By Amelia Pentecost
As the sun set over the Tularosa Basin, I find myself torn. I want to stay where I am, surrounded by fine, powdery sand and the candied colors of the sunset. But I have been told stories about hikers getting disoriented and lost in the dunes just a few miles from the main road. I’m traveling alone these days with no one to gut check my (questionable) sense of direction, so I trudge back reluctantly. Back to the road, back to my van, back to safety.
White Sands National Monument unfurls for miles on every side of me. How can I even describe this place? It’s as soft and lovely as it is hard and unflinching. As beautiful as it is jarring.
How can I even describe this place? It’s as soft and lovely as it is hard and unflinching. As beautiful as it is jarring.
Corralled by high, reddish mountains, White Sands National Monument is the world’s largest gypsum sand dune field, spreading for over 275 square miles in Southern New Mexico. The sand here is so white that at high noon it is almost impossible to see what lies around you. It’s a sea of blindingly white expanse, almost too bright to look at.
The best times to see the park are at dawn and dusk when the sun hangs low enough over the mountains to cast shadows on the dunes, bringing into sight a world that was hidden to the naked eye during the day. The wind creates swell lines, an ocean of rippled sand only interrupted by frantic loops of footprints made by tourists and (if you look closely enough) the determined tracks of desert beetles and snakes.
The sand here is pure, bright, disorienting white. It makes the perfect canvas for the sun to paint upon. One moment the dunes are bathed in a yellow gold, the next they seem almost pink. As I continue to walk toward my van, everything is suddenly peach, exploding warmly in every direction. By the time I reach the road the desert has mellowed to a cool lilac, looking again like a different place.
The singular road made of hard-packed sand slithers through the park in a wide, curving loop. The dunes at the front of the park nearest to the visitor center are covered in the desert’s finest and strangest plants. Yucca with its sharp, reaching arms, pale grasses with puffs of hair and seed, and short succulents bravely peeking out of their sandy beds. As you near the back of the loop, the dunes swell, rising high above the road in a proud army.
I read once that it’s not that the desert doesn’t have water, it’s that it has just enough to sustain the life that resides within it.
I read once that it’s not that the desert doesn’t have water, it’s that it has just enough to sustain the life that resides within it. Take away the cities and the people and the irrigation and you enter a world that is defined by a fragile balance of life and dust. Just enough water, just enough warmth.
When you’re here, surrounded by all this sand, all these alien plants, all these specialized desert animals, it’s impossible to think of yourself as anything but a small part of a gigantic whole.
Back in my van, safe from the imagined horrors of getting lost in this strange world, I continue to watch the night drape its colors over the desert. The quiet sits heavily on me, and I try to match my being to the stillness of the desert.
The quiet sits heavily on me, and I try to match my being to the stillness of the desert.
Amelia Pentecost is a Hawaii-born, California-based writer, traveler, and part-time van dweller. She and her converted Sprinter van have logged over 20,000 miles in journeys across the US and Canada. Follow her adventures via her blog and Instagram.