Getting Lost (Almost Literally) in White Sands

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Waves of sand leading to the Dune Field west of Akali Flats Trail in White Sands National Monument.
Looking Southwest into the Dune Fields of White Sands National Monument.

There are more than a few places on this planet that can have a profound influence on you, but that can be a rare occurrence. I was fortunate to experience such a place this week when I wandered off the trail at White Sands National Monument

I’ve been out there so many times I don’t think I could count them. But I’d never gone with the express purpose of photographing the gypsum dunes; I’d also never hiked into the monument itself. On Tuesday, I departed on the Akali Flats Trail about an hour before sunset. 

White Sands National Monument, as seen near the Akali Flats Trail.

The weather was magnificent. While the notorious New Mexico winds were ferocious throughout the weekend, everything was still and calm as I hiked up, down and between the dunes. The biggest danger of the desert — high heat — was also a non-issue, with temps in the high 50s as I started my trek. 

Pretty much by chance, we’d arrived at the perfect time: I spent the next 90 minutes as witness to a dazzling light show put on by the setting sun, the gorgeous New Mexico skies, and the mountains to my west. As you can see, the sands took up the colors of the sunset, shifting and changing as I walked further and further into the dunes, and the sun fell further behind the mountain.

At one point, I lost sight of the other hikers I had seen in the area. The closest had been about 1/4 mile away, but as the sun sank below the horizon they all headed back. Turns out, I should have too. 

Where am I?

But I wasn’t thinking about that quite yet. I had a plan, and for the moment I was reveling in the quiet of the desert. I’ve never in my life felt (or been) so alone. There was no wildlife call or birdsong; no flow of trickling water in a mountain stream; or rustle of leaves in the forest. Just an eerie, complete silence.

I took my photos, setting up my tripod and bracketing exposures in case I wanted to try some HDR. And just like that, the light was gone. 

I admit: I panicked. It was brief, surely, but there it was. I knew I would be OK, ultimately. I had my jacket, I had some bars to eat, and I had plenty of water. 

On just about any other day I might have been in trouble. The moon wouldn’t rise for another 5 hours, and even with the white gypsum sand I couldn’t exactly see that far into the distance. Fortunately, I had an ace up my sleeve: the lack of wind. 

The last image I took in the fading light.

Most of the time, you can count on the wind to erase your footprints. But Tuesday night my tracks were very plain to see, along with a set of tire tracks that I had followed on my way into the dunes. I also had my GPS app on my phone, so I knew the direction I was going, but the tracks made my hike back easier. 

I rendezvoused back with my family (more on that below) and we drove out of the monument in dark.

36 Hours in Central New Mexico

Mom flew me to Albuquerque last week for a visit, ostensibly to work on a few projects at her house (I did paint her deck while I was there). But we also did some fun stuff. One of her mantras while she lived in D.C. was to always do something new, and she’d always try to tick that box at least once a month.

I decided to introduce her to a few places I knew she hadn’t yet seen in our home state, namely the Very Large Array and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. But first, we went to White Sands. 

I’ve often seen the White Sands referred to as a moonscape, and once the sun begins to set you can completely understand why.

My Aunt Margarita lives in Alamogordo, and we were gonna crash at her place Tuesday night — so, it was only courteous to stop and pick her up on our way to the desert monument. 

Heading Back North to the VLA

Lines of pistachio trees in an orchard outside Alamogordo, New Mexico.
McGinn’s Pistachioland

Wednesday morning we set out from Alamogordo and took a route I hadn’t traveled on before: US 54 N to Carrizozo, and then NM 380 W toward I-25. We shopped at McGinn’s Pistachioland, saw pistachios growing in the orchard there, and passed through the Valley of Fires (though we didn’t stop for pictures). We were on our way to the VLA.

Three of the radio telescopes at the Very Large Array in New Mexico.

You’ve probably seen the Very Large Array, even if you didn’t know that’s what it was — it features quite prominently in the movie Contact. The VLA is a radio observatory: rather than a traditional optical telescope, astronomers and cosmologists study the universe with 27 huge radio telescopes.

Radio waves are at a much longer wavelength than visible light, and to accurately record them you need several things: a large open plain free from electronic interference (like TV signals and cell towers); and a network of radio telescopes that operate together. The 27 receivers at the VLA can be grouped in a small area, or can be moved into a configuration 22 miles wide.

Did I mention they’re big?

Our little tourist party: Steve, my Aunt Margie, Mom, her buddy Deborah, and myself.

The VLA is very out of the way (by design), but it’s a delightful place to visit and I highly recommend it when you’re in central New Mexico anyway.

Cranes, geese and…red-winged blackbirds?

Our final tourist stop of the day was actually back the way we came: the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was back along I-25 south of Socorro. First we grabbed some of those amazing Green Chile Cheeseburgers from The Owl, and then meandered down to the NWR.

A sandhill crane takes flight.

Despite my recollection otherwise, mom insists this was her first visit to the Bosque del Apache NWR. Deborah, being from Maryland, hadn’t seen it either. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.

We spotted a good number of sandhill cranes just off the road during our approach, along with some ducks and geese. We continued on to the main area, and hung out on the Flight Deck. For a while I was the only photographer there, a rare occurrence I’m sure. I was eventually joined by a volunteer from the Friends of the Bosque.

We watched the cranes comes in for about an hour; first in groups of 3–7, then later in larger numbers, up to three dozen at a time. The snow geese came in as well, arriving in one huge group. We watched a harrier harassing what I at first thought were starlings, but seeing the images on my computer I deduced to be red-winged blackbirds. I had never seen so many before!

Sandhill cranes returning to the NWR after a day spent feeding in the surrounding.

The sun went down again, and our roadtrip had come to its end. Also, the mosquitoes were eating us alive! I’d forgotten they can be a nuisance at the Bosque.

Fortunately, New Mexico had one last show in store for us as we returned to the Interstate: another magnificent sunset to keep us company.

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