Photographer Matt McClain traveled to New Mexico for The Washington Post’s latest podcast “Field Trip,” a journey through the messy past and uncertain future of America’s national parks.
A few years ago while on assignment in New Mexico, I had a rare evening to myself. I was mulling over whether to go to Roswell, the small town made famous for its UFO lore, or White Sands, an expansive dunefield. I chose White Sands.
I’ve always been a sucker for sand dunes.
It might all go back to my childhood watching the first Star Wars films. I was mesmerized when C-3PO and R2-D2 end up stranded on the dry, desolate planet of Tatooine.
So in October, I jumped at the opportunity to once again venture to a place that looks so otherworldly — especially for someone who grew up in the woods of Indiana.
Entering the park was exhilarating. As I traveled the two-lane road, I watched the landscape change and morph. At first, sage brush and other desert vegetation filled my view. Eventually, I saw nothing but white gypsum sand.
I felt I had left planet Earth and landed on some alien planet.
Trudging through the sand was a meditative experience. Occasionally, I would be thrust back into reality after seeing a visitor walk along the crest of a dune or slide down one of its sides using a sled or disc. I enjoyed the serendipity of finding scenes to photograph around each bend or dune — from a family volleyball game to a wedding.
The first night in the park set the tone for my entire trip. Visitors set up their lawn chairs in an outdoor amphitheater, waiting to witness a concert under a full moon. As the sun set, lights — timed with music — painted the dunes with streaks of blue and red.
It was a fitting sight for a surreal place that seemed disconnected from reality.
The next day, I learned about human and animal footprints from the ice age that are scattered throughout the park.
With the right soil and sand conditions, these echoes from the past come alive.
I saw at least one set of fossilized tracks made by a giant sloth, which once stood 8 feet tall. Its series of footprints covered a distance of about 20 to 30 feet across the desert floor.
My last day ended with a visit to the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945. Although not much remains at the site, it is foolish to underestimate the historic significance this desolate piece of land has on our collective history. The bomb forever changed how we wage war and interact with fellow nations.
It added an ironic twist to my trip — seeing evidence of life from thousands of years ago, to seeing how it can all come to an end. It brought into focus the fragility of life in such a beautiful place.
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Episode 4 · White Sands National Park
Journey with Lillian Cunningham through the messy past and uncertain future of America’s most awe-inspiring places: the national parks.
Lillian climbs the dunes for a view of a park imprinted with ancient human history and the beginnings of the Atomic Age. In doing so, she tries to understand why America’s deserts have been both safeguarded and sacrificed.