The first time I passed through New Mexico I was in a hurry. The second time I was coming from a blizzard that marooned me in Amarillo, Texas for a few days that kept me in a hotel room eating beef jerky and drinking sink water. Both times I was more than happy to see the state line of New Mexico, a place that I agree is ‘The Land of Enchantment.’
The rugged, diverse terrain, the cool nights and welcoming people of New Mexico always captured my attention during my previous visits. Most of my voyages were just pass throughs on my way to California.
The Texas heat and muggy days in the South made me think of New Mexico as an upcoming oasis — a vacation from the stifling heat. I knew that once I got to New Mexico my nights would be cooler because of the dry desert-like climate, and nothing sounded better than cooling down after days of being soaked in sweat.
Tucumcari was my first stop in New Mexico, (you can read more about my experiences here) but I wanted to see more than just the land surrounding Interstate 40, and I knew White Sands National Monument was one of the best places in the state to see, especially for a photographer.
I used my GPS to point Atlas south on U.S. 84, a windy two-lane highway that perfectly shows the diverse landscape of New Mexico; a combination of beautiful hills, luscious green space, abandoned barns, and dry desert.
First I stopped in Roswell to see what all the UFO hype was about, and I found a bustling town with only a hint of the infamous crash site in 1947. I went to the International UFO Museum And Research Center, which shows the chain of events that happened leading up to and after the alleged crash site of a flying saucer.
Don’t get your hopes up of visiting the actual crash site (you cannot go because it is still privately owned) or that you drive around the outskirts of Area 51 (Nevada). It wasn’t disappointing, but if you just want to see a museum with the history of what happened, as well as information on other sightings around the world, the museum is pretty cool. However for me, Roswell was definitely a one-time only thing.
Stopping in Roswell still left me more than two hours away from White Sands, and it was already mid day. I finally reached White Sands after driving through a small town called Alamogordo, and was almost there when I suddenly passed through the White Sands Missile Range, which often shuts down U.S. 70 and the dunes for up to 3 hours because of missile testing at the adjacent military base.
Luckily there weren’t any missile tests going on that day, but it started raining immediately as I pulled up to the ranger station. The ranger warned me that I should be careful because a big storm was headed in at any minute. I looked up and saw that the sky was turning black and lightning was firing, which is often an ominous sight for photographers (unless that’s your sort of thing).
Little did I know that this storm would make this already otherworldly looking place even better. When you first see the dunes from the Highway 70, it looks like huge clumps of white sand dumped in the middle of the desert. My first thought was, how the hell does this place look so perfect when landscape photographers come here to shoot? Well, my first inclinations were wrong; this place started opening up after 15 minute drive in to the heart of the dunes.
I first stopped at a platform that walked out over the sand. There was a man walking his dog as lightning was striking in the background. The sky was half blue and half black, and I was for a little bit scared for my safety. I joked with the guy about whether he was going out on the walkway, and he laughed and said, “No, but you should be fine, metal ever hardly attracts lightning.” Well, I knew that was a little bit of ‘wink wink, nudge nudge’, but I ran down the aluminum pier anyway with my camera and tripod.
I started seeing yucca trees and windswept white sands over a dramatic sky right before me. The walkway didn’t offer much by way of photographic opportunity, but it was a nice start. I drove further into the park and pulled up next to a man in a large Ford truck and got out. He looked at me and muttered, “unfuckingbelievable” under his breath. I asked him if there was problem, but he just got into his truck, slammed the door and threw me the finger. I decided maybe this wasn’t the best place for photographing. I still don’t know what I did to piss the old timer off; perhaps it was my camera, or my friendliness?
After a little bit of fear from being hit by lightning, and being given the death stare from a cantankerous old fart, I hesitatingly hiked further into the dunes and saw some of the most strikingly beautiful landscapes I had ever seen. I captured wind storms developing, the sky turning black, and the Yucca tree sitting in all of its majestic beauty.
I sat down with my camera, found my frame and waited for something to happen. In one of the images you can see the start of sand storms in the distance. It was one of my favorite pictures from the entire experience, but all in all, this place had more photo ops than what I knew what to do with.
Later that night I slept at the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park New Mexico (check this place out, it was $10 a night). It was one of the best nights of sleep I had in Atlas during the entire trip, because I didn’t wake up in sweat and discomfort all night long. And it was also one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve visited.
I went back the next day to White Sands, and spent hours there just people watching, hiking the dunes, taking pictures, and hopefully avoiding the crazy old man in a Ford. If you’re out there buddy, I hope I didn’t ruin your day by parking next to you in a national park made for everybody to enjoy 🙂 .
All in all, White Sands National Monument was the most beautiful place I have been to on the road… so far. It really is the land of enchantment.