Along For The Ride: Strange Lights to White Sands (Part 17)
Strange Lights to White Sands
Having spent a week filled with adventure in Big Bend National Park, in the southwest corner of Texas, I set my sights back on the northwest.
There was no pattern to my travels, as I bounced around from place-to-place. This was by design, as there is no travel guide more true than the wind in your heart. Whether you go left or right doesn’t need to make sense, as long as it fuels your passion for exploration, and satisfies the curiosity of your soul.
Tending to Business
To catch up on some life-maintenance, such as laundry, groceries, and to get some work done on my computer, I traveled to the town of Marfa, Texas.
Marfa is a small town in rural Texas that has become a cultural center for minimalist and modern artists over the past few decades. The town is also well-known due to the Marfa Lights, which are strange, shifting lights that might appear on the nearby desert horizon at night.
The streets of the town are lined with studios, trendy restaurants, and an eye-catching hotel, named Hotel Paisano. In the town square stands the stately Presidio County Courthouse, serving as both the political and geographic hub for the community.
Unlike any other town I’ve encountered, Marfa features a laundromat that is also a hip coffee shop offering blazing-fast Internet access. I know it sounds unusual, but it was brilliant, and it was a great place for a nomadic traveler to tend to business.
Unfortunately, there was no desirable, free camping, immediately adjacent to town. I ended up spending a couple of evenings parked in a rest area, the Marfa Lights Viewing Site, only a short drive to the east, where it is legal to sleep in your vehicle.
Lights on the Horizon
The Marfa Lights Viewing Site is a well-kept rest area, with a spacious patio that overlooks the desert. While it’s empty by day, between sunset and midnight, the site is bustling with people peering into the horizon, waiting to catch a glimpse of the anomalous lights.
I, myself, did not see any lights that couldn’t be explained by distant headlights. However, it was an absolute pleasure chatting with other folks who were on site, many of whom were tourists and other adventurers. This was a very unexpected social experience!
You can always count on strange lights to bring people together.
Having concluded my business in Marfa, I resumed traveling northward. It was my intention to visit White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico, but it was quite a drive, so I had to first focus on finding a place to camp near my intended destination.
A little research revealed that there was free dispersed camping at Holloman Lake, located adjacent to Holloman Air Force and very close to White Sands National Monument. This was perfect!
I arrived at night, using my GPS to identify the entrance to the dirt road off of the highway. Once off pavement, I drove along the eastern shore of the lake, scanning for places to camp. There appeared to be numerous options, but when it is dark, I take extra care to find someplace safe and discreet. After less than a mile of driving, I found a suitable spot, and popped the camper.
This was on the very edge of Holloman Air Force Base, which was aglow on the horizon.
The camping location was ideal in almost every way, with one caveat. Holloman Lake smells like sweaty socks, and it reeks very badly. I can’t fathom why it might smell like this, but it was enough to discourage one from enjoying a prolonged stay.
So… Holloman Lake. Great place to spend the night, very close to the White Sands National Monument, but you won’t want to stick around.
White Sands National Monument
When I hear the word “monument”, I think of a statue, an ornate arch, an obelisk, or some commemorative structure. Very seldom does it refer to a naturally occurring geographic feature, such as a sprawling valley filled with glistening dunes.
However, that’s exactly what White Sands National Monument is. It’s a unique, 275 square-mile field of bright white sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals. The spectacle is the monument.
I rolled into the visitor’s center early in the morning, just as the facility opened. There were restrooms, an educational museum, helpful rangers on staff, and a well-equipped gift shop, where one could buy food, refreshing beverages, trinkets, and plastic saucers for sledding on the dunes.
The road into the park is a loop, and while it is a paved route suitable for all passenger cars, it is entirely covered with hard-packed, white sand. There is no contrast between the road itself, and the surrounding dunes. While mostly smooth, there was a washboard effect at times, due to all of the traffic.
There are no four-wheel drive or OHV routes whatsoever, so set your expectations accordingly. Stay on the main road, and leave your recovery gear at home. You won’t need it.
I spent the better part of the day in a recreation area, where I deployed my awning for some shade, and enjoyed a picnic. I explored the dunes on foot, took some pictures, watched folks come and go, as I sat and marveled at my surroundings. There were some interesting hiking opportunities available, however I refrained due to lack of protection from the sun.
White Sands National Monument, is a must-see. However, you won’t need more than one day to enjoy this destination.
Make sure you bring your sunglasses, because the ground is brighter than the sky!