The highway from Alamogordo, N.M., to White Sands National Monument is straighter than a country preacher and patched with black tar. The tar patches, stretching before us in a continuous squiggle of crests and troughs and splotches, called to mind a line of Arabic characters. I imagined they spelled out ancient wisdom, or maybe a warning, as if a Muslim cleric were in charge of road maintenance here and considered the work sacred.

This day-dreamy mental lurch was no doubt influenced by the Saharan vision on the horizon: a hazy expanse of sand dunes that came into more crystalline focus with each passing mile. It was an anti-mirage — a rifle-sight view of endless sand between a blurred corridor of gas stations, drug stores and tattoo parlors. A strong tailwind gave me the sensation the car was being sucked forward by this sea of sand. The air that curled into my open window tingled the hair on my forearm and dried my lips. I was terribly thirsty.

White Sands National Monument is surely one of our country’s oddest federally protected natural attractions. The 275 square miles of dunes that constitute the monument seem strikingly out of place, even in the rugged landscape of southern New Mexico. Smooth and elegant and rhythmic, the waves of sand stand in stark contrast Alamogordo’s cluttered cityscape and the lumpy peaks of the Sacramento and San Andreas mountains. It’s as if God busted a brobdingnagian hourglass above the valley and then did a half-ass job of blowing the glittery, granular mess away.

Adding to the monument’s surreality is a couple of neighbors prone to secretive maneuverings and roaring backyard parties. White Sands Missile Range has been known to disturb the dunes with errant missiles (oops), while Holloman Air Force Base occasionally punctures the monument’s tranquility with a sonic boom.

But neither missiles nor jets can compare to the splitting of atoms. A once-secret site in the northern reaches of the missile range is where, in the pre-dawn hours of July 16, 1945, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb. The historic big bang vaporized steel, turned sand to glass and shattered windows 120 miles away. It also, of course, changed the world. The dunes near ground zero still carry a trace of radiation from the 65-year-old test blast.

That’s a heavy backstory for a place where children now spend sunny days sliding down dunes atop plastic sleds and flattened cardboard boxes.

Make no mistake: For all its geological weirdness and military history, the number one reason people come to White Sands National Monument is to play in the sand. I lived in New Mexico for four years and have visited White Sands on several occasions, each time making the obligatory tour of the visitor center to learn how the dunes are formed and what critters and plants survive in them. But the monument’s visitor center is one of those rare museum-like environments where my Inner Child bullies my Inner Nerd away from the exhibits and out the door.

A fact about White Sands that both my Inner Nerd and Inner Child can appreciate is that the dunes are made of gypsum crystals, which, unlike the quartz sand of most beaches, do not readily convert the sun’s energy into heat. That means the sand usually feels cool to the touch and you can tromp across it bare-footed during the hottest of summer days.

One other fun fact about the gypsum: It’s actually translucent, not white. But as the wind bounces the sand crystals along the ground, they collide and scratch each other. The scratches alter the way light reflects off the grains, making the sand appear white to our eyes.

That gypsum is really what makes White Sands unique. Tom Charles, an Alamogordo insurance agent who in the early 1930s led a movement to make the dunes a national monument instead of a mineral factory, argued that “gypsum may be divided into two classes — commercial and inspirational. The former everybody has, but as for recreational gypsum, we have it all. No place else in the world do you find these alabaster dunes with the beauty and splendor of the Great White Sands.”

Charles’ logic won out. President Hebert Hoover proclaimed the dunes a national monument in 1933, creating a sandbox of mythical proportions for future visitors to enjoy, and, more immediately, providing construction jobs during the dark days of the Great Depression. When FDR took office, his Works Progress Administration crews quickly got to work building the visitor center, public restrooms, maintenance facilities and park residences — all of which are still in use today.

Those WPA restrooms were a welcome sight after the long drive to the monument from Magdalena. We would need to avail ourselves of them again four hours later, after consuming a gallon of water while playing in the dunes. We had a blast. Isabel frolicked in the sand like Scrooge McDuck in a pile of gold. Jack’s thunderous paws scratched more gypsum than a week’s worth of windstorms. And, like a child, I badgered Jill to take my picture as I leaped from the crest of the tallest dunes I could find.

We watched the moon rise and the sun set, and somehow managed to get back to our car without losing our way in the blanched landscape of confusing sameness.

Back on the highway, my calves ached. Grains of sand shifted in my underwear. The dogs slept the sleep of the dead. The car wheels whirred hypnotically on the roadbed as Arabic tar scripture passed between them.

I wanted to think the tar held a sage message for weary, happy travelers like us, but I’ll be damned if I could decipher it. I just pointed the car toward Texas and put my bare, sandy foot to the gas pedal.

— Scott

I spent only an hour photographing rock climbers at Joshua Tree National Park. But it’s still the most time I’ve ever devoted to watching a climber up close. It looks easy, the grace and pace with which they work their way up the rock.  I know it’s anything but. One thing’s for sure: It’s beautiful. Especially with blue sky and the Joshua trees as a backdrop.

It seems to me that rock climbers are an odd bunch. They are fearless and fit and incredibly focused. But there’s also something geeked-out and techie about them. Climbers might be the athletic equivalent of architects or engineers — equal parts intelligence and obsessive compulsion. They’re calculated thinkers, and they don’t seem at all bothered by the cumbersome collection of carabiners, rope, quick-draws and bolts that hang from their hips as they work their way up vertical rock. It’s weird that a sport as pure and raw as climbing requires so much technical gear. I, with my hip bag of lenses and compact flash cards, stood below marveling at the ease in which they move upward — a little jealous of their abilities, plenty jealous of their physique, but pretty content with my feet comfortably on the ground.

I now have a better idea why photographers like Corey Rich have devoted their careers to documenting the sport. But I have to remind myself that shooters like Rich are as bold and gifted as the climbers, maybe even more so. Imagine traversing a 5.10 (I don’t even know what that means, but I know it’s really hard) while carrying all that gear plus a 5-pound camera and multiple lenses.

Maybe next year, we’ll return to Joshua Tree, sans dogs, and give the climbing thing a go. Until then, I will daydream about my future awesome climber’s physique, as opposed to the whiskey-swilling, gumbo-eating one I’m working on right now.


One thing I learned while visiting Bryce Canyon National Park is that people have been describing it in print since 1916, when articles about the area appeared in magazines owned by the Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads. That’s around the same time tourists started driving their automobiles up to the Colorado Plateau to gawk at the park’s gallery of sandstone hoodoos. (A side note: According to a roadside marker on Highway 89, those old cars had to climb the steep road to Bryce Canyon in reverse because their gravity-fed fuel systems couldn’t get gas to the engine the other way around.)

My point is this: Our national parks have been around nearly as long as the combustion engine, and rivers of ink have been devoted to their wonderfulness. Ken Burns alone spent six years filming his 12-hour PBS special about the park system, and a Google search for “national parks” on the Interweb turns up 188 million hits.

Jill and I were discussing this particular reality the other night at the Canyon Lodge, in Panguitch, Utah, as we sipped cheap bourbon from disposable motel cups. After several minutes of semi-serious deliberation, we decided we are not going to kill ourselves trying to out-Burns Ken Burns. Instead, we’re going to treat our visits to national parks like mini-vacations within our “working honeymoon” and document them in travelogue style: with snapshots and narration. (Only our travelogues will be two or three minutes — not two or three hours like the ones my parents attended in the ’70s.)

To be fair to Jill, I should point out that all of the photos contained in the slideshow below were shot in less-than-ideal light (read: not at dawn or dusk), and a few of them were snapped by me using the little Canon PowerShot D10 Jill gave me for Christmas. (It’s snowproof!)

It should also be noted that both of us hate the sound of our own voices. We can only hope that Bryce’s epic beauty outweighs our aural insufferability.