Written by Jesse Cody
Why would one travel three hours and forty five minutes to hike five miles? Especially when there are plenty of perfectly fine hikes local to Santa Fe. Well, that’s the exact driving distance from Santa Fe, New Mexico to White Sands National Park, a ride I found to be worth every minute in order to hike the beauty of one of America’s most breathtaking vistas.
It certainly didn't hurt that the ride itself provided views and marvels that had me wanting to pull over every few minutes to take in all it’s wild beauty. I blame you, Instagram.
The last two hours of the drive took me down roads very reminiscent of those Chuck Noland drives down at the end of the filmCastaway (if you haven’t seen it, your loss.). The only difference between Chuck and I is that I knew exactly where I was headed. Even an hour or so out, I knew I was headed in the right direction. Like mist lifting off the wet grass during an early morning dew, I could see the far distant sands lifting high in the air from the desert winds. It seemed I was going to need my trusty bandana for facial cover on today’s hike.
Entering the park does nothing to prepare you for the visual of this true desert landscape deep within the park’s parameters. Once through the park’s gates, it’s a good two miles before the sands make their eye widening appearance. Before long, you are engulfed in its sea of blinding white. As you drive further in, even the paved road disappears and becomes a twisted, hard-packed path of whiteness to the trailhead. I was half expecting to cross paths with Luke Skywalker or Obi One Kenobi making my way to the sanded lot where the trail began.
The five mile trail called Alkali Flat Trail is the park’s longest, and soon into the hike, it becomes clear it’s anything but flat. It makes its way up and down the slippery sand dunes. A warning sign at the trailhead states simply and to the point, “Your tomorrow depends on what you do today”. Talk about stressing safety. Heavy.
It’s hard to refer to Alkali Flat as a “trail”. The only way to know you are navigating in the right direction is by keeping your eyes open for red-tipped stakes sticking out of the sand every four hundred feet or so. When the winds are blowing, footprints left by fellow hikers disappear as quickly as they are made. In every direction you look you feel you are being engulfed in a crashing sea storm of sand. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt or seen in the thousands of miles I’ve hiked throughout America.
Standing high on top of one of the park’s larger sand dunes, amazed and wide eyed, I thought, “This is why I do this.” The beauty of the scenery was indisputable, understandably inspiring countless photographs and poems, not to mention a sense of gratitude as one beholds such a magnificent landscape. But more important than the beauty is what the land breathes into me: Life. It’s a constant reminder to me, a man who, not so long ago, did not believe life was worth living, that life is in fact every bit of the worth.
As I stood there high above the whiteness, in a sliver of the wilderness with actual cell reception, my phone began to ring. It was my dad calling to ask, “How’s life?” Standing there with the cold desert winds whipping across my body and a smile stretched as far as the white sands beneath me, I responded, “Paw, life is beautiful.” I watched the sun set before marching back to my van, my footsteps disappearing behind me. Not a trace of me left in this wild place--a reminder of life’s wild impermanence, and our sometimes invisible but no less meaningful footprint. <<Cue violin music>>
Hike the Good Hike
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Hiking in winter offered me the feeling of being truly alone without feeling lonely: a feeling a lot of people can identify with right now.
Seasonal depression is real and practicing self-care is important now more than ever. Going on a hike in the winter is a great way to get endorphins flowing and get out of the house. Not to mention there’s no bugs, no crowds, and more views on trail; don’t let the winter scare you away, rather, embrace it and have a good story to tell.
Covering those four miles an hour seemed like a distant dream. I moved at a pace dictated by the desert. The quicker you moved, the more you slipped about. It could be agonizing. This was a discomfort unique to the desert, one that I knew well from previous sandy sojourns in the Mojave and White Sands. My twisted mind invited the discomfort in. Let’s tango, desert.
My pack was stocked to survive three days in the backcountry. Though there were a good amount of clouds in the sky, the sun somehow found a way to shine through. And my skin found a way to chafe in the only place the sun don’t shine. My feet felt the burning heat from the sand through my lightweight trail runners. My calves punished me for subjecting them to such a rigorous sandy workout.