Sometimes a girl just needs a kitchen. I don’t care what degree of feminist I claim to be, it’s in my blood to want a stove, a fridge and some beautiful food to prepare. When you’re on the road, this sort of urge is difficult to satisfy.

So far on this journey I’ve made sandwiches on the hood of the car, let goat cheese go bad in our cooler and mastered an Italian sausage pasta using small backpacking pots. I’ve poured many bowls of cold cereal in motel rooms, and botched a vegetable-filled omelette atop a wet picnic table. And I’ve had to wash every dish in a stream, beneath a campground spigot or in a bathroom sink.

But one glorious night in Roswell, N.M, I found myself in a fully equipped kitchen, chopping lettuce for a salad, prepping potatoes for baking, and seasoning a T-bone for the stainless gas grill outside. And when it was all over, I loaded the dishes in a dishwasher and pushed a button. It was awesome.

I have Britt and Veronica of Cozy Cowboy Cottage Rentals to thank for my night of domestic bliss. Scott and I weren’t finding much by way of lodging in Roswell other than chain hotels. On a whim, we searched online for vacation rentals — even though we were going to be in town for only one night. We found an inviting studio apartment, but it was a 30-day rental. Scott sent an e-mail anyway, and we were surprised by Brit and Veronica’s reply. The studio wasn’t available, but a bigger place was.

This is how we ended up in the “Roswell House Moderne,” a two-story, three-bedroom home with a fenced backyard — for $50 cash. Britt and Veronica apologized that the cable TV and phone weren’t in service, but we didn’t care. The house was way more than we needed, and the washer and dryer were almost as much of a godsend as the kitchen.

We had intentions of checking out downtown Roswell’s hokey alien attractions, but we abandoned those intentions after seeing the House Moderne’s backyard. Instead, we kicked off our shoes and sat in the sunshine, reading our books as the dogs snored by our sides. Later we enjoyed a candlelit dinner on the patio, and I took a bubble bath.

Basically, we played house far away from home. It was nice.

I could probably road trip for the rest of my life. I love traveling. I love camping. But every once in a while, I need to work through a natural desire to nest. This alien environment allowed me to do that, and I moved on, feeling refreshed.


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