2015: Alamogordo, NM

White Sands

May 7


Leaving Santa Fe was hard. Santa Fe Skies RV Park was aptly named; I think I saw more beautiful clouds in one week here than in my previous life. The whole area has a beauty I didn't expect, even without any trees to speak of.

Leaving Santa Fe was hard for another reason: the joys of navigation by smartphone. Somehow I misinterpreted the directions for where we wanted to go, and got Mike off into a residential neighborhood with narrow streets not rated for our sixteen-ton honey. After a thirty-minute detour, Mike was rightly steamed and I was firmly in the doghouse. Or cathouse, in our case.

Our next stop was Alamogordo, home of White Sands National Monument. We settled into a large all-gravel space in a large all-gravel parking lot. I thought the biggest problem here would be the nearby noisy highway, but it turned out to be the pathetic camp wifi, which was apparently powered by carrier pigeon. Or hamster wheel.

The next day we were at White Sands by 8:30 a.m. But of course, I'd forgotten to check the website. The National Monument is about thirty miles north of the White Sands Missile Range, and whenever a missile test is scheduled they close the highway, close the Monument, close just about everything in a fifty-mile radius. There were several fireman milling around outside the visitor center; they have a local fire station inside the danger zone, and every time there's a test they must evacuate their station and hang out here. One of them told me that during the summer, it happens about twice a week!

Empty parking area. White on white.

Fortunately the test window was small, and it was only another half-hour before the test was over and the road was open. We drove to the far end of the park; even the road was solid white. It was a very spooky place. We parked all alone in a deserted lot at the trailhead for the Alkali Flats trail, and immediately set off on a short hike, about three-quarters of a mile into the dunes.

At first there was some sparse vegetation, grasses and even an occasional flower, but by a quarter mile in there was nothing in sight but bright, white dunes. Despite the short delay, we were well ahead of other visitors and we had the seemingly-endless dunes entirely to ourselves, with no sound other than the constant wind. It's hard to explain I felt in this unique place. Although we were only a few miles from a major highway, the isolation seemed complete.

Where's the trail? Mike signs us in. Off into the wilderness. Lonely little petunia.
Next-best thing to snow. Lunch white-out.

We probably only spent an hour out in the dunes. I felt as if I could stay there forever, going blind in the glare and enjoying the solitude, but there was really nothing else to do. We walked back into the parking area just as two or three new groups of people were starting out on the trail, so our timing was perfect.

As we drove back around the short loop at the end of the park, we discovered we'd dodged another bullet. There were a couple of school buses parked in a nearby area and dozens of kids were sliding and skidding down a dune. We saw other buses in another area just around the corner.

But the park was big and it wasn't hard for us to find an empty picnic area to have our lunch in peace before leaving.

I'd made the mistake of telling Mike that the White Sands Missile Range, another 25 miles down the road from the National Monument, has a missile museum. Naturally an old Minuteman technician had to go see it. As with the one in Albuquerque, the museum was mostly an outdoor boneyard, although a little better-maintained. What I didn't expect was that it took almost longer to get into it than it did to see it; the museum is inside the base and we had to have a picture taken, give our vitals, have a quick background check, undergo a cavity search -- well, no, not that last part, but still. :)

Luke, I am your FAAA-ther. JFK podium.

There was a small indoor museum which didn't have much that we hadn't seen before (and better) at other places. One amusing item was the Darth Vader helmet donated to the base by a LucsaFilm sound man who visited the range in 1978 to collect sounds of missiles being fired. I was also interested in a podium which had been used by JFK when he visited the base and spoke to personnel in June of 1963.

V-2 assembled from parts.

Inside another small building was a V-2 rocket like the ones Germany used to pound London in 1944. This one was assembled from parts confiscated from Germany in 1945. While the V-2 was ultimately unsuccessful as a wartime weapon, it proved invaluable as a research tool for blasting the U.S. into the space age.

Out in the boneyard were missiles and all sorts of other apparatus that had some connection to the White Sands Missile Range.

Missile garden. Not a UFO, a decelerator test vehicle. Original 5-inch gun from the USS FDR, 1945. Pershing missile. Guided missile launcher.
Pretty mountain backdrop. Patriot missile canister. Huey. ???