On the Road Again (2022)

Led through the Desert: White Sands National Park

We’ve left south-central NM just in time, our friend says, to miss the fires. They are a scary annual reality in these dry western states and we pause to wish safety for those caught up in it, from friends protecting farms and houses to the wildlife that must also flee when their homes are in danger.

#15: Live out dystopian daydreams at White Sands National Park

… Feel the hot winds blowing sand around your ankles, undulating white gypsum dunes as far as you can see… completely surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range, where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945The hard packed sand of Dunes Drive makes for excellent biking. (Lonely Planet’s Ultimate U.S. Travel List)

Arriving at White Sands in the afternoon, there’s plenty of time to hop on our bikes for our #1 favorite National Park activity. Short-lived: biking turns out to be a bust once we cycle past the end of the paved road. Parked road graders can be seen to the sides, evidence of a Sisyphean task undergone by the Park Service each morning, but the high winds have already covered the extending Dunes Drive with a layer of soft sand and we can go no further.

Katie: “I’m just so tired from riding in the basket…”

We opt instead for the ranger-led sunset tour, joining some 70 people in what could easily pass as the Israelites crossing the desert. Perfect for Passover.

Ryan turns out to be one of the best National Parks interp folks I’ve ever herd. Over howling winds she engages us: orchestrating a mini-migration across the dunes by asking us to self-sort according to our favorite art or hobby (then relating them all to the desert), demo-ing the secret to White Sand’s abundance (water just 3 feet down), teaching us new vocab (“albedo”) to understand why the sand stays so cool, encouraging us to connect by sharing an “aha” moment with the people next to us, and finally offering a passionate soliloquy as she weaves together the stories of those who have called this place home – early inhabitants some 10,000 years ago, native peoples, and visitors like us who can now help protect the park.

The wind is still blowing wild as we meander back over the last glowing sunset-drenched dunes to our vehicles. Sand has piled up in drifts against our tires, where to fit the trailer we’d played fast and loose with the posted advice to “pull straight in when parking.” For a brief moment I wonder if we’re going to get stuck in the sand, and flash back to the rattlesnake incident on Route 66 – but Toyota’s mogul mode to the rescue again and thank goodness we’re out.

The dystopian bit becomes relevant now: missile security means the US government has deemed there’s absolutely no staying in the park past 9pm. By some fortunate quirk, however, there’s camping-permitted land on nearby Air Force Base property. Strange indeed, we find ourselves on the wildlife-rich military shores of a treated water evaporation pond for a blustery night, and return to White Sands in the morning.

Thankfully the wind has died down. The sun is hot but the sand stays cool and we hike the 1 mile dunes nature trail barefoot. “Katie the kit fox” is our guide on the interpretive panels that double as guide posts on the otherwise landmark-less dunes. As a pup-mom and museum educator, I’m charmed and delighted. “Humans who don’t eat meat are vegetarians. In my world, they are called herbivores” (hmm.. never thought of that). She introduces us to each of her desert friends in turn; I particularly like the 100% meat-eating grasshopper mouse, who, after a kill, gets up on a rock and lets out a lion-like roar. Like Ryan the Ranger-to-be, Katie the kit fox does a fab job (check out the activity in “Who Eats What”), but as for the lesser nighthawk and greater roadrunner – need scientific nomenclature be so judgmental?

Where are we now?

A Sharpie Marks the Spot

2 comments on “Led through the Desert: White Sands National Park

  1. Rosann McCullough

    Hi there! Interesting stories about White Sands, it sounds great. Gene worked at White Sands on field trips when he worked in D.C. for the Naval Research Lab. Have a great time on the next part of your adventure!


    • Thanks, Rosann! Wish you could have been there to put your toes in the cool sand with us! Wonder if Gene thought the whole area was as surreal as I did… bet he had some eye-opening stories from his time there. 🙂


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