Region III Quarterly

Volume 2 - No. 1

January, 1940


By Tom Charles,
Former Custodian,
White Sands National Monument

Of all the places in the world to look for a skiing club, you would think the last would be the White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico. This area, near Alamogordo, is in the heart of a semi-tropical desert where snow is practically unknown. Still they have a Summer Skiing Club in the town of Mountain Park, near Cloudcroft, from where skiers go to the nearby White Sands for practice on summer moonlight evenings. They get satisfactory runs of 100 to 150 yards and the members say that it is a 100 percent practice ground for winter skiing.


But summer skiing is not so surprising to those who have even a passing acquaintance with the White Sends. The area is known as the land of contrast and contradiction. All over the world it is the "White Sands" and yet, strictly speaking, there isn't a particle of sand in it. It is pure gypsum. If heated to 165 degrees it becomes Plaster of Paris, and then can be molded into plaques, picture frames, and candle sticks. When lightning strikes a sand dune and calcines the sand in its path, it is entirely logical to believe the story that moisture has turned that calcined gypsum into solid rock, and that it is one place in the world where we may have the image of the lightning bolt in stone!

Recently a transportation company published a picture of the Sands under the caption, "America's Sahara", yet in 90 percent of the area there is water within 18 inches of the surface of the ground. Antelope and ether wild animals dig their own water wells. The ordinary gray field mouse takes on a coat of ermine, as a measure of protection. This feat is so unusual that now the little mice rate posts in many of the larger museums of the country. The common roadside flower, four-o'clock, is different in the Sands from any place else on earth. So you can see that the White Sands National Monument is where you ski in summer; where sand isn't sand; where desert isn't desert; where the gray mouse is white, and the whole thing is in reverse. Even golf is a bit different, for the balls are painted black.

This "Sahara" is a place where heat-worn city residents congregate to "cool off" on summer evenings; where comely maidens and beach-brown Adonises, dressed in bathing suits, dig and play in the cool damp sands while modest matrons lounge barefooted and "beach bathe" or "sand bathe" on one of America's most unusual and bewitching "beaches". It is always cool by the time the long shadows of the hottest days of summer have disappeared; a wrap is comfortable in the evening. Even the tiny white gypsum crystals are said to be the product of rapid evaporation and therefore are children of the desert. The scarcity of plant life is not due to the shortage of water, but to the absence of nitrogen and other necessary elements. So with plants as with everything else, the whole area seems to be contradictory.

High, over-towering sand dunes, wind-rippled, curved, and coved, meet you on every side as you proceed along the winding road that leads you back nine miles into the heart of the Sands. While a rather turbulent storm may occur on the top of the dunes, and sand may "boil" to an elevation of two or three feet, the wet, cool sand never rises much higher than that. The areas between the hills are practically free from the movement of sand. So here in the heart of the "Sahara" you will be free from sand storms. Even our sunsets are not the common mixture of rainbow colors. Here the Great Pastel Painter combines the best of the usual Southwest sunset with the florescence of gypsum, the deep blue of the San Andres, and the dark shadows of the sands against the snow white hills. What a picture!

What fun to follow the legends of lost carretas of the early Conquistadores. One of the old hand-hewn cottonwood ox-carts is now in the headquarters museum with a miniature replica tucked under its huge wheels. The original was recently found in the north end of the monument by Watson Ritch. How long it had been there no one knows; where it came from is as great a mystery. It was far from the well-beaten paths of the early day explorers and apparently had been covered under one of the sand dunes for the 56 years that Watson Ritch had lived in that vicinity. It could have been the handiwork of some unfortunate salt vender who was gathering salt from the flats north of the sands in the early part of the 19th century. The fact that Mr. Ritch has found parts of two different carretas of similar type and pattern seemingly gives credence to the legendary yarn that when the Piro Indians were driven from Gran Quivira in the latter part of the 18th century and were making their exodus down the Rio Grande, through the Jornada del Muerta, or Journey of Death, they were attacked by plains Indians just west of Rhode's Pass. The Piro Chief and his beautiful daughter, according to the legend, crossed the mountains to the White Sands in the hope that they might escape on this side of the range. They were never heard from again.

The story is almost on a par with that of Pavla Blanca, the White Wraith, the beautiful woman who comes to the Sands at dusk each evening dressed in the flowing robes of her wedding gown; searching for her lover who was lost and buried in the White Sands. Don't follow her. One look at her radiant beauty is enough for a lifetime; twice is a misfortune; the third time is death. "My father saw her twice," said Pedro, an early day guide. "Never could he go back to the Great White Sands again."

But why waste time on the mythical, legendary things at the White Sands? The thing is wrapped in the woof and warp of unbelievable events. Who made the "giant's tracks"? There they are, 22 inches long. Pictures have been taken of them in the solid rock. A dozen men have seen them. They appear to be human footprints. And where do the fish come from? Why is it that water holes made by ranchmen for their livestock should mysteriously fill with little fish? Some years ago Frank Andregg, who still lives near the monument, dug a water hole at the edge of the sands for his goats, and within a few weeks there were dozens of fish in it. Mr. Andregg believes that they came in from the bottom. Last year we had a small hole out in the heart of the sands where we showed visitors the shallow water level. One day a fish about an inch and a half long appeared in that hole and lived there for ten days. Where did it come from? White Sands is the land of mystery!


Army records say that in the eighties two companies of negro soldiers fought all day long in the "arena blanca". Paul I. Wellman, in his Death in the Desert, recounts the vengeance foray of Chief Nana, 81 years old and rheumatic, who swore retaliation against the white man for double dealing which cost the life of Chief Victoria. Nana and 15 braves came up from Mexico in July, 1881. Their first engagement was at the headwaters of Dog Canyon, some 17 miles to the southeast, where White Sands is to get its domestic water. On the second day three citizens were killed at the point of the sands; on the third day the fight was in "arena blanca"; on the fifth day they took up camp in Hembrillo Canyon, that rugged, natural fortress which looks down from the west upon the White Sands.

It was on April 17, 1880, that Companies H and L of the 9th Cavalry attacked the Apaches in Dog Canyon. On the morning of the next day Almer Blazer, who still lives at the Blazer Mill on the Mescalero Apache Reservation, met the remnant of those troops after their engagement with the Apaches on the winding trail of the "box". According to Mr. Blazer, there were only 12 of the 200 horses and mules left in the possession of the soldiers. The Indians used bows and arrows, and rolled rocks down upon the enemy in the narrow pass of the hills. They had led the soldiers into a trap which proved to be a massacre, not an engagement.

Sa it makes little difference whether you be artist, ecologist, geologist, botanist, newsman, or historian, the White Sands is still a virgin field. Its mysteries are dark and deep. The water is red, in lakes formed by rain. Why? An alga, you answer. True, we concede. But why is it here, and where else do you find it? It takes time to answer such questions. It takes prowling, plodding, detail men, and they are beginning to come into the area. As for time, there seems to be no shortage. Mathematicians tell us that with the present northeast movement of the sands, about 8 or 10 inches a year, it will be over 100,000 years before the town of Alamogordo is reached, 18 miles away.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005