White Sands (Evening)

White Sands National Monument has been high on my list of places to see in the west. It’s the largest gypsum dune field on Earth and was established as a National Monument in 1933. Even though only a small portion of it is (easily) accessible, it is still vast and awe-inspiring.

Coming from Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona, we arrived in the late afternoon. The drive can only be described as monotonous (but I guess that’s true for all travel where you don’t veer off the freeway corridor). If it weren’t for the dire dust storm warning signs along the freeway and the enormous billboards announcing tiny souvenir shops, there’s really just a lot of empty landscape all around. Past the city of Las Cruces we went over San Augustin Pass and then it was “all downhill”, or so it seemed, and we arrived at the visitor center with enough daylight left to drive into the dunes to get a first glimpse at the dunes and an idea of the place.

Driving into the dunes is a surreal experience. One can’t help but associate snow, ice and cold with them. They have the shape of snowdrifts and driving on the unpaved part of the road feels similar to driving on a snow-covered road too, with the sound of the tires muffled and a certain “crunchy” feel to it – except that it is gypsum crystal sand of course, which provides far better grip (and as a plus, it isn’t cold either;-).

It is most fascinating how the color of the dunes changes. Their natural color appears to be a light beige, but the gypsum crystals they’re composed of reflect the light from the sky and clouds – and take on that color. On this particular evening, they appeared warm-toned at the golden hour and then turned blue with twilight, with pink tinges from the sunset clouds above. We would see more of these changing colors during two subsequent visits to the dunes, the next morning and on our way back from Carlsbad Caverns and Roswell.

Unfortunately, past sunset and before sunrise only visitors who camp are allowed inside White Sands National Monument. Night-time photography and sunrises aren’t possible unless you pitch a tent. We stayed in Alamogordo instead, 15 miles/24 km further north-east – with the comfort of a hot shower and a nice bed. We returned to the dunes the next morning, but here are the evening impressions for now.

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Food note: we had dinner at an Asian restaurant in Alamogordo. It was family-run quite apparently, and fun. I saw the guys at the next table over had Sriracha and I wanted some too, so I asked for hot sauce. Instead of Sriracha though, for whatever reason, they brought me a little cup with freshly chopped chilis (red, green, and orange ones too – habanero, danger danger!) I added some to my dish, tried – and it was the hottest thing I had ever eaten. The chilis had a good aroma though and I unexpectedly enjoyed the extreme heat they added to the dish. I had a warm tummy for about an hour after dinner! :-)

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16 thoughts on “White Sands (Evening)”

  1. I have to admit, White Sands was a place that I didn’t expect to be super impressed with, but it knocked my socks off! Especially at twilight, the way you lose all depth perception and feel like you’re just floating on clouds of powdery reflected light is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I’m glad you made it to my native state – like Nevada and the Mojave there’s a lot out there in that landscape that can seem empty and monotonous. The green chile is served with almost anything in New Mexico, and we expats will go to great lengths to get it in our exile.

    • Oh I agree, Jackson – in particular when you’re just cruising on the freeway corridor places seem empty and monotonous when they clearly are not. Maybe that’s a problem with this destination/hot spot type of travel. You’re losing a bit of the curiosity and spontaneity for what lies on the way there…

  2. Amazing photos Alex! I really like your analogy of a silk sheet covering the landscape. It all looks so smooth and clean.

    • Thank you, Johann. Smooth and clean was the look I was after – in the little valleys between the dunes though, there’s actually quite a bit of hardy vegetation, and I fought to keep it out of my frames. :)

  3. I thought of snowdrifts, as well, when we visited. Amazing place, the sort you really need to visit first hand to fully understand. We weren’t there long, but I’m very glad we had the chance, just the same. You created some fantastic compositions, Alex. I love how the light and shade create such amazing patterns in the dunes. At times they seem otherworldly.

  4. Gorgeous and lush in their own way, these make me want to go see the dunes for myself. It was cool to read about the sound and texture of the sand – the whole experience. Though I’m a big fan of abstraction, I really like the way the second photo tells a story as it pulls the viewer’s eyes back into the frame’s far reaches. And the last photograph is as sensual as a beautifully made nude sculpture.

  5. I see that I’ve been to this page once before but the return visit brings new admiration for the quality of the light and the pastel feel to these images. I went with a harsh B&W treatment but these make me think twice about that choice.

    • Thank you, Joe. The light is always different and I’m working on the second set of White Sands photos right now, made the next morning, under clear blue skies and in bright sunlight. I guess black and white would be a good choice for those, but I’m not sure if I won’t lose the unique appearance of the white sand then…


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