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The Washington Post - Field Trip

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Journey with Lillian Cunningham through the messy past and uncertain future of America’s most awe-inspiring places: the national parks.


Lillian climbs the dunes for a view of a park imprinted with ancient human history and the beginnings of the Atomic Age. In doing so, she tries to understand why America’s deserts have been both safeguarded and sacrificed.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023


Transcript:



[Insects chirping]

[Animals calling]

Lillian Cunningham:The sand in White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico is different. It truly is bright white, like snow or sugar, and weirdly, it's cool to the touch. It doesn't absorb heat. It just reflects it back. So the dunes around me are blinding, even though it's late in the day. I'm hiking along in an Indiana Jones style hat, a windbreaker, sunscreen on every bit of exposed skin. We're not far in, and my boots are already full of sand. Overhead, there's an occasional sound of fighter jets. It's a reminder of what lies just a few miles away.

[Jet engines roaring]

And we'll get to that. But right now, I am just taking in the view. This landscape feels like another planet. Everywhere I look, there's nothing but sky and sand. Dunes rise and fall in sweeping curves like waves of a strange ocean.

Wayne Suggs:From here, you can see the highest dune in the park.

Lillian Cunningham:Oh, that one kind of jutting?

Wayne Suggs:Yeah. That one right there. It's just a perfect place to go for sunset.

Lillian Cunningham:I'm out here this evening with Wayne Suggs. He's a photographer who grew up nearby. I saw his night images of White Sands before I came here, and they're incredible. So, I asked if I could come out here with him. Wayne's taking me to his favorite spot in the park to photograph the sunset. And we have to climb up and over all these smaller dunes to reach it.

Wayne Suggs:You can see the shadows starting to get longer.

Lillian Cunningham:Yeah.

Wayne Suggs:And you can see the shadows are actually blue. So they're taking on that same color as the sky. And that's what's so cool about this place, is the dunes take on the same color as the atmosphere. So, it's pretty magical.

Lillian Cunningham:All around us, the ground is crisscrossed with footprints from park visitors. Many of them are here for sunset photo shoots. I see engagement shoots, maternity shoots, a quinceañera. Almost every woman being photographed is wearing a red dress because it pops so much against the white sand. Wayne is leading us far enough out to get a clean shot where there are no other people, no footprints.

Wayne Suggs:A good storm with a good west wind blowing 55, 60 miles an hour completely rejuvenates the park. Right?

Lillian Cunningham:The landscape might seem like it resets every few hours as the wind sweeps the dunes clean. But as I would learn, the sand actually has ways of holding on to traces of the past and revealing them when it wants to. And even though our footprints will be gone soon, there are very, very old tracks out in this desert. That's part of what drew me to this place. And we'll get to that, too.

We make it to the tallest dune in sight. It's about 60 feet high. It rises at such a steep angle that we have to claw our way up the side of it. I've got sand under my nails and up my sleeves.

Lillian Cunningham:Wow. Oh, wow. Wow. Oh, my gosh. Just cresting this dune, looking out at the expanse of them is pretty wild.

Lillian Cunningham:We get to the top.

Wayne Suggs:Pretty amazing, right?

Lillian Cunningham:Oh, my gosh.

Wayne Suggs:Yeah.

Lillian Cunningham:And you lose sight of, like, any road.

Wayne Suggs:Right. It's only you and the dunes for miles, 360 degrees.

Lillian Cunningham:Wow.

Wayne Suggs:It is a special place. And I'm so fortunate to have this in my backyard.

Lillian Cunningham:Wayne squints into his viewfinder, looking for the perfect composition of this dramatic orange-and-pink sunset.

Wayne Suggs:A lot of people could stand up here where we're at and say, "Look, there's nothing to see here. There's nothing." And I -- Man, it's so untrue. The more you take it in, the more interesting and the more beautiful it becomes. I see this really great image right now. I got to try to capture that one.

Lillian Cunningham:There's a very last flicker of orange, and -- oh, the sun is gone. The temperature starts falling sharply. It's time to get back. I try to walk down the side of the dune, but end up sliding part of the way. At the bottom, it's like being in the trough of a wave. Dunes rise over our heads in all directions, and the sky is darkening.

Lillian Cunningham:I see a couple stars poking through.

Wayne Suggs:Yeah. And that's Jupiter right there.

Lillian Cunningham:Oh, wow.

Wayne Suggs:And that's Saturn right there.

Lillian Cunningham:We say goodbye to Wayne, because unlike at a lot of other national parks, this one closes at night. Every year, a few tourists get lost out here. It's hard to gauge distances. It looks the same in every direction. And cell service is extremely unreliable. The park even warns against depending on GPS. They recommend you always take a map and compass with you. But in a pinch, there is another way to get your bearings -- if you know what to look for. There's light visible from a runway a few miles east. It's Holloman Air Force Base, which is home to more than 20,000 Air Force personnel. That's why you hear jets flying overhead so often.

[Jet engines roaring in distance]

White Sands National Park is embedded within White Sands Missile Range, the largest military facility in the country. At first I was really surprised by this. But actually, there are other arid national parks, like Death Valley and Badlands, that have also served as military testing grounds. In other words, they're places that government has both safeguarded and sacrificed. And I think there's no desert where that tension is more on display today than White Sands. This is a desert that holds stories. It's where the first nuclear bomb was tested, and where there's now a race against time to protect fossilized footprints -- footprints that have raised new questions about our past.

I'm Lillian Cunningham with The Washington Post, and this is "Field Trip."

20,000 years ago, this area was a green and vibrant wetlands. Giant sloths and mammoths roamed right here. Saber-toothed cats hunted. There was a large lake at the heart of it, and in that lake was a salty mineral called gypsum. Then, about 10,000 years ago, that lake and the surrounding landscape dried up and it turned into parched desert. And when it did, the gypsum turned into crystals. Over time, those crystals were ground down by the wind, swept up and carried just a little bit northeast, in the form of white, sparkling dust. Today, the ancient lake bed sits on what's now the missile range. And those piles of crystal dust, those are the dunes of the national park. It's the largest field of gypsum dunes on Earth. And because the dunes look like drifts of snow, one of the most popular things to do here...

Woman:Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go!

Lillian Cunningham:...is sled.

Boy:That's the wrong path! You're supposed to go on the jump one. Dad, you weren't fast enough.

Man:Well...

Girl:You need to be faster!

Lillian Cunningham:Audio producer Emma Talkoff and I bought a red saucer and a small bar of purple wax from the gift shop to give it a try.

Lillian Cunningham:Okay, let's wax it up. Three, two, one. Ah! Hold on. Aah! Holy... Oh, my God!

[Laughter]

That was a little rougher than I thought.

Emma Talkoff:Are you okay?

Lillian Cunningham:I'm fine. But I might have just gotten sand all in the recorder.

[Laughter]

Lillian Cunningham:In the early 1900s, some people wanted to cart off the sand, process the gypsum, and sell it. It's used to make plaster and chalk. But in 1933, President Herbert Hoover declared White Sands a national monument. It only became a national park in 2019.

Announcer:Snow-white sands of gypsum, windblown into dunes of enchanting beauty, comprise one of the most interesting units in our system of national monuments and parks.

Lillian Cunningham:This is a 1930 promo film about the new national monument.

What's wild is that these white dunes are so different from the surrounding desert. Outside the park boundary, the land is flat and the sand is more of a golden brown, studded with brush and mesquite and cacti. But as I've seen at every park so far, the borders around national parks are something of an illusion.

This area is known for the event that took place just outside the park -- as I mentioned earlier, the testing of the very first atomic bomb. It's impossible to understand this national park without understanding that history and the long shadow it still casts over White Sands and the people who live nearby.

Tina Cordova:They dispersed plutonium all over the desert, and it's going to be there forever.

Lillian Cunningham:This is Tina Cordova. I wanted to talk with her because she grew up in that shadow in the decades after the test and around the military efforts that have continued here since.

Tina Cordova:We could be out on the playground at school and the fighter jets would dogfight right over the top of our playgrounds. I mean, seriously, I used to think if I climbed to the very top of the slide and stand there when they go by, I could probably touch the bottom of them.

Lillian Cunningham:We sat at Tina's kitchen table in Albuquerque. She offered us coffee and apples from a local farm. Every so often, she brushed back her loose curls. Tina's in her 60s. She told us this desert is in her bones. >>Tina Cordova> So, the plants that do really well in the desert are the plants that send down really deep roots. Right? We're so deeply rooted into where we are from. And it's like the plants in the desert.

Lillian Cunningham:Tina grew up in Tularosa, a tiny town just to the east of White Sands Missile Range. She told me she's often heard this area described as "empty" by outsiders, but she has fond memories of growing up here and of playing in the dunes of White Sands as a kid.

Tina Cordova:And it was -- this would have been in the '60s, I guess, even the '70s. And it was, you know, the era of the Beach Boys and the bikini and everybody out there, you know, worshiping the sun and skateboarding and having a great old time.

Lillian Cunningham:Water is scarce in this part of the country, but in Tularosa, irrigation ditches were put in as far back as the 1860s, and they transformed the desert town into a leafy paradise.

Tina Cordova:I felt like I lived in an Eden. We would literally go sit in a cherry tree and eat cherries for hours or go sit in a peach tree and eat peaches, or apricots. But what I think is striking to me is for somebody to say "empty" and it could be "vast" might be a better way to describe it. But for me, empty is not how I would ever describe it, because my life was always so full.

Lillian Cunningham:Tina's experience of this desert was that it bustled with life, but the US government didn't always see it that way. During World War II, the military took control of hundreds of square miles of desert north of the national monument so it could test weapons. And in 1945, the fate of this whole desert became tied up in a government effort that they hoped could end the war -- The Manhattan Project. Scientists had been working in secret to develop a nuclear bomb under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos Laboratory. And they needed a place to test it. The government made a short list of sites, and according to records from test director Kenneth Bainbridge, this desert was deemed the best. I took a look at the report. He wanted a site that was flat with uninterrupted sightlines and good weather. This piece of desert had all of that, and it was already under military control. Most important of all, Bainbridge thought it was far enough away from people. That was important to him because he knew there was, quote, "possible danger from the products of the fission bomb." The military chose a spot on the missile range 60 miles north of the white sand dunes. They built a tower there and then they prepared to detonate a device containing about 13 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium. And so, very early one morning in July 1945, the face of this landscape changed for just an instant, and then forever.

Val Fitch:First, a flash of light. That enormous fireball. The mushroom cloud rising thousands of feet in the sky.

Lillian Cunningham:This is Val Fitch, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. In 2008, he told historians about watching the test from a bunker on the missile range.

Val Fitch:And then, a long time afterwards, the sound, the rumble, thunder in the mountains. And it was... There are just -- Words don't -- haven't been invented to describe it in any accurate way.

Hans Courant:My hands got warm from the heat from the bomb, which just grew and grew and then eventually started up into the sky.

Lillian Cunningham:Hans Courant was another physicist on the project. He recorded an interview in 2015.

Hans Courant:But I had been sitting there and I thought, "Oh, my God." It was terrible. It all worked.

Lillian Cunningham:As the sun rose, the military declared the test a success. In fact, the bomb was far more powerful than they predicted. The explosion produced a cloud seven miles high. They called it the Trinity test.

A few years ago, a New Mexico journalist named Dennis Carroll talked with people who lived in the area and remembered that morning. He shared the tape with us. One recording was with Henry Herrera.

Henry Herrera:It was very big. A big flash of light. Huge. And I got so scared I thought the world was coming to an end, 'cause I was only about 11 years old.

Lillian Cunningham:Barbara Kent said she was in a bunk bed at summer camp when the explosion happened.

Barbara Kent:Everyone in the upper bunk, we all fell down to the ground. We were just, you know, stunned.

Lillian Cunningham:She ran outside with her friends. There was something white drifting down around them.

Barbara Kent:We were real excited, 'cause we said, "Oh, my gosh, it's snowing." We were grabbing the snow and just putting it on our face. And, oh, it was so much fun. But the big problem was it wasn't cold. The snow was not cold. It was warm.

Lillian Cunningham:That snow was ash, radioactive fallout from the bomb. It drifted for hundreds of miles.

Tina Cordova:My grandmother on my dad's side, what she remembers is the ash falling for days afterwards. And it was summer, when it's very hot, and they would hang wet bedsheets in the windows to sort of create a little bit of a cool draft through people's homes. And she just said she remembers the ash getting on everything. And they they would dust, and it was back, and they would clean, and it was back.

Lillian Cunningham:Tina says that the ash worked its way into the bodies of people all over the area, that it rained down on cisterns and canals like the ones Tina grew up around, that it was ingested by dairy cows and worked its way into the soil of farms and gardens. The test director had deemed the missile range far enough away from people. Tina says it wasn't far enough.

Tina Cordova:You know, the government has always described the area around Trinity as remote and uninhabited. But when you do a map of New Mexico using the 1940 census data, nothing could be further from the truth. Within a 50-mile radius of Trinity, there were 15,000 children, men, and women living there. And if you draw the radius to 150 miles, there's half a million people.

Lillian Cunningham:The government had drawn up evacuation plans for local communities, but decided not to act on them. I found a memo that the military official who led the Manhattan Project wrote two days after the test. He said the radioactivity was very high in spots, but was never concentrated enough to warrant evacuations. He did note, though, that, quote, "for a few hours, I was none too comfortable with the situation." The government initially kept all of this a secret. Right after the test, officials sent a statement to the press saying there had just been an accident involving high explosives and pyrotechnics and that that had produced the sound and light that morning. It wasn't until a few weeks later that the truth came out.

Harry Truman:A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb has more power than 20,000 tons of TNT.

Lillian Cunningham:President Harry Truman addressed the nation in a newsreel.

Harry Truman:It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.

Lillian Cunningham:He praised it as an achievement.

Harry Truman:We have spent more than $2 billion on the greatest scientific gamble in history, and we have won.

Lillian Cunningham:Of course, that gamble changed the world forever and came at an extraordinary cost -- a staggering loss of life in Japan, pain and suffering, and the dawn of the Nuclear Age. For the people who lived around White Sands, it was the beginning of a different kind of relationship to the place they called home. It prompted decades of questions that continue to this day. According to a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were areas around the missile range where radiation exposure following the test was 10,000 times higher than the government currently allows.

Tina Cordova:I'm a cancer survivor, but I'm the fourth generation in my family to have cancer since 1945. I had two great-grandfathers alive at the time in Tularosa, and by 1955, they both had what was described as stomach cancer. Both my grandmothers had cancer. My dad had three different cancers that he didn't have risk factors for. When I was 39 years old, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the first thing they asked me was, "When were you exposed to radiation?"

Lillian Cunningham:In 2020, the National Cancer Institute tried to assess whether the Trinity test could have caused cancers in people who were living in New Mexico at the time. It was impossible for them to pinpoint exact numbers because there was no way for them to know how much radiation individual people might have been exposed to. But they did come up with estimated ranges. They said that the test could have caused around 10% of thyroid cancers in the decades since the test. For other kinds of cancer, they estimated that somewhere between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 400 cases could have been caused by this radiation. Tina says that as she got older, every time she visited home, she noticed more and more people were sick.

Tina Cordova:One day I read a letter to the editor from a man named Fred Tyler, and Fred basically wrote... I'm going to get choked up. I'm so sorry.

Lillian Cunningham:No, that's okay.

Tina Cordova:Um... Fred basically wrote... [sniffles] ..."When are we going to hold the government accountable for the damage they did to us?"

Lillian Cunningham:Congress has, in fact, compensated people exposed to radiation near other nuclear test sites around the country. But people living near Trinity have never been included, in part because of how complicated the government says it is to determine their exposure rates. So, Tina decided to do what she could to document the generational effects of the Trinity test on people in her community. In 2005, she co-founded an organization with Fred Tyler called the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. Downwinders, as in the people who lived downwind from the fallout. She says her group created a health survey and distributed it to hundreds of people in the counties around the Trinity site. She's also testified in front of Congress twice to try to get acknowledgment and compensation for the people she says were affected. Nearly 20 years later, she's still fighting for that. I reached out to a spokesman at the Department of Defense about the downwinders' claims. He said that over the years, the military has conducted studies on the possible health risks of the Trinity test to military personnel, but it has not specifically studied the possible impact on nearby communities like Tularosa. The US went on to conduct more than a thousand nuclear tests in the decades after Trinity. Many of them took place at what's now the Nevada National Security Site, not too far from what would become Death Valley National Park. As concern about fallout grew, the government took more measures to minimize exposure, like moving these tests underground. Eventually, it stopped testing nuclear weapons altogether in 1992.

The Trinity test transformed this desert and upended people's lives here. It also made this place famous. People interested in military or scientific history were drawn here, but also people interested in government secrets or conspiracy theories. Twice a year, for only six hours, the missile range opens its gates and lets the public in to see the exact site of the Trinity test.

Lillian Cunningham:Right here, right?

Emma Talkoff:Yeah, this looks...

Lillian Cunningham:This is one of those rare days. We timed our visit so that Emma and I could see it for ourselves. That meant getting up before sunrise to join the long line of cars that were waiting for the gates to open, which they did at exactly 8 a.m.

[Indistinct conversations, laughter]

There are often around 3,000 visitors who come to these open houses. That's more than there are at the national park on an average day. To get to the actual test site, you have to drive through miles and miles of desert. The missile range is enormous -- about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. I've been fascinated by the history here ever since making "Moonrise," my previous podcast, about the space race. After World War II, Wernher von Braun worked here to develop the rocket technology that eventually powered the first Apollo missions to the moon. It's still an active testing site for bombs and missiles. It also has landing pads for shuttles returning from the Space Station.

Lillian Cunningham:Trinity site, four miles.

Lillian Cunningham:We drive past low brush, a caution sign for unexploded materials, a bunker, but mostly open space. Then we see something moving.

Lillian Cunningham:Oh, my gosh. Do you see all of them leaping? through the brush?

Emma Talkoff:Yeah. Oh, my God.

Lillian Cunningham:There are oryx here, these huge African antelopes with black and white markings and high, sharp horns.

Lillian Cunningham:Oh, and when it turns like this in profile, it looks like it's just like one single big horn, which is why they say it's sort of like a unicorn.

Lillian Cunningham:The state of New Mexico brought oryx into White Sands from Africa in the 1960s and '70s to generate game hunting, but their population exploded. The national park now considers them invasive and has put up fencing to keep them out.

Lillian Cunningham:Look at this one. Oh, it's just like... eyes locked. How magical.

Lillian Cunningham:Seeing these strange animals leap across a missile range, it makes me think about how deserts have been seen by some as places to experiment, places you don't have to worry about messing up.

Lillian Cunningham:Okay. So, we're entering the parking lot.

Lillian Cunningham:After close to an hour of driving, we arrive at the Trinity site. There's a high chain-link and barbed-wire fence that encircles...what? It's hard to tell. There's a small black obelisk in the center, but otherwise it's just kind of barren. The ground still slopes down slightly from the impact of the blast. There's a stack of fliers sitting on a table. I pick one up. For anyone wondering whether this site is safe to visit now, it says the maximum radiation levels here are, quote, "only 10 times greater than the region's natural background radiation. Many places on Earth are naturally more radioactive than the Trinity site." But it ends with the line, "The decision is yours." We decide to go in. Lots of people are walking around with Geiger counters. There are some set out on a table for public use, so I pick one of those up.

Lillian Cunningham:I mean, we're just walking over the ground here and it's making noise.

Lillian Cunningham:The Geiger counter ticks up slightly when I scan it over some green flecks on the ground. It makes me a little anxious for just a moment. I read about this stuff before I came here, and it's wild. When the atomic bomb went off, sand from the site was sucked up into the explosion, along with the steel legs of the tower holding the bomb. The sand liquefied and it rained back down onto the desert. And when it hit the ground, it solidified into a sparkling layer of green glass. People called it Trinitite. It was a new substance never before found on Earth, born in that moment. By now, much of the Trinitite has been carted away by the government, bulldozed into the ground, or pocketed by tourists, but there are still shards of it churned up in the sand here. I can pick them up and hold them. They're crumbly and have a green glint.

Lillian Cunningham:It's a piece of Trinitite, the size of like a Skittle. This is a piece. It's pretty big.

Lillian Cunningham:It's kind of amazing to me that the sands here are still holding on to these little traces of the past. Walking around here, I think back to something Tina told me the other day. She said that the fact that this test was done here says a lot about how this landscape and the people who live in it were treated.

Lillian Cunningham:Did it feel then like, I don't know, growing up there, like the government found sort of generally the place where you live to be, like, immensely valuable or immensely disposable?

Tina Cordova:Both. Both. Immensely disposable and immensely valuable. And still to this day, immensely valuable. It's uniquely itself, and there's no other place like it in the world.

Lillian Cunningham:For years, Tina has been fighting to get people to see the uniqueness of this place, to see it the way she does -- that this desert isn't empty, that it's a special place so many people call home.

Coming up, I'm going to tell you about a recent discovery at White Sands National Park that really underscores that. It suggests that people have lived here a very, very long time -- far longer than many scientists thought possible. We'll be right back.

More than an hour south of the Trinity site and still within the borders of the missile range, there's an area that's off-limits to the public. It contains something really special.

Michael Stowe:And I'll say, as we get just past this tree line here, just be aware of where you're stepping.

Lillian Cunningham:Okay.

Michael Stowe:Just because, you know, they're fragile.

Lillian Cunningham:This is Michael Stowe, an archeologist for the military. He's leading me across the cracked sand of the ancient lake bed where those gypsum crystals formed.

Michael Stowe:And you'll see them. I'll point them out.

Lillian Cunningham:I'm careful not to crunch the ones that are still here, rising up from the sand. But that's not even the really fragile thing Michael is telling me to look out for.

Michael Stowe:So, as we walk here, I'll have you tell me what you see right here.

Lillian Cunningham:Oh, wow. Whoa. Oh, my gosh.

Lillian Cunningham:My heart catches.

Lillian Cunningham:Do you see the tracks all the way across? Like, one, two, three... I don't know.

Michael Stowe:All the way across.

Lillian Cunningham:30, 40, or something.

Michael Stowe:30, 40 of them in a line.

Lillian Cunningham:We're looking at the "step, step, step" of something enormous. The prints lead off into the distance, and each one is like two or three times the size of my foot. But they're not indents in the ground. They pop up from it about, uh, an inch? Michael kneels down and taps on one of them.

Michael Stowe:It's fairly firm. If you were to feel it, it's almost cemented.

Lillian Cunningham:Here, can I just get a sound of that?

Michael Stowe:Absolutely.

[Hollow tapping]

Wow. You're just tapping on it.

Michael Stowe:Just tapping. It's almost, it's been cemented in. And it's still fragile. You wouldn't want to step on that.

Lillian Cunningham:These are the prints of a giant ground sloth who walked along right here thousands and thousands of years ago, possibly around 20,000 years ago, when this was the lush and muddy shoreline of the lake. And there's more.

Michael Stowe:You can see the mastodon prints there.

Lillian Cunningham:Oh, wow. Those are huge.

Michael Stowe:Big. And so, this is the --

Lillian Cunningham:They look almost like elephant feet.

Michael Stowe:Yeah, exactly.

Lillian Cunningham:Like just big, round circles.

Michael Stowe:Big, round circles.

Lillian Cunningham:They're, I don't know, maybe a foot and a half across. Animal tracks like these have been found all around this ancient lake bed. It makes sense. This was the area's watering hole, and the mud on its banks did a great job of capturing the footsteps of those who came to drink. Over thousands of years, the looser ground around them eroded and left them raised. People have been finding animal prints in this desert for decades, including lots of spots on the missile range. But recently, a ranger on the national park side made an even more incredible discovery.

David Bustos:It's funny 'cause it doesn't seem like there's much. A lot of it, you look out, it just looks like barren dunes and some scrub and stuff. When you look close, there's all these amazing things going on, a lot of really fun stories to see.

Lillian Cunningham:That park ranger was David Bustos. I met up with him back inside the national park, standing on the white sand dunes.

David Bustos:And then I found these amazing mammoth prints and they -- each step was about 13 feet, 12 to 13 feet. Just massive animals. Holy smokes.

Lillian Cunningham:David is the park's resource program manager. He's a tall guy. He wears the desert version of the ranger uniform -- a breathable button-down and cargo pants. He smiles and looks down at the ground a lot. Every now and then, fighter jets cross the expanse of blue sky overhead.

[Jet engines roar in distance]

David grew up in New Mexico and started working at White Sands back in the early 2000s. His job took him all over the park, and everywhere he went, he looked closely. He got so familiar with the subtleties of the landscape that he says you could blindfold him, set him down anywhere in the dunes, and he would know exactly where he was. David found those mammoth prints back in 2009, just moments before a different print caught his eye. And that became the big discovery.

David Bustos:In some places, it looked like possibly the edge of the toes, but so they weren't really nice, clear prints. But the the pattern looked like it possibly could be a person walking.

Lillian Cunningham:A person walking. Human footprints. But the thing was, ancient human footprints had never been found in this desert before. David says that at first, even his own colleagues in the Park Service didn't believe him. Neither did the scientists he reached out to early on.

David Bustos:There's been skepticism the whole time, I would say. [Laughs] "Oh, you're making up those prints."

Lillian Cunningham:He kept looking for more and kept finding them.

David Bustos:I mean, I tried to walk away, honestly, a number of times, but they kept showing up, and it just seemed irresponsible. You know, if these things are that old, then we have to let somebody know or we need to document them.

Lillian Cunningham:But the crazy thing was, these footprints seemed to quickly appear and just as quickly disappear. They were ancient, but ephemeral.

David Bustos:You can go out one to the next and you might not see the print at all. There's places where I've passed by, you know, maybe 50, 60 times, and I've never seen any prints there. And then one week, it was below freezing. And that morning when we went out, there was frost on the ground and salt, a salt crust. And there was thousands of prints of mammoth and camel and human prints and giant ground sloth, everything. In a few hours, whenever the sun warmed up and the frost melted, the salt dissolved it, and they were all gone.

Lillian Cunningham:That must be such a neat feeling, to pass through the same place day after day, and then on certain days, just, like, have something revealed to you that you didn't see there before.

David Bustos:Yeah, it shows you, like, all these amazing new stories can be seen on the grounds.

Lillian Cunningham:David needed confirmation that these new stories he was discovering, that these human footprints he was discovering were real. So, in 2017, he reached out to one of the world's experts.

Matthew Bennett:I get a lot of emails. A lot of people send me footprints. "I found this. Is it real?" And more often than not, it's not.

Lillian Cunningham:This is Matthew Bennett. He's a professor at Bournemouth University in England. I called him while he was on the road. He's traveled the globe, to Africa, to Central America, helping to determine if subtle variations on the ground could be traces left by ancient humans.

Matthew Bennett:And I hate to disappoint people. But, you know, I was intrigued by what he had. I didn't really believe it at the time, and I was skeptical, but keen enough to come out to see for myself. And I did so in January '17. And at that point, I didn't really believe he had anything.

Lillian Cunningham:David took Matthew to the ancient lake bed to show him the prints. But it had rained for days before Matthew arrived. The prints were flooded, and Matthew didn't see anything he could confirm.

Matthew Bennett:At that point, I felt as if I was destroying a dream because I said, "No, I don't think you've got a human footprint."

Lillian Cunningham:Matthew returned to England, but he promised David he would come back, if for no other reason than the cool giant ground sloth prints here. A few months later, he did come back. And that time, the weather was clear.

Matthew Bennett:I'd only been there a day, maybe a day and a half, working with him in the field, when we were about 10 meters apart. I'm lying out on the lake bed floor and I was working on a giant ground sloth, actually excavating and pulling out the sediment from it. And he called me over, and I remember he said, "Then what's this?" And basically, there were quite a lot of expletives, and then I told him that he had a human footprint.

David Bustos:It was a lot of fun, an exciting day, that ah, they're finally -- finally have the confirmation, and I'm not just seeing things.

Matthew Bennett:And I went back to my sloth print, smiling, really smiling. And as I got to the bottom of it, I found a human print standing in the bottom of the sloth print myself. And at that point, I was, like, blinking out. What's going on here?

Lillian Cunningham:That was the most incredible part of the discovery. Not just that there were human footprints, but that Ice Age animals were stepping on top of those prints, and vice versa. Those animals went extinct in this area about 10,000 or 12,000 years ago, which suggested that the human prints were at least that old, maybe a lot older.

One set of prints has really stayed with David and Matthew. It's a set of small prints, the size a woman or a teenager would leave. They're heading in a line across the desert. Here and there, a second set of feet, really tiny ones, shows up next to them.

Matthew Bennett:The footprints themselves show a lot of slippage and sliding and preferentially on one side of the body, which we suggest is where, you know, the child was being carried on one of the hips. And that's how the footprints are, as if somebody walks along and, "Oh, I've got to adjust. I've got to rest for a second." And they plunk them down in front of you and then do whatever they needed to do and then pick them up again.

Lillian Cunningham:Matthew can't help but imagine a whole story here. He calls it paleo poetry. It's when you study the details of a trackway, which is the path formed by the footsteps, and you let your imagination fill in the rest.

Matthew Bennett:What were they doing? Were they -- You know, this trackway goes straight out in a straight line and was clearly in a hurry. They were walking fast. You know, why? Was it an emergency? It's clear that they came back at a later date, not carrying the child. Was it being dropped off? We don't really know.

Lillian Cunningham:David started finding these small footprints all over the Park Service side of the lake bed. He told me he loved thinking about people not just fighting and hunting the giant animals that roamed here, but also raising families.

David Bustos:It's really something to see a child print, you know, 10 miles or so out in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the salt flat. I think, myself, I had a child, a toddler, around that same age, and you can see the toes and the heel of a little toddler. You know, holy smokes. Like, this is real. And I mean, children are fun 'cause they do all kinds of stuff that children do even today. You know, you see them jumping in the mud and then they'll see, you know, they'll walk by this giant ground sloth footprint and then they start extending their steps to step inside of the footprint of the giant ground sloth. Oh, that's great. [Laughs] That's like what we would have done at that same age. So, you know, the prints, they show that we don't change overall. You know, some things are true about people no matter what year it is. You know, I think if we had the opportunity to step on a giant ground sloth's footprints, we'd do the same thing.

Edward Jolie:I will never look at a footprint, human or otherwise, the same way again.

Lillian Cunningham:This is Edward Jolie, an anthropological archeologist at the University of Arizona. He's also Oglala Lakota and a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma. He's not part of the official footprint study, but he's one of several Native American scientists who've gone out to White Sands to look at the prints with David, so he's seen them up close. I wanted to talk with him because one of the things this discovery has done is draw more attention to just how long native people have called this land home.

Edward Jolie:Being able to walk alongside some of these trackways, it puts you in the past in a way that it's hard to describe. In many ways, you are walking literally in the footprints of ancestors. It's a little bit of family history. I'm not just learning about the past and things that shed light on sort of the broader human experience. It's a reminder that, you know, you had ancestors that had difficult, challenging lives at some times, but they had good times, they were happy, and you're here because of them. And so, you know, in what way can you make those tales, those narratives, meaningful for people in the present? How is it that we can make this useful?

Lillian Cunningham:Exactly how long ago such ancestors were here and left these prints that Edward could walk alongside? Well, that was the big question. The Park Service enlisted help from some US Geological Survey scientists, who came up with a creative idea. They found teensy, tiny seeds embedded in the footprints. And because the seeds contain organic material, they could radiocarbon date them. When they did, they came up with something shocking.

David Bustos:So, these seeds are about 23,000 years old.

Lillian Cunningham:23,000 years upends the previous archeological consensus about when humans first lived in North America by a lot. Up until now, many archeologists thought that the first people arrived in North America about 14,000 years ago. The thinking was, before that, giant glaciers blocked much of the continent, making it impossible for people to cross into North America. As that ice melted, it opened up new land routes that enabled people to come here from other continents. But if people were actually here 23,000 years ago, well, that raises all sorts of new questions.

Matthew Bennett:How did they get across this ice barrier? How did they arrive? Well, perhaps they came before. Perhaps they were here before that barrier built up and prevented people coming south.

Lillian Cunningham:Edward Jolie says that timeline might be hard for some people to accept, but not him.

Edward Jolie:I do like to remind people that it corresponds and matches up with what a lot of native people have been telling archeologists for decades.

Lillian Cunningham:He says there has long been a hesitancy in the scientific community, though, to accept the idea that native presence could date back that far.

Edward Jolie:If you think back, you know, even 100 or more years ago, a lot of sort of the general perspective was that, well, maybe Native Americans and their ancestors haven't been here that long. And, you know, part of it was that it's more insidious when we think back in the late 19th and early 20th century, because by assuming a relatively young date for the arrival of Native Americans, it implied that, "Well, they haven't been here that long, so the terrible things that we've been doing to dispossess them and remove them from their lands, that's not so bad."

Lillian Cunningham:David and Matthew published their findings in the journal Science in 2021. It drew a lot of excitement and a lot of skepticism. Some critics have suggested that the seeds could be older than the prints and could have gotten mixed up in the sand at some point. Others say that the carbon dating process itself might be flawed. David and Matthew told me that those kind of debates are just a natural part of the scientific process and that White Sands is just one piece of a huge puzzle.

Matthew Bennett:You've got lots of dried lake beds across the American Southwest, and footprints occur very widely in all of these dried lake beds. In 10 years' time, there'll be lots of White Sands, you know, data points.

Lillian Cunningham:Matthew says that this discovery may help spark more research and that, who knows -- with a bigger range of sites and data, the timeline might one day be pushed back even further. In the meantime, David is scrambling to preserve what's out at White Sands. According to the Park Service, White Sands National Park protects the most extensive collection of Ice Age footprints in the world. But these footprints that have endured for so long might not be around much longer.

Matthew Bennett:There's a sense that unless we capture some of these stories now, they'll be lost over time.

Lillian Cunningham:White Sands seems like a dry environment, but it actually has a very high water table, meaning that you'll hit water not too far below the surface, and that plays an important role in this ecosystem.

David Bustos:The soil moisture really is the glue that holds the dunes together. And if you lose that high water table and the soil moisture within the dunes, the dunes would rapidly break down.

Lillian Cunningham:Climate change has been drying out and lowering that water table.

David Bustos:The sand's become so dry in some places that the vehicles just sink into the sand. It's too dry, and we've gotten stuck where we've never gotten stuck before.

Lillian Cunningham:Those changes in moisture have been enough to accelerate erosion. As the sand crumbles and blows away, it can expose previously buried prints. It can also destroy them. So, climate change seems to be the culprit for both why the footprints have been showing themselves and why they're vanishing quickly.

David Bustos:Basically, some of these prints are, you know, 20,000 years old, and you have about maybe a two- or three-year window of time where you get to see them. And sometimes it's even less than that. The biggest thing we're doing is just racing to preserve the prints. There's thousands of prints being lost, you know, probably every year. Hundreds and hundreds of acres are being eroded away. So, we're trying to be there to capture the last glimpse, sort of, of the stories before they're gone.

Lillian Cunningham:I asked David several times if I could go see some of the human footprints with him, but he said that wasn't possible because they've mostly been found on a stretch of parkland that's very close to the missile range and off-limits to the public because the ground is studded with old shrapnel and unexploded bombs. It seems wild to me that so much of this deep, fragile history containing clues about our own human origins lies in a place that's been repeatedly bombed. But maybe it's not strange. Maybe it's just complicated and layered, like so much about this desert. It made me think back to something Tina Cordova said on my first day out here. We were trying to wrap our heads around the dust from the Trinity test site and how far into the future it will still be radioactive.

Tina Cordova:24,000 years is the half life of plutonium. Where does it go?

Lillian Cunningham:Just hearing you say that number, 24,000, just, like, really strikes me since I feel like that's also more or less the number we've read about for how far back they date the footprints in White Sands.

Tina Cordova:And when I think 24,000 years, it's hard to wrap my mind around. It's impossible to understand.

Lillian Cunningham:I thought about this as night fell and a full moon rose over the white sand dunes. 24,000 years. The national park stayed open late one night for a concert. I climbed my way again to the top of a dune, this time just to sit and listen. A musician named Randy Granger stood below. He plays the guitar and an instrument called the Native American flute, in honor of his Mayan and Apache ancestry.

Randy Granger:[Singing] Deep peace of the flowing air to you. Deep peace of the quiet earth to you. Deep peace of the shining stars to you.

Lillian Cunningham:Kids were still running around and sliding down the sand. But those of us listening spread out across the dunes encircling him like a natural amphitheater.

Randy Granger:[Singing] The moon and stars, more than a healing light on you.

Lillian Cunningham:24,000 years. That's nearly a thousand generations of people living in this landscape as it went from wetland to desert, as gypsum crystals formed white dunes in one spot, and the sand turned to green glass in another.

Randy Granger:[Singing] Deep peace to you.

Lillian Cunningham:Next time on "Field Trip." For our final stop, we're going to one of the most remote and least visited of all the national parks.

Lillian Cunningham:I thought I was going to feel, like, a little more... I don't know, nervous or something to, like, see the planes take off and know we were here all by ourselves. But it actually just feels really cool. It's a beautiful feeling.

Man:It does cause panic in some people, though.

Lillian Cunningham:"Field Trip" was reported and produced by me, Lillian Cunningham, Bishop Sand, and Emma Talkoff. It was edited by Robin Amer and Theo Balcomb. Additional editing by Renita Jablonski, Juliet Eilperin, Dana Hedgpeth, Krissah Thompson, and Courtney Kan, who is also our projects editor. Copy editing by Mike Cirelli. Our fact checkers for this episode were Kitty Samuels and Emma Talkoff. Sound design and mixing by Jim Briggs, with additional production support from Sam Bair. The series includes original music by Decoded Forests. Our credits theme is by Ailani Music. "Field Trip's" show art is by Katty Huertas. Archival tape is courtesy of Dennis Carroll, the National Park Service, and the Truman Presidential Library. Additional tape is courtesy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. All rights reserved. Special thanks to Stephen Smith, Allison Michaels, and Arjun Singh, and to Randy Granger for the use of his music.

In making this show, it was so important to me to bring you inside all of these parks and to bring you along on my reporting journey. That work would not have been possible without the support of Washington Post subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can unlock a special deal as a listener to this series. Your first four weeks are free when you sign up at washingtonpost.com/parkspodcast.

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