What does it mean to leave a part of yourself in a place, like when Tony Bennett sang that he left his heart in San Francisco? When we say such things, do we mean it metaphorically or is there literally some part of ourselves we leave behind? If it is metaphor, what is the metaphor representing? If it’s not metaphor, then what?
Just after breakfast, from the starting place of our very swanky Econo Lodge in Carlsbad, New Mexico (long story), K and I drove westward three hours to White Sands National Monument. Our route took us through the Lincoln National Forest which provided an engaging transition from flat empty desert to 9000 foot mountains filled with aspen, pine, and fir trees. At the top of the range was the village of Cloudcroft, then a relatively quick descent (16 miles) to Alamogordo, and just beyond, White Sands.
White Sands National Monument sits in the Tularosa Basin, a very wide bowl between two mountain ranges, the San Andres to the west and the Sacramento to the east (which we crossed over through Cloudcroft). It was one of the most unique places I think I’ve ever visited because 1. I’ve never experienced any kind of sand dunes, 2. the sand was gypsum making it completely white, and 3. the place enchanted me as desolate places do.
After the gift shop (magnet, sticker, coaster) and entrance gate, we stopped to take the first available hike, the Dune Life Nature Trail, a one mile trek to help orient us to the wildlife of the dunes. At this point we had not driven into the dunes but rather the road ran just along the edge. Here the dunes had a degree of vegetation; scrubby bushes, yuccas, some long grasses and the occasional cottonwood, though, of course, everything was quite stunted in its growth.
We parked and walked 50 yards or so to the edge of the dunes, then up and over to begin the trail. What I envisioned seeing at the top of that first dune was an almost endless field of striking white sand; I was not disappointed. We embarked on the mile hike, which was more taxing than a regular hike as loose sand is hard to walk in, especially up and down over multiple slopes. Considering how the vegetation survived in such a harsh climate was fascinating; many trees had partially exposed root systems defiant in the face of the brutal desert. It was all so dramatically beautiful and alien; I simply can’t find better words.
We finished the hike and drove further into the the park to where the largest dunes exist. There is only one road in the park, and at its terminus it became a one way loop. Half way along the route the park no longer concerned itself with paved road. The sand packs so tightly it becomes a hard surface perfectly suitable for driving. The park uses a plow to carve and create roads and parking lots resulting in sand piled on either side of the road looking very much like snow. And the parking lots were equally curious; massive areas just carved out of the dunes. If we didn’t know we were in the desert, we would have thought we were in some winter park with massive snow mounds all around and winter adventurers sledding down the banks. I should mention that one of the big attractions is to sled the sand dunes. Multiple families were engaged in this activity, standing atop 20 foot dunes with their sleds ready to race down.
At the “top” of the loop was the trailhead to the longest hike in the park, the Alkali Flat Trail, which is not flat! It is a three mile hike that on average takes five hours. It’s nothing but up and down over massive dunes. I would have loved to do the entire trail but we were way too tired having just hiked Guadalupe Peak the previous day. We did hike maybe a half mile in, and it was astounding. Here the dunes were free from any vegetation. Climb to the top of any dune and the only thing you would see for miles is a sea of white dunes, wave after rolling wave. The further out we went, the fewer people we saw and the more desolate it became.
Once a half mile out, we were quite alone. I am drawn to such lonely places. I do not mean lonely as in a depressed state of isolation, but rather a place where restoration and growth occurs; contemplation and understanding can be drawn from such solitude. I would have loved to taken that three mile hike and explored such solitude.
The other feature that accompanied this state of being alone was silence. When I noticed it down in between two dunes, I had K stop walking and we just stood there for a moment in complete silence; no wind, no voices, no birds, no shuffling of feet or pants legs rubbing together. It might be the quietest place I’ve ever been. I could hear the ringing in my ears. I wanted it to last longer, but of course nothing does. For 30 seconds or so though I experienced silence. Incredible, humbling, awe inducing silence.
When we realized there wasn’t much left in our tank and were about to hike back to the car, we climbed to the top of one particularly tall dune and I stood there for a moment doing my best to have it all imprint onto myself. The wind blew my hair. I felt very alive.
I want to go back. I want to hike and be out in it. I want to be alone in it.
I think I left a part of myself back in White Sands, and like all places where we leave a part of ourselves, I am drawn to return, but to return back to what, or for what reason? Perhaps it’s to go back to find and reclaim whatever it is I think I left there, or at least discover why there is a part of me that wants to inhabit that place for a while. Or at the very least, make my peace with the reasons of why I want to return.
I will surely be back.