michener’s Space), we had both heard of White Sands long before we ever approached New Mexico. We wondered how much of it we could see from the top of the first mountain above Alamogordo.
Not much, actually, though we found some nice flowers up there.
So we headed back down the way we’d come, and on to White Sands National Park. Some of the signage still says National Monument, but the last administration elevated it to full National Park status (even Trump did a couple things right!).
The largest expanse of white gypsum sand in the world, remnant of an ancient sea and millennia of wind and, yes, water — it’s a stunning sight rising out of the brown shrub desert of New Mexico.
We started with a short, easy hike on the Playa Trail to learn a little more about the geology of the gypsum, which collects in the rainy season and is left behind on the surface of the desert when the water dries away, before blowing into the dunes.
Along the way, we also saw plenty of flowers, earless lizards, busy nests of ants….
Then we skipped across the street to the Dune Life Trail through the ecotone: a place where two communities — in this case, desert scrub and the gypsum sand dunes — meet and integrate. This was our first experience of the real dunes, like the beach or parts of Jordan’s Wadi Rum, but as white or whiter than Egypt’s White Desert (which is chalk instead of gypsum).
Next, we took a stroll along the fully accessible Interdune Boardwalk, where the educational focus is on the flora of the White Sands dune ecosystem, including the plant that gives us the basis for one of my favorite drugs: the antihistamine pseudoephedrine!
But it’s the drive deeper into the park that’s most impressive, as the plant life fades away and you’re just cruising through the bright white rolling dunes. We started to notice along the roadsides that the berms look a lot like a New Jersey snowplow job, and the edges of the parking lots, too…. It appears they regularly run plows down the park road to push the sand off to either side.
And then, the asphalt ends and you’re just driving through the sand….
One thing I’m not used to seeing is clouds above the sand dunes. In the Jordanian desert, there are effectively no clouds from May through October — if it’s hot, it’s a clear blue sky! But not so here.
But the most truly amazing views of the day, which I almost missed out on, exhausted from the sun and heat of the earlier hikes, was when we trudged up the fine sand to the top of the dunes and got the full effect of undulating white as far as the eye can see, stretching towards the mountains beyond.
We’re not the only ones to think so. We pulled out of the White Sands National Park to the strains of the music video for Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry,” filmed atop the very dunes we’d just left.