The Desert Shoot

The vision calls for rolling dunes as far as the eye can see. We need a lot of sand. We need a desert.  Or, at least, what passes for one. Initial discussions of shooting five web videos for the client, a durable outdoor fabric company, turn to the Arizona desert.

The Sahara Desert

As the concept becomes clearer, it becomes obvious to me that Arizona is too scrubby. (Not wanting to get laughed out of the room, I conceal my initial suggestion of the Sahara.) Having driven cross-country numerous times, traveled to all 50 states, and lived in a quarter of them, I know the terrain on this part of the continent. That’s one of my qualifications as a location scout. This is not my client, so I’m kind of on the sidelines of the conversation. I casually saunter onto the field to explain that there are different kinds of desert scenery available. Maybe we should consider something unique such as the Great Sands National Monument in southern Colorado.

As production plans continue to evolve, I set out to find online photographic proof of the perfect match. Initially, the concept vacillates between rolling sandy dunes to harsh, dry cracking earth so I scour the net for both.

There are 3 dry, cracked lake beds within an doable commute from Las Vegas. We consider Jean, Roach and Eldorado Dry Lakes.  Each has appealing attributes. I nix locations in Death Valley because of the distance to hotels for our large crew and one in northern Nevada because of the possibility of snow.

For the rolling dunes scenario, I lean in favor of the Great Sand Dunes.  Unfortunately, the dates are pushed back from October to late November and the Colorado weather becomes a negative factor. The possibility of snow is just too risky. Imperial Sand Dunes in southern California is another possibility but is quickly deleted because it is a magnet for ATV riders and the sky wears a constant polluted haze that’s drifting in from nearby civilization. Accessibility to airports for the large crew is also a hassle.

Meanwhile, White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico features the whitest sand imaginable. These berms, hills and piles of breathtakingly white gypsum sand sit under strikingly bright blue spotless clear skies. ATVs are prohibited. The closest town, Alamogordo, is only 15 miles away and the airport in El Paso, Texas is 90 miles due south with cheap airfares from Charlotte. Other pluses include hotels willing to give a great group rate for our crew of around 60 people. Dining options are inexpensive and prices for other goods and services are reasonable. The weather should still be good in mid November.

White Sands National Monument

We pick the week before Thanksgiving because that’s the closest we can get to a full moon (for special time lapse shots) without traveling during the holiday rush. Also, we’ll need that much time to assemble all of the furniture that will be used in the shoot. The only negatives to this location are that it’s nestled between White Sands Missile Testing Range and Holloman Air Force Base.  We are advised that if there are missile tests while we are there, we will have to leave the park for about two hours losing precious shooting time.  The good news is that the rangers usually get advance notice and none are scheduled during shoot days.  The Air Force base is another story.  The can practice flying in formation or perform “touch & go’s” (where they practice landing and taking off) at any time, without notice.  Since we are recording audio, this could be a problem.

Months of planning include rolling into the desert with an army of vehicles. Our battalion includes a semi full of furniture and fabric; a sailboat; a powerboat; a Mini Cooper; a production trailer that includes office space, a wardrobe area and bathrooms; catering trucks, craft services trailer for snacks and drinks outside of mealtimes; trucks for the art department and props; a grip truck filled with equipment and lights and various other vehicles pulling generators; a jib (which is like a crane for the camera) and – oh yeah. Almost forgot: vehicles for transporting people.

The park gates open for our convoy

We arrive in El Paso on American Airlines Saturday afternoon after a long layover in Dallas and meet up with our Director and Director of Photography, who just flew in from a pre-production meeting in Hawaii for a Super Bowl commercial. Let me just say that our DP is like an exotic beauty with his long dreadlocks and simple but definitely high end fashion sense.  We girls are smitten.

Smog Over El Paso

After picking up a couple of rental vans and the Mini, we head north to Alamogordo.  The smog from neighboring Juarez, Mexico wafts across the border and turns the El Paso sky a hazy brown.  These days I’m pretty sensitive to smog so my eyes and nose immediately start to burn.

My new ride

I’m driving the Mini. A co-worker hops in. We drop the top and just like that, we are having a good time. The music is

rockin’ in this tiny car and the girls go wild. Somehow, the turbo engine sneaks us up magically into the 85 – 90 mph range.

It’s a long, straight, hour and a half drive through desert and not much else. We slow down around the halfway point to pass through one sad-looking little town called Orogrande, NM. It’s mostly boarded up and feels like a speed trap.  I watch the speedometer as we coast through and then we are off again.

As the sun starts to set, we are too proud to stop and put the top up. Instead, in an attempt to stop the chattering teeth, we turn the heat on full blast.  Not quite effective.  The party girls in the convertible are not about to swallow our pride and stop the whole freeking caravan to put up the top because (wah, wah,) we’re cold! But wait! That is no mirage on the horizon! Even though we are miles from Mexico, a border checkpoint appears and we have to stop to vow that we are U.S. citizens.  This gives us the perfect excuse to casually hit the up button for the convertible top.

Later, thawed, and certified as citizens, we check in to the comfy and clean Holiday Inn Express in Alamogordo and start to gather the few crew members who are assembled for pre-production. It’s nice to finally put faces with voices that we have gotten to know on the phone for the past couple of months.

After everyone checks in it’s decided the locale has put us in the mood for margaritas and Mexican food. The front desk clerk at the hotel suggests Margo’s Mexican restaurant located on the perimeter of the Wal-Mart parking lot. The first disappointment for this crowd of fairly serious drinkers is that the margaritas are made from agave wine, instead of tequila. It turns out that New Mexico has cracked down on drunk driving and Alamogordo has taken it even further making it very expensive for restaurants to get liquor licenses. Apparently, the only places that can afford to sell the good stuff are the big chains.

Most of the crew settles for beer instead, but not me. I take my bravery seriously, and order one of these curious concoctions. My convertible cohort orders one too. She struggles but can’t quite gag it down. It’s not good, by any stretch, but it’s not that bad.  This coming from a Princess.

My acid test for Mexican restaurants are tamales. The best can be light as air. The worst are mealy mounds of masa filled with dry, tasteless meat. Margo’s are quite good. They are smothered in your choice of green or red chile sauce. I choose the red which I am hoping is fiery hot. It does not disappoint. Years ago a former boyfriend’s aunt made us a red chile-based sauce from hot New Mexican chiles and I have never forgotten how delicious that was. I want to get my fill while I’m here. I’m told that the Hatch chiles are the best. September is the harvest season for these delicacies so we just missed them. With our long workdays here, I might have to resort to shipping home some frozen chiles.

On Sunday, the rangers come to the hotel for a required briefing.  Crew members are not allowed to set foot on the white sands until they have attended one of these meetings, and sign a paper stating they have read and understand what is expected.  Rangers explain that we can walk on the dunes but we need to tread lightly on the interdunal areas.  These are places that look grey but support lots of life.  One of the rangers told us that when puddles accumulate from rain, they can find tadpoles and brine shrimp.  The whole place is teeming with life.  Just add water and see it grow!  We’ll try to stay off these areas but if we must walk it will be single file and in each other’s footprints.

Past the parking lot, are the darker interdunal areas.

We are held to a higher standard than the general public because we can do a lot more damage to a concentrated area. It’s one thing for a few people to walk the dunes but with 60 people tromping around we can cause lasting destruction.  Our vehicles will be washed with reverse osmosis water to rid them of any spores containing foreign microbes. The crew we hire to do this takes two days to complete the task.  Once they have been washed, the vehicles will only pick up native species of plants or microbes.  Years ago a Russian Olive tree, probably carried in unintentionally, took root and the park is having a hard time getting rid of the invasive pest. The last thing we want to do is bring in kudzu to this pristine national treasure.

Scouting for the perfect location

Our first expedition in the park is to scout for and select the spot for our shoot. The main entrance is about 15 miles from our hotel followed by four miles of asphalt that finishes with a four mile loop of plowed, hard-packed gypsum. It reminds me of driving in Colorado or Alaska after a snowstorm, except that it’s not icy.  A winter wonderland without the freezing temperatures, at least not while the sun is out.

Rangers show off their park

Our permit requires a park ranger to be with us at all times, paid for through our location fees. They provide guidance as to what we can and can’t do.  They have drilled into us that this is not the place to do something inappropriate and then hope for forgiveness later.  We ask a lot of questions and police each other to make sure the land remains protected.

West Base Area

After picking the West Base location, which is behind a gate and more secluded from the road than other potential locations, we head back to the hotel to hash out minute details.

Our Director of Photography (He of the gorgeous dreads and subtle fashions) has done a few previous shoots in this location and has some great restaurants in his very chic hip pocket.  He leads us to a barbecue joint called Can’t Stop Smokin’ to pick up some carryout lunch. It’s nothing fancy: cafeteria style. But it turns out to be pretty darn tasty.  The crew gives it the nickname, “The Meat Palace” and we will return several times during our stay.  Who knew there are so many ways to cook so many varieties of meat?  I’m talking ribs, sausages, chopped, pulled…you name it.  Then there are is the assortment of sides followed by a parade of sinful desserts. Pies, cobblers, and cookies, oh my!

Clutching our sacks of meats, we meet up again in the conference room of the hotel and knuckle down to a long day of planning. There are wardrobe and prop decisions to make.  We go through the storyboards so everyone understands what we need to accomplish for the primary shoot.  It’s late evening before we finish and can barely muster the energy to drag ourselves across the parking lot to Chili’s for drinks and a light dinner.  We squeeze inside the door just before the kitchen closes at 10:00pm. Then, it’s right to bed.  Starting tomorrow the days begin a lot earlier and go much later.

Monday morning, rise & shine at 4:15 to attend the ranger briefing.  For the second day of pre-production, most of the crew is kept busy building sets so we’re ready to start shooting early Tuesday.  This long day includes lugging pieces of deck up to the top of a dune.  We are not allowed to install structures but we can assemble them.

The deck is unloaded and ready to be carried up to the top of the dune

The Beginnings of the Deck


The wall of fabric concept is a challenge to execute and takes much longer than anticipated to put together.  The fabric was supposed to be panels that are 15 feet long.

The Wall of Fabric

But, some are too short and others are too long.  We have to go back and lower the speed rail (think of a really big curtain rod) so the shortest panel touches the ground and then cut the longer panels so they are all dangling just above the sand and can blow in the wind.

The saving grace for this day and the days to come are the excellent caterers we have on site.  Food! Glorious food! These guys from All Star Catering out of Albuquerque are the highlight of this crew’s day.  The days start with breakfast burritos, biscuits and gravy, and various delicious takes on typical breakfast foods.  A big hit is the orange-juicing machine.

Lunch Menu

The second gourmet spread of the day features the likes of roasted pork with raspberry/chipotle barbecue sauce; grilled salmon and charred kernels of corn with chiles. The food is so good that by the end of the week a lot more rangers seem to find themselves in the area at mealtime.  We welcome them to our tables and enjoy their company.

That afternoon, as I get ready to go back to town to shop for more props and fill in our wardrobe, a huge windstorm blows in.  The temperature lowers significantly as the crew scrambles to protect the fabric wall.

White Sands Windstorm


I head off to the White Sands Mall with our client and a wardrobe Production Assistant.  In spite of racks of clothes from Tommy Bahama and other high-end shops, we need more and J.C Penney is our only choice.

While there, my husband, Mike, e-mails me and asks what I was up to.  I reply that I am in a very sad mall: not many people and lots of closed stores.  In addition to J.C. Penney, the anchors are K-Mart and Bealls.  They have a Hallmark store, a military recruiter and a only a handful of open shops.  I’m hoping for the city’s sake that the lack of people is because it’s a Monday afternoon.  We can’t find everything we need so we stop at Wal-Mart on the way back to the hotel.

Onto another round of marathon production meetings.  I volunteer to pick up dinner at the Hi-D-Ho Drive-In.  As someone who has never eaten a McDonald’s, Wendy’s or Burger King burger, this menu just ain’t gonna work. The tamales at Margo’s beckon. I call in an order while waiting at the Hi-D-Ho and swing by to pick those up on the way back.

Wal-Mart boots encrusted with white sand

After eating, I realize I have forgotten one absolutely must-have item for tomorrow’s shoot. I’m so pissed that it’s 10:30 and I have to go back to Wal-Mart.  As exhausted as I am, and even though I hate shopping here for political reasons, I manage to find some $30 work boots that will make it easier to walk in the sand and my favorite brand (Embassa) of chipotle peppers, in adodbo sauce for only $1.22 a can instead of nearly $3, if I can find it, in Charlotte.  I flop into bed around midnight.

Tuesday is another 4:15 start.  This is the final ranger briefing.  The rest of the crew is here because shooting starts today.  One thing we need are extra shots of pristine sand in case we need to fix something after the fact in post production. While the camera rolls, the main talent wanders out onto faraway dunes and then walks around in shoes that are killing him all while looking as casual as possible.  The footage looks fantastic. But face it. Anything will look fantastic with this backdrop.

Sailboat is camera ready

The sailboat is set in place.  A front loader shovels tons of “cosmetic” sand so it appears the boat’s sitting on a dune. (Even though it is still sitting on the trailer.)  The power boat will have mostly close-ups so it doesn’t matter that it’s not surrounded by sand.

Sailboat Behind the Scenes

Setting up the power boat

At one point I am in the production trailer and there is an explosion.  It shakes the trailer so badly that I think one of the toilets has blown up.  I go running outside to see what has happened.  A crew member comes staggering out of the loo looking shaken.  Everything is intact and we realize that we have just heard our first of many sonic booms, courtesy of the Air Force.  By chance, we find that local radio stations provide sonic boom schedules so we know what it is when it happens.

The Camera Club

If that’s not enough, a touring camera club sees our fabric wall from the distance and wants to know what’s going on.  The ranger giving the tour tells them what we are doing and they want to come and see.  Signals are crossed and they don’t realized we are shooting with audio so in the middle of a scene their noisy, disel tour bus pulls up and disgorges about 40 photography geeks.  All have the requisite cameras hanging from their neck.  Like something out of a zombie movie they all start walking towards us.  I’m already on my way to try to wrangle them, herding them back to the bus.  The crew is not happy about the interruption and the ranger giving the tour is very apologetic.  The director yells, “Cut” and I give the go ahead to the driver that he can start the bus and leave the area.

Following wrap for the day, our growling stomachs argue in favor of the “Meat Palace” for dinner. The guys load up on turkey jerky. What is it with guys and jerky?

Sunrise over the dunes

Wednesday is the day when we have most of our talent on set.  This includes three children.  New Mexico law requires that we have a teacher for them and specifies how many hours they must study, play and also places limitations as to how many hours they can work.  We have a brother and sister and another girl.

The girl planned for one scene doesn’t work out because she is too tall.  She’s released (with pay) but is really upset.  I drive her and her mom the seven miles back to the main gate of the park.  The little girl cries all the way.  This vivacious kid will go far but it’s a tough day for her.  Her mom is philosophical about the whole thing.  She says it’s good for her daughter to lose this role because she needs to learn that rejection comes with this business.  The little actress became instant friends with the other little girl and they live near each other in Albuquerque so some good came out of the day for her.

Setting up for the party scene

I’m spending the day ferrying talent back and forth from the gate to the set because again, we are trying to limit our impact on the park and our permit only allows a certain amount of personal vehicles.  It gives me a chance to get to know them. I find out that one of the actors has surpassed my goal of going to 100 countries.  He has over 130 and has a coveted membership in the Traveler’s Century Club.  I am seething with jealousy and tell him so.  He’s smug about his accomplishment and rubs it in.  Being a consummate professional does not keep me from hating him.

Embassa Chipotles and Honey

The long days are wearing on the crew.  The only decision we can make for dinner is to walk across the parking lot to Chili’s again.  We’re exhausted.  I got chicken in a chipotle and honey sauce.  Being a food snob, I am surprised how tasty it is, from a chain no-less and will definitely recreate this dish with out frying the chicken.  I will use my newly acquired cans of Embassa Chipotle peppers for this dish.

On Thursday I continue to ferry talent back and forth from the Visitor’s Center at the main gate.  On my last excursion the tire pressure sensor in our van reports a tire is low.  I don’t have time to go all the way in to town to check it so I hunt for rangers that I know to see if there is an air pump nearby.  Alas, there is not, so I decide that maybe the sensor isn’t happy in the cold weather and I’m just going to risk it. As long as I’m out of the car, I decide to take 5 minutes and run into the gift shop.  The sun has been beating down and I really need a hat.  I pick up a nice one that I can use and then give to Mike for golf when I get home.

Daniel Coriz Earrings

Daniel Coriz Earrings

Being a girl, I’m attracted to shiny things that I can put on my ears.  Not surprising, the earrings that attract me the most are also the most expensive.  I buy a great pair created by a Native American by the name of Daniel Coriz. I knew I had good taste but at the time did not realize that this artist has pieces in the Smithsonian.  I find that out after I have dropped one and broken it.  Damn!  Then I did it again with the same earring.  Double damn! Super Glue does the trick for the repairs and I put some Scotch Tape on the back to minimize shattering in case this klutz drops them again.  I think this is karma paying me back for taking 5 minutes for myself while everyone else is busting their butts.

Sick of climbing the dune, the crew set up the saucer where the footprints are.

Another item available at the gift shop are saucers for sledding down the dunes.  This is a major activity here.  At one point, the rangers bring a couple over.  The crew puts one to use, rigging a rope to it so they can easily transport gear up and down the dune.  Crew members also use it as quick transport off the dune.  Finally it’s my turn to head down so I jump on the saucer.  My regret is that I am not here as a tourist so I can spend an afternoon playing!

This is our last day and we are in a rush to finish shooting.  Once we wrap, we have to clean up. The last shootable sunlight fades behind the mountains around 4:30pm and we still need to pack the trucks and make sure every scrap of trash is picked up before we leave.

Bye Bye All Stars

Just after lunch we say goodbye to the stars from All Star Catering.  We sniff back a tear and emit a faint fond burp, as the catering trucks and their culinary skills drive off.

We’ll miss you!

At 4:00 we are rushing to start our last crucial shot with the Mini Cooper.  We fly through it and wrap just as the last ray of light has sunk below the mountain peaks.  Lighting the scene with headlights, we pack the trucks and triple-check for trash.

The sun sets on the shoot

The temperature plummets with the setting sun.  The sky turns inky black as the nearly full moon sheds its lunar luminescence. (Sorry. Couldn’t stop myself.)  Our location manager and the ranger are satisfied with clean-up. We head back to the hotel at around 6:30.

(I’m really proud to say that the Rangers took pictures of our production site and said they planned to use it as part of a “how-to” brochure for future large groups like ours.)

Some of the crew heads to an evening of gambling at a casino about 40 minutes away in the mountains.  This drinking crew is surprised that because of the strict drinking laws they are not allowed to drink and gamble simultaneously.

Not being much of a gambler, I choose instead to go out with some new friends to the most upscale, international restaurant in town, Stella Vita.  It’s in the cute, but nearly empty downtown area.  There are a few antique stores along this section of New York Avenue and a handful of other shops but most storefronts are empty. Inside, Stella Vita is a long, narrow room with hardwood floors.  Live music consists of a pretty good guitarist playing mostly classic rock tunes. There is a large party of local women at one table.  Another large party is made up of fellow crew members halfway through their meal.

We settle into our table.  The bread is homemade and hot.  I sip a glass of wine and can’t resist the unusual entree of Green Chile Chicken Alfredo.  This pasta dish is much lighter than the usual heavy creaminess of Alfredo sauce. The chopped tomatoes make the sauce red and the roasted green chiles give it a kick.  I thoroughly savor this last dinner in Alamogordo along with the great conversation.

The next morning starts early.  We need to hit the road by 7:30 to leave enough time to return the Mini-Cooper and rental cars and check all of our luggage.  The trip back is on Delta through Atlanta on the first day of the Thanksgiving holiday travel season.  A recipe for a trip from hell and it does not disappoint.

The flight from El Paso to Atlanta is uneventful.  But after boarding the flight to Charlotte, they can’t get the door closed.  It’s bent, maybe from the jetway.  Mechanics are called and everyone tries to determine whether the plane is flightworthy (a decision that you never want to be wrong). The crew allows passengers to de-plane while they decide.  I grab all of my stuff because I just know I am not going to be getting back on this plane.

My co-workers head to the bar.  I head to the desk to hold a seat on the next flight.  I really want to get home to see my boyfriend/husband Mike and sleep in my own bed. I am still booked on the original 5:30 flight (they are now bringing a new plane) but I am holding a seat on the 8:30 flight just in case.  It’s now after 7:00pm.  I meet up with my co-workers who are feeling fairly convivial by now. The airline calls for us to board at a new gate.  I grab some food to go and scarf it down at the gate as people in wheelchairs are rolled down the ramp.  It’s almost 8:00. Fifteen minutes later, the people in wheelchairs are wheeled back up the ramp.  The plane has not been checked by security.

That’s it for me.  I dash down a few gates and hop on the 8:30 flight.  I get home an hour earlier than my co-workers.  My luggage full of dirty clothes arrives on their later flight.  No big deal.  I am happy to be home knowing that Thanksgiving is with good friends at our house and we will NOT be traveling during amateur season.

About Journeys By Jill

I have spent most of my adult life working in and around TV, film & radio production. As an avid traveler, I have a goal to visit at least 100 countries using the Century Traveler's Club Country List. At the moment, I have 54 to go. My favorite form of travel is to get off the beaten path and discover weird & wonderful attractions. Basically, I wing it. I'd love for you to come along for the ride.
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4 Responses to The Desert Shoot

  1. Yvette says:

    VERY interesting! And it looks like a great place to visit as a tourist!

  2. Karen Parker says:

    Really beautiful! And I’m glad to know about the inexpensive air fare from Charlotte. Woot!

    • Thanks your comments Karen. Airfare seems to run between $250-$300 RT and might be less if you buy separate one way flights on That’s how I priced it originally. It’s a cool trip to consider!

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