We drove, astonished, down the hard-packed road, a crust of white stuff on our right and a mound of it on the left. It was 70 degrees and sunny, but everything else suggested an Arctic landscape.
Leaving the car a few minutes later, the opposite impression was formed as we climbed a dune line under the hot sun, fully expecting the sea to appear as we crested the small hill. The heat, the snow, the coastal ambiance; where on earth were we?
You likely did not guess New Mexico, and we never would have either. But there we were, less than two hours outside of El Paso, Texas, getting the equivalent of a ski trip, a seashore vacation, and maybe even a short lunar excursion one day last weekend.
I read about White Sands National Monument a few months ago, and the stark beauty had pulled at me ever since. Quick, reasonably-priced flights from Houston to El Paso allowed me to convince husband J to get away for a long weekend to west Texas and New Mexico, where we started at White Sands and worked our way back east to Guadelupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns.
The otherworldly dunes at White Sands did not disappoint. Spread across hundreds of square miles in the Tularosa Basin, the great white waves of gypsum sand rise and fall, in some areas burying yucca plants that fight back by extending their flowering stalks skyward.
Tufts of hardy desert grasses cling to the ground beneath, and even the occasional cottonwood tree perseveres, helping provide shade for the creatures that thrive in the desert. Shrubs and wildflowers add a spot of pale color here and there.
Driving farther into the park led to more wintry scenes, however, with higher mounds and long stretches of open sand unpunctuated by flora, looking every bit like powdery snow. We had much of the park to ourselves in early November, but we caught sight of a few sledders, walkers, and photographers as we trudged into the whiteness, noting any possible landmarks to guarantee our ability to retrace our steps, not an easy task in the monochromatic expanse.
Unlike most deserts, White Sands holds onto much of the water that falls during the summer monsoon season. It lies just beneath the surface of the sand, itself formed by the wind-whipped gypsum flakes that have been driven into this basin in the Chihuahuan Desert for the last 10,000 years.
The sand is as fine as that on a Caribbean beach, but it is also wet enough to pack down into roads and is much cleaner than the organic sand found on tropical beaches around the world.
It sweeps like whipped cream, then folds and gathers in ridges, shadows forming in the corrugated surface that turn it into anything your mind can imagine – the Sahara, the Atlantic coast, a pockmarked moonscape.
This unspoiled preserve and all its permutations captivated me all afternoon. We stuck around for sunset, when rosy hues melted into cloudless blues, all forming a colorfully striped background for the now-pastel dunes in the foreground, and drove away reluctantly only after the sun had completely disappeared from this strange little patch of Earth.