Carlsbad, White Sands and How I Tried to End New Mexico’s Epic Drought — Kinda

White Sands National Monument
Spectacular cloud mass over White Sands National Monument at sunset

I arrived in New Mexico rather ignorant about weather conditions here in the Land of Enchantment.

“Santa Fe is in the desert,” I thought. “It’s quite dry in deserts. Therefore, it will be dry in Santa Fe.” (I always did well with logic and math theorems, lest you wonder).

Turns out it’s a bit more than your standard desert dry heat in Santa Fe at the moment. In fact, there’s a historic dry spell across most of the state: 98 percent of New Mexico is suffering severe drought conditions according to the US Drought Monitor.

The day we moved into our Santa Fe casita, our landlord looked wistfully at the shriveled, potted geranium on our porch, and asked me to water it — but only twice a week, and only in the evening or early morning, per the city’s water restrictions.

And so it was with more than a bit of surprise that I greeted the rains that fell each afternoon after my arrival. Now, these were by no means downpours, but dammit, this was definitive rainfall. I asked my neighbor about the seemingly curious pattern. “We’ve had less than an inch of rain since January,” she replied eyes narrowed.

Note to self: ALWAYS preface rain questions to desert-dwellers with how grateful you are to see the drizzle, or any sort of moisture, really.

White Sands National Monument
Me, joyous, at White Sands National Monument

Mind you, I didn’t mean to seem inconsiderate; I would love to see the New Mexico drought end, and the rainfall come hither, particularly now that wildfires are blazing in multiple parts of the state — some within gazing distance of my neighborhood. Like I said, I was just…ignorant about the high desert.

Eventually, the afternoon rains ceased, and conversely, our hopes increased that the camping trip we had planned for a visit to White Sands National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns would be met with great weather. The trip started with a bang. White Sands is brilliant — towering snow-white dunes dotted with joyous hikers and families sledding down the steep sands in sleds.

Our visit happened to coincide with a full moon, and the park’s first full moon event of the season: a concert on a dune, under the moon and stars, featuring Loretta’s Barbed Wire Band and opening act, The Muletones. If you’ve never been to a concert set upon a monstrous sand dune glowing pearly white in the light of a monstrous moon, well, in a word, it rules.

White Sands National Monument
Loretta’s Barbed Wire Band setting up for a full moon concert at White Sands National Monument

The next day, we donned our sunglasses and headed hopefully to the Caverns. We hadn’t quite arrived when things began to unravel. First we were late for our tour reservation. Well, I would have said we were 15 minutes early, having arrived at 1:45 for a 2:00 tour. Not so, said the ranger I spoke to, according to whom I was very late and would have to be led to the front of a line of people who were able to be punctual. Well, alrighty.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Then there was Ranger Ross, our intrepid Caverns guide. Ranger Ross told a good story, at a … very … awkwardly … timed … pace. This skill led to lots of fevered mutterings and near uprising of the tour group. The caverns, though? They were extraordinary. Stalagmites and Stalactites and columns and drapes and all sorts of good Earth sciences stuff surrounded us.

We emerged from the 700-feet below ground tour and into the light of day ready to hightail it back to our campground, set up camp, crack some wine and eat dinner. But Mother Nature was having none of it. We looked outside and saw one of the biggest, darkest, most ominous rain clouds I’ve been privy to see thundering its way across the vast, open desert. Within minutes, the rain started, first a drizzle, then a straight-up downpour. As if to punctuate the point, thunder clapped and lightning sizzled.

Creepy clouds over Carlsbad, NM
Creepy clouds over Carlsbad, NM

Not foolish enough to set out into the wild in our car, we headed back to the ranger station, where I heard the crackle of a walkie-talkie and a message from the National Weather Service warning, essentially, of Armageddon. I spoke to a kind-looking ranger.

Me: “Is that warning from the Weather Service for our region?”
Ranger: “It is, and we’re so grateful to get wet weather.”
Me: “Oh. We’re actually camping, and would have loved it not to rain this one night.”
Ranger: “You guys must have TERRIBLE luck. It hasn’t rained here in a year!”

Well, now.

I prefer to take Ayaz’s stance. My favorite travel companion replied to the ranger without missing a beat:

Why, I’d say we have tremendous luck if we were able to bring you rain after a year-long dry spell!”

It does make me wonder: do we possess a hidden, singular talent for rain-making? Weather changing? Could we be hired and sent off to lands far and wide to alter the course of nature? Would it PAY?

Postscript: The rains ended after an hour and a half, but not before it was a bit late for dinner at the campsite. Still, we would have persevered had Toots (our car) not suffered a leaky tire complete with warning lights and a long-winded (pun intended) stop in the godforsaken town of Carlsbad to fill up with air. Should you ever find yourself there, know this: It’s a town where cheap motels come complete with dead cockroaches and motel neighbors (yes, more than one) who bring their own meat smokers from home and chain them to their trucks and straight up SMOKE MEAT outside their rooms. That is all.

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