Supermoon! The word itself carries magic. But that probably has more to do with media hype than any true recorded astronomical phenomenon. Interestingly enough, according to EarthSky, this year’s “supermoon” wasn’t really that special in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it took place during the perigee—the moon’s closest point to Earth—but that actually happens every year, which makes it a fairly routine astronomical event.
Even so, this year’s “supermoon” on June 23 gave a little extra pizzazz to White Sands National Monument’s full moon night. The annual events, which run from May through October, have been favorites of mine for as long as they’ve been in existence. Even before they became scheduled events coordinated by the National Park Service–we’re talking back in prehistoric times–I remember being drawn to the moonlit dunes sprawling across the Tularosa Basin like a mirage, where imagination could run barefoot through the wide open spaces of possibility.
If you live in the area and have never made the trek to our most popular tourist destination during the full moon, you really have no idea what you’re missing. For one thing, making a night trip means not having to slather on layers of sunscreen and, because of the highly reflective nature of the white sand, risk sunburns in places you never thought possible. Even better than that, however, is the fact that 275 square miles of rolling white dunes become even more otherworldly under the bluish glow of a desert moon. Magical doesn’t even come close to describing it.
Then there are the activities associated with the Full Moon Nights at the monument. Every month a different band takes the stage to perform as the moon rises and transforms the area into a desert wonderland. Educational lectures are also offered and, for those who make reservations at least two weeks in advance, a hike can be arranged with a ranger to explore the area and spot some of the unique wildlife inhabiting the area.
If you’re like me, however, just taking the opportunity to gather as many friends together as possible to enjoy a cool summer night in one of the coolest locations on Earth is special enough. Throw some beer and soda into a cooler, whip up some fried chicken and potato salad, wax up the discs and it becomes the best damned night of the season! Having a “supermoon” to anticipate just makes it that much more entertaining.
We arrived early on Sunday, June 23, so we could stake out a prime location, then waited as the party began to assemble. Considering that temperatures had been hovering around 100 F, the dunes were surprisingly cool, with a slight breeze and sporadic cloud cover to the west making the sultry evening more than bearable. It was a time to play catch up with friends we hadn’t seen in a while, dig in to the potluck offerings and people watch as other groups began to filter in.
By the time the blood orange moon heaved itself over the Sacramento Mountains, thousands of people had transformed the dunes into one huge block party. As darkness fell, glowsticks began appearing like neon lightening bugs decorating the landscape, some stationary, but most making trails as they sped down the hillocks in the hands of adventuresome sledders. Music, laughter and screams of excitement could be heard from every direction.
Hunkered down on a large blanket, members of our little group chatted, cracked wise, snapped pictures and occasionally made a trip back to the parking lot for beverages. We marveled at the beauty, first of the eerily red globe ascending into the heavens, then the ragged clouds that washed across it and finally at the canopy of stars that even the brilliance of the moon and its accompanying cloud cover couldn’t possibly obscure. The stresses and tensions of the week melted away into the gypsum dunes and memories were added to the scrapbook.
It may not have been astronomically significant, but it was definitely an experience that will be hard to beat. That always seems to be the case where full moons at the White Sands National Monument are concerned. For most of us, it’s the closest we’ll ever come to knowing what it would be like to visit another planet. I’ve no doubt the perigee helped, but sometimes “special” is really what you make of it.
There are still four more of these full moon events being presented at White Sands National Monument in the coming months. The dates and times are Monday, July 22 at 8:30pm; Wednesday, August 21 at 8pm; Thursday, September 9 at 7pm and Saturday, October 19 at 6:30pm. Mark them on your calendars, so you can pack up the family and friends and scoot out to one of the coolest evenings you’ll ever experience on a landlocked beach.
For those obsessive lunar junkies out there, on the other hand, here’s a little inside information. The full moon on November 2016 will be the closest that planetoid gets to Earth until November 2034. That is being hailed as a true supermoon. Which means you’d better start planning soon. In astronomical terms, three years and five months is little more than an eyeblink and you’d better believe there will be caravans making their way in that direction; supermoon notwithstanding.