Friday, December 12, 2008

Fighter Jets and Faux Snow

A funny thing happened on the the way to Alamogordo! Heading out of Las Cruces, we ascended the mountains that looked back down upon it. The climb was much steeper than it had looked. The big diesel engine strained a bit in the morning cold to carry us to the top. Once there, we were awestruck looking down over the other side. Before us stretched limitless expanses of high desert. In fact, the desert before us, the Chihuahuan (little dogs, big desert) Desert, including the White Sands National Monument and the White Sands Missile Range is the largest desert in North America. But at the summit we found a roadblock, a police force out in force. And a sign advising us to expect an hours delay for whatever was going on. But we found no delay and the police, or soldiers, or whatever they were waved us through. All seemed well. And for the next 15 minutes or so we cruised through the desert at around 50 miles an hour in a speed zone that allowed 75. Our speed was better for taking it all in, for seeing what there was to see. The vast expanses before us. The tan sands. The scrub brush. The white sands. But then there was, almost out of no where, a white car in my rear view mirror. On the inside lane of the two lane, divided highway. A white car with a low profile red and blue rack atop the vehicle. Police? Seemed so. He shadowed me for ten minutes or so before I felt a bit weirded out. If I went a bit faster, so did my shadow. If I slowed down, so did my shadow. Convinced I had done nothing wrong I maintained my speed and continued on. But my eyes looked to my rear view mirror every bit as much as they watched the vista before me. After an hour or so crossing the desert, a check point appeared before us. All vehicles stop. The white car with the dome lights was still behind me. This was no weight station. Customs. A hundred or so miles north of the border. In the middle of nowhere. A half dozed custom officers met us at the stopping point.
"Anyone else in the back of that rig?"
"No, sir. Just the two of us and our dog"
"Officer, if I am on the road to Mexico I am really truly lost."
Yes, you are!"
I am? Really?
"No. Just kidding. Have a nice day. Pull through."
Whew. What was that all about? We had just crossed the missile test range. The last vehicle allowed through before they closed the desert for test firing. They dogged us to make sure that A) we neither picked up nor left off any undesirables out on the range and B) we were off the range before the jets out of Holloman Air Force Base opened fire on their test targets. I blew in my hand as though to clear my throat to mimic the noise a two way radio makes when dialog begins:

" CHHHHHWWWWWWWW, F16 to base, locked and loaded on that fat ass Winnebago in the middle of the desert. Permission to fire?"

We joked about it, but honestly it was a bit unnerving to think about. At the far end of the range, traffic was backed up for a mile or so. It reinforced what we had figured out about what was going on. I don't know if comforting is the right word. But something like that. The fighter jets, 4 of them, took off over our heads as we cleared the roadblock. Loud. Very loud. Good hunting intrepid warriors. We be clear!Fire when ready.

An hour later we were happily set up in the shadow of the mountains in Alamogordo. Abby feeling better, or so it seems. We unhooked from the mother ship and headed back to the test range where the White Sands National Monument sits in proximity. The adobe buildings I wanted to show you last post are here today. Classic! And this time, what looks like snow is not snow at all, but 250 square miles of pure white gypsum sand. Eight miles into the surreal desert park we ventured. Less and less the desert looked like desert and the more it looked like an Alaskan white out - snow plowed roads and all. But there is no snow here. Just sand. Beautiful white sand. At the "Heart of the Sands Nature Center" we found (are you ready for this???) George Clooney shooting a film supposedly called "The Men Who Stare At Goats." The Jon Ronson book about a 1979 military scheme to make soldiers virtually invisible, able to walk through walls, and kill goats just by staring at them - has basis in the present day war on terror, at least according to the web site.

I thought a slide show would be the only satisfactory way to show you the look at the white sands. There are a lot of pull over educational displays, some hiking trails across the dunes with signage to explain what you are seeing...and why. Were it not a warm and pleasant day, it would have been easy at some interior spots in the park, to believe you were deep in the arctic..

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