Thursday, February 11, 2016

Lost and Found at White Sands

Many, many years ago, I went backpacking with friends at White Sands National Monument, in Southern New Mexico. The trail to the campsite is only about a mile. I decided to go for a run in the dunes, figuring I would follow my footsteps back. (See where this is going?)

It started to get dark. I couldn't find my footprints. I looked over to see lights and made my way over there. A ranger directed me back to the backpacking trail. For the past couple of decades, I've always thought of that moment with a little shame, but also: nothing bad would have happened because it was a major road I saw. Right?

It's funny how memories trick you. I was in Alamogordo this week for a meeting. No offense to anyone who lives there, but it isn't a place high in scenic quality. So I took a couple of hours to go see the national monument, 15  miles away.

There's a five mile trail and I headed out on it. You follow posts in the dunes, and trudge your way up and down some significant sandy slopes. After the first half mile, there was nobody around. Just me in a sea of shockingly white sand.


 A few trees are scattered in the dunes, but otherwise it's a starkly beautiful, harsh place. I started wondering if I had enough water. Even in February, it was approaching 60 degrees. I haven't seen those temperatures since September.


The turn around point is at an alkali bed. If it's windy, you don't go hiking here, because you can't see the markers from blowing sand.

People have died here, I found out. From thirst but also from getting lost and freezing to death. I was shocked to see that the "main road" I had walked to during my lost episode was just the park road, and the car lights I saw were of the ranger doing the final sweep. Turns out I was pretty lucky that night.

I'm a lot smarter now, and I didn't get lost. Instead I walked peacefully, charging down dunes and getting sand in my shoes (this would be a great place to try barefoot hiking). The five mile trail is the longest in the park, and they don't allow camping except for the one backcountry site. There's no campgrounds in the park, and the road closes at dusk. You can't linger long, but you can be completely alone for a time.

It was interesting to revisit my former self, a seasonal gypsy at the time, still so much left ahead to explore. I thought about passing her in the dunes, and what she would think of the life she had ahead of her. I'm sure she'd be happy to see herself still out hiking around.


11 comments:

  1. An amazing landscape! I remember it from years ago. Glad it is preserved and one can find solitude there.

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    1. Most people weren't going far. You can rent sleds and slide down the dunes, which looked like fun, sort of.

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  2. OMG, so beautiful and so different from your mountain scenery.
    I wonder how they know if any ody is left behind before they lock yhe gates.
    On my 40th birthday trip to Orcas Island we drove to the summit of Mt. Constitution to watch the sunset, the Ranger drove up behind us. He sat in his truck the whole time we were in the tower. He locked the tower gate and followed us back down the locking the park entrance gate behind us. What if we were hikers that had no car? He didn't check the tower to make sure it was empty before locking the tower gate.

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    1. I think they could tell easily at WS because you pretty much have to drive in and the places to park are obvious. But if there was a random car somewhere and nobody around, I'm not sure what they would do.

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  3. I think that girl would tell you Mary that she's glad to see you living your life saying wow I can't believe I did that, instead of wow I wished I would have done that! Very beautiful!!

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    1. I hope so! I've definitely tried to live my life that way, though I am envious and not as brave as others who survive without the whole 40 hours a week at a job thing. Overall though, it's good.

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  4. I am SURE your former self would be very pleased ... it is pretty crazy to be transported back in a memory and think about the former life, huh?

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    1. It is, when I worked at Carlsbad at 21 was when I started learning about navigation. And hiking solo. Feels like a long time ago!

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  5. I stopped for a short walk at WS years ago and enjoyed going barefoot and glissading down some of the steeper dunes--until I an odd sparkling caught my eye and found a dagger sized and shaped piece of broken glass. Shoes back on and I gave it to a ranger. --Tom, Fairbanks

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    1. Was it shrapnel? I saw some barefoot hiking prints and thought it would be fun to do.

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    2. I think it was a broken bottle. But very scary! --Tom

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