We had already packed so much into two days when it was time for the main event. White Sands National Monument had beckoned me, enticed me with visions of pure white gypsum, glittering like the biggest diamond you’d even seen suddenly combusted into its smallest, sharpest form. This one stop had incited an entire journey through the state.
The park opened at 8 am sharp and we arrived at 8:30, determined to have our pick of campsites. I’d already scouted the map and had my eye set on one in particular.
“This one,” I said, pointing to campsite 5–the furthest site from the trailhead.
By my previous backpacking experiences, a mile did not seem like long distance, even with a pack loaded to the brim.
We couldn’t set up camp until 1 pm, when the campers the day before had to be out of their site, so we drove to the entrance to pay and check it out. The dunes were breathtaking. Heat from the summer sun created a dusty film in the air, a shimmering gauze above the dunes. Families piled into minivans unloaded and kicked off their sandals, diving into the cool white sands. We drove to the camping trailhead and checked out a map. There are only 10 spots available at White Sands, and you need a permit to obtain your spot. Everyone is required to be at their spot by 7 pm, or dusk, when finding your way back among the endless monotony of white dunes becomes nearly impossible, and downright dangerous.
Relieved we’d made it, staked our claim on the spot and checked out the premises, we headed back into town to stock up supplies at Wal Mart. Locals and previous visitors urged us to pack more water than necessary, so we stuffed our packs with normal necessities, then packed a cooler with food and ice and loaded that with four gallons of water onto the sleds to drag to our campsite. Pulling off at a gas station to siphon shade, we unpacked and repacked everything. We cut holes into plastic sledding saucers and tied rope around them to use as makeshift desert mules. We packed wine, beer and whiskey. We packed pre-made sandwiches and water-filled snacks, like fruit. We loaded ice into the cooler. We were prepared…or so we thought.
At the trailhead, families were packing it in for the day, dusting the white sand from their legs and piling back into their cars. They looked at us with skeptical stares as we loaded up our packs and began to walk into the alabaster abyss. The trail is marked by orange posts, and that is the only way you can tell where you’re going among the pearly dunes. A few sinking feet into the trail, we both realized this was going to be much more of an undertaking than we’d expected. The temperature was nearly 105 degrees and the sun blazed in fiery glory at the top of the horizon. My mouth watered and my knees ached from stepping up the vertical, unforgiving dunes, only to slide right back down. Once we were about a half mile in, we couldn’t see anyone around. It was so desolate, so repetitious, so blatantly, unabashedly and blindingly white. My shoulders sizzled, my hands ached from pulling the sled with 40 lbs. of water, my knees rattled.
Somewhere along the way, time froze. Our feet dragged in mounds of loose gypsum. I glanced around for shade, for some reprieve, but there was nothing. Nothing except the glaring whiteness of the dunes. My hands calloused and my feet burned. Sand filled my shoes and drove them deeper into the sand. Every flat, forgiving jaunt was matched by the face of a tall, vertical dune in front of us. We became angry, agitated. I plunked down, allowing the cool sand to encapsulate my body, thinking, I’m okay if this is it. I can’t move forward, I can’t go back. This is what dying is like. (Okay, I realize this is slightly dramatic, but this is also completely character of heat stroke, and terrifying nonetheless.)
Tensions rose, particularly because I’d chosen the furthest campsite and we hadn’t seen even the first site yet. I thought I was losing it. I saw rivers in the distance, yet not a tree in site. There were pools of cool water at my feet and then they vanished at my next step, dissipating into the parched heat. We made it to site 10. Only 5 more to go. But at that point, walking was no longer an option for either of us. It felt too far away, too impossible. I felt weak, dramatic, ridiculous for wanting to turn around. It was ONE mile. But that grueling mile continued to drag us back down with every step forward. Placing my palm across my forehead, I scoured the steaming dunes for our site.
I spotted it in the distance and charged, leaving the sled and my boyfriend behind. I had to make sure it was ours. The surge of adrenaline sent me propelling forward into the valley where our site was located. I dropped my pack with a thud and allowed drips of sweat to roll into my eyes, mouth and ears. We threw our tent up, created a haphazard shade and began chugging water, popping grapes and avoiding that giant ball of gas in the sky. It was over an hour before we could move. Slowly we began to unpack. Of our 20-lb bag of ice, nothing remained save for a giant pool of cold water, which drowned our pre-made sandwiches into a slop of wet goop.
Then the sun dipped and temperatures dropped. The day-gawkers had long since gone and we were alone in this infinite bleached desert. The saucers traded utility for fun, as we waxed them, ran up the closest dune and slid down like children on a snowbank. We laughed and drank a few beers. Our dinner was destroyed, but spirits were high. The setting sun cast a prismatic rainbow against the sky and the dunes absorbed a pink hue. We sat, beers between our knees, giddy with dehydration, sleep deprivation and the awe of this place.
As the sun disappeared behind the horizon, I began to realize why they demand all campers be in their campsites by sundown. The darkness enveloped the park and the stars pricked through the velvety black, one at a time. The milky way shone bright, rolling through the atmospheric scene. Satellites slowly floated along the circumference of earth. We slept beneath the stars, the rain flap tucked away. The stars hid behind more stars, flashing markedly among the dimness.
As the sun climbed back into her perch, I was already ascending the dunes, running with my tripod in one hand, camera in the other. The sand was cool and damp beneath my feet. Dune beetles scampered from their resting places, sticking their heads in the sand at my arrival, in inexplicable dune-beetle fashion. The day’s light rose slowly, giving the desert dwellers a bit more time to wipe the sleepies from their eyes.
The heat prickled at my skin. I sat, snapped and reminisced on the day’s journey. Twelve hours had felt like an eternity. An eternal reminder of the unforgiving moments mother nature bestows upon us, reminding us all that this world, these creations are hers to keep, and ours to marvel and care for. I will never forget this trip. The photos are beautiful and will always remind us of how little is captured in a photo. The difficult journey, the incomprehensible moments of clarity, the awe and beauty of this world, the way I both loathed and loved the same place at the same moment, the constant duality of nature and the inability to turn back. Because, sure as the world is spinning on its axis, I am there, small and insignificant, watching it go, always running a few steps behind.