We bid adieu to Gentry and family and headed south/southeast out of ABQ en route to White Sands National Monument. We opted for backroads rather than highway, traveling through flat, high sierra (~6000’ altitude) dotted with cholla and yucca, juniper and occasional pinyon pine. Grazing cattle on expansive ranches were common sights, as were pronghorn antelope that shared the range.
We passed through small ranching communities where feed stores, western gear and a local watering hole were the prevalent retail stores. We saw a visitor center sign for the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in Mountainair, NM and decided to stop to stretch our legs and check it out. We’d never heard of this national monument before and after we’d wandered through the small exhibit and watched the park video, we decided to stop at one of the monument’s three cultural sites.
Gran Quivira, aka Las Humanas, is the largest of the three sites and was located on our NM-55 route. It offered a 1/2-mile walking trail for viewing of the ruins and was virtually empty, other than the ranger, when we arrived. The morning was cool and clear and the friendly ranger gave us a quick overview before setting us loose to explore the ruins. He warned that he’d seen several rattlesnakes on the trail lately and that we should be on the lookout. As we walked, we kept a lookout. I was hoping to see a rattlesnake… close enough to photograph and far enough away to be out of striking range… but we didn’t see anything moving except one small lizard and an unidentifiable bird.
The Gran Quivira area, like the other sites, was originally inhabited by ancient tribes that had roots dating as far back as 7000 years ago. By 1300 AD, the Anasazi culture was dominant in the area with a population estimated at 2,000 at Gran Quivira. They had large stone and adobe complexes, an advanced culture and were a major trading center between tribes. When the Spanish came in the early 17th century looking for gold, the only riches they found here was an abundance of ‘salt’ in the local salinas (salt ponds).
Enter the Franciscan missionaries charged with ‘Christianizing’ the locals. This, of course, clashed with the native rituals and beliefs. The long and short of it… by 1670, due to drought, famine and introduced diseases, nearly a quarter of the native population perished and the missions and pueblos were abandoned. We saw what was left of the mission. A breeze whistled through the empty ruins; dust whipped up in tiny whirlwinds; in the quiet, we explored and wondered about the people who had been here centuries and millennia before us.
We made it to Alamogordo, New Mexico by late afternoon and were content to find a hotel room, take showers, fuel up and re-supply at the local WalMart before heading to White Sands early the next morning. We also stopped to view the world’s largest pistachio… hard to pass up.
According to the NPS brochure, President Herbert Hoover established White Sands National Monument, protecting 143,733 acres of land, including 115 square miles of the area’s 275 square mile Chihuahuan Desert dune field, the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.
‘In response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. military established a permanent presence in the Tularosa Basin during World War II creating the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, known today as Holloman Air Force Base, and White Sands Proving Grounds, now White Sands Missile Range. White Sands Missile Range was also one of the key locations of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb during World War II. The testing of the first atomic bomb took place in 1945 at the Trinity site on WSMR, 65 miles north of White Sands National Monument. After World War II, White Sands Missile Range became home of some of the German scientists, including Werner Von Braun, who were instrumental in the conception and development of the V-2 rocket.’ (WSNM website)
We noted an alert on the park website: ‘From time to time the missile range that surrounds the monument performs missile testing that may require the closure of the park or Highway 70. Please plan your visit around upcoming missile tests.’ We checked the missile testing schedule and all was clear for a visit.
We proceeded onto Dunes Drive, an eight-mile (13 km) scenic drive, which led us into the heart of the gypsum dunefield. There were quite a few visitors, so we opted to go to the very end and work our way back. About 4 miles in, the pavement stopped and we drove on packed sand. Noting the drifts and sand banks, we figured they plowed here quite often.
There isn’t much trail hiking in the park per se, but walking up and down the dunes is allowed. Actually, it was hard to find a spot on a dune without any footprints.
We came unprepared for sledding down the dunes although I really wanted to give it a try. We noted later that ‘plastic sleds’ (we used to call them ‘flying saucers’) were available for hire at the visitor center. Instead, we improvised and I used the lid from one of our plastic storage bins. I trudged up a sand dune that we reckoned was steep enough… two feet forward, one foot back in the deep sand. I settled myself on the lid and expected to slide right down that hill. I moved about an inch. I pushed myself a bit further and sunk further into the sand. In fact, I inched all the way down the hill under my own steam with nary a slip nor slide involved. Then we saw Amanda, who was a bit more successful (and graceful) than I. Click here to see the differences in sledding styles… https://youtu.be/6oEohJoePE4
Probably the most enjoyable and informative walk was the Dune Life Nature Trail. Tall markers were spaced along a path that could never be otherwise marked due to the shifting, blowing sands. Along the one mile route, interesting signs were placed spotlighting inhabitants of the desert. In particular, two caught our attention. First, the apache pocket mouse, bleached through adaptation to the color the sand to reflect heat and provide better camouflage, never drinks water… ever. It gets its hydration from the seeds it eats. Second, the tarantula hawk is a spider wasp that hunts tarantulas, ‘using their sting to paralyze their prey before dragging it to a brood nest as living food; a single egg is laid on the prey, hatching to a larva which eats the still-living prey.(Source: Wikipedia) Yuck! Not that I’m crazy about tarantulas, mind you, but what a way to go!
Enough missions and sand dunes for now. The next leg of our road adventure takes us to Roswell, New Mexico, home of the International UFO Museum and site of the infamous 1947 Roswell Incident. Come on along … it’ll be out of this world.