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Sunday, September 2nd, and Z and I are out early, on our way to the White Sands National Monument. Our drive from Las Cruces takes us across the White Sands Missile Range on the NM 70, a glorious, wide, 4-lane highway stretching arrow straight across the desert with absolutely no one on it. There's something very eerie about driving some 50 miles on a highway this big without seeing a single other vehicle. Still, it means we're making good time, until we get stopped at the border control check-point just outside the National Monument. We're some 100 miles from the Mexico border, so it seems a little late to be checking for illegal immigrants, still there it is and since neither Z nor I are carrying our passports, we're made to pull over and wait while the border police run whatever checks they need to. I feel like Gael Garcia Bernal in Babel, only infinitely less good looking. Eventually a second cop comes out and waves us on (is it just me or do all police officers in NM look like extras from B-grade action films?) and we finally get to White Sands.
The easiest way to describe the dunes at White Sands is to say that they look the way dunes are supposed to look - the way they look in movies or in textbook illustrations of what a desert is supposed to look like. An 8-mile road runs into the dunes from the park entrance, with trails branching off at various points along the way. Z and I first take the Dune Life Nature Trail, which runs through a part of the dunes where some vegetation still survives - low bushes and stunted trees that dot the landscape, their roots so thick with gathered sand that they seem to be planted on low altars. The dunes in White Sands are made of gypsum, which explains their gleaming, almost snow-like whiteness, and also makes them cool and a little clammy to the touch. The trail is pleasant enough, and offers wide expanses of bare sand, but what you mostly sense is struggle, a battle between the empire of plants and the earth's desire to be free.
It's a few miles further ahead, in an area called the Heart of the Dunes, that the sand really comes into its own. Here wave upon wind-sculpted wave of pristine white stretches endlessly to the horizon, its surface unbroken by any hint of green. Z and I take the Alkali Flats Trail, leaving behind a bevy of eager dune surfers, and in just a few hundred metres we've left all sign of life behind, entered a wilderness of shimmering white where there's nothing to see but the endless expanse of the dunes stretching in every direction. The guidebook warns us not to stray from the trail, and its easy to see why. In this wasteland of sand distances become deceptive and there are no landmarks. If it weren't for the markers laid out along the trail at regular intervals, we would have no way of knowing which way we were going or how to get back. Meanwhile every crest we climb offers a new vista - the dunes incorruptible in their whiteness, running out to the horizon like a seething, inexhaustible sea of sand.
I am reminded of Shelley - "boundless and bare / the low and level sands stretch far away" - but also of Eliot, of "fear in a handful of dust", for what are we reduced to in this ever-shifting landscape but "your shadow at morning striding behind you / or your shadow at evening rising to meet you"? Yet what we feel is not fear, but a kind of void perfection, the calm of absolute awe. If one were to imagine a landscape of perfect peace this is what it would look like, an infinity of distances, a world that is safe from destruction precisely because it has already been worn to dust, a fragment of eternity where time lies all around us like sand, caressed by light-fingered winds, but fundamentally still, fundamentally unmoving, taking the impression of our feet when pressed by them, but erasing them in the very next instant. So when we see a group of people meditating on top of a nearby dune, I understand exactly what they are thinking, and I know they have come to the right place.
Z and I turn back about a mile down the trail (the complete loop runs for about 4.6 miles). Actually, we plan to turn back earlier (we are pressed for time), but the prospect of going just a little further, of making it to the next marker, and then the next one, and then the one after that, lures us on - until we realize that there will always be another marker to get to, and we need to stop somewhere. But we don't turn back immediately. At the furthest point out, we stop and lie back in the sand for a while, soaking in the coolness of the sand below us and the blazing heat of the sun above, luxuriating in the sheer silence of this place where no sound - neither human, animal, nor wind made - reaches us. Eventually we get up, dust ourselves off, and head back to the parking lot, from where we will drive out of the park and on to Alamogordo and further adventures.
We stop for lunch at this quaint, homely little restaurant called El Camino in Alamogordo, where we gorge ourselves on Chile Relleno, before heading further North. Our eventual destination for the day is Santa Fe, via the Salinas Pueblo ruins, but first we take a five mile detour off the main highway to visit the Three Rivers Petroglyph site. Here a rugged 1 mile trail winds along a broken basalt ridge, past literally thousands of petroglyphs. These rock paintings, made about a 1,000 years ago by the 'pre-historic' Jornada Mogollon people , range from the vividly alive to the almost indistinguishable, so that walking through the site I am reminded of Kolatkar's line from Jejuri - "scratch a rock / and a legend springs". Some of the petroglyphs are stunning though, and while I suspect the figures here aren't anywhere as amazing as those you could see elsewhere, the sheer abundance of them adds an element of surprise to the whole tour. The trail guide lists some 11 images that have been carefully marked for you, but the real thrill here is spotting a petroglyph that isn't in the guide book, one that's just sitting there waiting to be discovered (not really discovered, of course - a 6 year archaeological survey of the Three Rivers site has recorded some 21,000 petroglyphs, so it's unlikely that you'll spot anything they've missed - but that needn't take away from the thrill of noticing something for yourself without having it labeled for you).
From Three Rivers we drive further north, the highway running parallel to the lovely Sacramento mountains, and accompanied for much of the way by a railroad track on which long, smoke-puffing freight trains pass every now and then. These distractions matter to us because of the relief they offer from the monotony of the empty road (with its predictably ludicrous speed limit of 55 miles an hour). There's something both calming and stifling about the roads here. The landscape around you never seems to change, the road runs ruler straight and there is no sign of human habitation. The overall effect is partly soporific, partly zen-like, and you get to the point where the sight of a road runner darting across the road, or an abandoned ranch house in the distance can be cause for comment and excitement. What towns we encounter seem mostly abandoned, almost ghost towns, with a scattering of lived in houses among a collection of dilapidated storefronts and boarded up windows. Towns like Claunch, for instance, which seems to consist of little more than a post office, a woman's club (no, really), two inhabited houses and a motley assortment of broken down buildings. It hardly seems worth putting on the map at all, yet there it is, clearly marked - the only thing on the map in a 50 mile radius.
Eventually, we get to Gran Quivira, the first of three sites that make up the Salinas Pueblo Mission National Monument. Originally the site of an important trading center and habitation of the Salinas people, Gran Quivira is also the site for two churches built by Spanish missionaries in the 17th century, one of which was never completed. A network of tiny box-like ruins occupy the top of a low mound here, with two larger structures to the South and West where the churches were built. Of these the later (unfinished) church is perhaps the more impressive, with a great roofless hall of pale stone walls and a series of smaller rooms leading off to the side, whose ruined passageways make me think of de Chirico paintings. But the older Salinas habitation is impressive too: its bleached, bone like structure seeming to embody the ruin of an entire way of life.
Gran Quivira also marked our introduction to kivas - round rooms hollowed into the earth and looking rather like shallow wells, which served as the basis for community activity and religious rites among the Pueblo people. We will see many, many kivas in the days to come, but it is here that we see them for the first time.
From Gran Quivira we drove to Abo, the second Salinas Pueblo site. The story of Abo is similar to that of Gran Quivira, but the difference between the two structures is dramatic. The ruin at Abo is much taller, with its tower rising high into the air, but it's the contrast in the material that first strikes the eye. Built of red sandstone, the Abo mission has a glow and color that would make Matisse proud. Seen in the fading light of dusk, with storm clouds gathering on the horizon, the ruins radiate a tremendous sense of loss, of desolation, as though they had been abandoned not over three centuries ago, but far more recently. It's not a particularly large site - the entire structure took about fifteen minutes to walk around and through - and there isn't anything particularly interesting to see, but the entire monument has the grandeur and beauty of a truly majestic work of art.
By the time we left Abo, it was too late to visit the third Salinas Pueblo site, so we drove straight to Santa Fe, taking the picturesquely named but otherwise fairly unremarkable Turquoise Trail
and being rewarded for our pains with the sight of a glorious rainbow arching above the mountains to our right.
In Santa Fe, we made our way to the Amaya restaurant, which is supposed to offer Native American cuisine. I can't say that the Salmon Steak with Wasabi I had was particularly authentic, and I'm pretty sure the Native Americans did not drink much espresso, but the food was delicious, the ambiance relaxing, and neither Z nor I could feel anything but gratitude for a good meal, however 'innovatively' inauthentic at the end of another long day of traveling.
[to be continued]
 One of the more difficult things to get used to when visiting historic sites in the Americas, especially if you happen to come from India (or Europe, or Egypt), is not making the comparison between what you're seeing here and what was happening in the same period back home. It's difficult for me to think of something as relatively recent as the 1600s as 'ancient'. I mean, the Purana Quila in Delhi is older than most of these mission churches, and about twenty times as grand, and I've spent years of my life just driving past that without giving it a second glance. The key, I think, is to recognize that the comparison is meaningless, and to appreciate the ruins for what they are, without getting stuck in a game of cultural one-upmanship. Still, it can be hard sometimes.