From space, the White Sands National Monument looks like someone spilled WhiteOut on the the New Mexico map. Up close, the sand is as white as snow and unlike anything I have seen in this country. Dunes, twenty to thirty feet high, carve the landscape for as far as the eye can see. This quickly becomes one of my favorite – and most surprising – places.
I arrive in the late afternoon at the Ranger’s Station to register for a campsite. There are only ten primitive sites in the entire park. A friendly Asian woman staffs the desk. As I register she smiles and says, “It’s very cool out there. Oh, and tonight, it’s going to be cold!” I think to myself that rangers are like news reporters: they like to give bad news with a grin on their face.
She runs through some rules before issuing my camping permit:
“No fires in the dunes. Please bring plenty of water.”
“Carry in and carry out whatever you need.”
“There are no toilets out there, so bring your own toilet paper.”
“Most people who get lost do so because they set out after dark, so if something happens, just stay put for the night, then make your way back in the morning.”
“What cell phone carrier do you have?” she asks.
“AT&T,” I reply.
“It won’t work out there,” she says. “If you have an emergency, go to campsite 2, they have Verizon. Don’t go to 5 – they’re German and their phones don’t work here.”
“I’ll be just fine,” I smile back at her.
“I’m sure you will,” she say as she closes the registration book . . . with a smile.
At the Backcountry Camping parking lot I repack for the night. The campsite is only a one-mile hike, so I take only minimal gear: tent, sleeping bag, food, water and toilet paper. I leave the Thermarest Pad, assuming the dune field is soft enough for sleeping. As I hike, I begin to sweat. The weight I have gained eating too many burritos and fast food hamburgers feels like steel bars around my midsection.
Campsite 4 is sandwiched in between two 30-foot white sand dunes. The sun is low in the horizon and colored clouds make an appearance just above the mountains to the West. I set up quickly, grab my camera and climb up the hillock to watch the sunset reflect off the gypsum.
For dinner I prepare Backcountry Pantry Teriyaki Chicken and Rice followed by freeze-dried spumoni ice cream, which sticks to my teeth in an un-ice-cream fashion. Exhausted, I check the time to see if it’s anywhere close to bedtime. 5:54 pm. I scan the sky. It’s dark, midnight dark, maybe my watch is wrong. I crawl into the tent to rest my eyes. I dream about magical creatures with bells.
Middle of the night: I wake, cold and stiff from the hard sand. “It must be 3 in the morning,” I think to myself. “Perfect for night writing!” – the long exposure photos I enjoy taking. I unzip my tent and crawl into the cool desert air. I shiver, rub my arms fast, then pull on every layer of clothing I have: two sweatshirts and a thin Spring jacket.
At the top of the drift, I see Holloman Air Force Base shining brightly in the distance. I snap a few pictures, but it’s too cold so I slide back down the dune to my tent. Maybe I can get a couple more hours of rest before the sun comes up. I look at my cell phone. I was completely wrong about the time. 9:53 pm. Damn, it’s going to be a long night!
3:00 AM: A chorus of amphibians outside my tent. Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu. Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu. I dream of toads dancing hand-in-hand in a circle around my campsite. I unzip my tent and shine a light. Nothing. Silence. I zip up and close my eyes. Chirp, chirp, rouuuuu. Their dancing resumes. Maybe it’s a special ceremony. Maybe I am the guest of honor. Or perhaps the human sacrifice? I snuggle into my sleeping bag.
5:00 AM: The amphibians have moved off in the distance – maybe onto another sacrifice. I lay awake cursing the sand for jabbing my rib cage and thigh. Turning on my back doesn’t help. I unzip my tent and crawl into the freezing pre-dawn dunes. The sky is changing color, ever so slightly. What a wonderful time to snap photos!
I scramble to the top of the tallest sand pile. “That would make a great shot,” I think to myself looking at the next dune. I walk. “That one has no footprints.” I walk. “That one is angled differently.” I walk. This goes on for some time and I chase the composition in my lens from dune to dune. As the sun rises into the sky, I strip off one sweatshirt and tie it around my waist.
Time for breakfast! Starving, sweaty and thirsty, I make my way back to my tent. The dunes look different now. Light changes their configuration. The horizon is different too. I walk. And walk.
I don’t find my tent; it’s not where I placed it on the map in my mind. The sand looks defiant now, angry. I see one set of tracks leading in the opposite direction. I compare my imprint – no match. I follow them anyway. Then, they fade away into the earth.
Next I find many tracks: bobcat, snake, barefoot person and hiking boot. I mentally compare the night horizon with what I see in the distance now: a water tower, mountains, sand dunes. Can’t figure it out. I use my camera lens to scan. I see four tents all set up in a row. If I can make it there, I can trace the trail back to my tent.
Approaching, I see that they are not tents at all, but picnic shades. No one here. Dammit. I curse the 275 square miles of white gypsum dunes that stand in between me, breakfast and hydration. I climb again to scan the whiteout. There I see my salvation: a trio several mounds away. I practically fall down one hill and crawl up the next. I come to a road – THE road – saved! Except, I could be anywhere on a ten mile stretch.
I lunge towards the couple and their teenage daughter, whom I saw in my lens.
“Are you camping?” I ask, screaming “Help!” in my head.
“No,” they reply. “Are you?”
“Yes, but I lost my tent.”
They laugh, looking at each other. The daughter comments, “See mom and dad, we should have camped. That’s how we get sunrise pictures of the dunes!”
“Did you get some good pictures?” she asks.
My mind races, “I’m completely fucking lost and first you laugh, then you ask if I got pictures? Can’t you see I haven’t eaten anything this morning and have been without water?” Then, I hear, “Yes, I got some great pictures” come out of my mouth.
“How long have you been lost?” the girl asks.
“Two days,” I lie, looking for a reaction.
Their eyes light up, “Two days?!” There is the sympathy I seek.
“No, I’m joking. Just since this morning.”
The group is of no help in figuring out where I am on the road or in the park. They left their map in the car.
“Good luck!” they yell as I walk down yet another hill of white sand.
“Good luck?” I think to myself. Good luck that I don’t find your car and have a sharp object in my pocket!
I strip off clothes and follow the road. It doesn’t matter which direction I follow. My stomach flip flops eating itself for sustenance. I walk. Then, a miracle. My car! Dusty – the amazing lesbian Jeep that has carried me thousands of miles. True salvation! Only, my keys are in the tent. Dammit again! But, at least I know where the tent is now. Only a mile away.
Approaching my car, I hear “Gud mornink.” A young couple is smoking by their black Ford 500, both dressed head-to-toe in black spandex. I smile.
“Morning,” I reply. These must be the Germans from Camp 5.
“Nice car,” I say.
“Ya, vee thought vee look like Men in Black,” they look at each other and laugh.
I nickname them Boris and Natasha. I know they are not Russian, but the names seem to fit. They are from Munich on a six-week US road trip.
“You must be from camp 5,” I say.
“Ya,” says Boris.
“Und yooo?” asks Natasha, blowing smoke over her shoulder.
“Camp 4, but I got lost this morning.”
They look at each other and laugh. “How deed you git lost? It’s only one-point-one miles to the camp,” Boris says with some authority.
“I was taking pictures of the dunes.”
“Oh, ya, vell, stay on da trail today!” Boris says.
“Ya, on da trail,” Natasha adds for emphasis.
They puff on their cigarettes and laugh as I walk towards my breakfast in the sand.
Obviously, I find my way back to my tent, water and breakfast – freeze dried eggs and bacon. After eating and hydrating, I consider my experience. I determine it unwise to set out on foot without water, food, and car keys. But, I also think that getting lost in the pursuit of such immense, otherworldly beauty is well worth the humiliation of a few snickering strangers!