Photo by the author.
Two weeks earlier.
How many years together. Forty. Forty-five. Maybe more. Every year, the clump of gals I’ve known since all of us had babies on our hips, asks the each same question. The answer is always the same.
“So what do you want to do for your birthday?”
You’d think we’d go out to lunch. Nope. It’s been forever and always, find some adventure, some trail, needing the adventure fix of longing for what’s over the next rise, hill ... mountain.
“I want to go down to White Sands. Camp. See the full moonrise. The sunrise. You know, like in the Grand Canyon. Mostly, people go, look over the edge, see the white, ogle for ten minutes, and drive out. That’s so sad. Anyway, it’s a bucket list thing this - we’re New Mexicans, so we should da-da-da. Right? So ... ?
“We can sled,” says Mikey, clapping. “down the duney-dunes!”
“RIGHT!” comes the blended chorus.
See the eye twinkle, the smiles?
The guys aren’t ever invited. They vow to camp a half mile down the trail and send up the bears.
“Sore losers!” we always hoot back. “Get your own clump!”
In the ensuing years after the Great Depression, the tiny Alamogordo, New Mexico community, that was pretty much down to its knees, vetoed against letting it go to developers who’d mine the gypsum, turning it into plasterboard which would put walls into millions of homes. Maybe the payoffs could have saved theirs. They said “no,” and just held on. In January of 1933, President Hoover blessed White Sands with National Park status. Then came the Atomic Bomb era, then the air force base. The dunes lived on solitary, untouched. Service personnel came, scientists came, tourists came and some stayed. In time, the town that wouldn’t cave into special interests or money, got to its knees, rose, hiked up its shoulders and walked forward - small, close knit, surrounded by beauty in every direction. The Dunes have lived on, a stunning magnificence of geology.
Two days later...
Everybody’s moved heaven and hell and rearranged schedules. We’re loaded up in Evelyn’s van known as Beast of Burden” with a controversial political audio book going, heading south from Albuquerque into the boonies - six of us are crammed into the space for the next six hours, feet on the six-person tent, keeping company with each other, backpacks, sleeping bags, and no doubt “birthday girl surprises,” I’m turning 70. How did this happen? I was just 35.
We take the road less traveled, ending up near Los Cruces, NM, which spreads before us like some sort of reproductive mold. Comes an over-the-mountain pass, then, like always, the New Mexico landscape begins to unfold, takes us unto it. A finger pauses the audio book. There’s a reverent, shared silence. for before us spreads the vast white of the sands, untrampled for millions of years - two hundred-seventy-five square miles of gypsum pressed against a cloudless cerulean New Mexico sky, deposited 250 million years ago, sculpted by the hand of nature, always a work in progress. We remain awestruck.
Finally when somebody can talk, Mikey, the Fact Maven whispers, “There’s a lizard and a mouse, that over the eons, have become albinos.”
We check into the ranger office and get our camp assignment - number 5. We get the safety instructions from the volunteer about never losing sight of your tent, who also told us that Japanese tourists had gotten lost the year before, and one had died before he was found. We grimace, hunch, remembering all the times over the four decades of adventure seeking, we’ve paid no attention to directives.
Then, it’s off again. We park where they told us, unload, shoulder packs, wrap budgie cords around everybody’s fold-out chairs, now piled onto Anita’s pink plastic sled she snagged from her grandkids. We do the usual, predictable thing: fight about which trail, which direction, which track to go.
“It’s left,” states Michal, holding a compass.
“Na,” counters Anita, pointing over her shoulder, holding the inferior park map. “Right, then that way.”
This gets smacked back and forth like a directional logic badminton birdie, until four decide to go left; Anita and I go right. Parting the ways.
“See ya!” we chorus back at the four, who are standing, incredulous.
We haul that sled sometimes solo, sometimes together up powdery dunes; we slip and fall face flat, and die laughing, noses pushed into the sand by the weight of our packs. Three hours, and five hard-won miles later, we see the “other” four waving madly, tiny pitch black figures pressed against a deepening blue sky on its way to sunset - the valued time I so want to be ready for - chair on the highest white hump, wrapped against the cold that will steal over the white heat, holding my mug of vino.
“We told you so,” sing-song the group, in the hyena tongue. “Right, huh?”
”Oh, go stuff it! It beats the machines at the gym!” Anita counters, laughing, giving me the look of so relieved, so tired, so glad we are finally together.
“You just wanted to space out helping put up the tent,” yells Mikey. “Shirkers of duty!”
“I’m the birthday girl,” I shout. “I get a vacation. Besides, I’m sleeping on the dunes tonight, not in the tent. Don’t want to miss the starry-starry night!” I remember Don McLean singing it in the hippy glory days. “Paint your palate blue and gray, look out on a summer’s day ... Searching now for words. Forget. “Starry - Starry - violet haze .. This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
We share the mis-steps of the adventure, the flat-faced falls, and then supper starts. I get my wish - I’m relieved of duty, and am soon on the hill, bundled, warm, sipping vino, completely at peace with this utterly unearthly and stunning place - at peace with myself and my life.
“Comeon seventy! I’m your girl,” I whisper into the universe, “You are my greatest love.”
Chairs get schlepped up the home dune. Posole is served, smoking in big coffee mugs, topped with an avocado slice, and a rolled white flour tortilla stuck down the middle. It’s the traditional New Mexico holy food soup made of red chili, chicken, hominy, usually eaten for good luck on the New Year. Somebody had it frozen. The final happy birthday squashed chocolate store bought cake, with one sputtering candle appears, songs are sung, threats are made, jokes about my advanced years come next, and then, we all settle into the chairs - first nighters, front row, center. Play’s about to begin.
“I’m happy,” I say to them all, now holding cameras, wrapped up like mummies. “You all are the best pals in this world or any others, the upper ones, to which we will probably never be invited. I love you now and forever. Truly. Thank you. You belong to everything good in my life.”
“We love you,” hoots Leigh. “Cut the crap.”
Michal whispers, “Great god almighty. Look!”
The immense yellow orb begins to rise on the gentle curve of the earth, as the first lights of Alamogordo twinkle on the stage.
We all sit dumbstruck, not understanding how it can appear so big, then shrink.
It rises, then becomes just a yellow glow in the sky.
Later, we begin night exploration.
“Wait for me!” I call to their backs. “I’m putting this lantern by the door - remember the Japanese guy?”
We hop, skip jump, dance jigs with each other, howl at the moon - sing “You are my moonshine,” and then realize that we are completely lost. Figures. It’s the “this way that way arguments,” until I just go off in a completely bizarre direction, and there down below, I see the light. I truly understood the loss of that Japanese life. A lesson I’d never forget.
“THANK GOD YOU DID THAT,” yells Diane, our only tall one, loping over the sand.
Everybody zips into their bags, placed neatly inside the tent. I roll mine out onto the high dune, zip in, and gaze up at a velvet cloth sewn with a million diamonds. Tears roll down my cheeks, so grateful am I for my life.
Two hours later, I awaken, teeth chattering. My bag, inside and out, is damp.
“Lemme in,” I croak, head stuck inside the tent. “I’m freezing! The Sands breathe wet!”
Everybody groans, and make a place for me, dead center. I wedge in, zip up, completely warmed by my pals, and am dead to the world until we all make the predictable nightly toidy tinkle - seven women, squatting in the white, glowing moon overhead looking down from that diamond-studded sky.
The next morning, again bundled against the cold, holding our steaming mugs of coffee, and one tea, we watch the sunrise turn the Dunes into a kaleidoscope of rainbows, changing every second. The shadows are a block long, and we play with them. After posole, stale tortillas, out comes the pink sled. Diane hits the hill first, dragging, crawling, belly-whomping, until she’s at last, standing on the ridge, pink sled held overhead like a victorious gladiator. We’re below throwing jibes and jokes about her style, clapping and daring her, and finally, she climbs on, pushes off and comes flying down. We’re a howling pack of nuts. We all race the challenge, each in turn - crawl the hill, two by to in the sled, Leigh and Anita roll down sideways. Half way down, I tump out and do acrobatic flips to the bottom. An hour later, we’re covered in sand, from head to toe.
We load up, do the best we can with our appearances, tour the museum and science sites of the park, look back longingly at where were were, and then head off - back to life.
“You know that big last north hump on the Sandias?” I query, nodding over to the mountain that is the eastern boundary of Albuquerque. “This guy told me that if you drive up to the Crest, tote your pack and bag, you can spend the night on that thing - the prow. Easy hike. Maybe an hour in. Nice flat hump. Says you watch Albuquerque turn on for the night ...”
Comes eye twinkles; smiles ...
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