I made the turn off U.S. Highway 70 into the White Sands National Monument. I drove in from Las Cruces, New Mexico, avoiding the interstate and taking the long way back to Colorado. I had purposefully made the detour in order to see the monument, something I had been interested in since first seeing it on a map years ago.
The drive up from Tombstone, Arizona, where I spent the previous night, was long and uninteresting. My one moment of excitement happened when I first left town. I was pulled over at a Border Patrol station a few miles north of Tombstone. The dog checking my car thought it smelled a person – it was me! – and so I was asked to pull over and have my vehicle emptied and searched by agents. I worried the same would happen as I approached the monument, since I was being directed into another Border Patrol station. Thankfully, I was quickly waved through and on my way to the monument.
I had a long drive still ahead of me. I was hoping yet to make it to Raton, New Mexico, driving a total of twelve hours on the day. So I didn’t have long to spend at the White Sands. I knew any more than an hour would make for difficult driving later in the night. But I couldn’t pass on an opportunity to see such a place, the largest gypsum sand dune field in the world.
The road leading into the dunefield was clear and open. I was amazed, since I assumed the sand would blow in from across the dunes or down from the mountains into the Tularosa Basin and continually cause problems. I wasn’t far off the mark, since I later learned from reading the park brochure that since no river drains the basin the gypsum, which is soluable in water, is brought down from the mountains by the rain and snow. It is then deposited in the basin at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert.
The gypsum was deposited in the area 250 million years ago when the land was the bottom of a shallow sea. Fast forward to today, the gypsum is now slowly devouring the eight mile road leading into the dunes. The farther I drove the more it appeared I was disobeying the signs warning that off-road driving was prohibited, since the roads were covered in gypsum sand; it appeared as though snowplows were used to clear the way.
Several trails darted off in all directions throughout the park. Picnic tables occasionally lined the sides of the road. I had time for neither, since I was in a hurry to continue my drive. But there was no way I could travel that distance, more than two hours out of my way to Colorado, and not take the time to walk on the dunes. So while leaving my car running, I ran up a small dune to leave my footprints where it appeared none had been left before.