Heading west through the heat of a Texas sun with a destination north of El Paso in the Chihuahua Desert. Leaving behind what most school teachers hold dear, the summer, I pass through small towns and upper elevation villages until the two lane crests and I begin my descent into the Tularosa Basin. The purpose of this summer sacrifice – White Sands National Monument. The NPS has allowed me the privilege of working as a Teacher-Ranger-Teacher for the next 8 weeks. The time is intended to be a mutual benefit to both parties. Gravities’ pull accelerates me down the final miles to the entrance of the monument. The monument’s adobe visitor’s center sits baking in the sun while the basins surrounding mountains are veiled in a haze. I set up my camper and eagerly await the next day’s realizations.
National parks and monuments, too many visitors, are the scaffolding of an all-American road trip. These natural backdrops for Kodak moments provide grand itineraries to trip planners and fill the lines of life’s list destinations. For many years, I held the same tourist approach to the purpose of the National Park Service’s unique lands and monuments. I was unaware that these areas of beauty and awe held far more valuable lessons in environmental appreciation and emotional connection to nature until I was immersed in the NPS.
My awareness of NPS themes, or purpose, came through my participation in the Teacher-Ranger- Teacher program of the NPS. This program allows classroom teachers to work in a national park or national monument for 8 weeks during the summer. During this time I determined the NPS, just as a teacher, is attempting to make connections with people. I began to see WHSA as a classroom, a wonderland of geology, biology, and ecology. White Sands National Monument is an environment where adaptations occur before the eye and Earth’s cycles perform as if on stage. As a TRT I was able to entangle myself in these plays for the majority of the summer. This genuine experience showed me a purpose to the NPS I was unaware of, an incredible educational resource.
My experience has helped me not only as a teacher but a visitor to our national parks. My family and I will no longer be the “30 minute” tourist. We will stop and stay longer and instead of just taking the iconic photo or seeing the must see attraction, we will listen to a ranger talk or go on a guided hike. We will attempt to interpret the park on a personal level. This new purpose to our travels will allow a better connection to “our” national parks and monuments.
As my summer TRT experience comes to an end and I head east toward home. My vehicle struggles up the Sacramento Mountains one last time, I turn and look down upon the Tularosa Basin – I now know that when a visitor looks upon Whites Sands National Monument in the right light, at that particular time of day, when the mind is full of wonder and curiosity, that he will see the gypsum infused water flowing into Lake Lucero and evaporating just as quickly while the temperature, water, and wind relentlessly weathers and breaks down the selenite crystals into smaller and smaller pieces creating the sea of soft white waves.