Whiter Than Snow

July 21, 2017

No, this post is not a commentary on Wheaton/Winfield, where we used to live. It's about our visit to White Sands National Monument.

In a previous post, I (Steve) wrote about the gorgeous white sand beaches of the Florida panhandle. Of all the places we visited in Florida this past winter, the panhandle beaches are our favorites. We think that they are likely the nicest beaches in the world, and others have confirmed that view, not that we've visited all the beaches in the world, but we can work on that.

On an earlier family vacation, we visited Great Sand Dunes National Park (I think at the time we were there it was a National Monument), and we were amazed at how you can get such a huge pile of beach sand in the middle of the Colorado mountains. Well, if you combine the white sands of the Florida beaches with the the idea of a huge area of sand dunes in the mountains you get White Sands National Monument. This is the world's largest gypsum dunefield. But rather than call it gypsum, it's easier to think of it as baby powder, because that's what it looks like a feels like when you walk in it. Amazingly (at least amazing to a couple of kids who grew up burning the bottoms of their feet on Lake Michigan beaches), this sand doesn't get hot!

It's hard to get good pictures of the sand dunes and their vastness. Because they are such a brilliant white, all the contrast that shows shapes gets lost. There is a surprising amount of wildlife that lives in the dunes, some of it specifically adapted to blend in, like this lizard:

Human wildlife can stay in the dunes too. You can get a permit to camp in the dunes.  It didn't really hold any appeal for us, as you're not really very far from the road, and you don't really get to see anything different. But during a full moon I would guess that even in the middle of the night it's about as light as daytime with all the white sand reflecting the moonlight.

We went to White Sands from Las Cruces as we were staying in Las Cruces and it's only about 50 miles away. We did not realize that there is a border control checkpoint just a few miles before you get to White Sands. Jane was not carrying her driver's license, and neither of us had our passports, so without proper identification, we ran the risk of being searched and detained. (As an aside, I've discovered that almost all of our travels in 2016 and 2017 have been in the 100-mile-wide "no man's land" along our country's border, where your constitutional protections from arbitrary search and seizure do not apply. I wasn't really aware of this until recently, but you can read more here if you're interested.) But apparently we look white enough not to be stopped, while the Hispanic-looking man ahead of us was asked to pull to the side for a search. 

A more likely thing to disrupt your travel to White Sands is missile testing. The road ffrom Las Cruces runs through the White Sands Missile Range, home to a US Army and Air Force base and the site of many significant tests, including the Trinity nuclear test site (1944), Nike missile test launches, Partriot missile tests, and the V2 launching site. After World War II, we brought all the German V2 rockets we could find to New Mexico for study. I think we also brought most of the captured German scientists who developed them. Rather than send these guys to prison for their role in developing the weapons that rained down on London, we sent them to the New Mexico desert. Pretty much even, I think.

I got to visit the missile museum while Jane did not as she had forgotten her ID at home, and did not look enough like a German scientist.

There's a pretty neat collection of all the missiles tested there in an outdoor park and a lot of information in an on-site museum.  There are too many missiles to photograph or remember, but you get the idea from these pictures. Some missiles appear to be really sophisticated . . .

. . . and some seem to be rather crude. But they're all part of American history. 

The museum does have one item in honor of "the dark side."

In 1978, Lucasfilms sent Ben Burtt to White Sands to collect authentic sounds of missiles being fired and launched. Many of these sounds were used in the Star Wars movies, and Ben received an Academy Award for his work. As a way of sending thanks, he gave the museum on the base a real Darth Vader helmet.

I would not say that White Sands is a destination by itself, but it's a cool place to spend the day if you are already in the area. And also go to the missile museum at the military base there; it too is worth a couple hours of your time. Just be sure to bring your identification papers along, lest you wind up on the dark side . . . 

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