Back Pages: Sierra Cristo Rey to White Sands

Editor’s note: In April 2010, we were coming home from the Old Settlers Music Festival outside of Austin, Texas. We were also on the trail of famed American journalist Ernie Pyle. After leaving El Paso on a brilliant Saturday morning, we made our way to Sunland Park, N.M., and took a sun-drenched hike up Sierro Cristo Rey, a beleaguered little mountain with a curious history. After surviving that little walk we drove to Las Cruces, turned eastward and eventually found ourselves among the staggering landscape preserved at White Sands National Monument. This is the record of our journey.

********

Urbici Soler and I hiked up the mountain to see the statue. The sculptor’s little tiff with the bishop was evident all the way up. He spurned the new switchback road, and we walked practically straight up over the old foot trail. It was piled knee-deep with rocks. Mr. Soler says that is part of the quarrel. He says they did it on purpose, to spite him.”
Ernie Pyle

April 24, 2010 – Momentarily galvanized by the ebullient streets of El Paso, I collect the family at the El Paso Hyatt, bid a quick adieu to evanescent luxury and resolve to make one more pilgrimage on the way out of town.
The afternoon’s mission: Sierra Cristo Rey.
Here, from its humble perch atop a poor man’s mountain, Urbici Soler’s statue of Jesus Christ towers over the borderlands. The Spanish-born sculptor took his chisel to 40 tons of cordovan cream limestone and refashioned it into a 29-foot colossus, Christ of the Rockies. Soler completed this living testament to blind faith in anno domini 1939.
Ernie Pyle hiked up this desert hill, formerly known as Mule Driver’s Mountain (Cerro de los Muleros), with Soler the same year. It’s unlike any other trailhead you’ve likely visited. The access road is ringed by security. You pass a series of border patrol vehicles, parked against a wooden fence that divides north from south, as you make the short drive to Sunland Park, N.M., and up a twisting, rising road which ends at a parking area that gives the meek traveler pause.
You’re greeted by a warning sign: Mt. Cristo Rey: DUE TO THEFTS AND ASSAULTS … well, what else do you need to know? Call the police if you plan on exploring the area. Another testament to the power of ignorance. Where you’re scared, you might rest easy. Where you’re relaxed, you should be on guard. The city by the border is perfectly safe. The little country mountain with Jesus on top? Well, just be careful.
This is how the offbeat website Roadside America opens its entry on Mount Cristo Rey: “There are a handful of attractions in this country that are too remote to be casual destinations, or that frankly you’d have to be nuts to visit. But no attraction in America seems to be as much of a magnet for human assault as Mount Cristo Rey …”
As we digest the unwelcoming welcome signs and pull into a gravel parking area, we gratefully notice a border patrol vehicle and two young agents. One smiles and asks, with disarming geniality, if we plan to explore Christ the King’s mountain on this brilliant Saturday afternoon. Yeah, I say, if it’s, um, you know, cool.
He smiles, nods his head, says sure.
“Just be mindful in case you run into anyone up on the mountain,” he adds.
Mindful on the mountain. Back before the Catholic Church got a bee in its habit to build the ultimate border cop on top of this hardscrabble hill, this was a mule trainer’s highway. Mule trains came this way along the old Camino Real, or King’s Road, which stretched 1,200 miles from Mexico City to Santa Fe. It was the longest thoroughfare in North America.
Now Mount Cristo Rey is a forlorn destination for pilgrims, immigrants and bandits. The sculptor, rest his soul, wouldn’t have been impressed. If he thought the bishop’s switchback road was an affront to art, he would’ve loved the signs in the parking lot. Don’t leave valuables in your car. And by all means, don’t take them with you.
At least he would’ve appreciated the route taken by the border gendarmes, who head straight up over the rock-infested mountain. They become smaller and smaller as we head around the perimeter on the dusty switchback trail Soler hated so much.
“No artist worth his salt could think of finishing a statue in good humor. Getting incensed is part of the art business. … A huff is as much of a sculptor’s tools as his chisel,” Pyle wrote.
Soler’s old footpath, which took Pyle over outcropping rocks and around saltbush and yucca, is not immediately evident. The bishop’s rocks won the day, as had his pilgrim’s path that winds wide and dusty up a gentle slope, easing the 2.2-mile climb up to Soler’s Christ, which stands tall at 4,675 feet above sea level.
Subtract the alabaster Jesus from the summit, and it becomes a nondescript desert hill geologists call a pluton. After getting soaked by the Hill Country rain, it’s refreshing to bake in the radiant sunshine and stroll along the twisting pathway the bishop’s minions carved out among the saltbush and greasewood and mesquite and yucca. If you’re a Catholic pilgrim, there are stations of the cross, painted in aqua blue, marking the way topward.
If you’re a a secular pilgrim, there’s the adventure of taming the drug smugglers’ hill. We pass the border cops, who casually make their way down the switchback road while we plod upward. I ask if they’re hiking for pleasure or work, and they just smile.
Agent Butrone points out a twisting, narrow alley that winds its way up the mountain from the Mexican side. “That’s the route across the border,” he says.
We reach the summit, take a few photos and look out across the border into Mexico. What evil lurks thereabouts?
We have no idea. We make it down the switchback road with little trouble. We return to the rental car, and our valuables are untouched.
Thank you, Jesus.

******

“There is nothing like the White Sands anywhere in the world. They are an albino Sahara. They are miles of drifted sugar. They astound you and they give you the creeps.”
Ernie Pyle, Dec. 7, 1939

Opening haiku, with apologies:

White Sands at sunset:

An alabaster dreamscape
Blooming with danger.

Sunblasted and listless from our trek up Sierra Cristo Rey for a visit with Soler’s savior, we move in fits and stops for hours before finally electing to take 70 east and north toward Lincoln, N.M.
This path is counterintuitive, since it will bend us eastward, away from instead of in the general direction of home. But Pyle became infatuated with the little town where Billy the Kid’s legend sprung full-blown from the Homeric mis en scene of the Lincoln County War. So this is the way we’ll go in an effort to stay on Pyle’s trail and stoke the fires of momentum. In an effort to infuse the a desultory drive with a dose of structure, we turn off the highway, beckoned by a sign for White Sands Missile Range. Soon we encounter another sign: WARNING ENTERING ACTIVE TEST RANGE. AREAS POTENTIALLY CONTAMINATED WITH EXPLOSIVE DEVICES. STAY ON THE ROADS. DO NOT DISTURB ANY ITEMS.
We take a snapshot, a deep breath or two, and make a hasty U-turn. Then drive on.
As the evening sun accelerates its downward arc over the San Andres Mountains, we pull into the parking area for the White Sands National Monument visitors center. A park ranger emerges and proceeds to take down the flag, signaling the close of the business day. Suddenly, strangely, we find ourselves in an oasis, a world removed from border hysteria and narco wars and weapons farms. The intermittent call of a great horned owl accents the enveloping serenity. The surrounding cordon of mountains enhances the prevailing sense of peace.
The visitors center is closed, but we’ve got time to take a twilight drive through the fabled White Sands of New Mexico. A hit-and-run exploration of unique geological history. We stop at the pay booth and are told today’s a free day. We save $6, and learn a few things, too. Here in the middle of the expansive Tularosa Basin, the world’s largest gypsum field is on the move. Mountains to the left of me, mountains to the right, stuck in the gypsum with you. Roadside education: These fields of shimmering alabaster date to the Permian period, 245-290 million years ago. The overwhelming vastness of that geological reality is reassuring. It’s soothing, at least for an interlude, to be in the midst of something with the power to dwarf and drown out the madness of mankind.
The White Sands are born of the gypsum yielded by the surrounding mountains. In the usual run of events, rain would dissolve the minerals and ferry them to the sea. But there’s no outlet here, so the mineralized rain seeps into the earth or rests in shallow pools, eventually dissolving into crystallized gypsum. Selenite. Crystal gyp. White Sands.
As the veil of twilight descends, we meander along the two-lane road amid more saltbush and yucca, purple mountains majestically hemming in otherworldly dunes of sublime whiteness that heave and roll in the golden breast of sunset.
There’s a word for it: Enchanting.
The dune movement is accelerating toward Alamogordo at three meters per year. At the end of the line is a picnic area, with tables covered by overhangs that bring to mind that colossal rack of ribs the drive-in waitress hooks onto the Flintstones’ car, causing it to topple over during the cartoon’s closing scene. There’s no bronto burgers here, just a jumping-off point for hikers and campers.
We focus on a signboard, which offers two pieces of salient information: Salient piece of information No. 1: “All monument land north of 06 degrees known as the zone of cooperative use, is closed to the public at all times.”
Salient piece of information No. 2. “Debris and unexploded munitions may be encountered in areas away from trails. DO NOT touch, approach or remove any of these items.” Roger, out.
And so the peaceful, easy feeling ebbs with the queasy realization that the White Sands National Monument is a one-of-a-kind natural wonder with a gun at its head. And a badass, state-of-the-art gun at that.
Back-country hikers are warned not to fiddle with any “debris and unexploded munitions” they may wander upon during their nature getaway. They’re also encouraged to familiarize themselves with the strange fruit and unnatural flora that share the landscape with horned larks, Chihuahuan Ravens, bleached earless lizards and darkling beetles.
Occupying almost 3,200 square miles, the White Sands Missile Range is the largest and baddest motherfucker of a military installation in the whole United States. The national monument checks in at 275 square miles and finds its puny ass totally encircled by the missile range.
As it was, we arrived in timely fashion. At least the place is open. The national monument is routinely shut down for up to three hours during missile testing.
A sidebar note, from the Internet: In 2008, the national monument found its way onto a tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are 890 sites on the list, an array of culturally significant places ranging from a 12th century minaret in Afghanistan to famed Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
Oddly enough, news that White Sands was up for such a heartwarming if innocuous honor went over like a side of French fries in the House of Representatives in the run-up to the Iraq war. Which only seems par for the 21st century course in the land of the free.
Hey, the world thinks our White Sands are fucking cool, man! Fuck the world, dude. Naturally, opposition to theoretical worldwide recognition sprang from fears about what such a designation might mean for the heavily armed leviathan at the monument’s front, back and side doors. Stevan Pearce, who then served New Mexico in the U.S. House of Representatives, courageously declined to support the application.
“I would guarantee that if White Sands Monument receives this designation, that there will at some point be international pressures exerted that could stop military operations as we know them today,” he said.
Hispanic families started farming the Tularosa area in 1861. The national monument opened for business in 1934, preserving the one-of-a-kind gypsum landscape. In 1940, the U.S. military had within its possession two million acres of land set off for bases, training, and education in the art of warfare. Then the military began gobbling up real estate to grow their bases, which spread like invasive weeds across the forbidding western deserts.
By 1945, military holdings had mushroomed to 10 million acres. Stretching north from El Paso is an uninterrupted military desert, extending from Fort Bliss to the White Sands Missile Range to the Holloman Air Force base outside Alamagordo. All along the way, the desert has been contaminated by an ocean of toxic waste.
Three months after Pyle was killed by a sniper’s bullet in the Pacific, U.S. scientists and military personnel detonated the first atomic bomb right here in this lovely desert. The Trinity test ushered the world into the atomic age. Here in the Tularosa Basin is ground zero for the strange and uneasy intermingling of nature’s ineffable wonder and man’s attempt to harness it for his own ends.
And so you can admire the one-of-a-kind beauty of New Mexico’s White Sands, all while being careful not to accidentally detonate a piece of unexploded ordnance that was left behind for your discovery.

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