Two weekends ago, V returned after an eight-week work trip to Washington, DC to help me celebrate my birthday. As if that weren’t great enough, the Columbus Day holiday also made it a three-day weekend. Longtime readers know what that means – a road trip out of town. But socially distanced and in the great outdoors, given the current situation.
Welcoming V back was about much more than my birthday, going on a trip someplace new, or even escaping – albeit temporarily – a busy work schedule, security considerations in Juárez, and the pandemic lockdown.
It was about reuniting and starting to do what we do when we settle into a new place – set up our home, check out our surroundings, discover our new favorite places, and of course, find a balance between working and using our free time well.
But we are limited by the constraints of the same dangerous health situation that so many of us find ourselves in. Below are graphics for that weekend’s coronavirus cases in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua (top) and El Paso, Texas (bottom).
And ultimately within days of V’s return, El Paso would take the number two spot in the United States for number of infected patients, the number of available ICU beds in El Paso hospitals would throttle down to nine, and the United States, Canada, and Mexico would jointly announce yet another extension of the March land border limitations on non-essential travel until November 21.
So where to go that we could safely be away from crowds, but still close enough to our “border community” to avoid triggering a two-week stay-at-home restriction before returning to in-person work at the consulate? White Sands National Monument, the largest gypsum dune system on earth, is less than 80 miles away in New Mexico and sounded like an awesome idea. I had been wanting to go since we moved to the area. And luckily for me, V had already planned it all from Washington. So, New Mexico for my birthday it was!
After picking V up at the airport in Texas the Saturday he came back, we had a delicious lunch and did some grocery shopping in El Paso. Then we returned home to Juárez for the night so he could see the progress I’d made on the house since receiving our HHE the week before. I was sorry it was a bit of a disaster zone, but it always is when your HHE arrives.
Sunday morning we headed out bright and early for New Mexico.
It took us a couple of hours to drive the hot, dusty highway past the Texas state line to Alamogordo, New Mexico. We saw a hawk or eagle of some kind, and a few tumbleweeds! To me, the desert is so beautiful.
The town of Alamogordo didn’t seem to have much going on: it inhabits a flat, dusty space along the highway, dotted with gas stations and chain restaurants, between Holloman Air Force Base and the Lincoln National Forest, ringed on one side by mountains. But I immediately liked it anyway. There are cool museums around, but thanks to the dumb pandemic we didn’t get to see much of it this time.
We found an early lunch, and then headed about 20 minutes away to White Sands.
At 275 square miles, or 176,000 acres (71,200 hectares), White Sands is visible from outer space.
An incredible recent article from National Geographic that my stepdaughter A found talks about the discovery of hundreds of fossilized human footprints that scientists recently uncovered in the area we visited. The footprints, which are of an adult and small child, show a hasty trek – that at one point crossed paths with a wooly mammoth – 10,000 years ago. It’s an incredible and fragile ecosystem.
We got an annual national parks pass and drove into the park. I understand there is a shortage of them, but our government employee badges seemed to free up one from a cabinet.
We walked first on the Playa Trail, which is an easy half-mile (800 meter) stroll. Since a playa is a shallow depression or low-lying area, it can fill with water after a rainstorm and completely change in appearance. But when we walked here, it was dry as a bone.
This trail was easy, but provided a place to get out and walk around in solitude; while the park was full of people, no one was really around this area while we were there. We saw lizards and a few butterflies. The longer you stand in one place and look, the more life you see.
Then we drove a little further into the park and found the Interdune Boardwalk, which is even a bit shorter than the Playa Trail at 650 meters.
We had to wear masks for most of this trail, because it was narrow and there were numerous visitors. For me, there was definite distinctive behavior between those who were wearing masks and those who were not. Those who were not wearing masks were talking loudly and letting their kids run around – including off the trail. As they would approach on the boardwalk, silent, masked visitors would stop and turn their backs, trying to minimize contact and exposure. A beautiful warm, dry wind blew.
With temperatures in the 90s, we drove through the rest of the eight-mile Dunes Drive through the park with the air conditioner in the Toyota on blast.
Women in long, flowing gowns ran up pristine dunes as a photographer followed; I later confirmed on Instagram that the park is the location for a gazillion sexy photos. My reasons for photographing the space were much more “Let me reflect upon this incredible miracle of nature!” than “Look at me!” But in our contemporary culture, the nonstop search for extrinsic validation via social media approval is standard. And really, to each their own. I imagine some of the shots I saw captured came out really beautifully. I was happy to see that whether people were in formalwear, hiking, or sliding down the dunes in sleds, everyone seemed to be cherishing the land and leaving no trace.
We returned to Alamogordo for my birthday dinner. We went to a casual barbecue place called “Can’t Stop Smokin'” where we could eat outside. Although my actual birthday wasn’t until Monday, the following day, we would be returning home then and V would have to check into an El Paso hotel (it’s a long story that I will get into some other time, but he is still awaiting official permission from Washington to telework from outside the U.S., and for the time being has to work from U.S. soil). So it made sense to go out to dinner on Sunday while we were away.
They had run out of ribs by the time we arrived, but the beef, the cornbread muffin, the Mac and cheese, the corn on the cob – it was all stupendous. Just mouth-wateringly delicious, lack of real plates and cups be damned. I would 100 percent go back. To top off the evening, V gave me a totally unexpected gift of diamond and pearl earrings which I have already worn four times.
The next morning, we woke up early and headed back to White Sands for another visit before the heat of the day was upon us. This time, we ￼decided to walk the Dune Life Nature Trail; the previous day we had seen temperatures over 85 degrees F (30 degrees C) weren’t recommended for this trail, so we made sure to arrive in the morning cool of the 60s.
We climbed up the first hill and when we saw the vast expanse of surprisingly cool sand before us, realized this would be a trail we could go on barefoot.
The sand was as soft as sugar. It was easy to navigate from one marker to the next on the one-mile, self-guided loop trail, reading about the plant and animal life that occupies the area. But the hike was moderately difficult due to several hills and the softness of the shifting sand. Fortunately, the temperature didn’t climb much until the end of the hour we spent there.
Most desert creatures are nocturnal because of the heat, so we didn’t see too many. But kit foxes, badgers, birds, coyotes, lizards, and certain rodents are known to live in this area.
This particular ecosystem was really interesting to me, because it’s where the desert scrub landscape and the white sand dunes meet. This makes it perhaps less majestic than just the miles of nothing but white sand, but more diverse in the life it supports.
We returned to Texas along a different route that allowed us to pass by the missile range, and stop for a Mexican birthday lunch in Las Cruces, NM. I ate so much I literally went to bed on my own birthday having skipped dinner! But after dropping V off at his hotel in El Paso, I did have my free birthday Starbucks coffee instead. I crossed the border with it and made for home.
Since we have an annual pass now, I’m sure we will be back to White Sands several times over the next three years – and will take pictures in the areas of never-ending pure sand. When the pandemic is over, I would love to go to the park’s Full Moon hike. And someday, when my back is in better shape, do some sledding and camping out there too.