The Ghosts of Monahans


At its most basic level, all experiences can be described as “good,” provided you survive them. While crossing West Texas in pursuit of a cooler June climate in the mountains of New Mexico, we parked our RV for four days at Monahans Sandhills State Park, outside Monahans, Texas. Arriving in the mid-afternoon, the ambient temperature was a withering 103 degrees.  As we navigated our way around the narrow, winding asphalt road to our campsite, I remember an eerie sense that this would be—for reasons I could not then explain—a memorable stay.

Through the windshield before me sprawled an endless, quiet ocean of sand, the color of white corn, bright and glaring in the afternoon heat. There were, save a lone RV at the end of our road and a hodgepodge of indistinguishable tracks in the sand, scant signs of life in this oven.  An isolated bird or two occasionally strafed the sand, a crazed lizard scurried across the road before me while tortured plants nobly endured under the baking sun . . . otherwise, a sea of silence. It was as if we are being warned: all who choose to stay here will struggle.

My first thought was that we had fallen upon a type of Texas Parks and Wildlife Division purgatory. To assign park rangers for mandatory 2-year tours, open a desert interpretative center and give them a few sand-blown camp sites to maintain must be a way of punishing errant employees of TPWD—like being exiled to Siberia. Who would want to live here, why does someone consider this land significant enough to build a state park and who would want to spend their stay looking at a bunch of sand? A half-hour spent at the interpretative center the next day would answer all those questions for me; but, for now, nothing about this place made sense.

We set up camp in what turned out to be 105 degree heat that first day. The RV air conditioner ran until well after 10:00 pm before it had a chance to achieve a uniform 78 degrees inside.  But outside, in the setting sun, it was a different story.

After the pale sun slipped into its own coalbed of evening clouds, everything changed. A pair of prairie chickens skittered across a ridge of sand, pecking furtively at invisible nourishment. Flycatchers dipped and flitted, seining for insects. As temperatures moderated, shadows gradually blurred the contours of the Sandhills under a sky littered with stars. An ecosystem made inhospitable by day allowed for the business of living at night. Stark as these conditions seemed, it was apparently enough.  Amazing.

Enjoying my coffee in the cool hours of the next morning, I received a visit from K.C., the park ranger. K.C. was one of those people who are deeper than they appear to be on the surface.  He politely inquired after our needs, asked where we were from and the length of our stay.  He then proceeded to inform me of the many wonders of the Sandhills, to include his hope that we might be able to witness the Monahans Ghosts.  Turns out the prevailing winds change seasonally and when they are sufficiently brisk the ghosts appear before your eyes.  Dunes shift and change shape, moving with currents of wind-swept sand that seem to be alive. “These shifting shapes, shadows on the wind, are like the presence of ghosts,” he said.  I listened with interest but, so far during our stay—nothing but heat.  “Yeah, it can get warm here this time of year,” K.C. deadpanned.

The park is only a small portion of a dune field that extends about 200 miles from south of Monahans, Texas westward and north into New Mexico. It consists of 3,840 acres of sand dunes, some up to 70 feet high, in Ward and Winkler counties, about a half-hour’s drive west of Odessa. Most of these dunes are stabilized by vegetation, but the park is one area where many dunes are still active. Active dunes grow and change shape under the mysterious spell of the ghosts.  A favorite past time is to slide down the dunes in plastic sand discs available for rent from the park headquarters. In fact, we found the sand hills to be very popular in the early morning or late afternoon by day-trippers and local residents. People seek out the highest west-facing dunes to come contemplate the flaming gold, orange and scarlet sunsets.

This area has been inhabited for as far back as 12,000 years for reasons one would never consider likely. You see, water is abundant at shallow depths, sometimes pooling in the lowest depressions.  Sand holds moisture very well. In post-glacial times, the region was actually lakes and tall grasses, as proven by bones of great mammoths and gigantic bison found in the 1870’s. Despite the conspicuous absence of present-day animal life during the daytime, the water attracts mule deer, gray fox, coyote, bobcat and much more after the sun sets.  Early Native Americans found the Sandhills area provided for all their needs.  Spanish explorers scouted the area as far back as 400 years ago.

In the 1880’s the Texas Pacific Railroad selected Monahans as a water stop between the Pecos River and the town of Big Spring. Railroad track foremen were responsible for 20-mile stretches of track, providing water and assistance to railroaders and any others who needed help within their jurisdiction (thirsty travelers sand-bogged or stranded by storms). These track foremen were given Section Houses by the railroad company and a wind-pumped water well (replicas of each are found within the park today).  This was a lonely, desolate life, but a boon to the attraction of others and settlement of the area in what otherwise was a vast wind-blown no-man’s land.

The next developmental explosion in the Sandhills occurred in the late 1920’s with the discovery of oil. The Sandhills were part of a much larger expanse of land known as the Permian Basin and today pump jacks are peppered over 800 square miles of oil and cattle country.  The area is one of the most sprawling and flourishing monuments to the American oil industry.  Today, Monahans is a boom town and marketing center for Big Oil—vacant hotel rooms are rare and come at a premium!

On day 3 of our survival experience, local news predicted exceptional heat during the day and violent storms that night. We closed up the RV and headed to the nearest town with an available hotel room (Odessa).  Upon return to our campsite the next day, we hardly recognized it.  Much of the asphalt road was drifted with sand, all human and animal prints had been erased under a smooth rippled surface, two of our RV tire covers were missing and everything had been sandblasted; crusted with a gritty residue.

The previous night’s storm brought with it a cold front, pleasantly dropping our daytime temps to the 80’s with a 25 mph wind—brisk enough to stir the ghosts and comfortable enough to watch. This was our opportunity.  Gusts of sand circled and danced like dervishes, moving across the horizon in broad sweeping shadows, changing the landscape as we watched. I quickly grabbed my camera.

By mid-morning the massive clean-up was already under way.  TXDOT was clearing roads with a giant motorized rotary brush, front loaders were uncovering inundated camp sites and K.C. returned our two missing tire covers, recovered from the night before.  As I gathered our things and prepared for the next morning’s departure, it occurred to me that early travelers through this area would not have had nearby hotel rooms as choices—they could only hunker down and persevere.  Yes, we had dodged a bullet and escaped the worst of the storm, but my original premonition about this place had come true . . . our stay had been a struggle.   Yet, there was beauty all around—undulating sand dunes found nowhere else in Texas—and sculpted by ghosts!

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