When is a beach, not a beach?
When it’s a sand dune, not made of sand, in the middle of a desert.
Think I’ve gone crazy? Well, I could have…if I’d stayed in El Paso one more day. Luckily, I didn’t have to test that theory. Tucson, here we come….
I held my breath all the way out of Texas. And that’s no mean feat I can tell you. I was so scared that Loops would decide to change his mind (again) and make us stay; I didn’t want to jinx it. But there in front of me, clear as day, was the New Mexico welcome sign – we’d made it to the Land of Enchantment (well, so says the New Mexico State Government).
I personally found the White Sands Missile Range, where we stayed, incredibly enchanting. I particularly loved all of the signs warning of live missile launches, closures of roads during testing and the sounds of bombs exploding in the night. No really, all of those things are true and I really did like it!
Top of my list for enchantment though was this view…
As seen from our front window while we camped for two days.
I found the mountains to be suitably imposing enough to create awe and a bit of fear, yet grand and sturdy enough to give the impression of safety and steadfastness. This is why, although I love hiking and absorbing the rewarding feeling and gratifying views you get from completing a climb, I do also love standing at the base of a mountain and allowing its grandeur to sweep over me, making me feel small and incredibly vulnerable too, showing me my place in the natural world.
The White Sands Missile Range does exactly what it says on the tin. The land was once an old ranch, devoid of much beyond dirt, rocks, a couple shrubs and some cattle; until it was bought by the military who fell in love with its desolation; obviously seeing its potential to become an Army base where they could wantonly blow things to bits without too many people making a fuss – a tradition which they continue to this day.
The base itself is probably the quietest, in terms of people, that we’ve been to. I think we may have seen a total of three people in uniform the whole time we were there, other than that, it had the feeling of being a ghost town; which suited us just fine. We really were only using the base as a convenient stopping point anyway; our sights were set on the action to the north-east, around the town of Alamogordo.
I had been the one to rally for us to visit this area. I think Loops would have been fine with the straight shot over to Tucson for Belle’s repairs, but I had been surreptitiously brainwashed into wanting to come to this area, for every time we drove around in El Paso, the main road back to the RV Park was labelled also as the route to Alamogordo. So for 5 weeks straight, I had been listening to my GPS continually tell me to take the road to Alamogordo…take the road to Alamogordo….take the road to Alamogordo…
Anyway, you get the picture. So, by the time we left, there seemed to be only one place I really wanted to see.
It also happens to be home to the world’s large pistachio. And I love pistachios. Why on earth wouldn’t I want to go visit it?
In addition to this, I wanted to see White Sands National Monument in the nearby area. While I will admit that my need to collect a NPS stamps somewhat plays into this desire, I have to mostly lay the blame on a 1986 movie called Space Camp, which I used to love as a child (and still do, I’m a sucker for 80’s movies, what can I say). All I will say is that there is a reference to a space shuttle landing at White Sands in the movie and for whatever reason, this miniscule piece of information has stuck with me for 31 years, so gosh darn it, I’m going to see the place!
Being a little short on time (we do have an appointment to get Belle fixed in six days, which we are not missing), I wisely decided to cram into a single day the following activities: a visit to two separate pistachio ranches including a guided tour, an afternoon planetarium visit, lunch and a drive and walk through the dunes at White Sands NM. Oh, and all of this was over an hour’s drive from our camp site at the missile range. You can see why Loops might despair sometimes at my requests, right?
While you would think in order to pack these things into a single day we would have to be ‘up and at ‘em’ at the crack of dawn, well, we couldn’t be; because we had to wait for Route 70 to open to the public. This morning was designated for missile testing and the only road in and out of the base is closed while they fire some rockets about in the air and explode things, leaving us captive on site until 10am when they finished playing about with bombs (and by the way, last night they were exploding things at about 10pm and the blasts were so big that not only did we hear them in the distance; they also rocked the bus gently from side to side when they went off – pretty cool, right?).
Our whistle-stop tour begins at McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch, which I believe to be the largest pistachio ranch in the local area at 111 acres in size, run by just four family members. If you love pistachios, horticulture in any form, or you’d like to add once more to that potential pub quiz repertoire; you will definitely like this place.
They offer a 20 minute tour of the ranch for $2 per person, during which you get to ride around in a little green float car with an employee who explains the history of the ranch, as well as describing how pistachios trees are grown from sapling, right through to how the nuts are readied for the public to eat.
So, for you now, here now is what I learned…
Pistachios originate from the Middle East and at one time were unique to Syria. They like hot weather during the growing season, but cool weather for part of the year so they can go dormant to build up energy for another growing season. Iran produces tons of pistachios and in fact was the largest supplier to the US until the 1970’s when two embargos were placed on Iran and Americans suddenly began to worry about who would supply them with their pistachio fix; and thus pistachio farming in the US was born.
The majority of pistachios in the US are produced in California, with New Mexico and (I think) Arizona pretty much making up the rest of the supply.
Pistachio farming is a long game industry, you don’t just suddenly decide to take it up and start raking in the dough immediately. The trees don’t actually start producing nuts until they are at least eight years of age, so that’s a lengthy period to be growing and caring for trees that don’t give you a darn thing until they almost reach double digits. And even then, they still won’t be at their most productive until they reach around 25 years of age. They’re kind of like a large proportion of adults these days that don’t leave home and still sponge off their parents. The good news is that when they do finally reach a useful age, the trees can live for a couple hundred years, so overall, I guess they do pay off over time (though you may be dead by the time they really hit their stride).
The particular trees we are looking at across the farm are interesting from a horticultural prospective because all of them are grafted trees. What that means is that the base of the tree is of one species and the top, the actual pistachio producing part, is of a different species.
The reason for this, as explained to us, is that there is a fungus in the ground which the lower tree is not susceptible to, but the top tree is. Combining both prevents the pistachio part from becoming ill and dying. The trees are grafted in a relatively simple process. When the bottom tree is a medium sized sapling, a small T-cut is made in the stem and the pistachio sapling is then inserted into the cut and held in place by rubber bands which seal the cut so that no bacteria can seep in and kill the tree. Fingers crossed, the tree successful combines and grows.
As to how the nuts come about, the orchards consist of a mix of both male and female trees (1 male for approximately 12 females). The males are easy to pick out due to their distinct lack of fruit (nuts) and slightly rougher tree bark than the females. In March/April time the males and females produce their flowers – the males producing pollen that is then delivered to the females via wind (and there is plenty of wind out here, believe me), so no bees or other insects are required to pollinate. The female flowers which are pollinated then turn into the fruiting bodies, which are a red colour and have the appearance of grapes from a distance, and inside the red skin both the nut kernel and the outer hard shell develop.
When it is time for harvesting, the nuts are shaken from the trees, the skins fall off or are easily rubbed off, and the nuts are then taken and heated to dry them out (killing any potential mould). The shells naturally crack open when ripe. After that (and personally I prefer them to have a little salting first), they’re ready to eat!
Not only is the tour interesting and informative, but at the end you get to take your ticket into the store and either be given a free cookie or $1 off an ice cream cone (we went with the cookies). In addition you can taste the free samples of all of the types of pistachio they make (there are about 10 different nut flavours and then a further 4 or 5 types of chocolate nut brittle) – interestingly I favoured the habanero and lime variety, though it does have a bit more of a kick than I’m used to.
By this time I’m starting to realise that a second pistachio tour would put a real dent in our time frame, and feeling that we already had an excellent experience we opted to grab a quick lunch before heading to the planetarium.
One filling omelette lunch later (courtesy of the Alamo grill – friendly service and decent prices for the servings), we drove over to the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
The museum is located of a very steep hill, providing a clear panoramic view of the city of Alamogordo, and consists of the main museum, and outdoor exhibit of large space items (projectiles and bit of rockets) and the planetarium building.
I was quite excited by the thought of a planetarium show (given that I thoroughly enjoy the ones at home in England at our local planetarium) and had picked it specifically because Loops also likes science-type space stuff on occasion; so I thought it would be something up his alley while I dragged him around today.
Sadly, the show we saw didn’t quite live up to our expectations. I was figuring it would be an educational talk with real-life satellite images of stars and planets, but mostly what we got was animated video (aimed at younger audiences) and very basic information on space. At $4 each I was slightly annoyed we’d paid that much for what turned out to pretty much be a 26 minute kid’s film.
To try and make up for it, I went along with Loops’ suggestion of adding an extra stop into the tour today, going a further 10 miles out of town to The Old Apple Barn, a suggestion given to Loops by his on-base hairdresser that morning.
The Barn is up a mountain, sitting in the Lincoln National Forest; a welcome and unexpected contrast from the scorching desert floor below, with its cool temperature and breeze, along with plenty of greenery and cute mountain village feel. The store itself is filled with tons of what they class as ‘dime store vintage goods’, things like signs with cutesy feel-good slogans, homewares that you would never actively use but would decorate your kitchen with in a themed way and little items like key chains or good luck charms that you give as gifts but in five years someone will be wondering why they are holding on to a rather meaningless piece of tat. In fact, I’ve noticed that most shops we venture in to all seem to contain these types of items. I don’t know who is buying them all, but I can only guess the average American likes to decorate in a themed fashion and can’t help but part with $50 for wood painted inspirational sayings such as ‘We may not have it all together, but together we have it all’ or ‘Family is where life begins and love never ends’. Personally, I’m reaching overdose level on these things. They are everywhere.
I’m starting to think that original or unusual things to see, do and experience are actually harder to find than one would think. I wonder if my idea of a travel experience is changing. I wonder if maybe we are not putting in enough effort to really consider how best to use our time and just settling with riding into town and looking for easy nearby stuff as entertainment? Maybe I’ve been concentrating so much on the see/do category that I’ve been missing out on trying to use our time for slower more immersive things? It’s something to ponder.
Anyway, it’s time for our final stop for today – White Sands National Monument.
This is another ‘I hope we can both enjoy it’ experiences because White Sands is not one of those usual, ‘go to and have to walk’ type NPS places. White Sands is both a walking and driving experience combined. You are able to drive your car along the 16 miles of roadway through the dunes, the first five miles is normal road and the rest is actually the hard packed sand of the dunes itself.
Loops has quietly had a bit of a desire to do some off-road driving, we do have a Jeep after all, but as yet we haven’t really come across anything suitable to try out. While the Dunes Drive isn’t really proper off-roading by any stretch, it is at least a different surface on which to spin the wheels, so I hope he’ll enjoy it.
White Sands is impossible to miss.
If you are driving along Route 70, there is no way you cannot be suddenly overwhelmed when the landscape goes from dusty, buff, brown to spanking bright white on the horizon. You simply cannot ignore it. Likewise, from our vantage point up in the Lincoln Forest earlier, you can see far off on the distance a long streak of bright white landscape, completely in contrast and alien to the rest of the environment.
Now, if you are wondering what on earth lots of bright white beach-type sand dunes are doing in the middle of the desert, let’s set the record straight – it’s not sand.
White Sands is a bit of a misnomer, because the white sandy substance is actually gypsum, a mineral. It is a left over remnant of when this part of the world was actually a sea, back when the world was still one giant landmass (called Pangea); White Sands (obviously not called that way back when) was covered by the Permian Sea.
Layers of gypsum were deposited in the sedimentary rock which formed the bottom of the sea, and when the continents began to shift and mountains ranges were pushed and pulled into place, what was the bottom of the sea now become the layers of the mountains.
Despite the arid climate now here in New Mexico, these mountains actually went through the last ice age, covered in ice and snow which eventually melted. The resulting runoff leached the gypsum from the rocks and flowed down the mountains and once again became sediment, this time sitting at the bottom of the lake that was created in the Tularosa basin below.
As the climate became warmer, the lake dried out leaving behind the gypsum crystals. Over time with wind erosion, the crystals began to break down into smaller and smaller pieces until eventually they resembled sand; resulting over time in the large dunes that are present today. This process still continues to occur today, with water runoff from the mountains in the wet season bringing more gypsum from the hills into the basin, to dry out into crystals which the wind eventually erodes.
And even if all of that was no interest to you, this might be – the dunes are magnificent to look at….
We climb a dune, which is no easy feat, and play in the sand.
To see and step on the dunes is the same feeling as walking into Narnia; you simply wouldn’t expect to find this environment in the middle of the rough, tough desert that surrounds it. It is magical in this way.
The whiteness of the sand is ethereal, eerie, otherworldly. It is fairylike to stand here. The sand is cool to the touch and blissful on your toes as you bury them between the grains.
And for all the people I can see around me – adults and children, sitting in the sand, hiking across it, photographing it, sledding down it – it is surprisingly quiet. As if the sound is being absorbed by the sand.
But the sand too has a voice, the sand talks to you. As your feet slide and sink into the sand, making your way up and down the dunes, the grains shift and glide past each other, whispering; whispering to you.
This, this right here, this is the Land of Enchantment.