We rounded out my birthday visit to White Sands National Park on November 12  with the 4pm Ranger-led sunset hike. It was a chance to see what this special place had to show us in terms of light, shadow, and texture. And it capped the first day of a long weekend together enjoying New Mexico.
Sean and I drove back to the dune field loop and parked near the meeting area for the hike. Sean switched our music from the Dune soundtrack to Ezio Bosso’s Symphony No. 2: “Under the Trees’ Voices,” which we had first heard a few weeks earlier at a performance of the Joffrey Ballet back home in Chicago. It had been a birthday of new music and expanded evocative music paired with National Parks.
While we waited, Sean took a catnap.
Well before 4pm, a fairly substantial group had gathered. Ultimately there were about forty of us from across the country on the hike.
It was the very first interpretive walk given by our leader, Ryan, who was an intern with the Student Conservation Association. Since we were such a big group, Ryan had us self-select into smaller groups based on our artistic inclinations—music, dance, visual arts, etc. It was more fun than the standard “Who has traveled the farthest to be here?” opening question, and it led to a larger point about multi-faceted people and geographies. I stood with the photographers.
You would not have known that it was Ryan’s first interpretive hike.
Ryan dug a hole with a stick to demonstrate how shallow the water table is at White Sands and how vital that is for the area’s ecology. We also heard about a sister gypsum dune field, Cuatrociénegas Dunes, near the southern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico. That dune field is in trouble because water use for development has caused its water table to drop significantly, altering its hydrology.
Then it was time to hike up onto the dunes. Really it was more of a walk, a stroll. But Ryan wanted to point out some of the ecological and geographical features surrounding us before it was time to turn our attention to the setting sun.
At this time of year, the Soaptree Yucca, New Mexico’s state flower, had long since finished blooming, but its desiccated stalks were picturesque against the sky.
In another interactive moment, Ryan invited us to share a bit about childhood landscapes and how they’ve changed over time. It was a neat way to pull us into a discussion about geological time, human time, and the ever-shifting topography of the dunes.
Ryan led us slowly along, offering an extended Q&A time, as the shadows lengthened and the light grew more and more magical.
Ryan remarked that we wouldn’t be having the most dramatic sunset, since it was a completely cloudless afternoon. Still, there was something profound about being with such a large group waiting respectfully for the planet to turn and to experience the atmospherics of gently transforming light and air and temperature.
This was a very fine place to mark my autumn birthday.
By a little past 4:30pm, the light was catching everything from the silhouette of the Organ Mountains to the spent seed pods on the clumps of Little Bluestem.
The lingering sunset gave me ample time to try and capture all the shifting moods of light.
The moon even got in on the action.
The sun gone and the light fast vanishing, we were among the last of the group to return to the parking area at about a quarter after five.
We joined the parade of headlights leaving the park after a short, late-autumn day.
A day’s worth of adventuring done, we now faced a three hour, forty-five minute through the New Mexico night to Santa Fe. But first: food.
We headed over to Alamogordo and grabbed green chile cheeseburgers and fries at Blake’s Lottaburger before heading north on US-54.
Somewhere off to the near west as we traveled north through the Tularosa Basin was the Trinity Site.
The drive was dark, since heading over to the interstate and going through Albuquerque would have added a full hour to the drive time. It was dark, and it was atmospheric. We opened the sunroof to the stars. And at one point we were confused by a vast field of lights that felt like a hallucination. It wasn’t until we were quite close that we realized it was an enormous array of wind turbines.
As we drove, friends Dale and Rick called to sing me Happy Birthday before I lost cell signal for a stretch.
Eventually we reached the very southern edge of the epic Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which stretch north/northwest some 242 miles well into Colorado. The foothills rising up out of the darkness ahead were also the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. The Sangre de Cristos would be companions for most of the rest of my trip. And in a week and a day I’d be at the northern end of the range.
We arrived in Santa Fe and after some trouble found our AirB&B, a comepletely charming little adobe at the back of a property on a little hilltop. It had two kiva fireplaces, one in the living room and one in the bedroom.
We were delighted.
After we dropped our things, we checked in with my parents. It turned out that my relative who’d had to go to the hospital had COVID, but hadn’t had to be admitted. Unfortunately, my parents had been exposed, so they had begun quarantine measures. (Happily, my relative recovered well, and my parents did not come down with it.)
We ended a wonderful birthday with presents, wine, and the macarons we had purchased that morning in El Paso. And now we had the rest of the weekend to explore Santa Fe.