Sunday, October 2, 2016

White Sands (italicized and not)

For our birthdays, Watson gave both Melvin and me copies of White Sands; Experiences from the Outside World, the most recent collection of essays by Geoff Dyer.

front jacket image
photograph by Theo Anderson

It was an informed choice (public thank you) since Melvin and I have both read a good deal of Dyer's writing and we have visited about half of the places featured in the nine essays in his new book.

Like Dyer, Melvin and I have been to Lightning Field, Spiral Jetty, Watts Towers and while we have not visited Venice, we have been to Santa Monica and Playa del Rey, the Los Angeles oceanfront neighborhoods to the north and south, respectively. Watson gave us White Sands shortly before our own visit to those gypsum dunes 100 miles north of El Paso.

the author (not Dyer) at the White Sands National Monument,
protecting his anonymity with a Baldessarian intervention
photograph by Melvin

The essays in White Sands are Dyer's reflections on traveling and only sometimes about the actual destinations. The first essay takes its title from a painting by Gauguin, "Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?" The three questions introduce a central theme, the subjectivity of the traveler and thoughts thereon.

Paul Gauguin. D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (1897)
(54.8 × 147.5 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

[I would be remiss if I did not note the similarity between the translated title of Gauguin's painting and some of the lyrics of Cotton Eye Joe, the Rednex version of which is currently a bit of an obsession for Melvin.]

When the writing devolves into the subjectivity of being Geoff Dyer, it can become self-indulgent and for some readers, this is their definition of the essayist's œuvre. That assessment is unfair, although I have certainly found some passages solipsistic. Dyer can also state (what seems to me to be) the obvious but at other times, he takes me places intellectually that I wouldn't have gone without him.

the author, Geoff Dyer
photograph by Matt Stuart

An essay nominally about visiting China, the Forbidden City in particular, is mostly a recollection of Dyer's infatuation with a female friend of his translator. Truths are told but they are not about China. You will learn nothing about White Sands from White Sands.

To be fair, you won't learn much about White Sands here either. The White Sands National Monument was one quick stop on the final leg of our trip that otherwise took place along the Gulf of Mexico.

Melvin and I were always going to arrive late but arrived even later due to bad weather in Houston, which we flew through. Our hotel was walking distance from the airport but never meant to be arrived at on foot. Before turning in, we chose between possible destinations the next day.

Mount Cristo Rey
photograph by Captain Budd Christman, NOAA Corps

Mount Cristo Rey intrigued us both but
"Visitors are urged to contact the Restoration Committee or the Sunland Park Police Department prior to attempting to climb Mt. Cristo Rey. Due to the proximity of Mexico on the Southern edge of the mountain, visitors are cautioned [to] not climb alone and always go in groups. Vandalism, assaults and robberies are still an ongoing problem and visitors are encouraged to visit on days when organized events are being held and security is on site."
¡Dios mío! The Restoration Committee wrote that, not some timid tourist. Heuco Tanks State Park was rejected because there were no other destinations in that direction.

In the morning, Melvin and I walked back to the airport, picked up a Dodge Challenger (above) and drove to Las Cruces, New Mexico. A "yard of junk art" was nothing and Nellie's Café was competent and congenial but not more. Next stop: the Space Murals Museum & Gift Shop, 15 miles away in Organ.

detail, Space Murals Museum
remaining photographs by the author

Travel bloggers Jason and Nikki Wynn express the somewhat condescending amusement that I expect is a common reaction to the jumble of material and painted water tank. However, the engineer types who were at the museum with Melvin and me were genuinely engrossed. Others, I am sure, find the gift shop a space nerd's dream come true.

Another 15 miles down the road is the White Sands Missle Range Museum and Park. It's got a Vergeltungswaffe 2 (or V-2 or "vengeance weapon") ballistic missile and the park is much larger than Thiokol's display at its Promontory Complex, which we visited in 2009. The White Sands National Monument is 15 miles further on US 70.

Roland, White Sands Missile Range missile park

We drove a short distance into the national park, took a couple pictures and then it was time to race back to El Paso to see the Triple-A Chihuahuas take on the Sacramento River Cats. It would be both true and not to say our day-trip was just a drive through the Chihuahuan Desert in a muscle car. I love the desert; it was a wonderful day.

Fun Fact: City Hall was torn down to make room for Southwest University Park, which is a wonderful metaphor. The stadium, yet another from Populous, was named Ballpark of the Year for 2014 by There are so many elements, they seemed discordant to me on a first visit but on reflection, the same could be said about Citi Field. It probably makes for a rich experience over time.

who left the dog house; woof, woof, woof-woof

The baseball teams did not fight like their namesake cats and dogs and the score was tied 2-2 at the stretch. Then the home team brought nine players to the plate in the bottom of the inning, scoring four on their way to a 6-3 win. Eric Yardley, who has pitched his way from indy ball to the Triple-A in four seasons, earned a blown save and the win, stats that when paired always allude to drama.

We had a late dinner after the game at Crave Kitchen & Bar, in the college town east of UT El Paso. Melvin had the green chile chicken and waffles and I disposed of a Chile Bomb Burger; roasted hatch chiles, jalapeños, grilled onions, peppered bacon, garlic aioli and habañero cream cheese. The draft beers favor local breweries and we enjoyed a couple.

Dinner at the "East Side Crave" was so good that I wanted to visit one of the three other locations for breakfast the next morning. Time was at a premium so we went instead to the Cuauhtemoc Café. We could barely get the car in the parking lot and the place is well-like online as well.

The last stop of our 36 hour tour of El Paso and vicinity was el Casa de Azucar. (The New York Times suggests a different 36 hour itinerary but it doesn't presume a 309-hp coupe.) Bad pun, but the Sugar House was in fact the icing on our cake.

One of the prologues to White Sands comes from Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk; Expeditions and Encounters,
"The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. We are on the planet only once, and we might as well get a feel for the place."
This seems an odd quotation, since Dyer (and Melvin and I) often do travel to see the most spectacular something. There is no other place like Lightning Field. If you ever see the Northern Lights, you will never forget the experience. It's not every sandwich that combines roasted hatch chiles, jalapeños, peppered bacon and habañero cream cheese.

We are here only one, or so it seems, and there are many ways to get a feel for the place. The preceding were some of ours.

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