It was one of my favorite songs growing up, blasted at parties, an anthem made to be screamed rather than sang, preferably jumping up and down, right fist pumping in the air. I don't think I understood then the subtleties of the lyrics.   One day, in a twisted chain of events the party stopped and  I would get to associate this song with the violent death of a friend. I was still a teenager and up to that point, people I knew who died were very few, very old, and often very sick. After that, I was left with forever unanswered questions and the shuttered feeling that I was not invincible anymore.  It seemed a small thing, but I stopped listening to it, the song about "living on a prayer''.

Dunes at White Sands National Park, New Mexico

It was no surprise that many years after, and many miles away from my home country, I changed the channel when it came on the radio.  I was driving on a highway in New Mexico to check out another item from my bucket list and the gesture was so mechanical, I did not even think about it, paying attention to the warning signs about high winds and sand storms. There were no winds, there was no sand; yet. In a few hours all that would change as I entered the most amazing place on earth. For the rest of the day I lived in a bicolor world, blue above my head and white under my feet. Few stains of color popped up here and there, washed out under the bright sun. As the day went by, the white  changed its shade and so did the blue, but it's the little  bits of color through the sand that fascinated me the most.

Road, White Sands National Park, New Mexico

White Sands National Park is just that, about 275 square miles (almost as big as New York City),  of bright, very fine, white sand dunes. As many websites will tell you, the sand is gypsum materialized here in powder form because of the very hot and very dry climate. The packed layers on the road and on top of the dunes makes it look like groomed ski slopes and if it weren't for the heat, the sand could have been mistaken for snow, in the middle of the desert, nonetheless. It is both a breathtaking view and a harsh environment. There are about 4 months of temperatures around 90F, with very cold nights, and while it can rain and even snow, the humidity tends to stay very low. The dunes are  still and shifting at the same time. Underneath the dunes lies a lot of water which prevents them from drying out and being blown away by the wind -- this keeps them in place --, but the winds and the temperature variation still makes them shift, mostly in Spring, around a few feet per year.

Purple Sand Verbena

The most fascinating part about White Sands are the plants. Life itself has found tremendous creativity here to survive. Some plants spread all over, some grow tall, and some grow underneath, but they all have one thing in common, they manage to survive in a place that it's not the most favorable place for life. There are wildflowers here with delicate colors like yellow Desert Mentzelia, and purple Sand Verbena.
Soaptree Yucca, flower details 
Soaptree Yucca - flower pods
Soaptree Yucca

Then there are cacti with strong, in your face purple and red colors like Cane Cholla, Claret Cup Cactus, and Ocotillo. The most popular view anywhere is the Soaptree Yucca with its beautiful white flowers that dry up into hard pods that apparently can be eaten, and deep roots that can be used to produce soap.

Skunkbush Sumac

Finally, the trees, like Rio Grande Cottonwood with most of its trunk deep in the sands looking for water, and the one that gets the prize for creativity, the Skunkbush Sumac (or Lemonade Bush), which forms compact hills of gypsum and sand grains around its roots and trunk to resist being taken away by the winds. It looks dead in the summer, but it colors up in the spring.

Sunset, White Sands National Park, New Mexico

What do white sands, and ski slopes, and plants with meter long roots, have to do with eighties music, and lost childhood friends? It is so random, but it's how it works,  sometimes it is a gentle touch,  at other times a powerful slap to your face, but it is real, the healing hand of nature. As I was getting ready to leave, it seemed a small thing, whispering the words of that forbidden song, anemically raising my hand; by the time I was back on the highway, I was screaming the chorus from the top of my lungs, tears in the corner of my eyes. Behind me,  the sun was setting over the still and ever in motion white dunes.

June 27, 2020


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