A Nightmare at White Sands

I made it past the Border Patrol checkpoints, through the various safety corridors, past the federal prisons with signs warning me not to stop nor pick up any hitchhikers, across the plains, past the tornado, through a torrential rainstorm, and finally I was in the mountains. On the other side I would arrive at White Sands National Monument.

My first perception of New Mexico was not the most welcoming. Danger and warnings seemed to be all around and on every highway and byway. This state would redeem itself later, showing me its true enchantment.  But right now, after a long day’s journey, I was just hoping for a relaxing evening camping out under the stars amidst white sand dunes.

Little did I know my night would not be relaxing nor star filled. I had my suspicions of this though. A storm had lingered ahead of me most of the day, preventing me from fully buying into the prospect of a beautiful night. Once I had passed over the mountains by Las Cruces, I had outpaced the storm. It was behind me. I knew mountains create weather, and weather on one side of a mountain can be entirely different than the weather on the other.

Maybe, by crossing the mountain, the storm would truly stay behind me. I had some unrooted hope. I rolled into the visitor center at White Sand National Monument and wasted no time in getting inside and securing a backpacking permit. It had been a race, me against the clock, all day to get here and secure a permit. When I had it in my hand it was a sure sign of relief.

The young lady, who issued the permit to me in the visitor center, went over a few basic rules. She told me that once I drove into the park, I would not be coming out until the next day. I would have to commit to camp all night, because the park road is gated and locked at night.

I inquired “What am I supposed to do if it starts to lightning.” She replied, commenting how she was aware of a pending storm, and assured me I could sleep in my car if lightning became an issue.

Prior to setting out on this trip, I read an account, from a fellow adventure blogger, Tricia, from Road Trip the World. In her piece “An Amazing (And Absolutely Terrifying) Night Backpacking White Sands,” She shares the true life story of her family encountering a lightning storm while trying to camp out in White Sands and racing back to their car only to get lost and becoming extremely vulnerable to the weather. It was a great read, and seemed like such a crazy and unlikely occurrence. That would never happen to me, right? I could never have imagined that the words I read in their blog would jump right off the world wide web, manifest themselves again here in New Mexico, and formulate the same story with me as the new protagonist. What was this? Some sort of Disney reboot. I would have begged to just stick with the original classic. This new story added in some details I could have done without.

So here’s how this new rendition begins: I was in the park. It was astounding. The sand, formed from gypsum, is truly white, and it gives the appearance of snow. If I staged my photos correctly- threw on a serious coat and hat- I could have fooled you into thinking I was in some sort of arctic tundra. But it was rather warm. I was in shorts and a sleeveless shirt. The drive into the park, was, for a lack of better terms, magical. I think somewhere beneath my car was a road, but white sand had blown, fallen,  and leisurely hung out all over the road, giving the perception that I was off road somewhere braving the snow covered landscape.

I parked my car, in the designated lot for backpacking campers. There were a few other vehicles, maybe five at the max. Daylight was slipping away, so I wanted to get packed and out on the dunes. Two miles, I believe is the distance I needed to travel, to where I was assigned a “campsite.” The only way to identify a campsite would be by a metal stick stuck in the ground with a number affixed to it. As I was packing my backpack with everything I’d need for the night, I overheard a pitiful, yet entertaining, conversation between some fresh college graduates who just met. There were two boys and two girls.

“We just graduated,” The college frat boy type spoke as he was gathering things from his Jeep along with his buddy.

“No way! Oh my gosh, we did to!” the tall slender girl flirtatiously twirled her fingers through her hair, aside her female companion.

“You girls are hot. What are you doing out here alone?”

“Oh, we are just celebrating graduation and are going to go backpacking”

“We’re gonna get drunk.” He pulled a cooler from the Jeep. “Come by our camp for some drinks.”

“Oh my gosh, like, yes!

I had to pause, was this conversation really happening? I did not have the most conventional college experience. I wasn’t accustomed to this sort of exchange. Is this how the world works? Part of me internally was saying please, just stop and go home, and the other part was entertained and begging, tell me more. And they did.

“We have weed,” one boy continued “Come smoke some weed with us at our camp.”

“For sure,” the girls accepted.

Whoa! Overload. Here’s what was spinning through my mind. First off, this conversation was so easy and so blatantly straight-forward. If I were to be flirtatious, which is not much in my character, I would be more clever and cunning about it. “You’re hot”? Really? We can do better. Secondly, going out on the sand dunes, in God’s beautiful nature to get drunk, to me, seems like an abomination. I go out in the wild to seek beauty, to savor the vistas, to listen to the subtle sounds, to commune with my Creator. I think John Muir and dear Teddy Roosevelt would be rolling in their graves to hear this horrendous conversation. Thirdly, you are going to smoke weed on federal property? That only seems like a good idea if you want to spend some time in prison. Hearing the way these guys and girls responded to each other, only proved that they deserved each other. And in conclusion, although their night may be filled with “experiences” for sure, they would miss the true value of the solitude and inspiration to be found in such a beautiful place.

But whatever, Tally Ho! Onward I went into the sandscape. I, now a proven champion of beating the clock, decided I could save some time by punching in the GPS coordinates to my “site” Instead of following the trail, which was a series of stakes in the group. The GPS device would take me a more direct route. I thought this was a good plan. It was mistake number 1.

The story just goes downhill from here, but in all due credit, White Sands National Monument is  beautiful. The smooth white sandy expanse contrasts the dark blue and purples of the mountains in the distance creating a view of prime artistry.

I arrived at my site, just as the sun turned  in for the night. You’ve heard of a “hole-in-the-wall,” well this was nothing more than a stick-in-the-sand. I set up my tent took off my boots, crawled into my tent, laid my head down, and then…

“BOOM!” a thunderous cry ran free in the distance and light flashed across the sky. I propped myself up to further examine the sky. The storm was on descending from the mountains. It was on its way.  My initial reaction was to ignore it, but five minutes later I decided I needed to do something. I don’t know if this has any sliver of intellect or potential at all, but I was considering how my tent and I were the only things sticking up on this white expanse. We were undoubtedly the one and only lightning target. I know lightning is prone to strike the tallest object and is partial to metal. So I took my trekking pole, extended it, walked a few feet away, and erected my personal lightning rod. Back in my tent I went. The wind started to pick up, and the sides of my tent nervously flapped. The storm inched its way forward becoming more boisterous.

Should I stay or should I go, my mind when back and forth and back and forth, ping-ponging from one side to another, until I settled, on I gotta make it back to the car. I quickly packed up and started on my way. But which way? It was dark now, and I had become disoriented. Everything out here looked the same. I didn’t know which way to go. I started, and about ten minutes in, I realized I had no idea where I was headed. For my own psychological well-being, if this storm was going to be upon me, I figured I’d rather be inside my tent than standing up on the sand completely exposed. I made my way back to my tent and set up my tent once again. I was going to be stubborn. I was going to stay. But my stubbornness only lasted for about another ten minutes, until doubt crept back in.

Then I attuned my ears to the sounds of some other campers somewhere in the distance. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear them laughing and being all giddy-like. I entertained, for a while, the idea that if there was really danger I would wait until that party packed up and started heading back to the cars. But the storm grew closer and closer and these people seemed so unfazed. Then the responsible and reasonable me considered that I was  waiting to take lead from people who were probably drunk and high. I need to take matters into my own hands. Better safe than dead, I concluded. I packed up my tent once again and headed out. Mistake number 2 was that I failed to make a waypoint on my GPS when I started my journey from the parking lot. I would have to follow the system of numbered stakes back. It would take longer. I went from one number to another, and they didn’t match up. How did I go from 2 to 11 and then from 11 to 5. I was not following the sequence. My feet were racing and stumbling over themselves in the soft sand. It was uncomfortable, I was struggling and far from being collected or stoic, but I was determined to get back to my car before the lightning reached the area.

About twenty minutes later I thought I had found my way, until I read the number. I was back at my site. The realization that I just walked in a circle hit me in a very unsettling way. It was like the sandscape was playing tricks on me and mocking me. I felt like I was in one of those terrible nightmares, where you realize you are dreaming, but no matter how hard you try you just can’t wake up and snap out of it. Panic really began to set it. I was about ready to throw it all on the ground, lay down, bury my face in the sand, and face my horrible fate of being struck and fried by lightning, but I don’t give up that easily.

Just when so much sand collected in my shoes, that it forced my feet out of my boots and I stumbled around barefoot, I reached what seemed to be the pearly gates of the roads paved with gold. It was simply the parking lot, ever so comforting and reliving.

BOOM! Light flashed in the darkness.

The storm was very near. I was very glad I made the decision to come back to my car.

Never in my adult life have I camped in my car. It was against my rules. I would always take the time to set up a tent and enjoy the night air and stretch out my legs. I would break my rules tonight. I am tall, my car was compact. I was crutched up. I cracked the windows, but it was stuffy. This was not how it was supposed to be. Here I was feeling pitiful. My White Sands camping experience was ruined. This was supposed to be a trip of peace and rejuvenation. That same morning I had locked my keys in the car, and now I had just escaped a lightning storm and was crunched up in a compact car in the blustery sand plains of New Mexico.

Then…

Bright lights shown in my window. Someone had their vehicle high beams pointed at me. It was a law enforcement park ranger. He informed me I was not allowed to camp in my car. I told him I came back because of the storm, and in the visitor center, I was told I could do so. He asked for my license, permit, and fee receipt. Wait? What? Receipt? I didn’t have a receipt. I didn’t pay anything for my permit. Was I supposed to? I was.

I was trying to figure out how could I possibly be at fault. Shouldn’t the permit issuers have collected my fee?

The officer wrote me a ticket for $150. “Pay your $3 camping fee on the way out in the morning, or you will be stuck with this fine.

I explained to him how I would never intentionally break a rule in a National Park, and I explained how I actually volunteer with the National Park Service in the Big South Fork. He was friendly and understanding, but still stern. He pulled out a piece of paper, which I had never previously been presented with, that stated “no sleeping in vehicles.” After giving me the run around I asked: “Well where am I supposed to sleep tonight?”

“You can just sleep in your car,” he replied.

Feeling like a convicted criminal, I slept in my car. I felt like I had betrayed my beloved National Park Service. My pride had taken a fall. I always felt like I was a part of the NPS now I felt like a foe. And I was the one seeking peace and solitude. It’s not like I was hooking up on the sandscape with booze and marijuana. I felt like the law enforcement officer painted me as someone I wasn’t.

Feeling pitiful and exhausted, I fell asleep.

 

I woke up in the middle of the night to the car rocking back and forth from the wind. I pushed myself up to look out the window. I couldn’t see anything. The storm indeed was here, and it had picked up the sand and violently tossed it about in a complete white out.

Well, this was the safest I was going to get. I laid back down. I may have broken rules, my night might have been a messy escape from danger, but I felt I had made the right decision. The turmoil outside put my mind at ease for the decisions I had made, and I went to sleep again to the sound of the roaring wind.

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Check back next Wednesday for the next “episode” in the adventure.

Click here for the previous entry:  https://joshthehodge.wordpress.com/2019/03/06/3-rattlesnakes-and-a-frenchman/

Check out my book “Among Blue Smoke and Bluegrass” on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Among-Blue-Smoke-Bluegrass-Tennessee/dp/1790631297

Read Tricia’s White Sands experience here: http://roadtriptheworld.com/2015/08/backpacking-white-sands/

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