Friday, May 24, 2024 May 24, 2024
87° F Dallas, TX

The Dune Sea of West Texas

No one knows exactly why the ever-shifting Monahans sandhills exist—or why some people can’t stay away from them.
photography by Chase Fountain

It’s hard to fathom nearly 4,000 acres of sculpted sand until you’re ankle-deep in it. The way the fading light bounces off the endless waves of beige is both lovely and hazardous. You might experience some sort of deep revelation that lasts approximately long enough to realize that you probably need more sunscreen.

How all this sand piled up in Monahans, Texas, is a little bit of a geological mystery. How I, possessor of Scottish skin and an allergy to unfamiliar bathrooms, got here is easier. I rode in a 30-foot camper from Dallas to Monahans with seven other people. It took about six hours, one nap, two repeats of the Amélie soundtrack, a one-size-fits-all order of tater tots from Dairy Queen, and an encounter with a 17-year-old hitchhiker walking in the general direction of Roswell, New Mexico.

Now, a person who willingly hares off to a semiarid climate with desert-like conditions in the middle of summer has few excuses to avoid the sun. Getting robbed and left for dead by a teenager and his cardboard alien was probably the best I’d do. However, I borrowed my friend’s beloved Nike running cap for this trip, and I’m pretty sure she wants it back.

It’s still light Wednesday evening when two white pickup trucks pull in behind our own recently arrived camper at the picnic site. Kids in swimsuits and shorts sprint for the dunes like they’re going to splash right into the ocean that will probably appear tomorrow in my fever dream. At dusk, though, the sand is soft and cool.

There’s a theory that the Monahans sandhills, located just 45 minutes from Odessa, were once the shorefront of an ancient ocean. It’s also thought that the sand just accumulated as a result of the shifting floodplains of the Pecos River. In the relative scheme of things, the dunes aren’t even that old, perhaps 10,000 or 12,000 years. Whatever its genesis, the 200-mile-long, 40-mile-wide sandbelt represents something of a détente between natural beauty and the exploitation of the Permian Basin’s natural resources.

“There ain’t no place in Texas like this,” says Larry Fuentes, one of Monahans Sandhills State Park’s veteran rangers. He tells me that one of the things he really enjoys about his job is chatting with the people who travel through.

Fuentes—who was born on an Army base in Heidelberg, Germany, but grew up in Houston—spent 20 years at other state parks years before arriving in Monahans, where he’s been for the past nine years. I’ve never been this far west. Family car trips were a loop of Irving to San Antonio, where my grandparents lived, and back again. Summers were spent in the cool safety of their pool, cleaned nightly by the Polaris system my grandfather called Perry Piranha. Park rangers, who drink about a liter of water per hour, have “mules,” souped-up golf carts with four-wheel drive that allow them to drive out on the dunes to clean up whatever visitors leave behind—a lot of empty Gatorade bottles and plastic bags. The sand shifts so much that they’re still finding Easter eggs. The dunes live and breathe. Occasionally, they cough up something beautiful. 

More than one ranger tells me about a local named Malcolm who hikes pretty far out almost every weekend, looking like Lawrence of Arabia and photographing the seeps. Think of it like this: the sand is like an enormous sponge, soaking up water from the rain, and when the sponge fills to capacity (right now, it’s about an inch or two below), water leaks out. That’s how Monahans supports one of the world’s largest shin oak forests, acorn-bearing trees that grow about 3 feet tall and put down some 60 feet of roots. That’s how indigenous peoples inhabited the region long before the Spanish came traipsing through, long before the Union-Pacific Railroad laid tracks, long before someone struck black gold. 


Last year, Texas Monthly labeled nearby Midland the second-richest city in America based on per-capita income, and the Permian Basin oilfield produced 312 million barrels, more than Bakken Formation in North Dakota. A cheap motel in Monahans runs $139 a night; slightly nicer chains that offer someone to complain to about roaches are more than $300. Oil companies are paying through the nose to temporarily stable the influx of workers, setting up stretches of prefabricated houses. Some of these guys try to camp out in the park, but there’s a two-week limit on RVs. Then they have to move on.

Frequent visitors (Fuentes calls them repeaters) know to bring beach blankets and umbrellas. Children carry discs and boogie boards. High school athletes in Under Armour tote wakeboards and scale the tallest dune, nicknamed Mount Everest by the local Boy Scouts troop. This is the fun thing to do.

“Everybody’s working around here, all around the whole park,” Fuentes says. “And they come in here because they want to get away from work. They come out here to relax, to find peace and calm.”

The best time to hit the dunes is right after a rainstorm or while it’s still misting, because the sled will travel farther and faster. I, on the other hand, went sandboarding early Thursday afternoon just as the temperature was teetering between uncomfortable and insane. I looked like a tiny demented windmill. The sand burned my bare feet, and my legs burned, too, from walking the wrong way for the better part of two days (step flat-footed, don’t let your toes spread).

Animals are smart. They hide in the dunes as temperatures rise. Humans are silly, but the upside is that we can recognize the desolation and the poetry of a place where you can pay thousands of dollars for a studio apartment, but a salad is a sad plate of shredded iceberg lettuce. The rangers could get rich in the fields, but they choose the sand. A hot wind blows in from the east, and in the morning, all of this will look different.