The gleaming White Sands of New Mexico
Years ago, with our wedding date approaching, Ted and I planned our honeymoon in the great Southwest. Because it sounded romantic, I said, “Let’s go someplace with white sand.”
I pictured an area with pure white sand glittering in the sunlight and a rich blue sky arching overhead. Oddly enough, I didn’t mean an exotic, faraway beach, and I’d never heard of White Sands National Monument.
However, Ted knew about the White Sands Missile Range because the Army had launched test missiles from Black Mesa and Green River to there during the ’60s.
Even though a missile range didn’t sound romantic, the history fascinated me, and my soon-to-be hubby said we’d swing by there if we had enough time.
We slipped our honeymoon in between semesters and visited places in the Southwest I’d never seen, but we didn’t make it to an area with sparkling white sand.
I didn’t feel deprived. I felt loved and promptly forgot all about it, or thought I did, but perhaps the image slipped into some subconscious strata to germinate.
Nearly 20 years later on our way home from Texas, we visited White Sands National Park and the missile range near Alamogordo, NM.
In my wildest romantic dreams, I never imagined the glistening white dunes, some 50 to 60 feet tall, in the largest gypsum dune field in the world.
Surrounded by the missile range and Holloman Air Force Base, the national park manages about 40 percent of the 275-square-mile dune system.
President Herbert Hoover established White Sands National Monument in 1933 with Congress and President Trump redesignating a national park in 2019.
Before those official designations, however, White Sands had a long history of human visitations and habitation.
Starting in the ice age, most people visited the sands to hunt, gather plants and salt, and collect gypsum.
In the 1880s, because of unusual rainfall, ranching and cattle drives became profitable, and in the 1900s, people filed and worked mining claims, but the unstable landscape made all activity challenging.
Strong winds shift the western dunes as much as 30 feet annually, and animals and plants must adapt to the constant motion or die. Humans must also adjust, so I was surprised as we drove to the Alkali Flat Trailhead to see three picnic areas with covered tables, no-flush toilets, and a primitive campground.
One roadside sign quoted a man responsible for keeping Dunes Drive open. He said he’d spent 40 hours a week for 30 years clearing the road, but it was never enough.
We started walking the Alkali Flat Trail at midmorning with metal posts marking the path.
Soon sweat soaked our hair and Oggie was panting, but the sand itself was cool and damp with a wonderful, firm texture. I had an intense feeling of déjà vu as we walked across the gypsum crystals and the blue sky arched overhead.
We could see barefoot tracks in the sand ahead of us and people sledding on distant dunes. Most of the sparse vegetation grew in the valleys between the mounds, but later, on the Dune Life Nature Trail, I was surprised to see gangly cottonwoods dotting the hillsides.
Surprisingly, salty groundwater exists just a few feet beneath the surface, so the Rio Grande cottonwoods send roots into the water table and continue to thrust downward as the table fluctuates, forming pedestals that keep them rooted in the shifting sands.
Other plants have different strategies for surviving, some growing tall, some fast, some creating pedestals like the cottonwood trees.
Unrooted inhabitants employ different tactics. Reptiles, such as the bleached earless lizard, and insects, such as white moths, adjust by taking on a light coloration to blend with the background.
Mesmerized by the dune world, we didn’t head for the missile base until midafternoon. The U.S. government created the range during World War II in response to the Pearl Harbor bombing.
The first atomic bomb and later the V-2 rocket, which could be controlled in flight, were developed there, but what fascinated me most was the connection to San Juan and Emery counties.
From 1963 to 1970, the army test-fired Pershing and Athena missiles from Black Mesa and Green River to White Sands because of the relative isolation of those sites and the 400-mile range of the missiles.
Three fired from Green River went totally awry and crashed in Mexico, causing consternation, contamination, apologies, and clean-up, but those launched from Black Mesa usually impacted in the White Sands area within minutes.
A few years ago, when Ted and I explored Black Mesa, he showed me the remnants of the operation, but I never pictured 500 men periodically stationed there, or the metal buildings, Army tents, mobile vans, street signs, and massive, guided missiles which the Army launched to simulate wartime conditions, train troops, and collect data about the rockets.
By the time we made it to the missile range, the visitor’s center had closed. Disappointed, we turned around and put it on our bucket list for another day.
Since then, though, I’ve been contemplating bucket lists and that long-ago romantic dream. As James Allen says, “The oak sleeps in the acorn, the bird waits in the egg, and in the highest vision of a soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of reality.”
For me, the dream-come-true was walking with my hubby and dog across the white sand.