West of the Pecos, Part II


Having successfully logged my life bird for New Mexico, I took the passenger seat of our rented Buick, an enormous bronze Enclave, and sat back as Dad drove through the cold rain over the Sacramento Mountains into Alamogordo.

The overall emptiness of the lands around me continued to impress, though the increasing altitude did lead to more interesting formations and vegetation, not to mention more interesting weather. The temperature was in the low 40s when we left Roswell, but the further west we got on Highway 70, the lower the Enclave's thermometer dropped. Before long, we were looking at the mid-30s, and the rain was taking on a decidedly whitish cast. A few miles beyond that, we finally had to admit it: it was snowing.

The snow was landing on hillsides covered in a variety of plants not seen down in the Pecos valley. Small evergreens had begun popping up, mainly pinon and juniper, as well as a funky-looking plant that seemed to be made of gigantic pipe cleaners, and the folds and rises of the earth were a welcome change from the almost oppressive flatness and emptiness of the places we'd seen so far--places where a bare-branched pecan grove was a scene of almost astonishing lushness. Despite the inclement weather, the overall character of the land was kinder here, and small villages and farms began popping up as we climbed. Even a few signs and stores catering to tourists appeared.

Before long we were into the mountains proper, where the reasons for the change in signage became clearer: we were approaching a resort area. There was skiing, some of it up on top of Sierra Blanca, but more importantly, there was an Indian reservation, and if there's one thing I learned on my last sojourn in the American west, it's that Indian reservations are hot tourist attractions--at least if there's gambling. And here, the Mescalero Apache tribe had gambling. As we passed through Ruidoso Downs, the trees of Lincoln National Forest gave way to a dog track, numerous hotels, restaurants, you name it.

As we turned south into the reservation proper, the tourist attractions largely disappeared, but the trees did not, and though the snow had stopped, we could still see it everywhere around us:

100_2617.JPGWe passed through the town of Mescalero, where both Dad and I noted a striking difference between it and the towns we'd seen in the Navajo lands of the Four Corners area; there was new construction, plenty of public artwork proudly featuring tribal themes, and a generally more affluent vibe than we'd seen near Ship Rock in 2008. I don't know if the tourist dollars are the only reason for the difference, but Mescalero definitely looked like a more appealing place to live.

Finally, we coasted down the far side of the Sacramentos, and it was immediately apparent what lay ahead of us, just beyond Alamogordo:

100_2622.JPGYep, there they were: the legendary White Sands. A basin of gypsum crystals worn down to grains by wind (and occasional water), and the home of both White Sands Missile Base and White Sands National Monument.

We pulled into Alamogordo, grabbed lunch at a Sonic drive-in (by far the most common fast-food option in this part of the world), dropped off the bags at the hotel, and drove off to WSNM to see what all the fuss was about.

The fuss, in a nutshell, is this: around 250 square miles of pure white dunes, some rising to enormous heights:

100_2632.JPG
That's Dad getting his camera bag from the Enclave, while Ian scopes out the landscape from atop a dune. This wasn't anywhere close to the tallest dune we saw; it was just the one we climbed, having reached the end of the eight-mile drive into the heart of the monument's grounds. By the time we reached this area, even the stubbornest yuccas had given up on trying to eke out a living on the sands, and the drifting grains were so numerous that they had to be cleared from the roads by snowplow. From the top of the dunes, the view was all but extraterrestrial:

100_2635.JPGOkay, granted, the eerie quality of the scene was not one bit decreased by the enormous bank of storm clouds roiling to the east, but I think even under clear skies, this would have been pretty striking. Interestingly, with a ski resort within driving distance, many of the folks in the Alamogordo area come out to the park for purposes of using the sands as snow; they bring their sleds and discs and plow happily down the slopes, rejoicing in the fact that gypsum doesn't store heat that well, allowing them to avoid burning their bare feet (or other body parts) in the sand. The signs at the monument even warn visitors to take care when "sand surfing," though we did not see anyone trying to hang ten on a board.

We didn't stay long--there wasn't much daylight left, but as we came back to the Visitors Center, I took a moment to ask a ranger a question that had been nagging at me: what in Sam Hill was the weird-looking pipecleaner plant I kept seeing? She obligingly led me outside to show me the one growing in the Center's garden and showed it to me: a cane cholla:

100_2705.JPGWith that mystery solved (and the trip's first "Gray-sided" Junco spotted in the picnic area behind the Center), it was time to go back to the hotel, shake the sand out of our boots, and discover that the opaque curtains of our room could not be closed so as to obscure the sight of the Hampton Inn sign glowing outside our window.

What a weird place.

TO BE CONTINUED

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 5, 2010 7:41 AM.

West of the Pecos, Part I was the previous entry in this blog.

West of the Pecos, Part III is the next entry in this blog.

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