Friday, October 5, 2007

Never rolled down a sand dune? You've missed something!

You trudge up to the top of a tall, steep sand dune and lie down carefully, your body horizontal to the ground, squinch your eyes shut, and throw yourself, rolling, over the dune.
Whappity!Whapity-whap-whap-wha=wha-whap, faster and faster as you careen towards the foot. An historical thrill ride, at the least, maybe even prehistoric. And still a whale of a lot of fun. And you dust off the loose sand, trudge back up, and do it again.
The Tularosa Basin of New Mexico is a pretty good place to grow up. Alamogordo is on the east side of the valley, nestled at the base of the Sacramento Mountains. On the west is the Oregon Mountains, or more formally, the San Andres.These jagged, purple-blue spiky mountains are dry, and a pleasure to the eye.And below them is a long, white line on the horizon.
White Sands National Monument.
When I say that, I feel formal and pretentious, as if I'm making a formal introduction for our neighbor, Miss Caroline, who I have known for years, by her more formal name, Mrs. Woodrow Mcneil-Forrest.
The White Sands were simply where I played when I was growing up. We always got an annual pass, and we went several times every year. I don't think we ever went without a picnic packed. It's not like there are restaurants out there.
But the sands are special. For one thing, they aren't really sand. They are pure, white gypsum, which matters enormously in mid-summer. As A kid, I neither knew nor cared. All I knew was, when we got there I could pull off my shoes and socks and immediately run onto the dunes. But it is important, because gypsum, unlike sand, doesn't retain the heat. It might be warm on a 100-degree day, but it won't burn the feet.
Dig down a foot or two, and you may even find wet "sand", nice and cool. If it isn't wet, it will still be cool, pleasing on a hot summer day.
I'm not sure if its like exists anywhere else. Over millenia, the gypsum cystals have gathered until now 275 square miles of white gypsum are humped into dunes that are sometimes 80 feet. And you can stand on top and look as far as you can see, and not see a thing but white dunes with undulating wind ridges, with the mountains in the distance. It is beautiful.
But the real point is--it is fun.
The little museum up at the gate is interesting to visit, with its rodents,lizards, toads, rattlesnakes and some insects that have morphed over the centuries into albinos.
Back when my father was a boy in the early 1900s, he told me, a group from town would hitch up the horses to several wagons and they would head for the Sands on a Saturday morning. The dirt road wound 13 miles through the valley before reaching the dunes. It would take a couple of hours to reach the dunes and then travel some distance in--probably not too far, for concerns about getting lost, but far enough that the sand no longer had any plants here and there, and dunes were tall. Then the women and kids waited in the wagons while the men explored the site, killing off any snakes. Dad said one time, the men found 13 rattlers before the women and children got out. The men used pickaxes to dig troughs in the gypsum. The water table, about three feet down, would fill these with brackish, salty water the horses could drink. Boards and sawhorses had been brought along to set up a long, rough table. Remember, this was before paper products or plastic, so each family had to bring their plates, silverware and glasses. Jars wrapped in burlap bags to keep them cool were joined by jugs of fresh lemonade and tea. A watermelon transported with a block of ice was still cool when they arrived. The men played baseball. The women tossed their heads and a number "wickedly" took off their stockings and shoes to play in the sand with the kids. A few even rolled, and of course, the men did, too. And just as in my childhood, the kids climbed to the top of the highest dune and rolled and rolled and rolled. We dug caves in the side of the dunes, we walked "no more than two dunes over" I imagine their parents said, as they said to us. Two dunes over, and it was complete wilderness. No one in sight but us. Way cool.We played and we romped, and we got hungry.
White Sands National Monument was created in 1933. My father's memories are before any formal park was created. With the park came rules, and better roads into two major picnic ares, and concrete picnic tables with aluminum roofs, and small, durable barbecue grills on the sites. And park employes, and of course, a fee to enter. Not a very big fee, even today.
With the big groups, like a church or town group, came the fried chicken, meatloaf, pinto beans, ham, salads, green beans, breads, cookies, pies, cakes, and of course, the watermelon, which we could eat by the slice sitting on the dunes just spitting the seeds out. Familes on their own might bring hamburgers or hot dogs to grill or, gee, even steaks and chicken.
Our Fourth of July fireworks were always at the Sands. Why not? Great viewing, nothing to burn.
Thousands still visit every year. If you go, try to stay for a sunset. A New Mexico sunset seen from the top of a dune is very special.It is a good place to be with someone you love very much.
During the summers, the national science labs in the areas come out weekly and do a lecture on the dunes, using modern equipment to show pictures of some of their work. Astronomy is very big in the area. There's some neat stuff, no extra cost for the Ph.D. talking, and no need to move from your comfy seat in the sand in your cutoffs.
Who first explored the dunes or discovered the fun?
All I know is, there is a 400-year-old legend of a headstrong young bride from Spain who insisted on coming out to marry her sweetheart, who was part of Coronado's entourage as he explored the Southwest looking for treasure. She brought with her a beautiful wedding dress packed in its own trunk to wear when she was married, and being wealthy, had her own entourage to follow Coronado to where they were camped near the Sands.
Just days before she arrived, her sweetheart was sent out with three other men to explore the area. They were told to take a quck look at the dunes' interior. They never were seen again.
The headstrong young bride was beside herslef. No one could stop her in her grief. She donned her fine wedding dress, took her horse, and headed into the sands to find her love. She also was never seen again.
Such passion! such tragedy! the story has woven into the fabric of the Southwest for 400 years now. And it is said, if you are there just at twilight, when the wind may lift the sand just lightly into the air, you may hear her soft call for her lover, and see her form, slightly bent as she hurries over the next dune, still searching for her love. I have met several people who say they have seen---something. They can't swear it was just a gust of wind.
Is there a reason the legend still lives after 400 years?
I do not know.


Julie said...

Wow! What great memories. I love the history you shared as well. I now have to add this to our family's travel list. Thanks for sharing.

night lightning woman said...

Thanks, Julie. Wow! Walden looks beautiful. Now to google and find out just where in Colorado you are.

Matt G said...

"If you go, try to stay for a sunset. A New Mexico sunset seen from the top of a dune is very special.It is a good place to be with someone you love very much."


Even an amateur photographer with a low-end point-and-shoot old digicam can take beautiful pictures of their love ones in the declining light of a White Sands sunset.