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New Mexico: Rolling ocean of bleached gypsum

White Sands National Monument


By —— Bio and Archives--December 13, 2011

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imageThings have never been the same after July 16, 1945 when they blew up the “gadget” on the northern fringes of the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, the largest military installation in the United States. Regrettably called the Trinity site, this historic landmark is where an atomic bomb perched atop a 100-foot tower made quite the splash as the first of its kind, casting radioactive fallout far and wide, most of which drifted north and east. But lingering radioactive contamination from that 200-yard-wide fireball that melted sand to glass was the least of my worries as I wandered dazed and delighted through the heart of 115-square-miles of rolling dunes within White Sands National Monument (WSNM), roughly 60 miles south of that exploding nuclear implosion.

I was more worried about going blind without my sunglasses, slogging among sugar-white, rippling hills of bone-dry snow, up one cone and down the other, or getting turned around out there and dying a lonely parched death by thirst among the vastness, swallowed up by a rolling ocean of bleached gypsum with camera in hand, clicking and snapping as I captured in digital bits and bytes the end of my life and the perennially shifting contours of this grainy surface of moon on earth.

Established in 1933,White Sands National Monument within mountain-rimmed Tularosa Basin is an anomaly as parks go because it’s surrounded by the U.S. military on all sides; the 3,200-square-mile White Sands Missile Range and nearby Holloman Air Force Base. Interestingly, in 1982 the space shuttle Columbia landed 30 miles west of Alamogordo at the White Sands Space Harbor not that far from the monument. The relationship between monument and military has been delicate, if not a bit testy due to conflicting uses, like noisy overflights. Fortunately an uneasy truce of sorts has been worked out over the years.

Families and photographers mesmerized by the stunning beauty want to frolic and pay homage to the world’s largest gypsum sandbox, while certain elements within the military establishment and industrial complex no doubt wish they could bomb the snot out of the place, zap it with high-tech lasers, and blast missiles and rockets unfettered through monument airspace without fear of getting sued for dropping errant warheads on unsuspecting civilians.

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It’s best to bone up on some regulations before entering. They let us play in the sand during daylight hours, but boot us out at sunset. For those inclined toward grape or grain, drinking alcoholic beverages is permitted, but not during February, March, April and May, don’t ask me why. Don’t even think of bringing glass bottles or kegs through the front gate.

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Hiking permits are required in some areas, and photography prohibited on large portions of the missile range should you stray beyond the monument’s boundaries; there’s top-secret stuff going on, and if you’re caught you’ll end up at Guantanamo on your knees with a bag over your head dressed in orange.

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Oh, and check the launch schedule because the paved eight-mile Dune Drive which leads from the adobe-style visitors center into the marrow of the monument is periodically closed while nearby rockets and missiles are sent whizzing, preferably skyward. Except for a handful of remote primitive campsites, there’s no overnight camping in the monument, either, so you’ll need to find lodging in and around Alamogordo 14 miles east of here, or at state and federal campgrounds within an hour’s drive.

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Although a visit to WSNM comes with restrictions, I’m sure some are necessary. And if that’s the cost of deterrent, of keeping us safe from bad people who want the “Great Satan America” wiped off the planet, it’s a small price to pay. Don’t let a few rules and regulations keep you from visiting. It’s beautiful and popular with the kiddies of all ages; lazy old slugs as well as young squealers romping about in playground heaven. And do they ever squeal. You’d think they were having the times of their lives.

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Much of the noise can be attributed to sand sledding, kids sliding down the slip faces of dunes on waxed, plastic snow saucers. It’s popular, but keep an eye on the children. While sand might be soft, speeds accelerate and the runs, often very steep, can bottom-out on hard-packed surfaces resulting in dislocated jaws or broken necks and a life of spoon-fed applesauce. Accordingly, everyone is warned not to sled head-first, and no standing up on the saucer on the way down. Pick your spots carefully.

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Families hanging out in the shade of large beach umbrellas or in the shadow of covered picnic tables sipping cold Pepsi and gobbling down barbequed pig watching the young burn energy the old only dream of seems to be a favorite pastime on weekends. And if you forget your saucer, you can buy one, or more, at the visitors center on the drive in.

imageBuilt in the 1930s, the Spanish-pueblo adobe-style visitors center complex, made of adobe bricks, is architecturally handsome as visitors centers go, and well worth a stop. With vigas, sabinas and corbels throughout (large poles, aspen logs and carved scrolls in, and pertaining to, the roof structure) and heavy Indian-Spanish style benches and chairs to rest your weary bones on, it’s a step back in time.

On my visits I like to keep it simple, wandering aimlessly far from the wide, bladed compacted road, making my own tracks in the sand, endeared by intersecting lines that speak their own language, and fields of pattern that come and go with ever-shifting white specks of moderately water-soluble calcium sulfate dihydrate (Huh?).

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Vegetation out here is meager as one would expect, though occasional scrub oak cling to thin soils for dear life, and soap-tree yucca with their long-reaching root systems cluster in pockets, and defiant grasses and salt brush strive for life along the edges of this pure-white wasteland of beautiful proportions. Look carefully and you’ll spot the nocturnal telltale tracks of bleached ear-less lizards or the Apache pocket mouse, or sands wood rats that call this place home.

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But bring water, and a sense of direction. And bring a camera. As the sun hovers near the horizon, mornings or evenings, shapes and shadows are revealed at their best. Words of caution: The big yellow orb will blister your hide in the summer, winter’s cold blast can snap your brittle bones to dust, and hard spring winds can be downright demonic in New Mexico. And don’t forget your sunglasses. You’ll need them.

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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer


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