Despite the fact that Carlsbad Caverns is technically in New Mexico, I really only felt like I had left Texas as the Guadalupe Mountains faded away in my rear view mirror. Texas had truly surprised me. I’ll admit that eastern Texas hadn’t necessarily left me with the greatest impression. Western Texas, on the other hand, had blown my mind. Driving towards vast, arid horizons had forced me to reevaluate my own definitions of wilderness. The open plains of Texas felt nothing like the dense forests of Maine, yet both held a similar power over me. Since leaving Austin, I have spent a significant amount of time examining my own definitions of “wilderness”, “nature”, and “wild”. I doubt I will ever fully understand all of the complexities inherent in each of the three terms, but I am hoping that this trip will begin to clarify my own ideas on the interplay between them.
Having crossed Texas and explored its stunning National Parks, my road turned northwards. My first stop after crossing into New Mexico was White Sands National Monument. When I think of massive sand dunes, I think of the deserts of the Middle East and Saharan Africa, not southwestern America. The dune structures of the southwest and Colorado Plateau fascinate me because they feel so out of place. New Mexico and Colorado are undeniably arid, but that isn’t necessarily what creates these giant piles of sand. White Sands National Monument is the largest gypsum dune structure in the world, which owes its mineral composition to glacial deposits and good old chemistry. In the early 20th century, grass roots campaigns unsuccessfully sought to protect the pearly white dunes as a National Park. In the end, President Hoover designated the area as a National Monument under the Antiquities Act in 1933. More than a decade after its creation, the White Sands Missile Range enveloped the monument. Made famous (or infamous) by the Trinity Test in 1945, the White Sand Missile Range is still active today. Although they are presumably done with major nuclear tests, munitions’ testing is still a function of this desolate landscape. This fact was made apparent by a sign blocking my entrance to White Sands National Monument due to ongoing missile testing. Left with no other option, I photographed the dunes (and a spectacular sunrise) from afar before returning to my northward trajectory.
In retrospect, I know that I didn’t necessarily give New Mexico enough time. I drove along the eastern edge of the missile range before zooming through Albuquerque and heading for Santa Fe. Mountain ranges ran parallel to the road for my entire drive and brilliant fall colors punctuated the low-lying flora. With Simon Vance reading the final installment in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, I rarely stopped for anything but gas and the occasional photograph. In Santa Fe, I wandered the historic parts of town and spent some time working in a café. At that point, however, I could feel Colorado reeling me in. The mountains were calling…
Eventually, I succumbed to the pressure and drove the final hundred or so miles towards Colorado, promising myself I would return to New Mexico on the second half of my trip. Normally, I try not to drive at night because the potential for missing opportunities or scenery in the darkness is far too great. This night, however, the moon vividly illuminated my surroundings. At one point, I even saw a towering peak wreathed in snow. As soon as that happened, a massive and uncontrollable grin began to spread across my face. Despite my better efforts, it lingered for the remainder of the drive. I turned the music up and coasted through clouds, elated at the opportunities that lay ahead of me. Even when the clouds, spitting rain, and snow robbed me of my moonlit views, I could feel the mountains I was driving through. I could feel the potential for adventure.
Road Map for my New Mexico Fly By