White Sands National Monument
I arrived in a panic. I had ten, maybe fifteen minutes of sunlight left. I'd have had twenty minutes more if it weren't for those pesky mountains raising the level of the horizon. Fortunately, the park attendant at the gate recognized my desperation, coupled with the anxiety of my lengthy journey, and waved me in. "Pay on your way out."
Fifty yards in, I was already lost. Well, as lost as one can get on a solitary road. On the left, white. On the right, more white. White everywhere. Eventually, the pavement ended and I was driving on it. White underneath. It looked amazingly like snow. I could have driven for hours and felt like I had never moved. I wanted to stop, but wasn't sure if I could. Was there a destination or could you just pull off anywhere? You are allowed to walk on the dunes, right? I wasn't handed any information, so I wasn't sure what the rules were. With the sky quickly growing dark, I chanced it and pulled over.
The dunes were surprisingly firm, not at all like I had imagined. It's quite easy to walk across the surface of the sand, at least if you're on a relatively level surface. The embankments, however, will swallow you whole. Climbing them is a lot like walking under water; you put a whole lot of effort into it and you never really get anywhere. I'm sorry to report there's no real trick to it. Just try to find a shallow incline.
Like I said, the sand is firm, but it still records your trespass. After walking some distance, I looked back and felt a nervous guilt for marking the pristine white with all those footprints. Again, I wasn't even sure if I was supposed to be there.
My paranoia soon disappeared, however, as I lost sight of my car, the road and the sun, and was quickly replaced by a powerful and mysterious awe. The view was anesthetic. Miles of rippling white gypsum sand in every direction. And it was bathed in that elusive moment of twilight when your eyes don't quite understand everything they see. It was like discovering a place no one had ever witnessed before.
Then the more cynical portion of my brain told me I looked very much like a cigarette butt in an enormous ashtray. With that thought, I started taking pictures.
By the way, a neck strap here is advisable. This is not the sort of place you want to drop a camera. It is worth it, however, to sacrifice the hygiene of a tripod to capture those difficult, but rewarding, dusk-lit images. Disappointingly, I had just enough time to burn a roll of film, but none left over to enjoy White Sands personally. I would have to wait until the film was developed.
But, as I drove out through the dark, I assured myself that I would be back, especially since I never paid. The park attendant who had postponed my fee left before I did.
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