Hiking quickly through White Sands National Monument’s white gypsum, I keep a close eye on the eastern sky. Sunrise is near, and I have yet to find “my spot” to shoot images of the dunes at dawn. My goal is to get out beyond the other photographers and have a clear view and no footprints in the sand.
Grabbing a coffee and my gear, I started my drive from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to the Monument entrance at 6 am. Arriving at the locked gate, I am the second car in line to get in when they opened at 7 am. Driving 5.5 miles to a parking lot, I decided to go light on gear to move quickly through the dunes. Just the camera, one lens, a tripod, and my ever-present Loop for viewing images on the camera’s back screen clearly.
The dunes seem to go on forever into the distance in all directions. You could get lost out here if it wasn’t for the mountains. They are on the east and west side of the valley and help orient you in the repeating patterns of the sand.
Great Mammoths once roamed here. Footprints are occasionally found exposed. A moment in time is preserved until the weather finally erodes it away forever. This morning the wind is calm, the sky is clear, and the sand firm under my feet. It is much easier to walk in than the sand of Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley.
The sun is almost up. I stop and set up my first shot. Time is now moving quickly. I am too. The window of time where the light is just right, creating deep shadows and showing the landscape’s texture, is short. I work on lines, curves, close-up textures, and final shots of the Soaptree Yucca that grow out of the sand. Some are submerged in it as if being swallowed by a great beast.
In less than an hour, it is all over. The sun is too high. The drama of the first light is gone. I hike back to the car. Driving out of the park, I am flagged down by two photographers walking the road. They had gone the wrong way and asked if I had seen a group of photographers and their vehicles. Yes, just 200 yards farther. They seem relieved.
I am fascinated with dunes. These seemingly desolate yet ever-changing landscapes keep calling me back. There is life out there. The dunes themselves change and morph into new shapes constantly. The footprints of the photographers will be washed away by the wind. No trace will be left that they or I was ever there.