My best friend Ryan and I had been driving for a few hours across the state before the photo above. Tulsa’s pre-dawn skyline glimmered under clouds low enough to touch the tops of the skyscrapers, and wispy clouds brightened in the sunrise, glowing like a moonstone before clearing away in the mid-morning.
We were heading for the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, home to a 30-square-mile field of the highest dunes on the continent piled against a mountain range in south-central Colorado. I have a vague plan to see and photograph all of our national parks, taking advantage of the United States’ supply of old, natural wonders. My parents took me to a few parks when I was a kid; the dunes seemed like a good place to get started in adulthood. I got Friday and Monday off and went. This trip brought a lot of photos, so I’m splitting them up for each day.
The most direct path to the park goes straight across Oklahoma’s northern edge, where scissor-tailed flycatchers darted and squeaked on fence posts around herds of cattle as we drove by.
We got an early taste of the Rockies at the state’s Glass Mountains, a handful of red-dirt mesas topped with a crust of sparkly selenite crystals that look a bit like petrified wood chips. It’s a cool little state park right off the highway, and it gave us a warm-up for the weekend’s hiking.
From there it was on to the panhandle. The Dust Bowl blasted through this area in the 1930s; today fields stretch for miles upon miles, almost completely flat and freckled with oil pump jacks, tumbleweeds and a handful of trees. Often I could see just one other car from horizon to horizon — at one point just two radio stations played, both Christian. The wind that propelled mountains of dust 80 years ago still blew strong, now harnessed by the occasional clusters of wind turbines that poked up from the horizon.
Signs with just one word – Cemetery – stood every few miles, almost always pointing left. Other signs pointed out prisons and told drivers not to pick up hitchhikers. Tiny towns came along every few minutes, some just a few buildings scattered around a single intersection. And they looked abandoned. Slapout, Elmwood, Hardesty, Felt; one after another appeared to be nothing but broken windows and empty, run-down buildings. Outside the towns, more farmhouses and barns were in the same shape. Where did these people go? Can a town empty without the rest of us noticing?
We eventually crossed through the northeast corner of New Mexico, bringing the mountains in earnest. It was chilly and damp until we drove through a mountain pass, when it became chillier and snowy. Mountaintops faded to white above us on either side, and aspens fenced us in.
Nothing to worry about, though – soon we were through, the Sun shone out over San Luis Valley and we drove a straight line to Alamosa in time for some good burgers at the San Luis Valley Brewery on Main Street. Twelve hours of driving done. In the morning, the dunes.