Thoughts from the dunes
My head swam with altitude. My insides churned nausea. My eyeballs swelled with heat. My veins tickled with dehydration, and, as I dropped the 50-pound load of my back, I was suddenly aware of the numbness in my shoulders.
I sort of collapsed on the edge of the dune, hundreds of feet above the San Luis Valley and the parking lot from which my friend Jake and I had started our ascent. We coaxed up the tent. Jake, professionally a photographer for The Hutchinson News in Kansas, took off back to the car to grab a spare camera battery — one of myriad things we’d forgotten, but the one we agreed we could not do without.
I remember remarking aloud to myself on the vast wondrousness of all before me in the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado, and, feeling a jot of literary spark approaching, took out my notebook to write: “As I write this, my bare feet snuggle bath-like into this infinite pile of sand on which I sit tentatively…sort of praying, I guess you could say, that a downright sinister wall of swollen bruised storm-burst rainclouds stays at a safe dozen miles away…”
It’s perhaps minutes later — time was immeasurable out there — that wisps of sand strike my back and I turn to see a ghastly storm descending the slope above our camp site. Wicked gusts shaved down the sharp summit of the dune like a heavenly woodworker applying the belt sander. The air spitted gritty sand, as if the gusts had a jagged edge. A sheen of rain followed, and by this time I had heaved our cooler and shoes into the tent and was waiting for the impact.
It was tremendous. The whole show was on such a scale that it had a playful anthropomorphic quality. I felt the forces of nature laughingly placing their thumb on my iota of personal strength attempting to uphold the struggling rod frames of the tent. The rods snapped in multiple places. The tarp floor slid with each pull of the tornadic gusts. Thunder clapped close overhead, involuntarily bringing to mind the pretty bits of tough glassy crystal chemically morphed from the charged contact between sand and lightning, educationally on display in the air-conditioned park welcome center.
Let’s just say my calm bravery was going the way of my polyester enclosure — almost into a paranoid apology that I had not opted for a safe campsite. I thought for sure I was a goner. I envisioned my body, electrocuted, dragged, caccooned in the rain canopy, still grasping the rods, somewhere down in the washed-out valley, days later by federal search and rescue teams led by dogs.
When I emerged wide-eyed from the tent — as in hindsight I should have always known I would, emerged — there was a triple rainbow over the valley (such a thing is possible, evidently.) The sheen of rain was receding fast, and the air, at nearly 9,000 feet, felt especially atmospheric and scrubbed clean. It was intoxicatingly beautiful.
I shaped the battered tent back into an acceptable form and walked backward from it cautiously as from a teetering house of cards. My worries had just shifted to Jake when his footsteps drew near. He had been trudging through the storm, thrown off-course as the solid sand ridges we hiked that afternoon had shifted, or altogether disappeared and re-formed elsewhere, in the storm.
A common thread linking several moments throughout my whirlwind vacation: big demands, big rewards. When planning a trip to the Great Sand Dunes, you and your group must have an active discussion about how hard you want to make it on yourselves, particularly if you’re as novice and sheltered and embedded in the eastern United States as I. (Jake, for the record, is from central New Jersey.) That certainly doesn’t mean you can’t do it, and, if anything, our survival through above story should serve to encourage you.
As described by the National Park Service literature handed to us at arrival, the dunes began forming 440,000 years ago by sand and soil particles carried by the Rio Grande and its network of tributaries feeding a vast lake in the San Luis Valley, which is about the size of Connecticut. As the glaciers and lake melted, westerly winds deposited the sand in drifts against the Sangre de Cristo Range, the southernmost subrange of the Rockies that forms the eastern boundary of the valley with several 14,000-foot rugged peaks that in August were starkly barren, treeless alpine tundra.
What evolved there is the largest heap of sand deposit in North America. Roughly 6.5 billion cubic meters of it, reaching at its highest point at a summit called Star Dune, 750 feet from the floor of the valley. They contain enough sand to fill a train that could wrap around the Earth 20 times, or they could spread ankle-deep across Massachusetts.
Surreal analogies aside, they’re deceptively big to hike.
We approached by car — an 18-hour drive from my residence on the North Side. This included a stop in Hutchinson to meet Jake and trade cars. (For a true sense of just how much the land climbs from central Kansas, elevation 1,500 feet above sea level, to the park office at the dunes, elevation 8,200 feet, I recommend resurrecting the old-fashioned great American road trip through flyover country, a drive promising as many stops and stories as any one destination. Jake’s GPS recorded the gradual but consistent rise: an average of 15 feet during each minute of driving.) We traced the historic Sante Fe Trail on present-day Route 50, a more-or-less straight shot through eastern Colorado stalking the Arkansas River and a Union Pacific rail line and connecting insular little towns like Holly, Lamar, La Junta, Walsenburg.
The park visitor center was expansive, complete with gift shop, a mini-museum dedicated to unpacking the complex geological formation of a seemingly absurd natural feature and an observation deck that offers an easy and inclusive view of the dunes. I’d venture to guess that satisfies most visitors’ sand dune cravings. Or maybe after an afternoon sporting on them with specially crafted sleds and boards available for rent for $20. Or after a sandy snooze, or some serious rolling downhill in the harmless cushiony stuff. And there’s also Medano Creek, which flows in thin veiny streams at the base of the dunes, to lounge in, and a variety of wooded alpine trains. And comfortable, landscaped drive-in sites were just down the road at Piñon Flats Campground for just another $20. If this August afternoon were any representative sample, most of the 271,000 visitors the dunes lured in 2014 opted to stay off them.
But the view, while satisfyingly stunning, also presents them as innocuous and inviting. Free camping anywhere you like? The minimum hike is only a mile and a half? A view of the night sky unlike any other? We were only there for a night? Sold. The receptionist who handed over the required tent passes eyed us skeptically. She warned us of the 30 percent chance of thunderstorms in the evening, and, as a more tactile lesson, showed us the fulgurite, the hollow lightning-sand crystal: “It’s pretty,” she said, “but you don’t want this to be you.”
Off we went to another parking lot where we were given a free pass to keep the car overnight. The anticipation like adrenaline began to build. That excitement turned out to be elevation sickness, a woozy lightheadedness we reported to each other simultaneously. Expected. Quickly, we fended it off with Advil and a couple liters of water as we packed our gear. We were the motivational poster children of: “Determined.”
Another lesson: For an extensive hike — dunes or no — proper backpacks are a must. We each brought probably 50 to 75 pounds of gear, and it became clear that our purely collegiate Jansports were going to be regrettably insufficient. Luckily, with Boy Scout know-how, Jake intricately balanced everything in place by tying elaborate knots. So that although about half the fold-up chair was jutting out of the top of my Jansport, sliding to the left because shredded left zipper had shredded off its toothy track years ago, that was okay because Jake had tied it using some double overhands and sheet bends to the right zipper. “Knowledge of knots is completely useless until it’s absolutely necessary,” Jake commented, forcefully knifing off another length of rope.
The hike was so strenuous that I barely remember it. The first half-mile or so was relatively flat, wading through prickly desert-like brush. Then we crossed Medano Creek. Then we began the true climb, each step amounting to a half-step forward as our boots sunk deep in the soft sand with the weight of our packs. We took turns carrying the cooler containing our jug of water and ice, stopping every minute or two to drink ravenously from our canteens. Stars floated across my field of vision.
Eventually, we reached the broad shoulder of Star Dune. Swallowing a certain stubborn that comes from two male friends committing to finish something, we agreed reaching the summit would be physically impossible. We looked around and surveyed the gently sloping expanse of smooth sand around us. We wordlessly dropped everything there.
That night — after the nerve-rattling storm for me and a hours-long hike on suddenly unrecognizable terrain for Jake — we stared up, agape like schoolchildren. He set up his tripod while I stretched out in the cold sand. It had the consistency of brown sugar. Even moonless, the sky lit up the valley. The electric blue clusters of Milky Way felt close enough to touch. The elements of the American West: big demands, big rewards. Masochistic demands, otherworldly rewards. In that moment, I felt I could finally truly mull on the wondrousness of my infinitesimal existence.