Glistening white dunes; contoured and shaped by the warm current into evenly rounded arcs, extend endlessly before the eye of a beholder in the White Sands. But this is uncommon sand – not the typical quartz, but gypsum; commonly called white cement, Gypsum is used in plaster and cement manufacture, and giant layers of gypsum gravel exist in the mountains that encircle white sand.
Centuries of erosion by melting snow and rain have carried rock residue down to Lake Lucero, the lower part of the channel, to churn with water that exudes up from the valley floor. Heat and warm current vaporise the wetness to leave a dry bed of crude-crusted gypsum, and this is smoothed by the wind into tiny fine particles.
These fine sands are blown into dunes that rise 100ft (30m) high. Gradually the wind pivots the dunes north-east, sometimes at the rate of about 22ft (7m) a year.
This dry, stunning landscape below a boundless, blue sky and merciless sun evoke the Old West. Mescalero Apaches came here to assemble on the alkali terrains, and there are still plaster pieces of their campfires – the heated white cement created plaster of Paris, which was moulded by rain.
Better known as Billy the Kid, William H. Bonney, was born in 1859 in Silver City, west of the San Andreas Mountains. The famous western outlaw was only 21 years old when he was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett after escaping jail in Lincoln, New Mexico. White Sands also played a prominent role in another event related to the history of conflict. During World War II, the Falt-flooredTularosa Basin was a minefield. The first nuclear bomb, ever to have to be made at Los Almos to the north, was tested near Alamogordo on July 16, 1945.
Some plants thrive in scratching nourishment from this shifting arid wilderness. Cottonwood trees propel defiantly skywards, occasionally with their heads above a dune. Soaptree yuccas persist by thrusting snake-like stems through the dunes. Their light-coloured, bell-shaped blossoms, well-known as ‘Candle of the Lord’, are New Mexico’s State Flower. It was one of the favorite of Native Americans as they ate the shoots and flowers of the plant and made porridge from their seeds.
A few large beasts venture into the white desert – it presents little food and no refuge from the slaying midday heat. Sands sack gophers thrive because they tunnel themselves into the sand away from the scorching heat. Apache pocket mice rest in gopher holes. Along with three kinds of lizards especially the bleached earless lizard – these pocket mice have developed a bleached white skin pigmentation that conceals them from buzzards such as owls and hawks.
Unlike the Westerners of Old, who beat the heat and the sandstorms on horseback or foot, modern sightseers to White Sands can drive via the area along a signposted path. But sandstorms occasionally slow traffic and drifting sands may bury the road.
White Sands is the world’s most unique gypsum desert. Approximately 300sq miles (780sq km) in extent, it is located in the flat-terrain Tularosa Valley in New Mexico. No one could ever exploit its gypsum; the area was too secluded, and gypsum was found in plenty elsewhere.