To start my current trip visiting Karen in Albuquerque she suggested that we take a backpacking trip. Since northern New Mexico still has a lot of snow, she suggested we go to southern New Mexico.
This was to be my first backpacking trip in 20 years. It was Karen’s first in 30 years. She already had a backpack and pad for her sleeping bag. But last week I picked up one for her in Boulder’s REI that zips together to mine.
I checked out my New Mexico hiking guides, and found one place that they all say is special — White Sands National Monument. It happens that I had stopped there in 1977, when I moved back to California from DC, but had never hiked there. Karen had never gone there at all.
I had come down from Boulder on Friday in a 9-hour drive on Saturday and rested on Sunday. Yesterday morning we made the 4-hour drive straight south to White Sands.
We were blessed with unseasonably warm weather (at least during the day), clear skies, and little wind for what we think of as a “trial run” for my new backpacking equipment. I bought it shortly before winter closed in because I want to go to new places and I am running out of short hikes. I have a new backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and pad. All turned out to be extraordinarily great pieces of equipment.
Since this was a trial run, we didn’t know what to expect. So it was great that we went out for only one mile and one night. In fact, White Sands has no campground, only this one place for overnight camping. Its facilities are as minimal as possible. Not even a trail to it, since the dunes keep shifting.
Except for the sand, the sun, and the sky, the only thing there are posts spaced so you can barely see one from the other. They mark the way along the trail to where we camped. Spaced in about half a mile of the trail are 10 camp sites, only two others of which were reserved for last night, when we were there. The other campers were all about a half mile away so we had a perfect wilderness experience — no other people, no sound.
We had enough time before sunset to play in the sand. We ran up and down the sand dunes, sometimes with our hiking boots and sometimes barefoot. This sand — gypsum rather than the sand almost everywhere else in the world — is wonderful to the touch.
We even cooked a hot dinner on my 35-year-old backpacking stove. Then, as the sun was setting we snuggled into our home in the wilderness. The sleeping bags and pads were surprisingly comfortable. But it was a cold night.
This morning a ranger told me that the temperature last night had dropped to 26 degrees. It sure felt like it.
The night was incredibly clear with some of the brightest stars ever and only a tiny sliver of moon. But every time that I got up to pee I shivered for a long time back is the sleeping bag. So it wasn’t the most restful night’s sleep, but the length of the night made up for it, since we got to bed before 8 p.m., when it was dark, and didn’t get up until 8 a.m., when the sun finally hit our tent and it started to warm up enough for us to consider arising.
This morning after a couple of cups of coffee for me (from a coffee extract that I got at REI and water that I boiled) and a small breakfast for Karen, we struck the sandy tent and returned to the trailhead.
But we weren’t ready to leave the national monument. We took the only other real trail there, the considerably longer Alkali Flat Trail that goes through the heart of the dunes. Like our trail yesterday, it’s marked only by posts. In the sense that I think about a trail, it doesn’t exist.
In fact, the only things there were the dunes, the sand, and us.
A two-hour hike through this most wild of all wildernesses I have experienced topped off our perfect trip.