Marriage Proposal in the Dunes at White Sands National Monument Takes an Unwelcome Turn

The sparkling white dunes at White Sands National Monument provide some beautiful scenery...but this is an easy place to get lost. NPS photo.

A prospective groom-to-be had a fine idea for a unique place to propose marriage to his sweetheart—the beautiful, snow-white dunes at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The event took an unexpected turn, however, when the pair became the subjects of a search and rescue effort that includes some unusual resources.

The story began about noon on Monday, January 9, when Russell Vandameer and Karen Renshaw, both of Oklahoma, set out on a hike in the park with their three dogs, Stitch, Suzy, and Griswald.

Mr. Vandameer had a surprise in mind, and after the pair and their three canine witnesses reached a suitable—and beautiful—spot within the dunes, he proposed to Ms. Renshaw. It was undoubtedly a memorable moment, but ensuing events made it even more so.

By later that afternoon, park personnel learned that the pair was lost in the dunes and unable to find their way back to civilization.

Getting lost in this area isn't hard to do. The park's 275 square miles of desert include the world's largest gypsum dunefield, one white dune looks pretty much like another, and landmarks are scarce. The park website notes, "It is easy to become disoriented when hiking in the dunes," and offers some important safety advice for visitors who venture off the road.

The good news is that once this pair realized they were lost, they took an important step. According to a park report, "Rather than continue to wander, becoming more lost, they contacted a cousin via cell phone and requested that help be sent."

When the timing is right, a request to "send help" at White Sands can have some impressive results. The park is located adjacent to the White Sands Missile Range, which "at 3,200 square miles is the largest military installation in the country." That facility, and Fort Bliss, not far to the south near El Paso, can bring some handy resources to bear on a search mission.

The interagency search for this missing couple involved not only park personnel, but also the Alamo West Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army. Of greatest concern in this situation were the cold temperatures that are common in this desert at night.

According to a park report, "Two Army Rescue Blackhawk helicopters were dispatched from Fort Bliss and Holloman Air Force base diverted an F-22 Raptor from a training mission to the search effort. The pilot of the Raptor was able to positively identify the couple with their three dogs. Two Air Force drones were also tasked, which were able to relay specific coordinates and monitor the lost hikers' location and movement from the air while the Army helicopters were en route. The search effort was greatly aided by the assistance of the military aircraft, which utilized night vision and infrared equipment to safely locate the hikers after nightfall."

The hikers and their dogs were picked up by one of the Army Blackhawks and transported out of the dunes to the command post, where they were examined by park personnel and Alamo West EMS for exposure to the below-freezing nighttime temperatures.

So, what was the prospective bride's reaction to the unexpected excitement?

We're told that she accepted the marriage proposal, but the pair may need to order a little more cake and punch for the reception. A park spokesman says the newly engaged couple invited the Blackhawk helicopter crew to the wedding.