November 23, 2019.
We pulled off the highway at a sign for the White Sands Missile Testing Range. That’s where we were told to meet the ranger for our tour of Lake Lucero. There was already a long line in front of us.
It was dumb luck that we got a spot on this tour. One day, I was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and noticed that White Sands posted a link to sign up. (I always follow the land management agency’s Facebook page prior to visiting). I clicked to check it out and our trip just happened to coincide with the tour! Although I usually prefer to explore on my own, but this particular location was only accessible with a ranger, so I registered and hoped for the best.
We sat, and sat, and sat, as the ranger walked from car to car. She asked the same questions and reiterated the same rules to each individual tour group. The plan was to caravan together to the start of the hike. Since we had to drive several miles through the missile range, we had to be on our best behavior.
After what felt like hours later, we finally got to get out of our car. We stood around and listened to the rules again, heard about a little history and endured some goofy activities that were clearly designed to entertain the kids. At last, we began walking.
It was a sunny but cool day, great weather for being outside. Partway down the trail to the lake, we stopped at the remains of the old Lucero homestead, where we looked at barbed wire fencing, a water trough and other remnants of the ranch. Then we finished the walk to the lake.
We began noticing some unusual formations on the ground. The sunlight caught them just so. Selenite crystals, the source of the sand dunes!
It was like when you’re hiking in the forest and you see an unusual flower. You stop and take a hundred pictures of it, then walk a few more yards and come across a meadow full of those flowers? Suddenly the entire ground was covered in these gleaming crystal shards, as if we were in some sort of alternate universe. All that waiting and lollygagging about was immediately worth it!
“Don’t stop til we reach the lake!” Our guide shouted at the group. She was really intent on sticking to our schedules and the rules, and while she was informative and knowledgeable, there was an edge to her voice that insinuated she was completely sick of dealing with tourists’ nonsense. She needed a vacation.
We dutifully followed her to the shore. I’d been waiting for this since she told us that’s when we’d be free to roam around at our own pace. I scanned the lakebed and made a mental calculation of where I thought most of the group would be headed. They’d go left; I’d go right. As soon as we were permitted to go, we bolted to the right.
The lake was impossibly broad and vast. Crystals shimmered in the late morning sun. We walked along the edge of the lake, as recommended, so we didn’t sink into the mud. The area had just gotten some rain, so the previously dry lake bed was saturated with moisture. Without too much time to explore, I kept a quick pace, keeping my eyes open for something, anything different. The landscape was quite barren and same-looking. But I knew there had to be some treasure to discover.
And that’s when I found it. I braved the muck and began walking out towards a piece of driftwood far from shore. I followed animal tracks to try and avoid the worst of the mud. The hoofprints made a fairly compact surface that made travel rather easy. Near the driftwood, I noticed an unusual plant growing on the mud. It had squishy, sausage-like, purple stems. Later I’d learn that this was a type of pickleweed, so named because it likes to grow in briny conditions. Clever.
Off in the distance I saw one, lonely, snow-covered peak: Sierra Blanca, the highest mountain in Southern New Mexico. It looked rather imposing from our position on the salt flat many thousands of feet below. Away from the tour group, it was quiet and peaceful. I stood there, out on the mud, for several moments, grateful for the experience.
We retreated to the group gathering spot, where the ranger was waiting. A good portion of the visitors had already started hiking back. I, on the other hand, could have stayed out there for hours. What were they doing? Did they not understand what a unique and special opportunity this was?
Aaron and I had so many questions. We chatted up a ranger while we walked towards the trailhead. She had some of the answers and shared our curiosity about the ones she didn’t have. It was a great reminder that sometimes it’s worth the red tape and hassle to get a guided tour. I won’t ever forget that place.
On the drive back we kept our eyes peeled for oryx. YES, ORYX. Apparently this African hoofed animal was introduced in the area in the late 1960’s to offer hunters something exotic to shoot. Can you even? And now they’re becoming a bit of a nuisance and crowding out native animals. We didn’t see any, but were fascinated with the idea that we could.
Back in the main park, we packed up our gear to spend a night sleeping on the sand dunes…