A Great Sand Dune

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.
–Robert W. Service

One of my favorite things to do as a child was play in the sandbox on a summer day.  I did many other things, like ride bikes and tromp around on the nearby railroad tracks and even turned a refrigerator box into a mini-house.  However, my green plastic, turtle-shaped sandbox was always sitting on the back patio baking in the summer sun.  I would pluck ants from the lawn every so often and watch them struggle in a funnel of sand I made.  Then I would go back to get some more and that ant would be gone.  A few years ago–on a cross-country road trip with two good friends–I had a chance to play in the sand box again, but this time I was the little ant in the sandbox.

Elmer, Megan and I just left Taos, New Mexico and headed dead North into Colorado.  It was mid-May and the temperature reflected that.  Staring at a road map torn at every folded edge and accidentally ripped in two, we found a spot near the town of Alamosa that seemed interesting.  We were attempting to spend as much time as we could staying at National Parks for the night and avoiding hotel fees.  Great Sand Dunes National Park seemed like just the right kind of place to find lodging, but the name seemed misleading.  This is Colorado.  How are there sand dunes here?

We pulled into the park after stopping at a local diner for lunch.  Alamosa is a very flat valley on the southern edge of the state of Colorado.  I saw nothing immediately impressive about this national park as we passed the iconic national park entrance sign.  The land was flat and there were a few trees here and there, but not much sand at all.  We stopped the car in a visitor parking lot and then the park’s name became obvious.  About a quarter-mile away were beige mounds of sand.  Tons and tons of sand.

We geared up for a hike–filling water bottles at water pumps and wearing clothes fit for a walk in the woods.  Halfway to the dunes the wind picked up.  As we came closer the wind blew some debris off the ground and then as our shoes hit the sand, we felt the pelt of a grain now and then against our bare shins.  As with mountains, smaller hills of sand came first.  I could have made a few with a truckload of sand.  Then the dunes became taller and their slopes steeper.  Shoes that were great for protection from rough stones or sticks or muddy trails, are now useless on the dune slopes.  Every step forward slid down the dunes, so off went the shoes.

We became accustomed to struggling with walking in the sand and sliding down dunes on our haunches. We left the Florida Keys little more than a week ago, where the firm coral-dust beaches are nothing like this softer, loose sand.  We didn’t grow accustomed to the wind, which was now pelting our faces with sand.  It was numbing and stinging.  Sand flew into the eyes and nose.  Sand got in the water bottle as despite all care for clean water.  At least one grain of the Great Sand Dunes was most certainly coming home with us.

As we hiked, I thought about these dunes and if life could exist here.  I had seen some grass a while back, but it was surely just a fringe species from the grassland beyond.  The dunes are constantly shifting and even moving very slowly as the winds blow each and every grain about.  Such an ephemeral environment would be inhospitable for a plant, not to mention that water just sinks into the sand to the ground below.  What about animals?  Aside from humans, what animal would want to visit, let alone live here?  Surprisingly, elk, bison, coyote, and bobcat visit these barren dunes where a handful of flowering plants and grasses grow.  Ord’s kangaroo rat is the only mammal species living in the dunes all year round.  Also, a few insect species are endemic to–only found in–the dunes, including the Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle and a few other undescribed species of beetle and moth.  Life is truly amazing.

I spot a nearby ridge and tell Elmer and Megan that I want to climb to the top.  They seem a bit reluctant, but follow a few yards back.  After a bit, I turn and see that they have stopped, but Elmer gives me a thumbs up to say that they will wait.  I eagerly climb on, struggling with each step forward.  I fall to my hands and knees on one particularly steep slope, clawing into the sand and pushing forward.  I reach the top of this dune and the wind and flying sand is more brutal.  It doesn’t matter what direction I face, sand is pelting every bit of my skin.  But my goal is just ahead and I will not back down.  I stumble down a short slope and I see a few smiling faces.  A couple of college-age girls are riding down the sandy slope on their butts from the very ridge I intend to climb.  I ask them if it was worth it and they both agree that it is and wish me luck.  If they can do it, I sure as hell am going to.

Climbing this ridge wasn’t about anything except wanting to achieve this one goal that I had.  I’ve never climbed a mountain, so when I saw the height of these dunes, I told myself I would climb to the top.  I wanted to keep that promise to myself.  I know that during at least one point while climbing this last and particularly difficult slope, I went nowhere–the combination of sliding down and climbing up kept me in place–but I didn’t slow down, I didn’t stop.  Once I made it, I stood at the top of the ridge and held my eyes open against pelting sand to see the view.

To my amazement, all I saw was more sand and a few higher ridges.  I pulled out my camera and snapped a few quick shots and then sat down and slid to the bottom on my butt.

I met Elmer and Megan and we headed back to the car.  I stopped shortly after my feet stepped on firm, level ground and put my shoes back on.  Then I turned around and stared up at the sand dunes in the middle of nowhere.  I smiled and shook some sand from my pockets.  “I did it, I made it to the top,” I said to myself.

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If you look very close you can see Elmer and Megan.

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