Thursday, April 20, 2017

Calcium Sulfate Dihydrate

In the last three plus years, I've been to some incredible places and had some amazing perspective-altering experiences. I've climbed a glacier; watched lions hunting in the wild; haggled in the souks in Marrakech; seen blue footed boobies mating in the Galápagos Islands; surfed (!!!!); and made more of a connection with the country of my birth than at any other time in my adult life. Pretty cool stuff. But if you had told me at the beginning of this five year blog that I would have spent part of a day sledding in New Mexico, I would have said you were crazy. 

First of all, I don't particularly care for sledding. I vaguely remember the last time I put butt in sled in Syracuse's Thornden Park about 25 years ago (there may have been some alcohol involved that day) and I liked to do it as a kid I guess but I would have thought I would have grown out of that by now. Secondly, I don't particularly like snow (I mean, I'm sledding, right?) and if I'm taking a trip where snow is part of the deal, there better be a bigger reward like some kind of wildlife or some northern lights or something like that. I didn't think that would be the case in New Mexico.

With all that said, if there's one place I would love to do anything outdoors, it's New Mexico. The scenery of that state is gorgeous (to me). It's an enormous high plateau area at the confluence of the Rocky Mountains to the north and the Chihuahuan Desert to the south. Roughly speaking, it's mostly desert with small scrubby trees with the occasional mountain range pushed out of the landscape. Its highest point is at over 12,000 feet above sea level; it boasts one of the largest and most spectacular cave systems in the world; and the western edge of the state is covered by the Gila National Forest, which is worth a drive to get to the famous Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Just go slowly.

If you ever find yourself in Las Cruces, NM, I'd suggest a drive east. Hop in a car and head towards Roswell on New Mexico Route 70 and you will pass right through the barren and gorgeous landscape that is typical of most of the state. With one small exception. When you get about an hour or maybe a little more outside of Las Cruces there is a patch of land about 275 square miles in size which looks totally different than the rest of the state. It's a series of pure white sand dunes which were formed about 10,000 years or so ago at the end of the last ice age.

If 275 square miles seems like a large area, you would be correct. But if it were a perfect square, it would be roughly just 16 miles across. Pretty small compared to how big the state of New Mexico is. You could drive right past it if you weren't paying attention.

To the untrained eye, the sand in this area of the state might look just like snow, which would be extremely odd considering at most any time of the year the temperature is not likely anywhere close to freezing. If you stop at White Sands National Monument, you'll find it's not only nothing like snow, it's also like no sand you've probably ever felt before either. It is fine, soft (if something that's powdered rock can be called soft) and very very cool. Temperature-wise that is.

The reason it will feel like no other sand you've ever touched? It's not sand at all but gypsum crystals. Gypsum is a crystalline mineral that is sometimes formed by the action of dehydration; when moisture or rain carrying trace particles of gypsum (which is water soluble) evaporates, what is left behind is a thin layer of the white stuff. Gypsum exists all over the world but rarely do you see a field of gypsum crystals forming dunes like they do at White Sands. That's because the National Monument is located in the Tularosa Basin which does not drain to the sea. When rain falls on the landscape surrounding the Basin, the water is simply retained until it dries up. And New Mexico just doesn't get that much rain.

The result is the largest gypsum crystal field in the world and perhaps the oddest National Park Service property I have ever been to. There is an astonishing uniformity to the landscape, just rolling dune after rolling dune of white, vividly set apart by the omnipresent cragged mountains in the background.

Just like "regular" national parks, there are hiking trails but not really. Because the surface of the ground is so changeable, the "trails" are delineated with orange plastic markers stuck into the ground, like the things they use in winter to show snowplows where the edges of parking lots are. Hiking a trail here makes you think. What if the sand shifts in the wind and buries the marker? How the heck do I get out? I guess someone has figured out the right height for these things. I hope anyway.

You are also clearly walking on a soft surface, which is both unnatural and draining of energy. Think taking a walk on a beach. The ground keeps moving with every step you take. It's also hot and blinding, which helps nothing. The hot is not the sand's fault. Even in the mid-day sun it was cool; this stuff really holds zero heat. The blinding is the sand's fault. I raised my shades once and that was enough. I kept them down the rest of the time. The reflected light is brutal.

But despite the cool white gypsum, the New Mexico sun is still there and it's reflecting off every crystal back at you. We took a hike out into the dunes at just after 10 in the morning when the temperature was below 70 degrees and I got hot and thirsty pretty quickly. We always take water when we hike and we needed it more than usual on that day.

I can confidently say I never want to be stranded out in any sort of desert. A 30 minute or so walk at White Sands was good enough for me. Everything looks the same. There's no sense of context available to orient yourself. And even if you think you could follow your footprints back, a quick wind will erase any record of you having been there and leave some kind of hypnotic wavy pattern in their place.

But look at me rambling. We were talking about sledding in New Mexico, right? I guess I ought to finish up that thought. So here's the thing: you can sled at White Sands. No snow required. Just some of that soft white sand.
Don't want to take your sled with you on vacation? Don't even own a sled? Don't worry about that, the park's gift store sells them to anyone who can hand over $15-17 for a brand spanking new plastic disk of your choice. Or, if you are feeling more frugal and recognizing the park knows darned well they have a captured market, you can drop a ten spot on a used one (the gift store will buy back your barely used new sled for $5).

Once you've picked up your new toy, head out for some fun. You might want to grab a cube of sled wax at the store too. Apparently sand is way less slippery than snow and the wax helps out. I can attest to the fact that the sand was not slippery in the way snow is, but can't vouch for the efficacy of the sled wax, which I applied liberally to the bottom of my red plastic disk without any sort of noticeable zoominess. The wax will set you back $2 and the gift store will buy that back too, so the risk of picking up some of this stuff is pretty low.

Furiously applying sled wax to my brand new toy.
The driving loop from the visitor center out into the dunes is about eight miles long. Start driving until you get to a spot that you like, make sure you have sunglasses and hat and some water and you are on your way. We opted for a hike before some sledding and I think that was the right call. Hiking is thirsty work and I needed the water to stay cool but I worked up a lather when I started sledding. Something about repeated walking up a very steep unstable slope with the noontime sun beating down.

My first inclination was to pick a relatively low slope on the dunes for my first sledding attempt. I figured crashing into the packed gypsum surface in the parking areas at the bottom of a steep hill of sand might hurt. But either I'm just way heavier than I think (totally possible by the way) or I way misjudged the coefficient of friction between a waxed plastic sled and gypsum crystals because you are not likely going to move on anything other than a pretty good hill of sand.

Switching to a steep hill solved that problem. Three or four times down was good enough for me. And speed is not really an issue; you can easily slow yourself by dragging your feet or hands on your descent. Doesn't mean I didn't crash land; only that it didn't hurt. The evidence I came, saw and conquered is below. First time doing that in about 25 years!

One more thing in the books that I never expected on this five year quest. It's amazing the amount of experiences that are out there that I never knew existed. If someone were to tell me I was to go sledding in New Mexico ever again, I'd still think they were crazy. But I'd totally be thinking sand not snow.

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