On Being Hit by a Missile

I like being in deserts. I have photographed many desert landscapes. I like the peace, the tranquillity and the paradox of evident desolation. In reality, it is a space rich with life and a landscape evolving –  forming, shaping and changing in front of your eyes. This dynamic interests me as a former geographer. Importantly, deserts offer a chance to reflect on the nature of life. Once, camped near Old Andado, in the Northern Territory I watched the lights of jets trailing from the southeast to the northwest heading for Singapore. Their sound was accompanied by the shiver and shake of the truck parked nearby as it slowly cooled. About 3:00 am it is so quiet you can hear your heart beat. It is also freezing.  Deserts are a paradox.

usa89-017aOne of the photographic goals of a trip to the US Southwest was to visit White Sands National Monument, A vast parade of white sand wedged against a mountain range to the west and a fertile agricultural zone centred on Alamogordo. It is a region not that farfrom the research centre that developed the first atomic bombs – Los Alamos. So, it is a space where there is sublime peace within a landscape, but also a place that holds some deadly and dreadful secrets of man’s ingenious capacity to wrought destruction.

 I looked forward with keen anticipation to my visit to White Sands and, having camped overnight near the Monument and armed with an unspeakably unhealthy take away breakfast, drove up to the visitor’s centre to gain entry by completing registration for the park.  I was aware that for many years the Monument was adjacent to the White Sands Missile Testing facility but this facility had been shut down as US Government priorities went east to Cape Canaveral. All was cool.

Imaging my surprise therefore when rolling up to the mock Spanish-Mexican Park building that was the Information Centre to see a very large sign saying the Monument was closed because of missile testing and would be closed for a week. I was devastated to read, that having set aside this week to photograph the fabulous dunes of this place, I was now being denied the chance to experience this Monument.

I went into the Information Centre to seek clarification. A cheery woman greeted me in her late 50’s wearing a US Park Ranger uniform and an, “I am at your service smile”.

The Centre had some 20 – 25 folk milling round staring at books, trinkeUSA95-101ts, souvenirs, maps and static displays of sundry fauna and fauna – mostly rather long and deadly looking scorpions and killer snakes.

“G’day,” I said, greeting the Park Ranger, with my broadest Australian accent mindful that Paul Hogan was a current big hit in her country.

“Good Morning,” was the reply from Cheery Face.

“I have come all the way from Australia to photograph the Monument only to find that in my special week you have it closed. Why is that?” I asked?

Cheery Face said, “Sir, there are missile tests all week. A private company has booked the testing range for the week and will be firing missiles over the Monument and down range all week,” She kindly explained this news with her face full of a cheerful, “ I will not take shit from anyone expression.”

“Will the missiles be actually landing in the Monument,” I asked somewhat incredulous that one of the finest nature reservations in the country could be subject to bombardment.

“Sir, the Monument is closed,” she repeated. Her cheery face now locked into what was the emergence of a grimace.  “You are welcome to visit this facility and view the display but we cannot let you go out onto the Monument in case a missile falls short and crashes into the area of the park”

“I see, now let me get this clear, you are concerned that I might get hit by a missile whilst wandering round the monument but I can visit this Centre in the Monument,” I said, testing I understood what she was saying.

Yes, sir. You can visit this Centre but not the dunes.”

USA95-324 “ How will I know if a missile is falling towards me if I am inside this building? I will not see it coming. One minute I can be looking at your scorpion display and next minute I am hit on the head by a falling missile coming through the roof.” I observed fixing her with my cheery face.

She looked nonplussed.  Across her face were the beginnings of the realisation that she had been asked to explain the inexplicable.

I went on. “If you do not mind, I would rather not be in this building if it is possible a missile could come through the roof. I would rather be out on the dunes of the Monument where, if I see a missile coming, I can at least try and hide or outrun it.”

At this point I heard loud laughter coming from an office adjacent to the counter where Ranger Cheery Face was trying to persuade me to stay inside.

Out of the office came this very large man wearing a Smoky the Bear type ranger uniform, he had a huge smile, across his beaming face, the chuckling face of an African American. His huge body and girth quivered and shook with good humour.

With more of a statement than a question he said, “You are Australian? You have come all this way to photograph the White Sands Monument?”

“Yes,” I confirmed, “but I am told that I could be hit on the head by a missile and must stay indoors, for the week!”

He laughed. His colleague did so too but nervously. I felt sorry for putting Cheery Face in this conflicted situation. She was only doing her job.

 USA95-011“Well, the Monument is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and this is the time frame the company testing missiles will be using for its work and it can be quite dangerous, Ranger Smoky the Bear said.

 He then went on, “ I am a keen photographer too.” Pause.

In a soft voice that could not be heard by the crowd looking at the scorpions he said, “Let us cut a deal. Can you get here at 4:30 am of a morning and again at 5:30 pm each afternoon?”

“Yes,” I said. “They are the golden hours for landscape photographers and much more suitable than 9:00 thru 5:00, your normal hours.

“Ok,” said Smoky. “Be here at 5:30 pm this afternoon and we shall go out onto the Monument in my jeep. I will show you some of my favourite places.”

That afternoon I was on time and so was Mike as I was to come to know him. True to his word he met me each morning at 4:00 am and we worked the dunes to 8:30 am and again from 5:30 to afterglow of an evening.

 We became friends; we shared coffee from his thermos and he insisted he carry my 4 x 5 Sinar. We shared a mutual love of deserts and the making of images.

Photography can be a powerful game changer!

Never saw a missile.