White Sands

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I just sat in my car in White Sands listening and watching the thunderstorm. It was something to see. Dark. Spooky. Sort of biblical I guess you’d say.

But it passed as quickly as it came. I rolled down my windows and slowly drove through the park, the light in the late afternoon soft, the air clean and delicious.

Originally I figured I’d drive to Mesilla, just south of Las Cruces, and spend the night but when I got to the highway I turned north, towards Alamogordo, instead of south.

Alamogordo, in case you were wondering, means “big cottonwood.” Or maybe “fat tree” (gordo means fat in Spanish and alamo can either mean tree or cottonwood or even poplar). The city of Alamogordo says it’s “The Friendliest Place on Earth.”

I can’t say I picked up that vibe.

I stayed at the White Sands Motel, about five miles from Holloman Air Force Base, and it was just fine. A little threadbare but what the heck do you expect for $49.95? There was a young couple staying in the room right next to mine that were straight out of a Raymond Carver short story. They kept me awake much of the night with their arguing and shouting and crying and drinking. Around three in the morning, I heard the door to their room slam and then someone got into the pickup parked outside and started it up but didn’t go anywhere. This was the husband or maybe the boyfriend. After awhile, he turned off the engine and came back to the room but he was locked out.

“Janine, goddamnit, open the door!” he yelled, throwing his shoulder against it. I could hear Janine on the other side of the wall crying. “You don’t open the goddamn door I’m gonna shoot the both of us,” he said.

Now, this is the point at which you wonder should you get involved in a domestic argument. There’s a couple of drunk people on opposite sides of a cheap motel door and evidently someone’s got a gun. I suppose I could have called the cops but I was worried that would only make it worse. I didn’t want to be crouched behind my lumpy double bed while the cops shot it out with the husband in the parking lot of the White Sands Motel. So I told myself I’d just monitor the situation. And if it looked like the husband really had a gun, then I’d call the cops.

Anyway, the threats and door pounding went on for at least another half hour and then it quieted down. I didn’t get much sleep after that and shortly after dawn, packed up as quietly as I could and softly opened my motel door. The husband was slouched over in an old rusty metal chair outside the door of the motel. An empty bottle of Jack Daniels was in his lap. I didn’t see any gun. I opened the door to my car as quietly as I could since it was parked not five feet away from the sleeping drunk, started her up, and quickly backed out of the lot. I’m sure Janine was just fine.

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Shelter from the storm

A thunderstorm over White Sands National Monument. Photo by Evgueni Strok.

The dark shadows from the nearing storm cast a cool, blue light across the towering sand dunes, transforming them into a pitching ocean. What once looked eternally still and solid now seemed as fluid as a rolling breaker. Lightning strikes, once faraway in the San Andreas Mountains, are getting closer and closer.

Though black masses of clouds now block out the horizon, making it impossible to tell exactly where the mountains are—my compass point—I feel almost certain I’m heading in the right direction. I remember passing the same skunkbush sumac, wrapped in a mounded plaster cast of etched gypsum, on my way out on the trail. And there’s the three brittle soaptree yuccas where I first stopped to drink some water two hours ago.

A deafening clap of thunder, a brilliant lightning strike and just when I’m almost certain that I’m lost, I see it: The glare of my car in the deserted parking lot. I run as fast as I can and nervously open up the car door just as the first large plops of the thunderstorm smack against my chalky windshield.

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