Day 35: White Sands National Monument, NM by Wookie Kim

When I made my itinerary for this summer, I implicitly attached expectations to each stop. I knew the Grand Canyon would be grand, and I knew sites east of the Mississippi would, for the most part, not be grand. But there have been some places that have blown those expectations out of the water. White Sands National Monument, which is a gypsum sand dune area just a few miles west of Alamogordo, NM, is one of those places.

I left Lakeside, AZ late. I had about 400 miles to drive today, so that was a poor decision. I made the most of my time on the road. I came across a curious place called Pie Town. I stopped at the Pie-O-Neer. Apparently, Pie Town was named because pie was the main attraction of this town when it first popped up--people passing through would know to come here for a slice. I had the New Mexico apple pie (it has green chiles and pine nuts in it, too), and it was delicious. Worth the stop.

And then I cruised to White Sands National Monument. As has been typical lately--when I've been driving extended distances and also feeling the building fatigue--I arrived late in the day. It was 5:30 p.m. by the time I got out to the dunes. The sun blazed and painted the normally white dunes orange.

This was an incredible place. Unlike traditional sand dunes, the dunes in White Sands are made of gypsum crystals. White Sands is the only gypsum dune field of its scale in the world. So what allowed this to happen here and not elsewhere? Apparently, it has to do with the nature of the Tularosa Basin, which is somewhat unique in that no water flows out of it. Gypsum is water-soluble and normally flows out of a basin towards the sea. Since the water that arrives in the Tularosa Basin ends up staying here, it evaporates and leaves behind gypsum.

I learned from the ranger at the visitor center that the sand was pleasant to walk on. She mentioned that local university track teams would occasionally come out here to do workouts. I asked her if there were any hazards to running barefoot and, surprisingly, she said no. With that endorsement, I decided to run barefoot (and shirtless).

Another unique aspect of the monument is that there are really no trails. There's a scenic loop drive, but you're encouraged to get out wherever you want and just walk on the dunes. It was fun to find my own area and be the only one leaving footprints on a fresh dune.

The sand was cool to the touch. Gypsum is also unique in that it doesn't absorb heat well. So, even though it was scorching hot, and the sun had been beating down on the area all day, the sand was actually cool.  It was unlike any sand I'd ever stepped on before.

I liked being here at sunset. The whiteness of the sand provided the perfect canvas on which to see the long shadows that any vertical objects created. If the angle of the dune was right, my shadow extended hundreds of feet.

More than anything, the place was just peaceful. I'd gone off the road for just about half a mile, and I could barely see anyone or anything but sand dunes. The sunset also added a degree of serenity--I felt like the day was ending and everything was beginning to rest.

Looking more closely at the sand, however, you could see signs of life. One thing that has fascinated me about the deserts is how wildlife survive here. I saw traces of such wildlife while walking and running the dunes.

Of course, all the photos make it appear as though the dunes are not, in fact, white. I think the setting sun has to do with that. The reality is that the dunes are quite white. A close-up, and color-corrected, shot shows just what I mean (ignore my mangled, battered, ugly runner toes--and my sandal tan). 

And then it was time to run. I took some photos first, but then I went back to my car to drop everything but my cell phone (in case I got lost, the GPS would still work). I then proceeded to roam freely on the dunes, running in whatever direction I felt like running. It was incredible.

In fact, I thought to myself how useful it would be to have dunes like these near me. I'd have the chance to occasionally run barefoot and really feel the earth beneath my feet. It would be a great way to improve running form. I was still feeling drained from the R2R (this was 2 days later), plus it was getting dark, so I ended up running only 5 kilometers.

By the time I was done, the sun was dipping below the mountains on the horizon. Again, I felt completely calm--just like the landscape around me.

I meandered back towards (what I hoped was) my car. Each time I looked back, I saw a more impressive landscape.

From the hot desert (though by now it was slightly cooler), I proceeded back through the town of Alamogordo, ate a quick meal at a Mexican restaurant, and then drove up into Lincoln National Forest. There, at 9,000+ feet, I set up camp and watched the night sky before falling into a deep sleep.