DUNE IT WELL

I watched longingly as we sped past the world’s largest pistachio. The condition of the singular primitive, narrow road ascending Monjeau Point had meant we had to inch the Suburban along, making the fourteen-mile journey take much longer than we had anticipated. We had planned on arriving at White Sands National Monument around midday and securing one of the ten first-come campsites. Now the afternoon had gotten late, and with no backup for where we might spend the night, J was tense and pushing the speed limit. The probability of stopping for pistachio-themed attractions was nil.

Highway 70 sloped steadily downward towards the monument, and we could see the stripe of white cutting across the horizon long before we were anywhere near it. Despite our lateness we stopped for some sandwiches, not wanting to to leave our hunger at the mercy of the monument’s snack stand. A particularly humbling parking attempt at the sandwich shop caused tensions to erupt. However, we found staying angry around sandwiches difficult, and with apologies made, crossed the last few miles to the park.

As we bombed down the highway towards White Sands, we could eventually see a thick, white ribbon slicing across the ruddy leather-colored floor of the valley that opened up before us. The mountains at the far end were so far away they sat on a flat plane, a deep blue silhouette. The scenery was stark and stirring. With everything so visible for miles all around, your eyes tend to play tricks, and with the speed limit so high, the distances seem to melt like candy in the sun. We stopped in Alamogordo for some sandwiches, then headed off past the airbase and the missile testing range before finally arriving at White Sands.

Midday Sun Over White Sands National Monument
Dunes for days, White Sands National Monument

We arrived at the visitor’s center in time to nab one of the last two sites. Our situation settled for the evening, we were able to relax. Water bottles were filled and a sled and wax procured. J seemed to charm the woman running the register, and she told us where to find the best dunes for sledding. With dusk quickly approaching, we hurried to make our way to camp.

Midday sun silhouetting San Andres Mountains at White Sands National Monument
An intense midday sun silhouetting the San Andres Mountains, White Sands National Monument

The trailhead was 8 miles in, at the end of Dunes Drive. We watched a bulldozer employed in the perpetual restraint of the drifting dunes from the artery. Halfway through, the paved road gave way to hard-packed gypsum. I had conceded to purchasing my first pair of hiking boots for this trip, and was still annoyed by the considerable sum spent on such homely footwear. I was not going to dole out for a proper pack in addition. Now we began the game of Tetris that was stuffing a tent, two sleeping bags, two sleeping pads, four water bottles, two jackets, clothes, snacks, our journals, phones, flashlights, a flask, and a sled in the two small backpacks J had received as swag during his tenure as a world-traveling bartender. Both being prideful, we were not about to be bested by inanimate objects.

One part exertion and two parts dogged stubbornness and we had managed the thing. Having only broken a mild sweat, we celebrated our success with the last swigs of our Russell’s Reserve. Attitudes sufficiently recalibrated, we ascended the dunes for the mile hike into the site.

We were able to lock down one of the two remaining campsites for a song thanks to our National Park Pass, and with a plastic sled and wax in hand, we shouldered our packs and started into the dunes. After a little more than a mile, we had arrived at our site, where we pitched a tent for the second time on the journey, in significantly speedier and more relaxed fashion than the first. We had enough time to take a few shots down the dunes on the sled before the sun set, and still grinning like idiot children, we watched it fall behind the mountains. The whole valley became a slowly shifting bowl of fiery watercolors, as darker and darker shades of blue and purple crept over the sky from the East.

The dunes severely contrasted in light and dark, White Sands National Monument
The dunes severely contrasted in light and dark, White Sands National Monument

The afternoon sun seared against the sand, contrasting the dunes in light and shadow. Our dark forms stretched long into the distance, a small caravan. I wondered if I’d still be pouring sand from my boots months from now. We found our site and got down to the business of setting up. The dune mocked us, putting up much more opposition against our stakes then you would expect from a pile of sand. Crisp evening winds began whipping the tent, worsening the situation. With three stakes sufficiently in the ground, we hurled our things in the tent and hoped for the best.

We weren’t anywhere near the fabled sledding dunes we had been recommended, but figuring one dune was as good as the next, decided to break in the sled. We waxed it, marched up the top of a dune, and down J went. He tossed it back up to me. I surveyed the lane he had made, then moved lower on the hill. A few attempts were enough to grasp the embarrassing depth of my chickenshittedness, and I was thankful for the excuse of the sun beginning its dip behind the mountains to call it a day.

The San Andres Mountains aglow at sunset, White Sands National Monument
The San Andres Mountains aglow at sunset, White Sands National Monument

We watched, the mountains cast in fiery corals and dusty lilacs, the sky a swirl of pigment against the gypsum dunes. Small clusters of hikers stood scattered on crests in every direction, sharing in the spectacle. It was intimate, standing quietly among these pods of strangers, and we marveled at having the opportunity.

Rolling gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument
Rolling gypsum dunes, White Sands National Monument

I opted to lay down for a short nap before getting back up to write. Unfortunately, my attempt devolved (or evolved, depending on how optimistic you want to be) into a small coma. I woke up fully around midnight to a brilliantly alabaster moon and a sky full of every star imaginable. I stayed awake for a while, taking a short barefoot walk out onto the now imperial violet dunes, then returned to crash out again. At 4am, I woke to find the moon had retired for the evening, and the sky was vast and luminous. Both of us unable to return to sleep, we talked and rested, excitedly rising well before the alarm went off to get ready for sunrise.

A tent set up atop a dune at sunset, the San Andres Mountains silhouetted in the background, at White Sands National Monument
Our (not quite) campsite was breathtaking, White Sands National Monument

Exhausted from the day’s mental strain, we dozed lazily. However, the moon’s brazen appearance roused me. Startled, I thought a ranger, making rounds, had directed a flashlight at our tent. I stepped outside. The moon was audaciously low in the night sky, its immodest brilliance illuminating the sand in a pure white. I watched the lights of the small city of Alamogordo, piercing against the blackness, and amused myself contorting my figure in twists and bends, torturing my moonshadow into knots.

My stargazing was disrupted by a man stumbling up the dunes. He was loaded down with supplies and winded from the hike. He surveyed the canyon between us then looked over his shoulder, calling out in a language I didn’t recognize. A woman’s voice echoed back through the night. He descended the dune and began setting up camp on the delicate interdunal region below. The moon’s intense glow provided me with a clear sightline into his awkward struggle. Moments later the woman shuffled over the ridge, out of breath and laughing. But her presence gave little support to the endeavor, and I watched in awe, their amateurish ineptitude filling me with an undeserved sense of accomplishment.

Eventually, they were able to secure their tent. But my bemusement turned to anger as I watched them gather brush from the preserved land to fuel a fire, which was expressly prohibited. I seethed. I wanted to shame them. However, my self-preservative instincts kicked in, rationally reminding me that I was outnumbered, unarmed, and lacking anything more refined than grunts and hand gestures to communicate with. Dejected, I went back into the tent to put the scene out of my mind, but I would definitely be telling a ranger in the morning.

We woke early, the sky still alight with stars. The moon had vacated the heavens, and in its absence, they gleamed brightly through the tent’s mesh ceiling, our whispers the only sound in the pre-dawn silence. Hours passed and I grew ever more impatient with the sun’s reluctance to get started. My excitement finally agitated J from his sleeping bag, and we set to packing.

Daybreak at White Sands National Monument
The sun slept in. White Sands National Monument

We scaled another dune, surprised by the array of tracks left by the desert’s inhabitants during the night. The lights of Alamogordo were now barely visible against the impending sunrise. Rays broke over Benson Ridge, colored fractals once again flooding the valley with a display of the sun’s talents. Almost immediately the temperature began to rise, and we were glad to be able to hike back before its power became violent. While disassembling our gear, J noticed a stake nearby. I looked it over. We had erroneously placed our tent at the wrong marker. I could probably cancel that talk with the ranger.

Sunrise at White Sands National Monument
Sunrise, White Sands National Monument

As we waited impatiently for Helios to get out of traffic and get to work, we realized that while we had certainly shared many sunrises in the past, they were rarely shared with such participation and intentionality. We enjoyed the quiet of the sands, then basked in the almost deafening glow of the sun. Eager to get in some sledding, we broke camp and sought out the good dunes one of the ladies in the gift shop had let us in on. Scanning the candidates to the sides of the road, we pulled off and spotted a perfect, nigh-virgin, East-facing dune. Just past the Alkali Flat trail, as promised. We spent a good chunk of the morning shooting down the dune and laughing, and had our fill just as the skies began to sear with heat.

J at sunrise at White Sands National Monument
J contemplating existence – and breakfast. White Sands National Monument

We drove to the foretold sledding dunes, eager to redeem my pathetic showing from the day before. As it happens, one dune is not as good as the next. These were massive, with sharp, steep banks that ran almost perpendicular to the ground. I was terrified. Again, I made J go first. The hill was sheer, but the sand provided a good deal of traction, and he didn’t seem to go that fast. I rallied, the knowledge that this was literally, child’s play nudging me to the precipice. That ride is faster than it looks.

Y sledding at White Sands National Monument
Graceful as ever, White Sands National Monument

We exhausted our appetites for sledding and took a tour down the interdunal boardwalk. Exhibits along the walk detailed common indigenous animal tracks, educating us to the fact that beetles, lizards, birds, and even a kit fox had all sauntered past us during the night. We learned about the fragile desert crust protecting the ecosystem and the tenacity of the soaptree yucca. The yucca visible atop the dunes were actually embedded in the interdunal floor, their rapid growth enabling them to rise above the ever-changing drifts as they blow by. Eventually, the dune passes completely over, leaving the yucca exposed and unable to support its own weight, its evolved adaptability the cause of its demise.

Soaptree Yucca stalks peeking above the dunes, at White Sands National Monument
Soaptree Yucca stalks peeking above the dunes, White Sands National Monument

We returned our sledding equipment for a modest partial reimbursement before setting off for the Valley of Fires. The fires of the valley had quavered into ash well over 5,000 years prior, but the site still burned with energy. The thematic shift in color and creation of setting was not lost on us, and we marveled at the unrefined and sharp immediacy of the lava field. Even as nature had aggressively colonized the area, even evolved around it, as was the case in White Sands, there was a rawness to the land. It refused to be cowed by root, beast or weather. The paved trail we used to circuit a portion of the field was a redundant reminder that we were mere spectators.

Valley of Fires, New Mexico
Just us, an obsidian desert, and the government missile testing range for miles, Valley of Fires

The Valley of Fires occupied a desolate stretch of 380, surrounded by mountains and White Sands Missile Range. On missile test days, the road is closed to traffic, making an inconvenient island of the small town of Carrizozo nearby. Its name conjured conflagrant visions, making it an irresistible stop on our way to Santa Fe, but the sentiment appeared to be an uncommon one. We had the recreation area to ourselves. The solitude compounded the majesty of the gnarled landscape. Created when Little Black Peak erupted, sending its contents 44 miles South into the Tularosa Basin, it is lined in petrified black rock 160 ft thick. The dark, craggy deposits produce a land inverse, yet equally hostile, to the one we had left.

Jagged Lava Crevice at Valley of Fires, New Mexico
Exploring jagged crevices off-trail, Valley of Fires

We followed the trail over top of the rugged formations. Cacti, juniper trees, and desert brush had all whittled homes within the jagged configurations, flourishing in a land that looked, at first glance, uninhabitable. The trail’s exhibits were worn and bleached by the sun, giving them a look befitting their placement amongst the nature they were meant to describe. We accepted a marker’s urges to explore off-trail, enthusiastically scouting furrows and caves. J, perhaps feeling inspired by the harsh landscape, lobbed our water bottle back to the path. It burst in a dramatic gush, undoubtedly doubling the yearly rainfall of the splash zone. However, the arid wind was relief enough against the torrid, midday sun, and we stayed a while longer, eyeing Golden Eagles as they circled and dove overhead.

Lava layers at Valley of Fires, New Mexico
A landscape physically inverse, yet equally hostile to the one we had just left, Valley of Fires

The rest of the day was a long slog to Santa Fe, broken up only by instances of the unbroken majesty of New Mexico, Land of Enchantment. It truly is absolutely beautiful here, and I can certainly see why some would gladly call it home. As much as humanity tends to despoil most of what it touches, it offers so much that I wouldn’t want to live without. I will always be glad to bask and worship in nature, but a world with many deities is altogether a more entertaining one, and both the cities and wildernesses of this world hold multitudes I constantly yearn to discover.

Y atop a dune at White Sands National Monument
Everything the light touches is Y’s. White Sands National Monument

 

A TRAVELER’S HOME BAR ON A BUDGET – INFUSIONS

Back in Pittsburgh, we maintained an extensive liquor cabinet for our home bar. Any type of classic cocktail could be stirred or shaken to life. As we began to prepare for our adventure, budget became a concern, so we would often substitute a night out with a trip to our home bar. Very little tastes as good as a perfect cocktail from your personal liquor cabinet. You’re garnishing your drinks with thrift – mischief managed, capital concerns allayed. We had never really considered what the liquor stores would look like in Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador. I had assumed scads of Pisco and wonderful new world wines. That is not what the liquor stores look like.

Local liquor chain, La Taberna
The soft glow of La Taberna beckoning us forth

Even in the state of Pennsylvania, where the state-run monopoly on liquor stores is demonstrably terrible, the vast stores are a comparative cornucopia of alcoholic delights. If money were no object, then shelling out more than double for some things I could find back in the United States would find our liquor cabinet reasonably well stocked, with the noted exception of Bourbon…and Rye…and Tequila…and Mezcal. However, I used to work with alcohol and make cocktails for money. What the stores do have in great supply is Cristal Aguardiente (translation: Clear Firewater), a spirit made locally from distilled sugar cane juice. Enter the infusion.

Still life of bottles of Cristal, mango, red pepper, ginger, strawberries, and basil
Cristal, Cuenca’s finest local firewater

Infusions Are a Trick of the Trade

If you enjoy having a drink or three at home but find yourself on a budget, there’s likely a local, cheap and clear liquor that’s just begging for an infusion.

Infusions are an ancient trick bartenders began using in earnest in the 1980s, and they’ve now become de riguer for cocktail programs and home cocktail enthusiasts alike. It’s an amazing and incredibly easy way to clean up some cheap alcohol (as some of the heavier oils and compounds will be absorbed by your infusion subject), or to simply elevate your favorite spirit or cocktail. I happen to love cane-based spirits, and Cristal is a solid product. It’s also well within our budget at 8 dollars a bottle.

Choosing Ingredients for Your Infusion

Cuenca has some amazing open-air markets, and we frequent the closest one, Feria Libre, every few days. For around 12 dollars we have enough produce for the week. For a few dollars more, we have subjects for infusions and a few bottles of Cristal. Because you’re working with fresh produce, there’s plenty of wiggle room to find the preferred flavor for your cocktail. Here’s a couple of quick and easy infusions that will elevate your home bar and cocktail game on a budget and work with any clear spirit, whether it’s vodka, gin, tequila, rum or sweet, sweet firewater.

Infusion Recipes

Strawberry-Ginger

A dozen strawberries
1″ of peeled ginger
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Remove the tops from the strawberries then slice into quarters. Slice the ginger into thin strips. Place the ginger and strawberries into your jar or water bottle and cover with the spirit. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. Let sit for at least 24 hours. Strain, place back into the original bottle, and store in the refrigerator.

Even though the strawberries were a little under-ripe, the infusion came out great, leaving the alcohol a light pink color, and giving it a slightly spicy ginger bite. It goes great with two parts soda water or sparkling wine.

Basil

A generous handful of basil leaves
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Remove the stems from the herbs, then gently cut them into large chunks. Place them into the jar, cover with the spirit, then seal and put into the refrigerator. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. The infusion time on herbs is always fairly short, and should never go longer than 12 hours. Letting an infusion go too long will give the alcohol time to break down the bitter components in the herbs, which you don’t want in your drink. Generally, 6 to 8 hours will do the trick.

Once you’re happy with the flavor, strain and pour back into the original bottle and store in the refrigerator. This makes a really clean and refreshing infusion that is a perfect addition to two parts juice or soda.

Bell Pepper and Mango

1 Red Bell Pepper
1 Mango
1 750ml bottle of spirit of your choice
1 32oz water bottle or large jar

Clean the bell pepper by removing the stem, cutting it in half, and removing the pith and seeds from the flesh. Cut into thin strips, then dice. Bell peppers generally have a more mild flavor than a fruit subject, so to keep it in balance, we’re giving the pepper more surface area to work with. Cut the mango into cubes or long strips, removing the skin. Place the pepper and mango into your water bottle or jar and cover with the spirit. Keep the bottle the spirit came in. After 24 hours, pull your infusion, strain and pour back into the original bottle. Store in the refrigerator.

If you want a more robust flavor profile in your infusion or your cocktail, lightly roasting the pepper will do the trick. This is delicious all on its own over ice, but would be great in any number of cocktails, which we will discuss in an upcoming post.