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.

Early Summer in Patterson Park

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I had hoped to photograph the Blue Angels at an airshow in Virginia this past weekend, but was rained out. However, I’d rented my favorite aviation/wildlife photograph lens from, the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary telezoom. I should be using it on an APS-C sensor body (like the Canon 7D mkII), but I’m still happy with the results from my 6D’s full frame.

A great blue heron at the Patterson Park Duck Pond.

I haven’t done a lot of photography while using my bike for transportation, and wanted to see how I could manage. It was hot, and there are very few places to park your bike at Patterson, but on the whole I managed fine.

I joked on Instagram that Patterson is one of the overlooked treasures in Baltimore, a city full of things its residents take for granted. It’s nothing quite as grand as NYC’s Central Park, of course, but it’s still a little jewel in Charm City that even I admit I should visit more frequently.

They’re incredible common, but I still find mallards beautiful.

At any rate, I settled in at the Duck Pond. For being such a warm, mid-day outing, there was plenty of waterfowl and other birds to photograph.

Wrapping up Winter

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A couple of gulls. On a Rail.

A couple of gulls. On a Rail.

This weekend we dropped my father off at the airport, following a wonderful two-week visit. It’s always nice having him around, and we did quite a bit around the house: we made a raised garden bed, cleaned out a lot of junk left over from the prior tenants under our back deck, and a whole bunch of odds and ends.

We also did a lot of fun stuff, including a failed trip to the Parkville lanes for duckpin bowling, a successful one to the Brunswick Zone, and a couple of movie marathons when we were stuck inside due to wintery weather (the Nolan Batman trilogy, a few Star Trek movies, etc). Perhaps the highlight of this entertainment extravaganza was introducing dad to Hot Fuzz, though we also let him in on Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian.

Unfortunately, the nicest day of his visit was the day we was departing. We spent the morning at the Rawlings Conservatory and then met his brother Daniel in Ellicott City for coffee.

Dad and I in Ellicott City.

Dad and I in Ellicott City.

Alas, he was on his way back to New Mexico sooner than we all would have hoped, but Meredith thought she’d try to brighten my afternoon a bit by exploring a place we’d never been to before: the Middle Branch Park.

I was hoping for a better sightline to the city itself, but the view down there was dominated by I-95. There was a nice little section of the Gwynns Falls Trail there, however, and we spent an hour walking along, laughing at the gulls and feeling bad for the ducks walking around in the piles of garbage. It was a nice day, and a reminder of what we can look forward to in a few weeks when Spring finally shows itself.

New Mexican Pronghorn

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Male and two female pronghorn in northeastern New Mexico.

Male and two female pronghorn in northeastern New Mexico.

When Meredith and I traveled to Colorado for our minimoon last year, we were forced to take a detour off I-25 north of Wagon Mound. It wasn’t that bad, the road was fine and traffic was light, and we were still making plenty of time.

Next thing I know, there’s a herd of pronghorn outside!

I’m fairly accustomed to seeing pronghorn, since they’re active between Silver City and Deming, but this time I had the long lens I’d rented for our trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Thankfully, Meredith was more than happy to let me pull over and stop for 10 minutes.

We saw a lot of great wildlife during that trip, but this was the scene that kicked it all off for us.

2014 — In Review

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In 2013, I reflected on the year by posting my favorite photos. This year, we’re going to mix it up a little bit by adding a few thoughts and links. I hope you’ll stick around for the whole thing — I promise it won’t take long (and there will still be lots of photos).

Life Events

My nephew Bowen, the cutest kid in New Mexico.

My nephew Bowen, the cutest kid in New Mexico.

This year was a big one for your humble blogger. I became an uncle, was laid off, moved across the country and then got engaged!

Thanksgiving 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

I was sad to be among 40+ people laid off by the National Wildlife Federation this year, but I’m also excited to help lead the Silver City Daily Press as it enters its 80th year of serving Grant County.

Unfortunately, with that opportunity came the difficult decision to temporarily live apart from Meredith, who remains in Baltimore with Nutmeg and Squishy. But we’re close to settling on a fall 2015 date for our wedding, and I think I’ve convinced her to come visit in February before we come up with a more permanent plan next summer.

On the Canadian side of the Horseshoe Falls at Niagara.

On the Canadian side of the Horseshoe Falls at Niagara.

A Big Year

It was also a year of firsts. This summer, I opened my first solo photography exhibit at Paula Geisler’s Common Ground Gallery. I also traveled to Canada for the first time, visiting Niagara Falls.  And I finally attended the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.

The 2014 International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque.

The 2014 International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque.

Back in New Mexico

Golden Hour in New Mexico

Golden Hour in New Mexico.

Of course, being home in the Land of Enchantment this autumn was amazing. For the first time in 20+ years I visited the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (three times), and was able to photograph the cranes, ducks, geese and other waterfowl there (see the photo at the top of this post). It was an amazing experience, and one I hope to replicate this winter.

I’ve also reconnected with friends and family, including some high-school buddies I hadn’t seen since the 1990s.

Finally, I’ve fallen in love all over again with the trails, parks and wilderness around Silver City.

One of the many sunsets I've been privileged to see since I moved back in October.

One of the many sunsets I’ve been privileged to see since I moved back in October.

Fun Photography

It was a good year for my camera: we photographed a president, went to a few weddings, and saw America from the beach to the mountains, the desert to the city, and a lot in between. I also opened a print shop. But there were two events in particular that stood out.

The Star-Spangled Spectacular

The Diamond

Commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore — which Francis Scott Key witnessed before penning his famous poem — the Spectacular featured naval vessels and tall ships from around the world, and some aerial performances by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels.

I spent a few days in downtown Baltimore looking at the ships and awaiting the Angels’ performances, and on the final day of the Spectacular I boarded the Pride of Baltimore II, a replica clipper ship, for a cruise off of Fort McHenry. It was pretty awesome.

Waterfowl at the Bosque

I mentioned this earlier, but it deserves some additional attention — the spectacle was just too incredible. As much as I enjoyed the Blue Angels, they had nothing on the aerial display at the Bosque. I thought I knew what I was doing as I setup my camera one afternoon in early November, but when I saw a few thousand snow geese take flight I realized I was totally unprepared.

Flight of the Snow Geese.

Flight of the Snow Geese.

Of course, the real delight was the sandhill cranes, with their graceful silhouette and distinctive call. They’re quite a treasure for New Mexico, and something everyone here should see.

Some other favorites

Here are some other images that had some special meaning to me this year.

 Looking ahead

The Road Ahead.

The Road Ahead.

Of course, this isn’t just a time to reflect, but also to plan for the future. And knowing what I do, but realizing so much is up to fate, I think this photo might sum up my feelings on 2015: I can’t see what’s immediately around the bend in the road, but the horizon certainly looks promising.