A road trip to New Mexico reveals snow-white dunes and a city of rocks.
“I really don’t want to go.” Pouting, I tried to internalize an unnecessary degree of petulance.
Dispensing our warm goodbyes to biking friends in Arizona, Jason and I saddled up and I reluctantly turned the key in the ignition. Destination: New Mexico. A southern state not yet explored by us and sitting just above Mexico, one I was sure was filled with vast expanses of hot, arid desert. Nope. The weather blew a bracing, fresh wind for the most part of the week while we wended around a gamut of snow-capped mountains carpeted in pine and spruce. As we inched toward the white sands, we were met with towering cottonwood forests and colourful wildflowers beginning to bloom. Truth be told, there is nowhere else that reminded me of New Mexico.
Gloriously, the sky was cobalt blue and the air was crisp. Spring had sprung, but so had an oil leak on Mr. Jangles. A motorcycle trip wouldn’t carry much clout without one roadside repair. Or four, courtesy of Jason. Sympathetic to our transiency, the mechanics at Las Cruces Motorsports immediately tended to the leak, albeit a niggling drip more than a worrisome trickle. It turns out we were using ineffective sealant on the DR650’s valve cover – Honda Bond, however, worked like a charm.
It’s All White Now
Toward the north side of Route 70 about 26 km southeast of Alamogordo, at the heart of the Tularosa Basin, glistening white dunes rise up from the earth. Unmissable but not immovable, they constantly shift and settle over the Chihuahuan Desert, engulfing 712 square kilometres of sparkle. White Sands National Monument is a gargantuan gypsum dune site, the world’s largest. Firmer and cooler to the touch than you might think, the dunes make for boatloads of fun sledding down them from up to 18 metres high, but between us – hauling a laden rucksack spilling over with camera equipment and more dry bags strapped to me than I care to remember – we traipsed rather than tobogganed in. A couple of kilometres later saw us set up camp in a secluded spot we’d call home for the next two days.
For thousands of years – since the Permian sea retreated when the shores of an ancient lake that covered what is now White Sands – ethereal lakes, wind and sun have separated the water from the gypsum and have formed transparent crystals. Once the wind and water are done, the crystals break down into sand-sized particles. Strong southwesterlies keep the gypsum on the go, stockpiling it up and pushing dunes into incredible sandscapes, displacing wave-like dunes of all shapes and sizes.
Who Turned Up the Heat?
Unforgiving rays bounced excitedly off the sand, which, coupled with the midday sun’s atomic heat, meant I had to cling to the shade like a vampire. It was brutally warm, as if the sun was focused through a magnifying glass. To gain a moment of refreshment, I washed myself with wet wipes as if sanding down a wall. With no movement of air – where was that invigorating breeze I’d banished? – the afternoon grew hotter. I might as well have been on a salamander grill. Becoming increasingly aware of my skin’s flawless ability to leave me with the complexion of Jabba the Hutt, I dove under mesh and canvas.
As I looked out, the soft silence was periodically interrupted by the odd fighter jet that would dart across a cloudless sky. Those would be from the White Sands Missile Range, surrounding the monument. Late one afternoon, we were hiking over the sandy banks when a series of them glommed together. Military aircraft long gone, the dunes were, I now realized, layered and daunting, impenetrable and comparable
A Sight to Behold
After a lovely swathe of afternoon approaching dusk, moments before the sun dipped below the dune field, Jason hollered at me to run toward the last vestige of golden light. With the utmost dispatch! Urging me to cling to it like the shipwrecked cling to the hull of an overturned ship.
“The dunes have changed colour. They’ve turned blue!” I said, stating the obvious to Jason as my head spun into the tungsten twilight. This was radically different: the gypsum must absorb every colour of visible light except blue, so it reflects a pure powder blue back to us. That, and a winter-blue light mingling with the evening cold, I mused.
“I know, you should see the pictures coming straight out of the camera. No one will believe I haven’t tweaked the images,” Jason responded. I smiled and stood casually, and there, with the great lilac hue taking over the place flaring like potassium in the low evening light, I just gawped, my brain roaring from all the colour, startled just as much by the scale and intricacy of the wind-blown rippled patterns. It felt as though all the world’s pleasures were mine for the taking. This was a fine day. The good ones always sneak up, unexpectedly.
Oil Leak Take Two
A trip back to Las Cruces Motorcycle Sports saw the same honourable lads make a second attempt to seal up the returned leak. No matter, the resultant oil refused to dry up and instead diminished to a glistening spot that I, and more importantly Jason, could live with.
Splitting off the 180, the City of Rocks rolled around to meet us. Located halfway between Silver City and Deming, it got its name from a striking mile-wide geological formation of volcanic rock. Over millennia, erosion has sculpted columns and pinnacles into a “city” rising to 12 metres and separated by pathways. As I rode along the lanes resembling city streets, I noticed nature’s infrastructure and tried to imagine this place at its inception 40 million years ago. A beautiful little add-on in the Chihuahuan desert region of southwestern New Mexico.
A Little Excitement, Please
Sluggish with a happy fatigue induced by brisk days in the saddle and even colder nights camping in succession, we both craved something to shake us up. “How about a portion back on the dirt?” Jason suggested, pinpointing a section of New Mexico’s Backcountry Discovery Route. Famished for some off-road fun, we kick-started the proceedings on the Pueblo Park Road off Route 180.
Enlivened, we cruised northwesterly of the Gila National Forest for around 65 km, twisting us around a serpentine course of compacted dirt some of the way, tracks more gravelly than rutty, and a little construction work grading the road thrown in here and there. Swinging a right on an unnamed road brought us out onto Saddle Mountain Road and back onto the 180 toward Luna. It was thrilling – getting my dirt legs back was always exhilarating, even in rude temperatures just above zero. Adrenaline barely kept the burning cold at bay in my summer-gloved fingers, but the dexterity of “feeling” the bike trumps heated winter-gloved digits any day on dirt.
“Ooh, look at you, Lisa!” Jason observed with boisterous good humour at my new-found capacity to slip straight back into “giving it some.” With that came a pleasant sense of self-satisfaction, as if I’d discovered that I was still capable of performing a forward roll. I’m sometimes a tangle of limbs with the grace of a three-legged dog before I straighten myself out and get on with it. Once the muscle memory kicks in, I am always so much more willing and malleable. I’m happy plasticine.
While the ride became finger-numbing, taking on the severity of a slow acid burn, my almost reckless swagger extinguished, it was anything but mind-numbing. On the contrary: woken out of a sleepy stupor, my blood pulsed gratifyingly. It felt good and essential to my well-being, motivated by pure curiosity and a sense of play. It was just terrific fun, and I hooted my bicycle bell, apropos of nothing, Mr. Jangles charmingly sure of his place in the world, and on the dirt.
At an elevation of more than 2,133 metres, a smattering of snow intersected our route and dictated we push on, particularly through tiny villages that were more of a gathering of buildings, if not struggling towns that continued to prevail because at some point long ago they set out to exist. For some time, we toyed with the idea of whether to take the stoic route and camp cheaply or bed down in a cozy motel. Our sense of frugality bristles, at times, at any want or need for comfort.
Creature Comforts Prevail
The temperatures plummeted and the smidgeon of flakes became a flurry; the prospect of solid walls became seductive, whatever the cost. I’d read somewhere that the great virtue of defeat, once accepted, is that it at least allows one to rest. No longer troubled by splurging a day’s budget on a bed alone, I outlined the reality of a warm and comfortable ending, to which Jason soon succumbed.
I dismounted the bike only to discover my knee joints had ossified. My hips ached as if I’d hiked across a dune field with my body weight in dry bags hanging off me. Hurting, I hobbled into the office with a robot’s gait and vowed I wouldn’t return without a room key in my hand. An evening of centrally heated warmth and subsisting on comfort food before I’d have to extricate myself. Sucking up electricity and Wi-Fi like a diver coming up for air. The prospect was blissful. It was transformative. Energized by several bowls of hot food, I soaked in a hot bath and have never enjoyed the sensation more. The place was aglow all around us, as though sharing our happiness. Lulled by the most wonderful, unshakeable feeling that comes from a springtime road trip to New Mexico.