For years, my wife Jen and I have strived to find interesting adventures for ringing in the New Year, from midnight ski runs and champagne-addled hot spring soaks to backcountry hut trips and full-moon fat bike rides. This being our first year in our Airstream, Artemis, we hatched a plan to welcome 2017 from the dunes at White Sands, just the three of us.
One big change in Artemis has been the new sense of time and scheduling. As so often happens on the road, things don't go according to plan, which is exactly what we experienced over the holidays. First came the unwelcome Christmas gift from family in Denver: a rugged cold that knocked me down on Boxing Day, and Jen a few days later. Faced with the long drive south on New Year’s Eve, all we could muster was a fondue in the back of the pickup from the top of the ski hill with night views over Santa Fe. Even that was an anticlimax after snow moved in and smudged out the city lights. I had an apoplectic coughing fit on the hour-long drive back to town while Jen white-knuckled in fog and snow so thick we couldn’t see past the hood.
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Then we had to catch up on work. When you travel with your home and your office on your back, all hours are possible work hours, and there’s no such thing as weekday versus weekend. The corollary to that “work anywhere, work always,” mentality is that you’re constantly somewhere new, with the freedom to schedule to your advantage. Sapped of energy for anything else, Jen and I had spent the sick holidays in front of our computers, so we were due for a day off. All of a sudden it was January 7, so, as absurd as it might sound, we decided to celebrate our own New Year. After two weeks on our backs, we were stoked.
The enthusiasm lasted four hours, as long as it took to drive from Santa Fe to White Sands National Monument. At the visitor center, the ranger, in her kindest voice, informed us that there’s no camping in travel trailers in the park.
Excitement quashed. New Year botched. Again.
Since we moved into the Airstream, we’ve aspired to more spontaneity. Constant planning, we’ve found, can force you past small towns and unexpected jewels that your road passes. The complication, of course, is that you must be flexible.
Afternoon was turning to evening, and, still exhausted from my dissipating cold, I was ready to drive to the nearest hotel, check in, and pass out. Jen whipped out the computer and found us a quiet spot outside the park to unhitch instead, and we were sipping hot tea over scraggly views of the Sacramento Mountains before the sun had set. We also browsed White Sands' website and discovered that the monument issues 10 backcountry camping permits at hike-to sites in the dunes each day.
Next morning, we were first in line for one of those permits. After knocking out a bit of work, I had a nice, easy road bike spin through the park, and Jen took a run. Then, having loaded up our packs and camping gear, which we always have stashed in the trailer, we traipsed a mile over sugar white dunes to our designated camp site.
White Sands is an astounding and peculiar place, a 144,000-acre swath of snowy dunes sandwiched between Holloman Airforce Base and White Sands Missile Range, with flight patterns and explosives testing sometimes affecting the monument’s schedule. (When we were there, the first five miles of the scenic drive were closed for remediation of a Predator drone crash.) Compared to the parched, muted, black desert peaks of the Organ and Sacramento ranges to the west and east respectively, the dunes look as out of place as a Las Vegas golf course. But they’re natural: wind-strafed gypsum blown from exposed veins in the Organs and molded into great dunes as the particles lodged and built up on an ancient lake.
Camping in the dunes feels like a glorious secret. After the monument closes at 6 p.m., the gates are locked and campers are on their own till dawn, Night At The Museum-style. The night we camped, only one other group was in the dunes, a pair of young folks who were carrying all their camp gear in their arms, no packs, and couldn’t seem to find their campsite. "What we’ve figured out," one told me before he and his partner blundered away, "is that the sites don’t have numbers." Jen and I walked another half mile in the opposite direction and found the sites clearly signed. We never saw the two again.
Once our tent was erected, we perched on the creamy white dunes and watched the sun disappear behind the serrations of the Organ Mountains, casting the valley and gypsum in wild hues of tangerine and lavender. We ate under the stars, drank a nip of bourbon, and partook in our annual ritual of recounting and giving thanks for all the interesting experiences we’d had in 2016. Artemis was atop the list. We wouldn’t have been in those dunes without her.
Jen eventually fired up Barry White on a portable speaker—“You know, Barry White, White Sands,” she shrugged when I wondered about the selection—and we danced together on waves of ivory gypsum crystals under a blaring, bleached moon. There was no cheering, no noisemakers, no fireworks, just the hiss of the wind and spray of constellations.
Nine days after it began, 2017 felt full of adventure and promise.