Wednesday, May 18, 2011

white sands

Yesterday was so extraordinary an experience that I couldn't even write about it right away. We (Susan, Megan and I) hit the road out of town and headed south. Our destination was White Sands National Monument, which I'd read about and was eager to see. We stopped in Hatch to see the chiles ("Stop the car!" I bellowed, when I spied the statue of a 20-foot man holding a chile pepper) and to photograph old signs, and to have lunch. It felt good to be cruising, watching the desert landscape unfurl endlessly into the distance, with stretches of green here and there amid the beige, the vast blue sky and hazy mountains far beyond. Driving through the White Sands Missile Range we craned our heads around but all seemed uneventful up above. After checking out the visitor's center at the National Monument we slowly rolled out into the dunes, and all at once we were surrounded by a billowing, brilliantly white world of sand. Blindingly bright without sunglasses, and even with them you're still squinting. We drove to the furthest trail and parked. Immediately, someone's straw hat rolled past me bouncing merrily in the wind over the sand and without thinking, I took off. I felt like a cartoon chasing after this hat, always just a step behind. Finally the hat slowed down and I lunged for it. Waving it triumphantly aloft I returned to the parking lot and returned it to the woman off whose head it had blown. I secured my own hat firmly on my head and with one hand holding it securely, I scrambled after my friends up the steep dunes, laughing and slipping through the sand. Some people were sledding down the dunes, with a black and white dalmatian chasing after them. While Megan waved from the top, Susan made a sand angel and against the white they looked like stars. Looking around, all I could see was softly drifting dunes of pure white, blown by the wind into the blazing pale sky. We hiked around the first trail, wind whipping the sand against our limbs. Our cameras seemed to register only a blinding white blankness, as if the outside rules of land and sky didn't apply here. Surely they had ceased to exist, and we were left to wander blindly through this fantastic dream landscape. In an unguarded moment, my own hat blew off my head and after a decent pursuit I collapsed upon it breathlessly.
Another trail led along an elevated boardwalk around which grew many of the fiercely determined plants, such as verbena and rosemarymint, that adapt to survive here. Lizards and mice evolve pale colorations; yuccas and cottonwoods anchor their roots and push up to keep just above the gently shifting dunes. Our third hike was a mile-long nature trail. Closing my eyes now, I call forth clearly the sensation of running down one of these steep dunes, feet sinking into the fine warm sand to feel the coolness beneath, landing in an exhilarated pile at the bottom. Even though I understand how these dunes formed-- a huge shallow basin with no river to drain it, filled 2000 feet deep with gypsum from the eroding mountains, creating the finest white sand blown around by strong winds-- I still found it incredible and otherworldly; truly, as a friend had called it, a surreal, delicate yet harsh place.
After piling our sun-burnished selves into the car and rehydrating, we drove back west and stopped in Old Mesilla, near Las Cruces, at a restaurant recommended by two women who'd come by the studio. There were parrots, fish tanks and waterfalls, and terrific Mexican food. I enjoyed the ride home as the pink sky darkened and the full yellow moon slowly faded to silvery white as it rose. Today I tried to do some moon and sand watercolors, my mind full of these images, and used up the rest of my white paint trying to evoke what I'd seen, though the paint seems too heavy and drippy a substance to capture something so ethereally beautiful.

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