Great Nights in the Hills – Part 3, White Sands National Monument

I’m a hopeless romantic, though I mean that in the sense that I am hopeless at being romantic. Not content with spending previous Valentines days ice climbing, and buying her discounted outdoor gear for birthdays and Christmases, I somehow managed to sneak the outdoors and a wild camping trip into my marriage proposal to my wife.

We’d been on the road in the USA for a month with a couple of thousand miles under our belts, and despite living in each other’s pockets, we hadn’t yet strangled one another (as good a reason to marry someone as any).

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New Mexico in the American Southwest had already delivered so much wonder: from caves two kilometres deep with the elevation drop of a 75 storey building, to scatterings of alien paraphernalia as we neared Roswell. White Sands National Monument from way up in the Sacramento mountains literally looked like the icing on the cake.

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The bizarre white smudge on the landscape didn’t get any less strange as we got closer. A small geology lesson still leaves you wondering how and why. This patch of gypsum sand is the largest of its kind in the world and is exceedingly rare, as gypsum is highly water soluble so usually dissolves away. The location in the Tularosa basin has no outlet to the sea for gypsum to runoff, so accumulates here once the water evaporates.

We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to wild camp on a geological marvel, so did things the American way by applying for a permit, filling in a lot of forms and receiving a lengthy lecture from an enthusiastic ranger about rules.

We weren’t really equipped for wild camping. We had camped out of the back of the car up to this point and had been living in comparative (but bulky) luxury, with Walmart’s finest pillows and duvet (or what’s called a “comforter” in America, ironically slightly less comforting than a duvet). We stuffed what we could into the enormous duffle and strapped the rest to any part of our bodies that would take it.

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The National Parks Service makes a bloody good effort of suppressing the wild aspect of wild camping. We followed a series of poles to our designated camping spot where we could pitch no further than 10 feet from our numbered plastic post (though in honesty I was grateful for them, as relatively featureless white sand dunes aren’t known for their wealth of navigational aids).

The rest of the day was given over to pratting about on sand dunes – a novelty which apparently doesn’t wear off. It turns out an emptied duffle bag does not instantly become an amazing sand toboggan, but instead makes you look an idiot and collects sand that can still be found some years later.

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Up to now, an engagement ring had been burning a hole in a cycling shoe hidden in boot of the car. It was my plan when the moment was right to pop the question – and goodness was the moment right! The sun was dipping into the San Andreas mountains casting bands of brilliant oranges, pinks and reds that were beautifully reflected in the silent dunes; we leaned into each other in casual embrace, basking in the splendour of the natural world. At that moment, my serenity was shattered as I thought “F*ck, the ring is still in the car!”

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The streaks of evening sun were soon replaced by the awesome arc of the Milky Way, and as evening gave way to night and gentle warmth gave way to cold, romance gave way to me shining a headlamp onto Abbé as she struggled to squat and not pee on herself. She did admirably, this being her first wild camping experience.

Drifting to sleep in the tent, a low rumbling muscled into the silence of the desert. It got louder, and louder, and louder – to the point where you cover your ears. It sounded like a fighter jet, but carried on for some minutes and didn’t pass overhead.

In the 1940s, the enlightened post-war America decided that areas of natural beauty are only good for one thing – testing bombs.

Like many expanses of the American Southwest, White Sands is also a military firing range (i.e. areas where if it goes wrong, only a handful of people grow horns or extra limbs and go all The Hills Have Eyes). We had met a man who told us about his father and how he grew up in Nevada in the 1950s experiencing earthquakes on a daily basis. It’s important to note that Nevada doesn’t get earthquakes – what he was feeling was underground nuclear detonations.

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I thought this was typical; I’d just decided to propose and now we were both going to be nuked, flattened or eaten by radioactive mutants.

When at last the sound began to fade and we weren’t bombed into oblivion, the intense relief at knowing we were likely to survive made me even more determined to propose the following day. Which I did. In the car park. Though in defence of my apparent romantic incompetence, as far as car parks go, it was pretty stunning.

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