The U.S. is adding National Parks so quickly I can’t keep up…
Back in 2017 I finally reached my goal of visiting all 59 U.S. National Parks. But since then four new National Parks have been established: Gateway Arch (2018), Indiana Dunes (2019), White Sands (2019), and New River Gorge (2020). I visited Gateway Arch and White Sands before they were promoted to National Park status, but I’ve never been to Indiana Dunes or New River Gorge. So my current National Park checklist is 61/63. I have more work to do.
From the perspective of my checklist I don’t feel the need to revisit White Sands or Gateway Arch, even though they weren’t yet National Parks when I was there. But White Sands is one of my favorite places and lately I’ve been in the mood for some dune photos. So in early March I hopped in the car for a relatively quick road trip down to New Mexico.
My rationalization for traveling during COVID times was the same as it’s been for my other trips over the past year. I’d mostly either be outside or alone in my car, I’d only eat take-out food, and if I happened to be indoors with another person I’d wear a mask. Maybe not the pinnacle of pandemic responsibility, but all things considered probably OK.
I’d have liked to have camped out on the dunes, but – thanks to COVID – White Sands has indefinitely banned camping in the park. So I booked a couple of nights at a hotel in nearby Alamogordo and settled for visiting the dunes in the late afternoon and early morning, when the light is best.
I arrived at the park around 4pm on my first day and hiked out into the dunes. To find untracked sand I had to get pretty far away from the park’s only road. White Sands requires all visitors to be out by 7pm, but in early March the sun sets around 6pm, so there was plenty of time to get late-light photos and still find my way back to my car before the park closed.
The park wasn’t scheduled to open until 7 the next morning, which wasn’t ideal, given that the sun had already risen by then. As I waited at the entrance gate a ranger came by to break the news that there would be a missile test that morning. White Sands is located next to military bases that frequently conduct tests in the area, and for safety reasons the park is closed whenever that happens. It turned out the gates wouldn’t be opening until mid-day, when the light was not great. Deflated, I returned to my hotel and waited until the afternoon to return for more time on the dunes.
Thankfully the park was missile-free the next day and I hiked out on the dunes for my only round of morning photos. I had the whole dune field entirely to myself, which felt incredible. The air was cool and still and so soundless that I could distinctly hear my own breathing. Bright white dunes stretched to the horizon in all directions, framed dramatically in the west by the San Andres Mountains. It’s one of the most unique landscapes in the country.
At 9am I poured the sand out of my shoes and drove back to Longmont.
I’m very happy to report that a few days later Marie and I closed on the Montana cabin we fell in love with back in January. For the first time in my life I actually own a home! I’m excited, relieved, and honestly a little surprised that it all worked out. Thanks to the home buying experience I now know a lot more than I used to about easements, covenants, and picocuries. It all feels very adult.
Our new neighborhood will be Cooke City-Silver Gate, a small mountain town just outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Only about 100 people live there year-round. Average snowfall is over 200 inches a year. In the winter the town is connected to the rest of the world by a single road, a 50-mile stretch of highway that runs through the northern part of Yellowstone.
Being so remote comes with pros and cons. Driving to the nearest grocery store takes an hour and a half. But moose, bison, and all kinds of other wildlife regularly pass through our yard, which borders a creek full of cutthroat trout. When I spent a year in Livingston, Montana I regularly drove more than two hours each way to get to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, one of the best places in the entire country to see wildlife. Driving to Lamar Valley from our new cabin will take 15 minutes.
The couple that sold us the cabin lives next door, and we couldn’t ask for better neighbors. They’re smart, friendly, and thoughtful. They did everything they could to make the buying process easy, and they’ll undoubtedly be a huge help as we adjust to our new home. Unfortunately we don’t take possession of the cabin until mid-August, so we have a long wait ahead of us.
Buying the cabin wasn’t our only big milestone in March… At the start of the month Marie quit her job and joined me in early retirement. Now neither one of us is a productive member of society! Before too long we’ll join the AARP, start falling for Nigerian prince scams, and become interested in whatever sketchy financial products Tom Selleck pitches on TV (this isn’t his first rodeo, after all).