Day #7 of the West Trip: Not all who wander are lost … but we were.

A writer and a photographer walk into a desert …

… And get very, very lost.

But I’ll get to that.

We had planned on getting up at 6:00 a.m. to photograph the sunrise at White Sands. Thankfully, I had the good sense to see what the military might be up to last night. Come to find out, the White Sands Missile Range was conducting missile tests from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., so no sunrise pictures for us!

We were disappointed, but at the same time, after rushing across the country to Texas, exploring Big Bend (and surviving wind storms!), and then immediately driving north to White Sands, we needed a break! We slept in, and I made pancakes. It was our first breakfast that we weren’t heating up as fast as we could and then wolfing it down in the passenger seat, so it was quite enjoyable. Beyond that, our laundry has been piling up, and we decided it would be best if we were responsible adults and took care of that before it gets out of control. In order to do laundry, though, we had to dig out the quarters we had saved, which are hidden somewhere in the storage space under the RV. As I type this, I still don’t know where the dang quarters are. We wasted a good hour looking for them, and ultimately, laundry did not get done. At 10:30 a.m., we decided to give up and go to White Sands. Chores can wait when you’re on vacation, I suppose.

We decided that today was the day we would find an area of White Sands that had the iconic look we came for – devoid of desert plants and human footprints. We also decided today was the day we went sledding! We watched kids sled down the sand dunes all day yesterday with envy, so we decided today is our day for fun! We got to White Sands around lunch time and were immediately greeted with the vibrant glow from the sands that makes your retinas shriek in horror. Seriously, bring at least a hat for this place, because the white sands pretty much glow in the sunlight. It’s unreal! We tracked down our sleds (a bright orange and a lime green one because the blinding white isn’t enough for our damaged eyeballs), immediately went to the back of the park, where the sands are the highest and vegetation is sparser, kicked on the generator, and had lunch while we watched a brother and sister sledding down the sand dunes.

Then, it was our turn, and oh my goodness, climbing sand is brutal! We had so much fun sledding down the dunes, but my leg muscles were sobbing by the time I sledded down for the dozenth time. Thank goodness I had been going to the gym for months before this trip or I probably wouldn’t have made it up the hill once. Pro tip: do not carry the sled up the hill. Toss that sucker as high as you can and be done with it! When we finally went back to the RV, covered in sand with half of White Sands in our hiking boots, lunch was completely burned off, and we were chugging water as we collapsed on the couch. I’m so glad we were in a RV, because White Sands has no running water or any other necessities save for in the gift shop, and I think we would have had to leave for supplies at that point if we had just been in a car.

The one-minute, agonizing climb is worth the fun!

After we caught our breath, it was time to go out for our iconic pictures. We weren’t thrilled with the area we picked yesterday for sunset pictures, so we walked in the opposite direction today, toward the beautiful snow-covered peak in the distance, which is part of the Sacramento Mountains (I think?). It took quite a bit of walking, but finally, we found the most gorgeous spot with high sand dunes devoid of plants surrounding us, and those stunning ripples the wind creates in the sand were everywhere. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the clouds were thick and fluffy.

Pristine White SandsPretty White Sands

I admit that I hadn’t been that thrilled with White Sands until we found that spot. The sand resembles the beaches in Panama City Beach, Florida, which I frequented almost every summer for a few years when my grandparents lived there. Up until that point, White Sands looked like Panama City Beach without the ocean and drunk Spring Breakers.

We spent three or four hours out there exploring and snapping photos. Amusingly, we attracted the attention of a pair of crows, who followed us around for quite a while.

Maybe they realized we had gotten our sorry hides lost, and they were just waiting for the outcome.

I will give myself credit. I did a great job of remembering which direction we needed to go. Here is where I made a mistake, though. White Sands ends in a loop. I parked on the right side of the loop right before it turns, where a bunch of people were sledding. I could always see people from where we were so long as I climbed up the dunes, so I never felt nervous. We found the main road no problem, but the mistake we made was walking over the top of the loop and finding the left side of the loop. Tons of people were sledding, and everything looks the same in White Sands, so we didn’t realize something was wrong until it occurred to us that we didn’t remember walking that far from the RV to start.

After we had walked for half an hour, climbing on top of the dunes to try to catch a glimpse of the RV, we started to get really nervous. I managed to find a camel (Yes, someone brought their camel), but no twenty-six foot RV, if you can believe it. Thankfully, just as we started to wonder what on earth we were going to do, the park rangers came around the corner. We approached them, tails between our legs, feeling like dumb city girls from Atlanta, and asked them if they had seen an RV around.

White Sands Hills

The park rangers were extremely nice. They told us to stay put (I think they visualized us getting even more lost and dropping dead somewhere in the park), and they took off to go look for it. We sat, and we proceeded to feel more and more embarrassed the longer they were gone. When they finally came back, they claimed it was “Just around the corner,” but they said they would give us a ride. We had mentioned we were from the city, and I think they completely gave up on us at that. However, the park rangers and I do not have the same definition of “around the corner.” We must have missed the RV by a good half a mile. I am proud of us for at least finding the road, since we were probably at least a mile or two into White Sands before we turned back, but it did not escape either of us how turned around we had gotten and how much trouble we would be in if help had not come. It was a huge learning experience for both of us, and we will not be making that mistake again!

We made dinner after the park rangers dropped us off. We were exhausted after hours of hiking, but we still wanted to get sunset pictures, despite our trauma. We ended up laying on the couch until 6:30 p.m. and then set back out with the rule that we did not go so far that we could not see the RV. It was a good rule, because as we got to a spot we liked and set up, a wind storm kicked up. We were lucky that we learned from yesterday’s sunset experience and brought the coats we had picked out for Yellowstone. The wind was so intense that we had to anchor the tripod with our backpacks. The sunset was stunning, but what really captivated me was that, in the half an hour that we stood there taking pictures, the wind obliterated our footprints. By the time we walked back, you couldn’t tell that people had been walking out there all day.

Hiking White Sands

I left our last day in White Sands with a healthy respect for the desert. When I first looked at it, I saw beach sand sitting in stagnant, white hills. When I left, I saw White Sands as a beautifully violent place. Halfway through the day, I felt a sense of bitterness that there were all of these people stomping all over it, leaving footprints and ruining the pristine, white dunes. When I left, my human arrogance was thoroughly in check, and I realized that the desert doesn’t even notice we are there. Whatever we do to it, it can erase our marks in the blink of an eye.

White Sands Sunset

We make our way to Kasha-Katuew Tent Rocks National Monument tomorrow, and I am sad to see us leaving White Sands behind. I highly recommend this dynamic place, but by no means should you underestimate it!

Published by Alyse N. Steves, Ph.D.

Alyse N. Steves received her Ph.D. in Genetics and Molecular Biology from Emory University. She is also graduate of Kennesaw State University, where she received a B.S. in Biotechnology. Alyse is a published author, with her first book making its debut in August 2016 ( Outside of science and writing, Alyse is an avid traveler who also enjoys the company of her family, friends, and pets.

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