November 28

Bosque del Apache and White Sands

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Our first trip in the morning was to Andrew's tower, which he built himself in his back yard. At the ground floor it serves as his library, on the middle floor it's his main office, and at the top it's his observation deck from where he can watch the stars with his telescope. It's kinda neat to be living in a place where you actually can see the stars - we have too much light pollution for that... From the tower Andrew took us "a couple of blocks" down to see the winter residents of many Canadian geese, and on the next block numerous cranes. They stay here for the whole winter season and are a common attraction - right in Andrew's back yard, so to speak.

Half frozen from our walk we parted from our hosts and headed south on I-25, with the intention to go to the VLA and White Sands, maybe with a stop at the Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge. Things don't quite go as planned lately, though, and when consulting with the map over lunch we realized that our late departure from Albuquerque will cost us at least one, possibly two of the planned stops. Thus the decision was made to sacrifice my purely geeky detour to the VLA and to head to the wildlife refuge right away, and to go to White Sands after that, since I wanted to be there for sunset. Andrew recommended to be at the wildlife refuge at sunset, but one has to have his priorities. The brilliant idea to go to the VLA, then to the refuge at sunset and to White Sands at sunrise didn't occur to us until much, much later.

The wildlife refuge was said to be full of migratory birds at this time of year, and neither Andrew nor the guide over promised: there were cranes, geese, ducks, coots and many other birds everywhere, in very large numbers. There were not that many bird watchers, but the few made up for it with lenses and cameras: The 600/4 and 400/2.8 lenses seemed to be standard issue, while I looked with my 2x stretched 70-200 like a joker. But since I already have an understanding wife, all I need now is a very, very big bonus, and either a sherpa or a membership at a gym.

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My fascination with ducks and alike held me captivated for longer than expected, and if it wasn't for Essan's urging for us to leave we probably would have seen the sunset at the reserve after all. At about 2:30 the realization kicked in that sunset is just before 5, and that we are only about 140 miles away from White Sands. With that I kicked the Mitsubishi rather hard and without paying much respect to local speed limits we arrived at the gates of the National Monument at around 4:30. Once we reached the depths of the dunes we hastily grabbed our gear from the car and more or less ran onto the sand, snapping away as if our lives depended on it - Essan covering the wide angle while I stuck to the long glass. We had only about 10 minutes before the sun disappeared behind the mountains, at which point we could calm down a bit, stop the running, and unfold the tripod. The temperature started dropping very rapidly into clearly freezing regions, making it clear to us that we should have spent a minute longer at the car thinking about what we really need - gloves, hat, and also the flashlight, the cable release and bubble level, since we are at it. Just before 6 the night definitely broke over the desert and we headed back to the car, guided by our trusty little GPS - at least I learn from SOME mistakes.

Back at the car we were greeted by the park ranger who inquired about the only other car parked out there. Since we heard voices in the dunes just minutes ago - it was too dark to see anything - we reported that to the ranger, who saw it as a good sign and drove off. We unloaded our stuff, put on our hats and gloves, grabbed the flashlight and an empty Coke bottle and ventured back into the sands to collect some: Essan collects little rocks from all states and nations she visits, and what could be more representative / original for New Mexico than this beautiful white sand. Back in the dunes we heard a woman approaching us with a rather panicky voice, so we came to her and she proceeded to tell us that her husband went missing in the dunes while taking pictures. Now equipped with a flashlight we flagged down the ranger who returned and tried to gather as much information as possible. I showed her our GPS track log and explained the man's relative position to us when we last saw him, and offered our help. "Nah, that's ok, happens all the time" was the ranger's response, and headed out to search the missing husband. We sure hope they found him soon and healthy, as at that time it was definitely freezing and getting colder every minute; not a good place to be spending the night.

We avoided the border patrol checkpoint just west of the White Sands park entrance, since I honored them with my presence in 1994 already (thank you very much, you PITAs, how many illegal Mexican immigrants have you seen with a tent, camping stove and a photo backpack in their own CA registered car) and headed back east to Alomogordo for dinner. Essan wanted to dine at a place "that she can't easily get at home", so we found a less-than-average sketchy diner with a southern enough sounding name. Surprised that there was even a choice between smoking and non-smoking sections, we found the customer base to be of a wide spectrum ranging from a true cowboy to what could have been the prom queen, just unseasonably late. We soon found that even the food is different from what we expected, but we survived, enjoying it more for intellectual than culinary reasons, paid the 6'2" waitress and headed east on US-82 to Artesia, our starting point for Saturday's excursion to the Carlsbad Caverns.

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