Wander In The Desert
The beauty of traveling is that you never know what you are going to find. There is always the element of surprise and discovery, of wonder and amazement. Like that of a child’s adventures – and his adventures like that of a child – dreamy, pointless, uninhibited.
I first set my eyes on this wonderland in 2017 when I set out on my first cross country trip from sunny California to the city of dreams, New York. I had just made a wild decision to travel full time – but this is only half true. The other ‘bigger’ half – I was homeless (still am), living in my car without a clear destination (also true presently). But that is another story.
There weren’t many on my list of places I wanted to visit. There was New York and the East Coast. Sure! Joshua Tree? Why not. Grand Canyon? Probably. Stop in Colorado for some recreational weed? Definitely! Dunder Mifflin office? Sounds fun. And then there is White Sands National Monument. Absolutely.
But the road is full of surprises, and as I would find out have plans of its own. Twice I crossed New Mexico but every time I get close something comes along the way, missing my mark every single time.
I chalked it all up to bad luck tied to unpreparedness.
So when I was up for another long trip, this time to Houston, I didn’t want to make the same mistakes. This time, I thought, I’d make sure I’d be wandering on many great journeys in the desert, build a fortress, defend it from intruders and busk in the glory under the moonlit and starry skies. Or maybe just sleep in my tent and read a book. Who knows. I just can’t miss it this time, so I told myself.
I made a plan.
Well, I take that back – I don’t make plans. At least not that kind of ‘plan’ning per se, but more like a guide, though not less sincere.
I headed East with the park in mind to shower in all its glory, of surprise and disappointment. But first I need to get there. Sure.
And then the road happens. Like always. As it should. What was I thinking?
It was supposed to be a quick detour before heading to White Sands National Monument.
On impulse, I traveled down south towards the border – a town I wasn’t supposed to be in. A place I didn’t know existed until just a day prior. I was at a rest area somewhere in Phoenix when I read an article on a local paper about an old mining town. But not just an old mining town, I tell you.
A world of its own.
There was something about the aura of this old town. The colorful people, like characters out of magic even, it was hard not to notice. I felt part of me belonged there, but I couldn’t quite tell what it was.
I was only there for a couple of hours but I was captivated nonetheless and didn’t want to leave just yet. Which of course would have been alright if I wasn’t dead broke.
The place is full of shops, galleries, and other artisan stuff. A mix of the old and new.
In the quick time I was there I met Poe, artist, gallery owner, half of the duo of SamPoe Gallery. Poe is an incredible artist and an amazing person. He was kind enough to share his views, routines and even explained some of the thoughts behind his works.
He introduced me to another artist/musician and maker of things, John. John was on his way to lunch when he passed by Poe’s gallery. He has a studio on the corner that had an array of various stringed instruments in all shapes and sizes. He also made all of them. What’s more incredible is that these creations can be played, (meaning, despite its weird shapes and sizes it can be tuned, and stay in-tune) though I didn’t get the chance to try. The studio was closed when Poe and I went, and I could only imagine. Just like Poe’s studio it was filled with interesting things and objects, I could stay there and ogle, and play, and talk.
Upon knowing I am a musician, Poe mentioned an event with live music happening that evening and invited me to it.
Chatting with these unbelievably creative individuals got me excited in a way I felt a sense of belonging – like I was a part of the circle, an artist, or something. In other words, I was starstruck.
Now, I had to choose. Party or isolation?
I barely managed to summon enough courage to leave Bisbee and promised to be back someday.
It was past 2pm when I left Bisbee, AZ, and headed to Las Cruces, New Mexico – some 243 miles – where I planned to stay for the night.
Driving so close to the border gave me an eerie feeling. There was a strong tension emanating from this imaginary line. Fear and curiosity all at once, as if I was divided, too, and this delicate war of primal emotions was making me uneasy.
Las Cruces, New Mexico
I arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, before 9pm. I had been on the road for 7 hours and on my third State of the trip. The city is situated 46 miles north of the Mexican border and 48 miles northwest of El Paso, Texas.
I parked at a rest area that sat on top of a hill overlooking a magnificent view of the city.
The plan was to stay here for the night before heading early morning to White Sands National Monument.
It had been raining but simmered to a light drizzle when I got out of the car to watch a spectacular view of the city. Climbed on a ledge at one of the picnic areas and marveled at the shimmering lights of cars and houses.
The next day I got up before dawn and prepared breakfast. I moved in and out of my car to warm up as the early morning air dropped to a biting low 30s while waiting for the early sun. It was one of those moments where you can forget about the rest, even for a brief time, and be fine with just the way it is. What else could be better than watching a newborn day, I murmured silently.
Overlooking a panoramic view of the land, I watched the sun slowly rise above the horizon casting its early soft rays from a warm glow to bright yellow blanketing the city to a peaceful sleep.
There is hope in the newborn day. Comfort in the cold and early silent morning.
Not long I was back on the road and drove north, marveled at the vast expanse of barren lands and jagged mountain rocks like they are from a different planet. It occurred to me how little I know about America, let alone another planet.
White Sands Visitor Center
I made it to the visitor center by 9 am shortly after passing my second border patrol inspection.
The park is completely surrounded by military installations. Both the Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range (largest US military installation) regularly conduct missile tests in the area rendering the park off limits during these periods.
After getting a camping permit, I took a gander at the exhibits and presentations on the adjacent room from the front desk. I was particularly amazed at the process of how long it took for the sand dunes to become what they are now – some million years. Interestingly, human footprints were found here from the last ice age, some 11700 years ago, believed to be hunting ground sloths.
Filled my water bottles and an emergency gallon on a fountain station outside the visitor center – the last water source before entering the park.
The attending park ranger was feeling generous when I passed the entrance and let me in for free. My second park this trip where I got in free. Thank you, rangers!
On the way inside, the landscape starts changing from brown and green to white. The drive then switches to an unpaved road towards the dune fields. Tiny crystals that have been broken down to sugary white grains by weathering and erosion. Crystals mostly of Gypsum mineral, used as fertilizer, building materials, plaster etc.
An ocean of white sand, some 275 sq miles of sand dune waves on the edge of the Chihuahuan desert.
The atmosphere and landscape have now turned to white with blue ridges to the far ends of the horizon. Now everywhere I looked seemed not of this world.
There are plenty of activity areas along 8-mile Dunes Drive loop. There weren’t many visitors at that time and the few were scattered all throughout the loop in designated areas for hiking, sightseeing, camping, sand sledding, picnic etc.
While preparing my gears at the backcountry parking lot, I met a couple of backpackers who’d camped out the night before. One of the hikers told me it could get down below zero during the night when I asked how the weather was. I wasn’t sure if he meant Fahrenheit or Celsius but it didn’t matter – I put on 4 layers of clothing and 2 sleeping bags. Overkill? I’ve learned my lesson.
The good thing about the campsites here is it’s less than 2 miles away from the trailhead which is next to the parking lot.
Entering the trailhead on the backcountry trail, from afar, were some couples and families with kids hiking, sledding on the dunes. Alone on the trail, I could hear their jubilant voices until they start to disappear and all that is left was silence.
As I got deeper into the heart of the dunes my perspective slowly started to shift. A sense of proportion in relation to the world somehow was disoriented. That might and majesty only a desert could command, intoxicating at first but not long becomes humbling.
By noon I had been frolicking in the desert for more than an hour, hiking on sand dunes, climbing giant heaps of sugary sand and sliding down the other end.
I dropped my sunglasses on my way to Bisbee and have not prepared for the intense blinding light of the sun and the reflection from the sand. There are a few desert plants but there is no shade in the desert, nowhere to hide from the sun. There are trail markers scattered a few dozen yards, reminding you there is no joke around here, it is easy to get lost and without water, it can get ugly.
I pitched my tent at campsite 9 early afternoon then wandered around aimlessly and took photos of this inexplicable beauty.
I walked around wondering what it must have been like when the first atomic bomb was tested just 90 miles away. I thought about the signs posted about potential loose missiles in the area. After all, the park is in the middle of missile testing facilities that regularly conducts missile testings.
The vastness of the desert becomes alive, so overwhelming, I shrink into a spec. Sand that had been a witness of the passing of time, millions upon millions of years long before I was born and long after I die. I grabbed a handful of and whispered, “Hello friend” as if that mattered. As if to say I am alive. As if I am a witness too. “I am here”, I said.
I know there is so much more.
Out here, I could talk and do things to my heart’s content – a soldier, an explorer, pirate, nomad, treasure hunter, lost soul, time traveler, seeker, vagabond, transient – I am all of it. I am also nothing.
I wandered in awe of the sheer beauty and grandeur of the desert. I was both a part of and maker of a world – cast and director. Like that of a child’s play. Like it had always been.
Isolation and reverie
Being alone in the stillness of night, I remembered why I came here. There is a reward should you choose to take on the unconventional path – tranquility.
The desert forces upon a sense of proportion of how tiny you are in relation to the world – solitude in the vastness of the open skies and the indifference of the land. Here, you are only what you feel you are worth, nothing more, nothing less.
Traveling gives the opportunity to be childlike, again, genuinely curious and immersed in total wonderment.