By Katherine Michalak
When the alarm sounds at 6 am, the tent walls are already glowing and the morning air is balmy. Propping myself on one bare arm, I watch Mike’s sleeping face next to me and realize how badly I need a renewal of spirit. Mike’s and my relationship has been tinged with angst lately, not because of a relational mismatch, but because I, at least, am caught in fear that there will never be enough abundance, joy, or connection to stretch across the negatives of life. I’ve come here, to camp in southern New Mexico, because I need perspective, a reminder that spaciousness of heart can still exist, both in the microcosm of our shared home and the macrocosm of the troubled American society in which we’re embedded.
I dwell for a moment on Mike’s sleep-rumpled face, different in this light than at home, and then I nudge him awake. We’re hoping to backpack into White Sands National Monument today and we need to arrive at the gate as early as possible. With only ten backcountry permits offered per day, competition is stiff for overnighting in the dunes and we worry about how many parties will be waiting for permits when the visitor center opens at 9 am.
The drive to the park takes us through the commercial fringe of Alamogordo, New Mexico, where billboard after billboard advertises Keller & Keller injury lawyers. This wide-open section of highway, spiked with signs for Family Dollar and Shell, could belong to any western town, yet something about it makes me uneasy. Maybe it’s the Holloman Air Force Base we pass, or the sign announcing White Sands Missile Range (the monument regularly closes for missile testing, since almost sixty percent of the dunes spread over military land). We’re only an hour and a half from the US-Mexico border, and with each mile we venture nearer to something I’d rather turn from: violence toward a supposed other, systemic and unrelenting.
Approaching the park entrance we see a line of vehicles stretching from the locked gate, and I count: one black passenger car, two white ones, a jeep, and a glistening candy-orange pickup. That puts us at number six for a permit. “Be ready with your wallet,” Mike says, and I fumble in the bag at my feet. When I glance up, a motorcycle has already joined the line and minutes later, another jeep pulls up. Clearly we’re not the only ones intent on snatching this particular wilderness experience.
Just before 7 am a ranger opens the gate and everyone pours into the visitor center parking lot. At Mike’s urging to get in line as quickly as I can, I scuttle from the car toward a historic adobe building, where two long benches stand in the shade of a portal, or covered porch. Sliding onto one of the benches, I find myself second in line. With two hours to wait until the visitor’s center opens, the air feels electric, each person’s desire heightened by a perception of lack. The irony is not lost on me that I came here seeking expansiveness of spirit, only to compete with my fellows for precious wilderness permits. Is it impossible to find reprieve from the economics of not enough?
By 8 am the low-angle sun feels hot where it pushes back the portal’s shade. “Have you seen the owl?” asks a woman named Ida, and I follow her to see the bird. Perched fifteen feet up in a yucca palm directly behind a row of trash and recycle bins, it stares down at us with gold eyes while Ida tells me that she and her husband live apart. “He’s from Mexico, I’m from Austria, and we meet in California.” The scenario sounds so geographically unworkable that I wonder if I’m misunderstanding and she means they currently live together in California. Embarrassed to clarify, I smile and nod. Nonetheless, there’s one thing I’m certain of: whatever their circumstances, they, like the rest of us, made an effort to come here. Beneath the Instagram smiles, we’re all attempting—as we crowd outside this remote gypsum dunefield— to perceive the bigness of life, rather than be swallowed by the smallness.
Back under the portal, someone describes a recent trip to Havasupai, a coveted adventure destination which, unfortunately, has a dark side of cultural pain for those who live in Havasu Canyon. The man’s girlfriend doesn’t seem very talkative about the trip, and watching her unreadable face, I wonder what she isn’t voicing. Mike goes to the yucca palm and photographs the owl with his zoom lens, but after ten minutes he comes back to the portal saying the lighting isn’t good, and I read between the lines: beauty—bigness—is eluding him. Scrunching my nose at his frustration, I reach out and graze his arm with my hand.
Carl is first in line and Ida asks what time he arrived this morning. “3:30 am,” he says, and we all stare. Is he joking? “Last year,” he goes on, “the line was a lot worse. I didn’t want to take a chance, driving all the way from Austin.” I gaze out at the fiercely bright parking lot, wondering if I’d be willing to show up that early.
For half an hour now, all the bench seats have been full and the end of the line has begun to form an L extending beyond the shade of the portal. Additional people mill around outside the line, and when two couples crowd near the visitor center door, Mike nods his chin at them. “Do you think they’re trying to cut in line?” he asks. A few minutes later someone explains to the couples where the back of the line is, but they don’t move. At 8:50 the door opens and Carl, Mike, Ida and I jump up like we’ve been shocked by an electrical current. “You’d think this was Black Friday,” I hear someone say as a ranger slips out of the door, careful to close it behind him.
“Just so you know, the line starts here,” Carl says, gesturing an exclusion.
The ranger ignores him. To the group at large, he says, “We only have ten sites but each can hold up to six people. Y’all better start making friends if you want a site.”
“I’m friends with…Katherine!” someone calls out, and one of the people who’s not in line sidles closer to the entrance.
When the door opens for business we rise as one. Carried by an invisible current, we rush inward, headed by Carl. The woman who cut beelines ahead of Carl, arriving at the counter first and grasping for the permit held out by the cashier. Just then Carl steps behind her and says, “You’re not in line,” and the clerk goes wide-eyed, her gaze flitting from face to face as the woman advances another few inches.
“You’re not in line,” Mikes repeats.
“No, you’re not.” I hear my own voice adding to the assertion, feel my body pressing closer to Carl and Mike and the woman we are trying to dissuade. The clerk retracts the permit, lifting her hands as though poised for self-defense, and for a moment she freezes. Then she asks Carl how many people are in his party.
We’re up next, and I ask for site four, my hands shaking as I fill out the permit. The ranger waves us to the opposite counter, and I glance at the crush of people behind us, all craving permits, all silent. When the ranger hands me the completed permit, I reinforce my thank you with the warmest smile I can muster, as though vehement gratitude can undo this tangle of need and scarcity.
On July 16, 1945, sixty miles north of White Sands National Monument, America detonated the world’s first atomic bomb. Part of the Manhattan Project, this test was known as Project Trinity, and it preceded Hiroshima by less than a month. Violence, in one of its most appalling forms, exploded into the Chihuahuan Desert, forming a radioactive crater half a mile across and eight feet deep. The atomic cloud, clearly visible from White Sands, climbed 38,000 feet into the arid, unprepared sky.
White Sands and the Trinity Site both lie in the Tularosa Basin, an area in south-central New Mexico between the San Andres Mountains and the Sacramento Mountains. Like a cupped palm, this basin holds the reality of one of humanities’ darkest moments. Yet it also holds something more life-affirming: water. Today the visible water is small, with Lake Lucero (which lies in the southwest corner of the monument) filling only seasonally. Yet just a couple feet beneath the surface of the dunes lies an underground lake—the original genesis of the dunes.
Gypsum, a water-soluble mineral prevalent in what was once Lake Otero, crystallized and was windblown into sand granules when the lake’s surface water evaporated at the end of the last ice age. Thanks to this isolated geological phenomenon, White Sands is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world, spanning over 275 square miles.
That afternoon we enter the park and drive along several miles of pavement, at which point Dunes Drive turns into hard-packed sand, winding through a bizarre eggshell-colored landscape. The parking area for backcountry camping—an expanse of blinding whiteness—dwarfs the dozen or so vehicles parked in it. Mike pulls up and we climb from the car, watching as someone attempts to ride a saucer down the face of a dune, the sand so sticky that she has to jimmy herself this way and that to keep moving.
After organizing our gear and locking the car, we shoulder packs and trudge left around the flank of a thirty-foot dune. Even at 5 pm, with intermittent clouds relieving some of the heat, the temperature is still around ninety. Luckily the sporadic bursts of wind at our feet don’t seem to be lifting the sand, and visibility remains clear. Passing a sign that warns hikers to pack a gallon of water per day, we follow the route to our campsite, which is just under a mile long and consists of periodic markers set in the dunes. At first we see families at every turn, their children laden with brightly-colored saucers, but as we keep walking the landscape empties.
Why, I wonder, is human aggression inextricable from the more positive aspects of human experience? In this morning’s line, we all wanted the same thing: access to a rare backcountry experience. The seeds of that wanting were generative, motivating everyone to get themselves here, to tolerate the inconveniences of travel so their lives could become deeper. Shared desire bonded us as we waited on benches like birds on a wire. Yet the woman who cut in line must have experienced a need so torrential, it obliterated her respect for those around her.
As we hike, Mike keeps stopping and lifting his camera, and each time, I follow him with my eyes, still hopeful that this trip can offer us renewal. He pauses just before reaching our designated campsite, and to the far-off left, billowing crimson draws my eye. A woman in red stands on the crest of a dune, gusts of wind playing with her dress. Opposite, someone adjusts tripod and camera, photographing her.
After setting up camp we wander barefoot in the dunes, stumbling into moments of late-afternoon radiance. We tread in semi-circles to avoid foot-printing the ripples Mike wants to photograph, and between shoots we follow drifting swaths of shade, intent on coolness. As the sun falls lower, it redraws the dunes: ripples that had seemed faint at midday are now bold as tiger stripes and the dunes themselves, once pedestrian, reveal their true architecture. Steep east-facing walls—blue with shade—wind in S curves along the desert floor, rising thirty-plus feet to form apexes with the dunes’ more gradual west-facing slopes, and each of these western swells, illuminated by the waning sun, shines white as quartz.
In places the rippled crust is hard enough to walk on top of, but each time I follow a knife edge, the fourth or fifth step gives way and I teeter, sinking ankle or calf deep into the tepid gypsum. Each time I fall in, Mike laughs. “This is perfect,” he keeps saying, and I feel the sadnesses inside me—the thoughts of nuclear warfare and border walls and small-minded aggressions—retreat.
As the sun approaches the horizon and the temperature begins to drop, we return to camp to layer up and light our stove. Just as the water begins to boil, a pink glow lights the dunes to the east and Mike high-steps up the nearest dune with his camera. Pouring the water into foil pouches full of freeze-dried pepper steak, I zip the pouches closed and chase him up the dune. To the east, the sky glows a hazy pinkish purple. To the west, the sun plunges into the horizon. Where just an hour ago bold shadows highlighted the ribs and curves and drop-offs of the dunes, softness now defines the landscape.
On high points to the south and east and north of us, materializing as though from the sand itself, appear photographers and their tripods. A man wearing an eye-catching white button-down adjusts a portable studio light, photographing a woman in a swirling taupe dress. Along another dune, a dog skitters.
Most of the tripods point toward the falling sun, but Mike turns in slow-motion, shooting the blue-pink ocean of sand from other angles. In this moment, I finally comprehend the vastness of heart I’ve been seeking. Though I don’t know where to find a love big enough to heal the wounds our country has inflicted on others, I suddenly know it’s there, somewhere. How can I doubt, when, in a world where gypsum sand is rare, 4.5 billion tons of it stretch before me? Everywhere I turn, another dune blushes in the sunset’s reflected glow, and another moment—a different moment—waits to be experienced.
Copyright Michalak 2021