White Drifts

Neil Van Oost Jr.

White Drifts….  Over the past few years as Christmas approaches, I hear the call of the West, with its visions of warm sunny weather, and trips walking the desert in search treasures which have been newly exposed by wind, rain and temperature changes which can push those treasures to the surface. The treasures I look for are of the mineral variety, agates, jasper, chert, and anything else that strikes my interest. Rocks and minerals, nature, photography, and lapidary are among some of my interests, so some of the rocks will wind up cut, ground, and polished. This year my trip was different because the weather did not co-operate.

This was a year of  El Nino, which is a regularly occurring climatic feature of our planet, El Nino takes place when warmer than usual sea water exists off the coast of South America. El Nino causes climate effects around the world. This year my winter vacation out West was cold, windy, wet at times, and contained snow and ice. Collecting rocks out in the desert was not an option. I did try a couple of times, but wind chill temperatures approaching freezing were not a thing that I could cope with at my age. My vacation out West, this year, consisted of several outings.

One day I set aside for a trip to Tucson, AZ to visit my cousin. This is a three hour drive along Interstate 10 from Deming, NM where I was staying, it is just about as boring as a trip across the desert as can be. My visit with my cousin was nice, we caught up on family stuff and talked about the things that relatives who only see each other once or twice a year do. The trip back to Deming was not a boring one, virtually the whole trip was with a nice bright, sunny sky, flecked with little white fluffy clouds on my left,  and a line of dirty gray and black rolling masses of clouds on my right. Several times during the trip, I ran into snowflakes and snow grains blowing horizontally across the highway. One of the strangest sights was, one could see the clusters of precipitation coming down, but in between these were updraft patches of tan dust, which if they were colored red, would have appeared as flames. I managed to arrive back at Deming before the weather front hit, and the next morning I woke up to ice and snow covering my truck.

I did have a White Christmas of sorts, one of our outings involved driving down a freshly plowed road where we occasionally stopped to watch the kids slide down white slopes, using snow boards, pieces of cardboard boxes, and those round plastic snow sleds. Those white slopes were not snow however, but a powdered mineral called gypsum, The place was White Sands National Monument. We drove a looped road through a small part of the park, the temperatures were in the low 40’s. Seeing the kids sliding down the sides of the pure white dunes, it was not very difficult to imagine that you were standing in the middle of a winter wonderland.

The White Sands National Monument is a U,S, National Monument located 16 miles southwest of  Alamogordo in western Otero County and northeastern Dona Ana County in New Mexico, at an elevation of 4,235 feet. The area is in the mountain-ringed Tularosa Basin and comprises the southern part of a 275 square miles field of white sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals. It is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. More on gypsum in a future article.

The park is enclosed by the White Sands Missile Range and is subject to closure for safety reasons when tests are conducted on the missile range. On average, tests occur about twice a week, for a duration of one to two hours. Located on the northernmost boundaries of  White Sands Missile Range, the Trinity Site can be found, where the first atom bomb was detonated.

This part of New Mexico is so rich in history, scenery, activities and events that it cannot be covered in one day trip and I look forward to several more trips to this area.