Big America: White Sands at Sunset


White Sands National Monument, New Mexico. Desert terrains often have an other-worldly character to them, but White Sands in southern New Mexico is in a class of it’s own. Ever-moving dunes of pure gypsum sand cover an ancient lake bed for some 275 square miles of desert basin. And these dunes are white as snow. Impossibly white. The snow comparison is an unserving understatement. But what’s whiter than snow? Light and spirit. And the spiritual is what comes to mind watching the sunset over the San Andres Mountains, the last rays of which cast a pink hue to the silky rolling dunes spread out in all directions. A Sahara for the soul, there is an energy here that lies just out of reach, tempting visitors to venture further into the sandy abyss, and luring them to come back.

White Sands at Sunset

White Sands at Sunset. Photo by Arlo

This is what happened to me. I first visited White Sands in 2006 with my father on the drive west that brought me to California in the first place. I have wanted to return ever since. To walk barefoot on these cotton dunes, and to take the time of day there to simply breath. To be. And also, as a naturalist, to hopefully observe some it’s unique and cryptic desert fauna. But even the best laid plans can falter.

Boca and I had intended to camp at White Sands National Monument, and actually sleep on the dunes themselves beneath a starry desert sky. The night prior we explored a prehistoric forest where dinosaurs once roamed, the rocky remains of the Petrified Forest National Park strewn haphazardly across the Painted Desert.

After overnighting in a small town called Eagar in Arizona’s White Mountains, we decided to drive south through Gila National Forest. And this was our mistake. The roads were narrow, winding, and poorly marked. We took a wrong turn and ended up on a half day detour, lost amongst the high altitude pine lands of Apache National Forest.

Desert plants at sunset

Desert plants at sunset

We didn’t make it to White Sands until just before sunset. We were refused a camping permit. We were too late. But we were also right on time. In time for what nature had intended all along. A spectacular light show for our benefit. Alone and desperately tiny on the mammoth dunescape, we witnessed our solar system’s fiery center dip beneath jagged dry hills, casting a Santa Fe water color mural across the sky and dunes.

Here’s a few photographic remnants of what we saw. The top photo, taken by Boca, is a postcard made with the new Gogobot iphone app. Gogobot CEO Travis Katz liked it so much, he shared it on Facebook. Enjoy what we saw. But what we felt can only be experienced firsthand.

Desert plant at sunset. White Sands. Photo by Arlo

6 Responses to “Big America: White Sands at Sunset”

  1. What a personal post; I love your descriptions. White Sands is a out of this world place and you got to visit at sunset, which makes the landscape even more touching. Love the pictures and so glad you got to visit again. Hopefully you’ll get to pitch your tent one day soon…

  2. Virginia says:

    Thanks for this beautiful post Arlo. I love your description of the spiritual experience that you had in this very special place and time. Nature always brings us back to our soul, it connects us with the “big soul”, as I heard some people call this spiritual presence. I am happy that you could open up to the experience and just let things be. That’s precious. I hope you can keep that connection for a long, long time…

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  5. Hold says:

    From what I’ve heard from members of two nortrehn, First Nations bands, the Enbridge pipeline is going to be a lightning rod for civil disobedience. Apparently the path crosses the territory of some 61 reserves. Harper is going to have to take down and imprison a lot of people over this, including some Gi’itgat – the Hartley Bay band who took to their small boats in the dark to rescue the passengers and crew of the Queen of the North. That’ll infuriate a lot of non-native southerners in BC.

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