When we woke in Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, we were again able to see our surroundings for the first time at sunrise. Nestled at the bottom of a mesa, overlooking a wide plateau ringed by distant mountains, with yellow white morning light spilling across the basin, we found ourselves surrounded by joyful amusing cactuses.
I love waking up in the desert like this.
The night had been windy but warm. Despite dropping below freezing, we had avoided moving too far down the sub-freezing spectrum, and we were thankful to be in southern New Mexico. When we sat to eat breakfast, a Texan couple emerged from the campervan across from us, Jack first, and eventually Judy. After talking for a while we were convinced of visiting a town to the east of us, high above the mesas. Somewhere that cowboys still roam.
If you drive into the mesas east of Alamogordo, you will find that they don’t end with a plateau, but they keep winding up higher and higher into hidden mountains. From our cactus desert wonderland, we drove up, like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, and found that the cactus gave way to juniper, the juniper gave way to pine, and we were suddenly immersed in conifer forest, brown and green and lush amid drifts of snow.
As we drove, wooden buildings started to emerge from the white blanketed trees. Snow lay heavy on their roofs, and icicles hung sharp and shimmering in the light. Along the fronts of the saloon, the gift shops, the clothing stores and remnants of present day culture, ran a long boardwalk with a plank suspended above it for tying off horses to, reminiscent of a recent past. A man came past in full denim, tilting his hat down to keep the sun out of his eyes.
This is Cloudcroft. An alpine oasis hidden in the mesas of eastern New Mexico. And we were enchanted.
We stayed with our new friends at their lodge in the mountains where mountain life was mixed with stories and dreams and artifacts of Africa. Elk and coyotes roamed the forest. We talked into the night, and rested deeply in a soft pillowy bed, waking to see the frozen world outside sparkling in the sunlight. We left Cloudcroft feeling revived physically and emotionally, a renewed faith in mankind shimmering beneath the surface.
It was time to go to White Sands.
I had heard it was amazing, and so I expected to be amazed, but something in me was still surprised by how stunning and other-wordly White Sands National Monument was.
Surely, it is no secret that I am enchanted by sparkling light. I love the way it plays on quartz hidden in granite, on ice crystals freezing in long elegant lines on breathless ponds. I am enchanted by the dance of the ocean’s surface in the sunlight, and the way the light reflects and courses along the limbs of trees reaching out over the shoreline. And so of course, I could barely pull myself away from staring at these white dunes, the gypsum sand refracting the sun’s rays and igniting into a shimmering ocean of sparkles.
But as much as the sparkling light captured me, the absence of light held me too. In the spaces where shadow fell, the shapes of the dunes were accentuated, and the colours shifted between greys and blues. The wind sculpted ripples of the dune’s surfaces undulated in light and shadow. Somewhere distant the wind had swept the sand up into the sky and it danced in the air.
We walked into the afternoon and set up camp among the dunes, watching the sun fall behind the western mountains and seeing the colours of the sand change from white to blue, to orange, to pink, to grey, to dusk. To dark. And then the stars came out.
In the deep ocean black of night, under a sliver of rising moon, the dunes rolled away from us in blues so dark that they were almost imperceptible. Our eyes followed them to that distant point that marks the boundary between mountains and stars. The temperature was cold and growing colder. It froze the sky and the sky sparkled, stars like ice against the black spaces of the universe.
In the morning our thermometer read -13˚C. Inside, the winter tent was coated with frost. Not just sparkles but sheets of it. We clambered out quickly before the sun came above the horizon, and raced to the top of a dune. We had kept the big drink bottle in the tent to stop it freezing, but chunks of ice still floated in it. Simon poured what was liquid into our little pot to make hot drinks, and the surface froze instantly into a thin sheen of ice. We started the campstove and made breakfast. The drink bottle froze solid.
As we sat hugging hot cereal and hot drinks close to our bodies, the sun crept above the horizon and the shadows started to creep down the sides of dunes. The colours of the sand change at dawn too, and I watched them transform seamlessly from grey-white, to rose, to tangerine and then to sunlight white. I scrambled back down the dune then and saw that where Simon was seated above me, with a sand-sled to block a light wind from blowing our campstove, he was level with the rising sun. And through the lens of my camera I watched a magical world of orange and silhouette unfold.
Eventually we organised our belongings and left, tracing the footsteps of visitors in the night, foxes, mice, lizards, and birds, back to the parking lot. With everything packed into the car, we climbed inside, farewelling White Sands. It was time to start our venture back to the west, and we had three nights to make it to California. With half of the day already gone, we would head north to a nearby campsite surrounded by petroglyphs. And the next day, it would be time to drive away from the rising sun…