White Sands National Monument (NM)


We ended the day by visiting White Sands National Monument. Here is an eerie landscape of enormous white sand dunes that seems more appropriate in a beach setting. Surrounding the monument is the White Sands Missile Range, the largest U.S. military installation, which had a significant history during World War II and the space program. It was here at the Trinity site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. The monument is actually a part of the missile range and is subject to closure when military tests are being conducted.

We took a ranger-led informational tour that ended in a brilliant sunset against dramatic clouds. The sand dunes here are spectacular and improbable.

The whiteness of the sand almost looks like snow

The whiteness of the sand almost looks like snow


The sand is composed of finely ground hydrated calcium sulfate, more commonly known as gypsum, that was blown in from ancient Lake Lucero, a vast drainage basin where dissolved minerals from sedimentary layers in the nearby San Andres and Sacramento Mountains collected, with no natural outlet. Water evaporated rapidly, leaving behind soft, large gypsum crystals (selenite) that wind eventually broke apart and tumbled into ever smaller grains that formed the dunes. This process continues to this day. Unlike sand, gypsum doesn’t absorb heat so it stays cool even in summer.

Some plants can get a foothold despite the shifting sands

Some plants can get a foothold despite the shifting sands


As the sun set behind the San Andres Mountains, the white sands kept the landscape visible even as it got dark (top photo). We could easily have spent another whole day here.
White Sands after sunset

White Sands after sunset

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New Mexican Pistachios


We were surprised to learn that New Mexico grows quite a lot of pistachios. One normally associates the nut with California.

The state has the largest pistachio growing area in the country, though not by volume. The San Joaquin Valley of California enjoys that distinction. Arizona also grows it. Hot and dry conditions are required for optimal growth. In Alamogordo, there are two farm outlets along the main highway where we sampled pistachio products and local wines. The staff at Eagle Ranch Farm was by far the friendlier and eager to explain pistachio farming, roasting and packaging. Male trees are needed to pollinate female trees and, unlike most other deciduous trees, depend on wind to spread pollen. Surprisingly, immature nuts on the female tree are pinkish and turn green when ready. The swelling nutmeats are responsible for splitting the shells rather than a roasting or mechanical process.

Pink when immature, pistachios turn green as they ripen

Pink when immature, pistachios turn green as they ripen


To add their distinctive mark, New Mexican producers market their pistachios with chile flavors, both green and red.