Saturday, November 27, 2010

Is That Snow or Sand

In this land of contrast, we travel west only 20 miles to move from cool sparse green forests with running springs to warmer endless sand dunes in White Sands National Monument.  The only simularity is that both snow and gypsum sand is white.  The trip takes us from over 9000 ft to 4000 ft in a short distance of about 19 miles from the small town of Clouldcroft to Alamogordo, New Mexico.  We look forward to breathing air at the lower altitude to avoid panting with the smallest of physical effort.  During our decline, it's our truck's first test to hold back the 13,000 lbs. trailer down a 6% grade without burning the brakes out.  The big 6.6 litre diesel engine did an amazing job slowing us down in manual 2nd gear at 3500 rpm, requiring braking only about 20% of the time.  Despite this, half way down we pulled over to let the 4 disc brakes cool down as the brake linings started to smell.  It was clear that if we did not use the low gears it would be detrimental to the truck brakes.  The electro-magnetic drum trailer brakes did not overheat.

The sands at White Sands National Monument comprise the world's largest gypsum type (calcium sulphate) of sand dunes in the world.  The gypsum sand is rare.  Gypsum was deposited in the bottom of an ancient sea, uplifted with the Rocky Mountains and collapsed into a dome called the Tularosa Basin between the San Andres and Sacramento Mountain Ranges.  The gypsum also accumulates from rivers running down from the mountains and then the gypsum gets trapped in the basin and as the lake beds dry up from time to time they form gypsum Selenite crystals (up to 3 feet long) in Lake Lucero (which we will be touring on Saturday on a once a month guided opportunity).  Lastly, the wetting, drying and freezing of these crystals break them down into little sand particles small enough for strong south westerly winds to blow them where they accumulate into the 60 ft high sand dunes.  The dunes appear as white snow to us and we see kids and parents tobogganing on discs which makes our surroundings only appear more like snow.  The toboganning here is great.  The sand in your underwear is less annoying than snow in your underwear.  The struggle for life to exist in this environment is difficult, yet even mammals such as small foxes (smaller than your average house cat) survive here.
The expanse of the dunes (with three large mammals exposed!)
As we set off to hike this mysterious and rare landscape it eludes us when we try to comprehend the time it must have taken to accumulate this vast area of sand from the selenite crystals in nearby Lake Lucero .  The dunes engulf 275 square miles and so we use our GPS to avoid getting lost.  Getting lost out here can be life threatening.  Although we know of no rattlesnakes or scorpions in the dunes, there is no water and although day time highs are 60F this time of year, lows typically drop to near freezing and the winds here can pick up to 50 mph without warning.  For a short period just before sunset the winds stopped during one of our hikes and the old familiar dead silence came upon us as we tried to take in the vast distances across the dunes between each mountain range.  We stop breathing momentarily to hear our heart beat.
Nearing sunset, you can see the ripples in the sand
[note - this blog written by Brad - you can tell by the technical truck stuff at the beginning!]

No comments:

Post a Comment