Island artist duo Danielle Mulcahy and Walker Roman hit the road at the beginning of October, armed with a renovated fifth-wheel trailer, all of their possessions, and art-making materials. Their goal is to make art, sell art at different venues and pop-ups, educate about art making, and live more simply, responsibly, and in the present. See more at barnyardsaintsart.com.
I remember scanning Google Earth on my phone on our way into the Southwest, admiring the satellite images of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico. When I saw White Sands National Monument, I thought it was a glitch on Google’s part. A beaming white patch in the middle of brown, black earth. Zoom in, and it only looks more strange. When we go to national parks, I try not to study the pictures online too hard, as I like to be surprised. Nothing could have prepared us for this unreal alternative world.
White Sands National Monument has been protected and recognized since 1933. It is the largest deposit of gypsum in the world. With no ocean to escape to, the gypsum runs off the surrounding San Andres and Sacramento Mountains via water, collects in a lake below and eventually blows southwest, creating a massive dune field. The park, in rock time, is new and still changing. We decided to head straight to the park once the trailer was settled in Alamogordo.
We borrowed some saucer sleds from the campground host, because apparently the sand was sled-able. The sun started to set and the wind was relentless as we drove past the park gates. That didn’t deter us. The white dunes start almost abruptly, like a giant emptied his shoe after a beach day. We yelped in awe at the sites driving in. I kept expecting to see ocean, but instead the horizon kept opening up to what seemed to be an endless sliding landscape of blinding white, until the horizon finally met the distant mountains.
“There are people on the dunes,” I said, leaning halfway out of the car window. I couldn’t believe you were allowed to climb on them. We were used to fragile beach dunes, perfect sand and grass keeping the Island’s coastline from slipping into the sea. Here the landscape moves and shifts constantly, and much more quickly. After an hour or so, the spring winds will ease all evidence of footprints.
The local plants and creatures have developed ways to deal with the slow motion of sand. The tamarisk salt cedar bush, for example, drives its roots into the dunes, then holds and collects moisture around each root. That, in turn, hardens the surrounding sand to create a cement-like dome around the living root structure of the cedar. We know this because when that dune it grew in moves on, the cedar becomes a tower in a valley, waiting for the next sand dune to roll over and cover it again.
Once we were out of the car, we found that the sleds worked great. I can’t describe the pleasure of that pure sand with the absence of humidity from the ocean. Nothing sticks to your skin, but instead pours off of you, leaving a light dusting and a gypsum sparkle on your very likely sunburned arms and legs.
As dusk fell, the wind picked up even more. We armed our faces with sunglasses and bandanas. The blinding surroundings took on a new form, and the modern world dissolved into the horizon.
“This place becomes something entirely different once the sun is gone,” I remarked to Walker. “I bet we could camp here overnight,” he replied. The next night we did just that.
We got up early to claim a camping permit, which are limited, parked the adventure wagon in a lot halfway into the park, and hiked the rest of the way in to find a campsite. That night the wind had settled, and a half-moon pierced a clear sky. We set up our tent and made dinner, then roamed the surrounding lunar landscape. Because of the pure white sand bouncing every inch of starlight, there was no need for lanterns, even with a portion of the moon. It was disorienting walking over the hills and dips, with flat shadows and a hushed silence you rarely experience. Burrowing owl hoots chattered their way into the glittering valleys every once in awhile. A night desert chill crept in across the landscape, and I laid myself against a steep dune, burying most of my body. The gypsum still held warmth from the day, and I felt suspended in the same heavens I was gazing up at.
It was a dream, until suddenly the silent sky broke with a thundering fighter jet. We followed its light to where it landed, not too far away. Over half of the gypsum dune field was designated the White Sands Missile Range in 1941, the largest military testing site in the United States. The missile range contains the Trinity Site, host to the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on Earth, a frigid reminder that left us wondering how much longer we have with natural wonders such as these.