After a (relatively) successful first night ever in our camper, we awoke in Alamogordo to a beautiful day, excited to visit White Sands National Monument. The Jeep, relieved of the trailer and not facing a hurricane headwind, handled like a sports car and delivered 15MPG today – a 250% improvement over yesterday – as we drove to White Sands.

But as it turned out, visiting this National Monument, as impressive and fun as it was, turned out to be just a third of our day’s fun destinations. So, given that it’s midnight as I write this and I’ve been viewing, editing and selecting photos for the last several hours, this post will be mostly pictures with captions, as I need to get some sleep for our long drive to Carlsbad Caverns tomorrow. For those of you who prefer pictures to my narrative (and that’s likely a majority of readers), you’re welcome. For the few who prefer my writing, well, I’m verbose by nature, so you’ll have plenty to read in future posts.

White Sands National Monument

DSC_6331.jpgI can’t recall where this photo was taken, but it was somewhere near the entrance to the monument, if I remember correctly. Bonus: we finally found a tourist who could take a great photo!

IMG_7992.jpgPenny shot this photo of bats near the entrance of the women’s restroom. It was quite breezy when we arrived today, so looking at the stains on the wall leads me to title this picture, “Guano With the Wind.”

IMG_1414.jpgThe visitor center was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the recession. I assume the signs are original or re-creations. In any case, the font is interesting, as is the word, “curios.” In my experience, we call these items “trinkets and trash,” but then I’m not really the “buy curios” type.

IMG_8006.jpgThis snowy-looking road has no snow. The sand was slick, though, and Penny shot this as I drove slowly into the Monument. What looks like snow on the hood of the car is just a reflection off of the Jeep’s paint.

DSC_6339.jpgAs you can see, most of the cars in this parking lot are white. Not sure if that’s paint or sticky sand.

DSC_6344.jpgThe National Park Service (which operates Monuments as well) carefully preserved the natural state of these dunes by building an enormous metal structure with Trex decking through them for hundreds of yards.

DSC_6348.jpgA passerby kindly offered to take our picture and thoughtfully yelled sternly at his three sons to “Stay out of the picture; you’ll ruin it!” They looked forlorn since they were nowhere near getting in the photo. He did a good job and we smiled despite his yelling at his kids, since how they turn out when they grow up is not our problem.

DSC_6357.jpgI give you the Queen of the Desert, Snow White Sands

DSC_6363.jpgPenny poses in front of dunes and some mountains in the background. The beauty was spectacular. The landscape wasn’t bad, either.

IMG_7999.jpgIt’s always good to get the first selfie of the day done early. Also, we were cold and the snuggling helped.

DSC_6375.jpgWe recruited yet another innocent victim to take a photo of us and, amazingly, he could take a good photo, too. Finding two strangers in a row who could compose a photo well is unprecedented in my experience. However, he was pretty old and only knew how to take black and white photos, which I didn’t discover until I developed the film.

DSC_6386.jpgHere, a child sits forlornly at the top of the dune as his mother uses his snow disc to slide down the hill. As you can see, the other kids have no idea how to use a snow disc; perhaps it’s because their parents monopolize them. The boy in the orange shorts is trying to stand on a disc that is upside down. Off to the right, their father uses a much better tool – an actual toboggan. More kids whose upbringing is not our responsibility, so we just laughed.

DSC_6394.jpgThe view from the top of the dunes is quite beautiful. The dark lines at the top of the mountains and dunes were in the photo and are not due to editing. Since White Sands is near a missile range, I’m assuming this is caused by radiation.

IMG_8024.jpgAfter I walked up the dune to take some pictures, I gracefully and expertly made my way back down as Penny watched safely from below and took a photo.

DSC_6388.jpgOne of the advantages of falling down a dune is the new perspective you get from ground level.

DSC_6423.jpgHere, a young boy uses a fishing pole to try to catch kites. Looks like he’s got one!

DSC_6446.jpgMoments after I shot this picture of a small boy flying an enormous kite, he shot into the air as the kite flew away. His father told me that they brought extra kids along just in case something like this happened.

IMG_8021.jpgWalking without shoes on the sand felt really good on my feet. Rolling up the cuffs of my pants seemed like a great idea until I got back in the car, rolled them down and dumped fine, white sand all over the floor.

International Space Hall of Fame

Our next stop of the day was the International Space Hall of Fame, which, as you would expect, is located in Alamogordo, NM (population, 31,248) and not a small burg like Houston or perhaps near Cape Canaveral. It’s actually very impressive, with four floors of displays and, of course, a curio gift shop.

IMG_1442.jpgI shot this panorama of the International Space Hall of Fame, which is perched on a mountain outside of town, as Penny waited patiently by the grave of the world’s first Astrochimp, HAM.

DSC_6469.jpgYou thought I was kidding, huh? By the way, if you read Tom Wolfe’s, “The Right Stuff,” you’ll learn that the chimpanzees in the Astrochimp program absolutely hated the experience, especially the electric shocks that were delivered to their feet when they did something wrong in training. They constantly attempted to escape.

HAM performed admirably during his test flight – probably because the experience of being trapped in a tiny rocket and suffering high G’s was an improvement over his experience at Holloman.

DSC_6471.jpgScientists used to shoot a sled down this track to measure how humans tolerated G forces. On the right are the last photographs ever taken of several test subjects.

DSC_6463.jpgI cleverly titled this photo, “Jet Nose in Front of Mountain.”

DSC_6472.jpgThis is the trail head for Indian Wells Trail, which is near the Int’l Space Hall of Fame. There’s no connection at all but it’s a cool gate. Important information about the trail used to be on the two signs flanking the gate but the weather wore them down until they became blank slates. Hike at your own risk.

DSC_6475.jpgI can’t remember what this rocket did, but it must have been pretty important for it to wind up in the International Space Hall of Fame. It was built decades ago, when they only had black and white materials available.

DSC_6483.jpgAstrogirl Penny did not like the Mercury Capsule as much as Astrochimp HAM liked his rocket. You can see how upset she is at experiencing zero G’s. Seriously, though, it’s pretty astonishing that men flew in space in these tiny capsules.

DSC_6487.jpgThere were many fascinating exhibits inside the International Space Hall of Fame, but Penny and I were most impressed by the rocket-shaped garbage cans. Frankly they weren’t much smaller than the Mercury Capsule.

DSC_6477.jpgFrom the parking lot of the Hall of Fame, you can see all of Alamogordo, although hardly anyone really wants to. On the other hand, the mountains in the background and the strip of white sand dunes in the middle are pretty cool.

Sunspot Solar Observatory

After leaving the International Space Hall of Fame, we decided to head to Sunspot Solar Observatory, which is located high in the mountains above Alamogordo. Our good friend Steve Tomczyk is a solar physicist and he works at the facility occasionally, so we really wanted to see it.

Since I have no sense of direction, Penny mapped the route on Google so we could get there in a reasonable amount of time.

DSC_6498.jpgWe were very surprised to learn that the route to Sunspot included about 12 miles of dirt road, some of it rough enough to qualify as a four wheel drive path. Fallen trees like this – barely cleared enough to allow us to pass by – were everywhere. It wasn’t until the trip back down that we learned there was a paved road that we had driven right by on our way to this route. We had a lot more fun taking the long way, though, and I got to rib Penny a little about her navigating for once. So it was very much worth the time and effort.


I took this picture of the visitor center not knowing that the lens flare created sun spots leading to the word, “Sunspot.” Sometimes taking a great photograph comes from true talent. In my case, it’s usually a matter of luck like this.

Side note: in September of last year, FBI agents supported by a Blackhawk helicopter descended onto Sunspot and evacuated all of the employees and residents (it’s also a small town, complete with a Post Office). For 11 days, the facility was closed and guarded. The “authorities” finally announced that the cause of the closure was that they had caught an employee using the facility’s wireless network to traffic in child porn.

That is not a credible explanation for such a massive law enforcement response and long shutdown. I don’t know what the real cause was and I’m not saying it was aliens. But it was aliens.

DSC_6505.jpgInside the Sunspot visitor center, Penny showed off by only reading the exhibits that were in Spanish. I tried to get even but there were no exhibits in Pig Latin.

DSC_6506.jpgThis is a mirror from a refractor telescope (I think; we didn’t cover this in my history degree program). They probably removed this example and put it on display because it’s obviously broken – it showed everything upside-down.

IMG_8038.jpgPenny took this spectacular photo of the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope. It was formerly called the vacuum tower telescope but that made it sound like it was built during the Hoover Administration, which sucked since it wasn’t.

Anyway, I wish I could go into more detail about our spectacular day, but it’s really, really late and I have to get a little sleep since we’re making the three-hour trip to Carlsbad Caverns in the morning. From White Sands to a Space Hall of Fame to a solar observatory, we’ve spent the day going from the ground to the solar system. Tomorrow, we’ll head the other direction – way, way underground.

So far on this trip, we’ve nearly run out of gas and we’ve gotten so lost we wound up actually using the four wheel drive mode of the Jeep. More exciting adventures await us and I hope you’ll join for the next episode of Penny & Ian’s First RV Misadventure.

See you then.