Place  /  Longread

The Lure of the White Sands

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, Geronimo, Robert Oppenheimer, Steven Spielberg, and the mysteries of New Mexico's desert.

It’s difficult to explain the cause of my obsession, but I do know when it started. I was fifteen. I spent the summer camping with friends in the Southwest. We rafted the Snake River, hiked the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and stood at the Four Corners, an appendage in each state, as if the lines on the map really meant something. We biked along the boundary of the White Sands Missile Range, the desolate plain where Robert Oppenheimer and his team detonated the first atomic bomb, the blast that some with a peculiar cast of mind believe kicked open a portal to the next world. The spot is indicated by a stone pyramid, a marker memorializing the day: July 16, 1945. If you look carefully, you can find bits of shimmering green rock nearby, trinitite, a mineral newly alchemized in the heat of the blast.

We camped in White Sands National Park, a Sahara-like sea of dunes. In the middle of the night, I stumbled out of the tent and into the universe. It felt as if I could reach up and pull down a handful of stars, as if I could see every constellation and planet and supposed-to-be-invisible chord that connected it all, the mechanism that made the whirligig turn.

The feeling I had that night—the otherworldly shiver of southern New Mexico—has been felt and expressed by writers, storytellers, and painters. It’s in the essays of D. H. Lawrence, the blueprints of Frank Lloyd Wright, the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the most recent season of which takes the viewer inside the atomic cloud that towered above the desert and dramatizes the moment the demon was released.

I read every book and essay and treatise I could find about the region in those pre-Internet days. Histories, stories, novels. The diaries of Spanish conquistadors. The legends of Geronimo and his Apaches. I was looking for the crucial bit of information that would unravel the landscape, that would bring the White Sands into focus.

What was driving me?

I suppose I have always been hunting for God, a meaning or a pattern to life, and the place I feel I’ve come closest to finding it is in Otero County. Coronado and his search for riches, Geronimo, the atom bomb and rocket tests, the UFOs ghosting over the hills…why has this desert been the center of so much uncanny history, real or imagined? Is it the ley lines, or are the ley lines one of the fantasies invented to explain the shiver you feel when you stand alone beneath the stars? Maybe it’s the nature of the white sands, which, depending on the hour of the day and mood you bring to it, feels either brand new, still in the process of becoming, or like the oldest place in the world. If I could understand why the desert affects me so profoundly, maybe I’d know the reason for my obsession; maybe I’d know everything.