DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
When I went to White Sands Missile Range there was a war on. American troops were moving into Saudi Arabia to stop Iraqi forces from taking that, too, Iraqis having taken Kuwait already. If they took Saudi Arabia, they'd be sitting on half the oil resources of the planet, which was not a good idea.
This war was very much on people's minds. One felt that anything
could happen; there was a sense that the world could suddenly change
in unpredictable ways. Things that were the same seemed out of
Out in the desert, everything was the same. I was driving through New Mexico mountains taking note of cliff rose and Torrey ephedra, my botanical obsessions somehow unaffected by the fact that millions of Arabs and Israelis were in the line of fire and that hundreds of thousands of young Americans and Europeans had put themselves in that line, too. Chihuahuan desert mountains, I thought. Higher, colder. Still mesquite, I thought, cholla, saltbush.
I had my son, Coulter, in tow for a week; it was school vacation and he'd flown out to Phoenix to meet me. There had been comics in his backpack, an airport full of folks in shades and shorts, a motel in Las Cruces for the night, McDonald's for breakfast. These things were the same. But I had discovered that I did not trust them.
Maybe this is the meaning of war: that what can be trusted in peacetime -- food, warmth, professional pursuit, the people one loves, one's own life -- may be taken away. And one is powerless to stop it.
It was an interesting time to come to a missile range. I had not planned it this way. The appointment had been made many months before. And there we were.
We went through the gates at nine A.M. after signing in, thinking how much the guards were like National Park rangers, thinking that the missile range base looked like any desert town, only bigger and duller and with more wires, awed by the ranked museum of white missiles ranged on the roadside in "typical firing attitudes" aimed at a space in the air over the Tularosa basin. Some were aimed a little toward the San Andres Mountains.
We'd just come through the San Augustin Pass on down into the Tularosa itself. The Tularosa is a tube of a valley most of which is missile range. The range is two million acres strong, forty miles wide and one hundred miles long; larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It contains White Sands National Monument, and the monument is closed down whenever it's in the line of experimental fire, which is not often. The basin is bounded on the eastern side by the Sacramento Mountains; "this was chosen because it was enclosed," we learned soon.
White Sands Space Harbor lies in the missile range, too, just north of the National Monument. NASA space shuttle pilots train there on a modified Grumman Gulfstream II jet, and the runways of packed gypsum are kept within three hours of readiness all the time in case a real shuttle needs to land there. Columbia did land here once, in 1982, when Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert of California (like White Sands, Edwards is on a dry lake bed; dry lake beds being the most absolutely level places on the surface of the earth) was temporarily flooded -- a hazard of desert lake beds anywhere.
White Sands Missile Range came into being on July 9, 1945, and was called White Sands Proving Ground at the time. It was needed badly and right away, there being a war on, and some of the ranchers that lived here were hustled off with less than two weeks' notice, the Army Corps of Engineers seizing the place by right of eminent domain. This desert being what it is, with about ten inches of rainfall in the average year, things do not rot fast -- though they may rust and blow away or be buried in white gypsum sand -- but a lot of those ranchers' homesteads are still here. Cans are still on shelves, washbasins in the corners, bedsprings on the floors. All the minutiae of peace. Horses got left behind in the rush, too, and they have gone about their business ever since, undisturbed by rocketry or the Army Corps. There are about twelve hundred feral horses on the range right now, there are clearly too many of them here, and no one knows what to do about it. They overgraze the place and take food from the mouths of desert bighorns and pronghorns, and this upsets environmentalists and people at Game and Fish, but there are animal rights activists who do not like the round 'em up for dogmeat option; so the public affairs officer has to deal with the thorny politics of horses, among other things.
Outside the Public Affairs Building, next to the sidewalk, is a roundish object with boxy rocketlike flanges at one end. It's about the size of an old VW bug and is painted yellow. A sign next to it says that this is a spare casing for Fat Man. Fat Man was the first atomic bomb that ever exploded anywhere; it went off on July 16, 1945, at Trinity Site in the northern reaches of the White Sands Proving Ground, one week to the day after the Proving Ground had been established; the reason, no doubt, for the rush. Later, another Fat Man exploded over Nagasaki. The spare casing is a little rusty, and you can put your hand on it.
The Public Affairs Building is something like a school; the ceilings are low and the desks are old and are busy and crowded, the linoleum is worn. Every office has a wide-screen TV -- this part is not like a school -- and every TV is tuned to the same news station that features a twenty-four-hour-a-day newscast on the war in the Middle East. During the hours that I spent in that building conducting interviews, our eyes kept wandering to the screen: tanks, aircraft carriers, airplanes, trucks filled with soldiers in camouflage -- partly desert and partly forest camouflage; they'd been in a rush, too -- and fuzzy views of Scud missile damage in Tel Aviv, and clips of the President talking in front of a blue curtain with the Presidential seal.
Twice there was a clip showing a missile riding a comet of white fire toward the top center of the TV screen. The video camera had followed the missile in an uneven way, in jumps and stops, so the missile didn't seem to move much but got smaller and smaller until it became a ball of white fire.
When this news clip came on, the Public Affairs Building went quiet. You could hear cars going by outside. You could hear the rurk of a raven over the Tularosa basin. You could hear the announcer saying how the Patriot surface-to-air guided missile system "designed to acquire, track and engage multiple high-speed aircraft at medium and high altitudes" had been successful in intercepting all, or almost all, of the Iraqi Scud missiles aimed at Tel Aviv. The Patriot was saving lives. By spiking a big gun. By blowing up enemy incoming in midair.
The Patriot was tested and retested here. Originally conceived as a defense against enemy aircraft, it now worked fine against missiles, too.
The Patriot had taken twenty-two years to develop and perfect. Whenever the news clip came on, people looked at their hands, at their desktops, into space, more than they looked at the screen. They didn't need to look at the screen. They looked like they were listening to their own child delivering the valedictorian address for the graduating class of White Sands Missile Range.
This is a humongous outdoor laboratory, a white-coats kind of place. It is used as a test facility by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and by NASA, as well as by independent defense contractors. When a missile is developed it can be sent here to see what it can do, and what can be done to it. Under carefully monitored conditions the "product" is soaked in salt water to mimic oceans and rolled in mud to mimic battlefields, it is roasted, frozen, irradiated, shaken, bent, rolled, chipped, and generally tormented. This is a kind of boot camp for materiel, in other words, after which the test results -- the report card -- are sent home to the engineers and scientists who mastermind design. Often this means that the product goes back to the drawing board, for a while.
Then it comes back. After it's passed all these and other in-house tests, if it is a missile, it is fired.
Dr. Robert H. Goddard is generally considered to be the father of American rocketry. He patented the first liquid-fueled rockets in 1914; during World War I he worked on making rockets into weapons; in 1919 he wrote a paper concluding that rockets could be built that might reach the escape velocity of the earth, launch us into orbit, in other words, but this bit of whimsy was scoffed at or ignored. During World War II the Germans were the only ones who took his ideas seriously, and they turned them into weapons, including the infamously famous V-2 that almost cost the Allies the war.
In August of 1945, three hundred freight cars filled with captured V-2 components arrived in New Mexico, along with one hundred captured German missile experts and scientists. On April 16, 1946, the first,V-2 was fired on White Sands Proving Ground, from Launch Complex 33 (this is now a National Historic Landmark, as is Trinity Site), and it flew to eighteen thousand feet.
Goddard had launched his early inventions from his meadow, back at his home in New England, and after a while these went pretty far, and the local Massachusetts fire marshal told him to stop -- his gizmos were a hazard to his neighbors' corn. So Goddard moved to Roswell, New Mexico.
There was not much here that his rockets could be hazard to, and no one to mind much if they were. This missile range was established less than a hundred miles west of Roswell with that same reasoning, and -- if rockets have to be fired anywhere -- it turns out not to be bad reasoning.
I've heard this from five separate biologists (I didn't believe it at
first, but I do now, having heard it since from three more):
need to look at pristine desert, go to a military reserve. There are
plenty out here: there's White Sands, and there's Fort Bliss (New
Mexico and Texas) and Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range and
Yuma Proving Ground (Arizona); and Nellis Air Force Range (Nevada) and
China Lake Naval Weapons Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Fort Irwin
Military Reservation, Chocolate Mountains Gunnery Range, and Twenty-nine
Palms Marine Corps Base (all in southern California). Not only do these
outweigh, many tens of times, the size of the National Park system; the
important thing is that the public is not allowed on them.
And it turns out that the public
with their cars and dirt bikes and pistols and penchants for picking
things up -- is more of a damaging force to native desert than any
amount of exploding ordnance.
There are flourishing herds of pronghorns here, as well as the horses, and in the mountains there are bighorn sheep and mule deer, and the lowlands are home to a growing number of gemsbok that were imported by the New Mexico Game and Fish (for some outlandish reason) from the Kalahari. There are mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, kit foxes, and the usual desert array of golden eagles and quail and owls and other birds (barn owls have made a nest on the deserted gantry of Launch Complex 33), and plenty of small mammals, bats, snakes, lizards, insects, desert pupfish in the saline springs. More than three hundred species of animals have been documented here. A team of wildlife biologists is part of the base staff of White Sands Missile Range. Part of their job is to route and schedule missile firings to fit the breeding and feeding schedules of wildlife, to see that least damage is done.
The Public Affairs' (somewhat repetitive) cant that this range is a "National Treasure" is not entirely blarney. Eight independent biologists can't all be wrong.
The strange, contained, pristine value of this landscape goes beyond the natural history. It works for human history, too.
Bob Burton is an archaeologist, and has been on the White Sands Missile Range staff for four years now.
"Protection of archaeological sites is policy," he says. "It's expedient for them to find an area for the launch site, impact points, camera pads that won't have a negative effect on the archaeological sites. This place is a national treasure, archaeologically speaking. We have sites on this range that are may be unique in the United States. The pot hunters haven't been here. No one's made off with the goods." He's a large, comfortable man, and he's as excited as he should be by having the run of the place. As he ticks off the waves of peoples and cultures who have lived here, I'm struck, as I was in the Goddard story, by how thin and recent this history is.
Between twelve and thirteen thousand years ago the first bands of nomadic hunters came in here, and this paleo-Indian era lasted until nine thousand years ago, at least. There were lakes in the basin then, freshwater lakes surrounded by trees. These nomads, known as Clovis people, hunted big game. There are mammoths' footprints fossilized in the now dry bed of Lake Otero: it is no trick to see what they hunted for.
Since their heyday the whole Southwest has been drying out and warming up, and within a few millennia of the hunters' arrival the big game was gone. People turned to other things. Some learned to farm. Those who lived here next built settlements and planted corn. By A.D. 1100 there were villages here made of hundreds of adobe rooms, some stacked three stories tall. The villages were built near permanent springs and the people planted their corn on the now dry lake beds where the water table lay close. In those days, there were more people living in this valley than live here now, including the more than eleven thousand people who work or live at the main post of the missile range.
Between 1275 and 1400 the drying and warming of the desert had gone so far that farming ceased, almost overnight; the Anasazi and Hohokam disappeared, as they disappeared elsewhere, the people moving en masse to the valley of the Rio Grande.
Then, around 1500, Apaches came in. Nomads again: "they lived lightly on the earth," Bob says, and it's easy to see that he likes this, that lightly is the way he believes this piece of earth is meant to be lived on; the only way to live on it, now that it is desert.
He's working on a site right now where a battle was fought, in 1880, between Apaches and the U.S. Cavalry. He's found the Apache emplacements, the stone fortifications built to shoot from and hide behind. He knows where the cavalry holed up; he's found the scattered cartridges. There was a war on here then, and the cavalry were surprised, outmaneuvered, and surrounded. They lost nine men, and most of the fifty were wounded. It was a lot like Custer's fight, Bob says, except that the U.S. troops were rescued by another troop of cavalry at the eleventh hour; after a token charge or two, the troops took their wounded and left.
"It was a battle where both sides won. The cavalry drove off the Apaches. The Apaches got the Army off their tail."
There's a silence after this; only the big-screen TV keeps up its exotic blather. All three of us -- my son and I and Bob -- sit bent forward with our elbows on our knees, as if we were gathered 'round a fire, TV light from the Middle East flickering on our faces, our faces blank, watching another battle forming up.
Now the Tularosa valley is dominated -- when it is dominated -- by high-energy laser systems running through their paces, by smart missiles shooting through their gantries, riding cones of white fire, from which boiling clouds of smoke roll up. The only thing that is not the same is this: just over a century ago, bows and arrows nearly had the upper hand.
White Gypsum Sand Dunes, Cloudy Sky, and the San Andres Mountains