II. WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT, NEW MEXICO
photos, music curation and story by alexis stember coulter
We arrived at the White Sands National Monument at dusk and though we hadn’t planned to visit until morning, the light, or what was left of it, was too spectacular to miss.
We drove the loop through the monument marveling at the otherworldliness of this Martian land. The sky swallowed us in a wash of reflected pastels that starkly contrasted against the snow white granules shifting below our tires. We’d come to the Southwest for moments precisely like this. Moments of beauty. Moments of reflection. Moments that invited us to slow down, be present and give thanks for the lives we’d led as we prepared to welcome a a brand new life into the world.
The next morning, I was surprised to see quite a few people already trekking up the dunes as we returned to hike. Given the early AM hour and the fact that it was late October, I thought we might be lucky enough to find ourselves alone. That would not be the case and it was easy to understand why. The rare but naturally occurring gypsum crystal sand dunes extended over 144,000 acres and it was a white phenomenon as far as the eye could see.
“Are you sure you’re up to hiking this?” Dylan asked as I zipped an extra large fleece over my protruding belly.
The sun had emerged overhead by now and the sands were starkly lit like a blinding reflector. It wasn’t even 9am and already the severity of the desert was clear. This was not somewhere one survived if not very adequately prepared.
We kept driving in search of something secluded and passed a group of four people on horseback, readying themselves for a day of riding through the sands. We stopped and spoke to them.
The group told us they habitually rode throughout the Southwest, mostly through national parks and monuments. White Sands, they said, was one of their favorites. We photographed them waiting on horseback as a ranger stood in front of them, reprimanding them for bringing their trailers into the wrong parking lot. We exited the fray, thanked them for their time and made our way towards a trail that looked remote and promising.
I remember noticing a lack of wind as we hiked but I’ve been asked what it smelled or sounded like and oddly, I can’t remember. I think that’s because the place is so sensorially removed from any experience that’s familiar that memory recalls it the way it might the moon landing – silent, buoyant and otherworldly.
Contrast that with the most earth-bound context of what stood just outside the monument: a bombastic row of every fast food restaurant imaginable, positioned there to support the military presence at the large missile range that bordered the National Monument. The juxtaposition was hard to assimilate and harder still to describe. Awkward and uncomfortable, this clashing of worlds both seduced and repelled, but ultimately kept you coming back for more.
Stayed: White Sands Motel. Clean, cheap, close. Ask for the AAA rate.
Saw: The sunrise and sunset.
Ate: I wish I could say we found some authentic, off the beaten path restaurant that was good. We tried but without success.
Alexis Stember Coulter is a mother, producer, photographer and writer. She is currently working on a book detailing her 15 years living in New York. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband Dylan, daughter Ella and their coterie of family in southern and central California. You can follow her on IG (Trust me - it is fantastic) @alexisstembercoulter