One of the world’s great natural wonders rises from the heart of New Mexico’s Tularosa
On this episode of America’s National Parks, three short stories from the glistening dunes of White Sands National Monument: A spirit from the 16th century who roams the dunes after sunset, searching for her lost love, a legendary gunslinger of the southwest, and a daring record-setter who made high-altitude aviation safer.
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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.
Inside the Original Space Dive: Joseph Kittinger on 1960 Record Jump – National Geographic Article
White Sands National Park – National Park Service Website
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One of the world’s great natural wonders rises from the heart of New Mexico’s Tularosa basin. Great wave-like dunes of baby powder-like gypsum sand engulf 275 square miles of desert.
Towering mountains ring the spectacular white dunes, crowned with electric blue skies, prismatic sunsets, and mystic moonlit nights. Half a million visitors from all over the world enjoy this beautiful place each year. It’s featured prominently in commercials, feature films, fashion catalogs, and music videos. And its neighboring military base has been host to some important events in American history.
On this episode of America’s National Parks, three short stories from the glistening dunes of White Sands National Monument.
We begin with a legend from the 16th century, a Spanish maiden who roams the dunes after sunset, searching for her lost love.
Here’s Abigail Trabue.
In 1540, Spanish conquistadors were in search of national treasures. Francisco Coronado was one of the most successful of these explorers, and he approached the valliant, young the Hernando de Luna from Mexico City to join him on his quest for new adventures and rumors of unearthed treasures.
Hernando had just proposed to Manuela, a beautiful Spanish maiden. Though deeply in love, he set off on an expedition with Coronado and promised to return to Mexico City, and to bestow upon Manuela all the riches and jewels waiting to be discovered.
Manuela waited for her betrothed, until she saw the explorers returning in small groups. She searched each face, looking for the gaze of her husband. She would learn that his expedition was ambushed by the Apache in a vast field of white sand dunes. They fought valiantly but were no match for the Apache warriors. Many of the Spanish died in the desert, the others fled back to Mexico City. When the returning parties stopped coming, Manuela set out for the white sands on her own. She was never seen again.
To this day, it is said that at dusk, as the evening breezes sweep and dip over the stark white dunes, a spirit roams in her flowing white wedding dress, calling out for her lover who has been lost beneath the dunes. They call her the Pavla Blanca —the little white one. She is sad, but peaceful, and never gives up hope of being reunited with her lost husband.
Another legend of the southwest is a man named William Henry McCarty, otherwise known as Billy the Kid. And yes, he was a real man, and the west was every bit as wild as they say it was. The towns of New Mexico were not always as tranquil as they tend to be today.
Billy the Kid’s mother died of tuberculosis while he was just a young boy. As he grew, he began working a slew of odd jobs to make ends meet, and began combining them with a few illegal activities here and there. The owner of a boarding house gave him a room in exchange for work. His first arrest was for stealing food at age 16 in late 1875. Ten days later, he robbed a Chinese laundry and was arrested, but escaped. He tried to stay with his stepfather, and then fled from New Mexico Territory into neighboring Arizona Territory, making him both an outlaw and a federal fugitive.
Billy’s carreer as an infamous gunman began in 1878 after he met a young Englishman named John Tunstall. That year would be the beginning of what was known as the Lincoln County Wars — a series of violent confrontations resulting from a conflict between two groups of businessmen. Tunstall was on the side of attorney Alexander McSween, and cattle baron John Chisum. Their opposition was the town establishment, who had Sheriff William Brady on their side, along with the infamous Jesse Evans gang to take care of any “problems.”
Tunstall and McSween, wanted to establish their own business in Lincoln County. Billy was hired by Tunstall as a ranch hand and became one of the
Regulators, a posse formed to protect Tunstall and McSween.
Tensions escalated, and Jesse Evans and his men went after Tunstall. He was murdered, unarmed which was against the unwritten code of the West.
Billy and the Regulators vowed vengeance. Many skirmishes broke out, and as a result of one, three men, including Sheriff William Brady were killed by by the regulators, sending Billy on the run. The new sheriff, Pat Garrett, caught up with Billy and arrested him, but Billy made a grand escape from the second floor of the Lincoln County courthouse, killing Deputies J.W. Bell and Bob Olinger as he fled. No one really knows how he accomplished such a feat, but Billy became synonymous with “luck.” Billy went on the run again, and hid, among other places, in the giant white gypsum sands of Tularosa Basin.
His luck ran out on July 14, 1881, when Garrett caught up to the legendary outlaw and killed him.
There are many versions of what really happened during the
Lincoln County Wars, so it is hard to tell fact from fiction. Historians
and fans still debate the detail of a man whose legend continues to live on.
Beginning in 1942, only months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9029, which created the 1,243,000 acre Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range right next door to White Sands National Monument. Soldiers even practiced tank maneuvers inside the monument’s boundary. By 1945 the military established the White Sands Proving Ground to test missiles, causing the park to experience short-term closures, a practice that continues today. The Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range closed at the end of World War II and re-opened in 1958 as Holloman Air Force Base. The White Sands Proving Ground was later renamed White Sands Missle Range. Both military areas still operate around the park boundaries and in the cooperative use area in the western part of the park. This cooperation mutually benefits both the military by providing them additional space and the park by insuring the lack of development on the surrounding lands.
As jet planes flew higher and faster in the 1950s, the Air Force became increasingly worried about the safety of flight crews who had to eject at high altitude. Tests with dummies had shown that a body in free-fall at high altitude would often go into a flat spin at a rate of up to 200 revolutions per minute (about 3.3 revolutions per second). This would be potentially fatal. A working group set out to make parachute ejections safer, resulting in a world record dive.
Project Excelsior was initiated in 1958 to design a parachute system that would allow a safe, controlled descent after a high-altitude ejection. The problem was to get a person down fast to lower levels before opening their chute, but at the same time to safeguard them against flat spin. A flat spin is a wild, uncontrollable spin that causes blood to rush to the head, and can kill. Francis Beaupre, an Air Force medical unit technician, invented a multi-stage parachute system in an attempt to solve the problem. Beaupre’s system consisted of a small 6 ft stabilizer parachute, designed to prevent uncontrolled spinning at high altitudes, and a 28 ft main parachute that deployed at a lower altitude. Included were timers and altitude sensors that automatically deployed both parachutes at the correct points in the descent, even if the body attached were unconscious.
To test the system, a 200 ft high helium balloon was created that could lift an open gondola and test pilot into the stratosphere. Captain Joseph Kittinger, who was test director for the project, would be the one to test the chute. The gondola was unpressurized, so Kittinger wore a modified partial pressure suit, and additional layers of clothing to protect him from the extreme cold at high altitude. Together with the parachute system, this almost doubled his weight.
The first test, called Excelsior I, was made on November 16, 1959. Kittinger ascended in the gondola and jumped from an altitude of 76,400 feet. “Overhead my onion-shaped balloon spread its 200-foot diameter against a black daytime sky,” Kettinger told National Geographic. “More than 18 1/2 miles below lay the cloud-hidden New Mexico desert to which I shortly would parachute. Sitting in my gondola, which gently twisted with the balloon’s slow turnings, I had begun to sweat lightly, though the temperature read 36° below zero Fahrenheit. Sunlight burned in on me under the edge of an aluminized antiglare curtain and through the gondola’s open door.”
It took over an hour to get to the deployment altitude, and Kittinger was ready to go. Before he jumped from the gondola, however, the timer lanyard of the stabilization unit was pulled prematurely, and the smaller chute deployed after only two seconds of free fall. It caught him around the neck, causing him to spin at 120 revolutions per minute.
“At first I thought I might retard the free spin that began to envelop me, but despite my efforts, I whirled faster and faster. Soon I knew there was nothing I could do. I thought this was the end. I began to pray, and then I lost consciousness,” he said.
The main parachute opened as planned at a height of 10,000 feet, saving Kettinger’s live.
Despite the near-death experience, Kittinger went ahead with another test only three weeks later, from nearly the same height. The chute worked correctly, so a third and final test was planned for August 16, 1960. It would be a world record-breaking ascent, combined with a world record-breaking dive.
On the way up, the pressure seal in Kittinger’s right glove failed, and he began to experience severe pain in his right hand from the exposure to the extreme low pressure. Not wanting to abort the test, he kept this to himself. Over the course of one hour and 31 minutes, he climed to an altitude of 102,800 feet. He stayed at the peak altitude for 12 minutes, waiting for the balloon to drift over the landing target area, then stepped out of the gondola.
The small stabilizer parachute deployed successfully and Kittinger fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, setting a long-standing world record for the longest free-fall. During the descent, he experienced temperatures as low as −94 degrees. He reached a top speed of 614 miles per hour. At 17,500 feet the main parachute deployed, and Kittenger landed safely in the New Mexico desert. The whole descent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds.
Kittinger’s efforts during Project Excelsior proved that it was possible for an air crew to descend safely after ejecting at high altitudes. He was also the first man to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon. Later, he would serve as a fighter pilot for three combat tours of duty during the Vietnam War, flying a total of 483 missions. He was shot down and captured, spending 11 months as a prisoner of war in a cell next to future Senator John McCain.
Kittinger retired from the Air Force as a Colonel in 1978. He held the world records for highest parachute jump and highest speed of a human in atmosphere until October 14, 2012 when Felix Baumgartner jumped from 127,852 feet, with Kittinger serving as a technical advisor. Kittinger still holds the record for longest freefall.
A visit to White Sands is a joy for anyone. You can travel the Dunes Drive, a blacktop road transitions to compacted sand, plowed daily for automobiles and even big RVs to drive across. Picnicing is a popular activity, as people of all ages sled down the dunes. You can bring your own sled or get one at the gift shop. Make sure to wax it for optimum speed.
There is an accessible elevated and ramped overlook trail through the dunes, as well as ome other, longer hikes. But really, it’s one of the few National Park destinations where off-trail activity is encouraged. You can walk pretty much anywhere, just make sure you know where you are and how to get back. It’s easy to get lost. And always bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen.
Riding horses in the white sands is a wonderful way to experience the expansive scenery of the dune field. Private individual use of horses and other pack animals are welcome at White Sands National Monument with permit.
You can hike a mile into the dunes to designated backcountry camping spots, but there is no campground in the park. Plenty of campgrounds and other accommodations are in surrounding areas, such as the town of Alamogordo, where we highly recommend Oliver Lee State Park.
This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.
If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.
Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.