Oregon Trail: White Out!

Downtown Las Cruces

Our first destination outside of the Lone Star state was Las Cruces, New Mexico, so when we broke down in El Paso it was a relief to know that there’d be family and a cool bed waiting at the end of a 60-mile tow. We pulled in around sunset, just in time to grab dinner in Mesilla, the historic outskirts of this sleepy university town.

Since it was merely a tempting 55 minutes away from our temporary home base of Las Cruces, NM, we decided to make a side trip out to White Sands National Monument to test out the newly-improved car and see what sort of landscape awaited across the Organ Mountains. Sure enough, as we cleared the pass the land opened up into the White Sands Missile Range: flat and decidedly desert-like for miles.

View from Organ Mountain Pass: White Sands Missile Range

Our very first foray into National Park territory turned out to be slightly more adventurous than we originally anticipated; rounding the corner of the park, we saw a storm gathering just over the ridge we’d just passed. Racing against the encroaching clouds, we scurried up a trail to the top of the first dunes we saw, catching the very last of the afternoon sun.

The dunes roll across the horizon in gigantic banks of sand, their gypsum crystals reflecting nearly all the light that hits them. If it weren’t for the odd yucca and skittering lizard, you would think you were looking at fresh snow. I kept looking down at my wardrobe of shorts and a tank top, perplexed at why I wasn’t shivering as my shoes crunched away on the white powdery substance beneath my feet.

Apparently, the thing to do in White Sands is another snow sport: sledding! We’d surreptitiously borrowed my four-year-old cousin’s saucer sled during his afternoon nap, so we were properly equipped for the activity. The clouds slid over the sun and we decided to try our sledding skills, racing down the sandy slopes at lightning-fast speeds.

No, not really. I actually fell out of the sled before it got to the bottom despite my slow descent, and am still extracting sand particles from awkward places.

When I reached the top again, the storm was almost on top of us and now whipping sand particles at a decidedly unpleasant speed. Stumbling down the dunes, we just barely made it to the car in time before it got really nasty. We sat for a few moments to watch the storm, thinking perhaps it would move on to the west, and the desert dunes turned into a swirling mass of dark white drifts. If it weren’t for the spiky agave plants punctuating the skyline, I’d have thought it was snowing. Ready to get back to the (relative) safety of the highway, we drove through blizzard-like conditions all the way out of the park.

The minute we hit highway 70 the skies opened up and we drove through the mountain passes in a torrential downpour with lighting flashing on either side of the desert. Good to be in a car and on our way to warm beds!

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