Following several visits to Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes in recent years, in May of this year I finally had the opportunity to acquaint myself with White Sands in neighboring New Mexico. Both sandscapes rise like physical anachronisms from the surrounding land and seem to be the product of a painter who wielded her brush in sinuous movements across the canvas. From her palette, she used grey and reddish tints in Colorado, and what appears to be essence of snow in New Mexico, where the sand consists of gypsum. Water dissolves this white mineral from the nearby San Andres Mountains, and deposits it in Lake Lucero in the Tularosa Basin where evaporation transforms it into translucent selenite crystals. Once they erode into the tiny grains that make up the dunes, they sparkle and glisten in the sun, blinding the observer, despite sunglasses.
In the core of what has been designated a National Monument, the road is lined by sandbanks. Snow, or sand plows have to clear it regularly, lest it be overblown, and become impassible for vehicles. Sand banks remind of snow banks, sand drifts of snow drifts, sand storms of snow storms, sandalanches of avalanches. My fellow traveler through life who conceived of the word sandalanche, also described White Sands as “glacier of the desert.” Yet, unlike a snowy environment, this world was hot. Windy conditions mitigated the heat, but also left shoes and skin feeling gritty, a detail not appreciated by my companion. He prefers the crunch of snow to that of sand, which likely inspired his wintery neologisms.
Covering nearly 300 square miles, with individual dunes reaching heights of approximately 100 feet, the undulating scenery would be disorienting were it not for the vertical posts which mark several trails, and try to keep the hiker from getting lost. A limited number of backcountry camp sites on the Monument are accessible by foot only, but since we were not equipped for backpacking, we hope to experience the solitude and vaunted views of the desert night sky during a future foray.
That plants and animals survive in what appears an extremely inhospitable environment is worthy of marvel. White Sands’ vegetation is more dense and varied than at the Great Sand Dunes, and comprises grasses, bushes, and flowers well adapted to desert life. Among the most impressive is the Soaptree Yucca whose stem can extend 20 feet below the surface. Animal tracks bespeak the diversity of the local fauna which includes insects, reptilians, birds, and mammals, but are evanescent, waiting to be swept away by the next breath of wind.
Light-colored lizards and foxes represent a perfect adaptation to this bright habitat, jet-black ravens notwithstanding. Several camouflaged reptilians made an appearance at mid-day, but most mammals, apart from humans, took a siesta during the mid-80s heat. Despite the air temperature, we were surprised by the persistent coolness, and chalky consistency of the dunes to the touch of our hands and feet.
Red, or white, in Colorado or in New Mexico, the sandy mounds in both locations are permanently in flux, rippling like waves, swirling in the breeze, relentlessly blanketing whatever enters their path. Both transport the human visitor into a realm of contrasts: at once soft and harsh, attractive and deterring. And both continue to ripple through my consciousness and evoke images of otherworldly beauty.
Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version: