Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Day 130: White Sands

White Sands National Monument to Otero/Dona Ana County line. 21 miles/2480.9 total

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

8:55 a.m. I am walking out of the parking lot of the White Sands National Monument visitor’s center to the somewhat suspicious stares of a couple of park employees. I get on US 70, heading southwest through nothing to a point in the middle of the long space between Alamogordo and Las Cruces. I will finish in 21 miles on the Otero-Doña Ana County line.

I can't promise anything of interest on this walk (not that I ever do). This is one of those stretches that must be walked so I can get to more fascinating places. Other than a small military installation about two-thirds of the way through, there’s nothing in the way of civilization or amenities, unless you count the port-a-potties provided by the State of New Mexico at a few places where trucks can pull off the road.

There are clouds in the sky today, for a change. They started coming in yesterday afternoon. Alamogordo, behind me, is pretty much covered with clouds. I’m back wearing a long-sleeved shirt, and the temperature is about 50 at the moment, getting up into the high 60s, with a strong breeze from the west into my face.

This stretch of road is designated the Bataan Memorial Highway. I hope the walk today doesn’t end up resembling the Bataan Death March. As a matter of fact, every year in March they hold a marathon and a 15-mile run along here, or somewhere in the White Sands Missile Range, through which I’m walking, to commemorate the Bataan Death March. That was in 1942 after the Battle of the Phillipines, when the Japanese marched 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war about 60 miles over a week’s time, killing as many as 11,000 of them along the way. In the New Mexico version of the Bataan Death March, competitors can run “light,” with normal running gear, or “heavy,” carrying 35-pound backpacks and, if they’re military personnel, wearing their army combat uniforms. Survivors of the real Death March are there to greet the winners.

I should say a word or two about the White Sands National Monument, too. I visited it in April on my way out to California and wrote about it in the blog. This area was first set aside as a national monument in the 1930s. The white sands that form the ever-changing dunes here are made of selenite, a crystallized form of gypsum. Unlike regular quartz-based sand, gypsum is water soluble. In prehistoric times this area was a lake, in which the gypsum was dissolved and sank to the bottom. When the lake dried up selenite crystals were left, some as large as three feet long. Gradually these crystals have eroded and sand-sized pieces have blown over here from the southwest, forming these unusually white dunes. Also unlike regular sand, this gypsum sand does not absorb the sun's heat very well, so even in the hottest part of the year the sand can be walked on in bare feet. The National Monument has hiking trails and places where people can ride sleds down the dunes. Because of the whiteness of the sand and the otherworldly look of the place, some movies have been shot here, especially ones where people are supposed to be on another planet or in the middle of the old desolate tough-guy west.

Apparently the White Sands National Monument people and the military have a sort of uneasy relationship. Frequent flyovers by jets and the occasional errant missile have had a tendency to interfere with the touristy aspects of the place. Not to mention the fact that US 70 is closed a couple of times a week, for an hour or two, because of whatever they're doing on the missile range.

For the first mile I walk past a line of dunes on the northwest side of the road, on which grow large deciduous bushes, probably mesquites, that have turned flaming yellow and orange. Those colors, contrasted with the white sand, are a beautiful sight in the morning sun.

I pass a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol station, where all vehicles coming east have to stop. I stopped in the car on the way here this morning, and I’ll have to stop in the motor home on the way back to pick up the car. Sure hope they don’t find that family I have living in the back. After I walk past, a friendly young man from the Border Patrol drives by in a Jeep and asks me if I’m okay. Slow day, I guess.

So little is there to distinguish one mile from the next on this walk that I have to use the mile markers on US 70 as progress points, rather than crossroads or other roadside sights like I usually do.

For anyone interested in the found money situation here in New Mexico, let me report that as of this morning I have picked up $1.76 in change, but no nickels yet. I have two quarters, nine dimes, and thirty-six pennies.

At about 8 miles into the walk, there’s still absolutely nothing to report, except two dead coyotes. The mountains are getting a little closer.

It’s about 1:00 p.m. and I have gone 11 miles. I’ve found a few more pennies and a dime. Though you can't see it from a moving vehicle, the roadside is heavily littered with beer bottles. Not cans, mind you, but bottles, mostly brown.

The wind is blowing hard from the southwest, pushing me back. It’s gusting to between 25 and 30 miles an hour.

At 13.5 miles I come to a small military installation called HELSTF, which stands for High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility. There’s a gate out front, and perhaps a dozen buildings spread back a mile or so from the road.

At about 18 miles things are the same as they were, except that I have only another hour to walk.

With less than two miles to go the San Andres Mountains are no longer off in the distance. I’m walking right beside them. The land sweeps smoothly up, like a carpet, to the foot of the mountains, which rise to heights of several thousand feet. I can’t really capture in words the majesty of these mountains, for the most part unblemished by evidence of human presence, looking like they did ten thousand or more years ago when the first people lived here. As a flatlander from the east, I am continually impressed by such sights. I can see how people could think that gods dwelled in the mountains, or indeed that the mountains were the gods. They’re so undeniably huge and powerful and frightening, yet quiet and passive at the same time. They change throughout the day from blue silhouettes to horizontally striped and striated rock faces to greenish brown lumps of shadow to grave black outlines on the starry horizon, always standing guard over everything.

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