We chucked our stuff in the car on the morning of Wednesday the 6th. This included approximately ten bags of glass jars and bottles, as they don't recycle glass most places in Arizona and we're part of the environmental generation. This is something like being raised Catholic, in that it involves lots of guilt and regular ceremonies in dimly-lit places that smell strange. We had a wistful parting with Kate, who would have been in favor of us staying another five weeks (her remaining tenure at the park, which she is now spending alone in the apartment) and headed for Gallup and the recycling center. With our summer's harvest of glass deposited in the fusty black barrel provided, we were free to begin our journey home in earnest.
We turned south at Albuquerque to head toward Las Cruces. After a couple hours, the landscape changed from the beige sandstone mesa-and-butte terrain we'd been seeing all morning and became green and mountainous.
We passed the exit for the Very Large Array, but didn't have time to visit it. Past Las Cruces, we turned east and descended into the Tularosa Basin. The long road downward from the San Andres mountains was the longest downhill stretch I've ever coasted in a car. At the bottom, the land was flat and boring, except for an army of yellow caterpillars crossing the road. After a few minutes these abruptly disappeared. One moment there were caterpillars; the next there simply weren't.
Near the White Sands missle base we were diverted off the highway for a border patrol checkpoint. The officer asked us whether we were citizens (yes) and where we were headed (Rhode Island), then let us go. We drove a couple minutes further to our evening stop, White Sands National Monument.
This attraction is one of the only gypsum dune fields in the world. Ages ago, when this part of the U.S. was under a shallow sea, evaporating water left minerals behind, including calcium sulfate, or gypsum. The gypsum layer was buried beneath subsequent layers, and much later, rifting and faults lifted the San Andre and Sacramento mountains above the Tularosa Basin. As the nearby mountains were exposed to erosion, the gypsum began to wash out of their sides and into a lake in the basin. Here it forms large crystals, or dries and blows into the dune field.
This park is only $3 a person to enter. When we arrived at the end of the park's Dunes Drive, we saw families sporting in the sand, just like at the beach--complete with loud and obnoxious music.
We hiked out on the Alkali Flats trail to escape them. Soon we were surrounded by white dunes. The air was warm and humid and there was a strange smell, like a salty beach with no organic component, no decaying seaweed or dead crabs. I'm not sure I would call it pleasant but it wasn't unpleasant. And it was certainly beautiful.
I made a sand angel.
Here is the sand that stuck to my arm. Click on the picture to see the shape of the grains close-up.
Katie and her friends had a tradition dating back to her undergraduate days; it involved a large round stuffed bat. This bat must be brought to unique places and have its photo taken. After we'd been visiting unique and lovely places all around the southwest for two and a half months, Katie's friend finally managed to get the bat in the mail to her. Here is Katie and the bat, rolling down the hill. (The bat is rolling down the hill, not Katie.)
Here is Katie of the Post-Apocalyptic Dune Planet, with bat, camera and water bottle in arms.
It was lovely out, you understand, with balmy air and gorgeous scenery. It was quiet and we were having great fun. The park was open until 10. Unfortunately, we were on a schedule and had to go. With the sun setting, we packed ourselves into the car and drove off east. We entered the Sacramento mountains after dark, and began a twisty climb that lasted an hour and would certainly have been great fun if we could see where we were going. In the dark it was slightly hair-raising, with cars and motorcycles whizzing past in the opposite direction, and reflectored guardrails close on either side.
It wasn't until after nine that we arrived at our first camping place, Rio Penasco RV Park. I had chosen this particular destination because it was the only place on our route that advertised tent sites. All the other camgrounds I could find with my sole resource (the internet) listed only RV hookups. We didn't want to pay $20 for a night in a tent. But when we got to Rio Penasco, no one was in the office. We read the placard outside with dismay: $20 a night for an RV space, plus assorted other fees. The map showed no tent sites. We drove disconsolately around the park, retirees watching us from lawn chairs in their haloes of lantern light. Finally we decided to pay the fee and set up the tent on a unused grassy area. In the morning we would check in at the office and try to reclaim some of our money.
The air was thick with humidity and the ground already wet with dew, and cows made strange noises in the distance. We made ramen noodles hunched over my stove in the gravel parking spot, then turned in.
Later... part 2!