White Sands

If you read my last post, you’ll know that I went to White Sands National Monument for the first time a few weeks ago. I was super excited about it, especially since my daughter got to go with us on this trip, and I had heard from friends that it was a fun place to visit with kids. I had been hoping for this for over a year.

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We did a minimal amount of research in advance, mostly finding out opening hours and other general information. Fortunately, missile testing wasn’t going on when we wanted to make our excursion (things I never thought I would have to take into consideration: a missile testing schedule). Fortunately we also located the shower station in Lincoln National Forest, where we were staying; I had a feeling we were going to need it when we returned at the end of the day.

Minimal research meant maximum thrill when we first saw the sands in the distance. It was definitely a family “ooooooh! aahhhhhh!” moment. Unfortunately it also meant that we weren’t entirely mentally prepared for how hot it was going to be. Stepping out of the truck at the visitor’s center brought that reality home with a quickness, a reality that was especially shocking to us since our temporary home in the forest was so blissfully cool and refreshing. We piled on the sunscreen and took our time in the gift shop, where we picked up a sled, sled wax, a hat, an awesome sticker for the cooler, a graphic novel of Native American trickster tales, and a book on ice age animals that was my daughter’s special request (she did read it!).

Even if we had thought it out, nothing could have really prepared us for the heat on the dunes. It was debilitating. Being out there, surrounded by brilliant white gypsum powder, reminded me of the old sun deck at my dorm in college: it was painted white, and we had a perfect view of it from our window; I referred to it as the Fry Daddy, because that’s basically what you did if you laid out there.

We stopped at the boardwalk first. I had no idea how long the walkway extended. People moved slowly under the punishing sun, managing little more than weak smiles at each other as they passed. A crowd had gathered under the awning. It was so bright it was difficult to read the plaques posted at intervals along the way, or to look out at the area they referred to. We saw a lizard racing across the sand, and the tracks of other hardy animals that manage to live there. At the end of the boardwalk, we took turns making group cell phone photos with a family who ended up being our neighbors at camp for the next two nights.

Everybody was glad to get back in the truck after that activity, except for me who climbed a dune a couple of times to photograph a yucca. The landscape there might be difficult to look at, but it’s visually astonishing; it’s a place like nothing I had ever seen! I knew it would be a challenge to get the exposure right; I felt like I was photographing on the surface of the sun.

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Once we left the boardwalk area, we drove (slowly) through the dunes until we got to the end of the road where it was best for sledding. It certainly hadn’t gotten any cooler, and the trek up a dune over and over again to make a good path for riding down was far from enjoyable. But there we were, at White Sands, maybe for the only time ever, so I happily subjected myself to the exertion - and the hilarious slightly humiliating trial of sledding on sand that hadn’t been worn into a track. . . . . I thought I would slide right down, but I sunk into the surface immediately like a bowling ball dropped on a memory foam mattress. My family laughed from the shade and then took turns riding down the track.

It really isn’t like sledding on snow at all, but it sure was an experience and one of those situations where you know that one day you’ll all look back it and laugh. Another family was there at the same time, and the parents managed more trips down the dune than the kids (which was also the case with us).

Last stop was the iconic picnic shelters. Garry Winogrand’s photograph - that I had seen, appropriately enough, for the first time in the wonderful photobook The Open Road (equal parts obsession & inspiration) - came to life before my eyes. . . . minus the people, and I can’t say I blame them, because we all asked each other “who would picnic here?” My family waited in the relative cool of the truck while I photographed to my heart’s content. It was a big moment for me as a photographer, as a woman who had been the girl who pined for the open road. I don’t really have the words to describe how I felt, but it was marvelous.

From there we headed slowly back out, and I made a bunch more photographs from the passenger seat, since it meant we could keep the a/c on even if I rolled the window down.

White Sands is a place of wonder. A place of living history, of geology and time in action. A place of incredible beauty, and astonishing survival. A place I would very much like to see again - in cooler weather!

All photographs are Kodak Ektar, either in Hasselblad 500cm or Nikon FM2. I realize some of them are a little pink; I underexposed them on purpose and chose to leave them pretty much just as they turned out. So what if it’s a little pink? That just means if you want to see how blinding the sands actually are you’ll just have to make a visit there yourself - it’s worth it! (Just don’t go in the summer if you can help it)