2015

IMG_1442---CopyWell, dear readers, it’s been a year. Over the past 12 months this little blog has gone to dune fields, flooded forests, music-filled streets and crazy festivals. I traveled more than 6,000 miles through nine states, and I stayed put right here in my neighborhood, all of it trying to catch just a fraction of the frames that come together every moment. I hope it’s been worth tagging along.

That mix of far away and right outside the door has been a sort of theme throughout 2015, I suppose. Northwest Arkansas has plenty of its own sights and happenings, but this whole country is home, too, and there is a ton to see. I hiked two national parks and plan to (slowly) keep making my way through all 59 of them — looks like Yosemite might be coming up in a few months. I’ll see more parades, more people and more cities. More vaguely, I’ll keep pushing myself to get better. I try to do something new every time I head out with a camera – a different perspective, a slicker composition, a novel play on light or color. I’ll keep trying in 2016. There’s always more to learn.

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_C1_1441Bottom line is I love doing this, so I’m going to keep doing it. Thanks for looking, everybody. Happy New Year!

Dan

The Dunes: Homebound

IMG_1787We left San Luis Valley as the sunrise splashed the mountains with orange heading for the plains, but before all of that, we stopped at the Raton-Clayton volcanic field in the northeast corner of New Mexico. Lava flows, lava domes like the one above and extinct volcanoes cover about 8,000 square miles there, according to the National Park Service’s helpful pamphlet. Capulin Volcano, a nicely symmetrical cinder cone that’s designated a national monument, is just a couple miles off the highway. Capulin last erupted about 60,000 years ago, or around the time humans first ventured past the edge of Africa, for anyone keeping track. We walked down into its crater.

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IMG_1784The rest of the field started forming 9 million years ago, or several million years before mammoths and saber-tooth tigers first appeared. I keep coming back to the ages of these places because they’re astounding. That volcano is about five times as old as human agriculture but could be just one-seventh as old as the Great Sand Dunes. The dunes, meanwhile, could be several times the age of the human species yet are essentially the age of kindergartners when compared to this lava field, which is itself an afterthought in the entire Rocky Mountain range.

Anyway, much was the same in Oklahoma’s flatness: the oddly abandoned towns, the enormous piles of hay, the bridges over creeks running dry. But unlike the first drive, we passed about a dozen stationary trains alongside the road; early in them orning I’d heard something about a train-truck collision along U.S. 25 on the radio and figured that was the reason, but it must have been a minor accident, because I can’t find a single news story on it.

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IMG_1790Later, a massive cloud of smoke appeared like a haze along the horizon, coming from near Woodward, Oklahoma. Here it is from the west, looming over some wind turbines for scale:

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IMG_1805I could still see the smoke 100 miles east of the grass fire responsible, blasted northeast by Oklahoma wind. The fire had burned about 35 square miles by Thursday, and the cause was still unclear. No one was hurt, though.

The last landmark we passed in sunlight was Tulsa. We were back in northwest Arkansas around 9 p.m.

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IMG_1811Being back home felt strange; driving across the panhandle, I had to make sure I had enough gas between towns, especially since some were empty, while in the dunes, I had to make sure I had enough food and water in case of delays and that I stayed hydrated. I realized in Fayetteville I didn’t have to do either anymore.

As a side-note, if you have a tight budget and don’t mind a long drive, road trips to national parks or anywhere else can be worth it. Hotel, food and gas for this trip cost about the same as one plane ticket. And just think of everything I would have missed if I had flown. It was all worth it.

Thanks for looking and reading, everybody.

 

The Dunes: Day 2

There are no trails in the Great Sand Dunes; a hiker can only choose a direction and try to find the simplest path in a maze with infinite solutions.

I thought about that as we headed to High Dune again Sunday morning. High Dune is K2 in these sand Himalayas, second place. Star Dune is Everest. It stands about 50 feet taller and twice as far into the dune field. Star Dune’s name also refers to any dune that shares its starfish-like shape, carved by equally strong winds from several directions. You can see it on Google Maps, a conspicuously large mound a little more than a mile west of High Dune.

Long-legged kangaroo rats, the dune field’s only native mammal, had been busy the night before. They had a much easier time climbing than humans.

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IMG_1664Lunch was on High Dune after two hours of hiking. From there we could see Star Dune right between two shorter peaks. Behind us people had left hundreds of trails. Only a couple of trails went further in.

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IMG_1692The sand screwed with my depth perception; dunes were always farther than they looked, until they were the opposite. The brownish-gray walls swallowed more and more of the horizon as we made our way, High Dune dipping in and out of sight. We were probably the only people for miles. I vaguely considered how someone could lose his mind in here. The valley directly under Star Dune was full of grasses and light tracks: a kangaroo rat city come nightfall. More than three hours in.

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IMG_1713We zigzagged with me in the lead up a 45-degree slope to the final main ridge, and I noticed my raised heartrate wasn’t just from the climb. I was anxious. Straight forward was featureless blankness. Above that was a line between sand and sky that could’ve been 20 feet away or a mile. I stood on unstable ground that surely could collapse beneath my feet, sending me falling, falling all the way down with no way to stop. It was a disorienting mix. I halted after each diagonal, recharging my legs for a few seconds and orienting myself to Ryan, the mountains, the clouds. A few times I accepted that we might not make it; we might have to turn around.

Our progress was slow. Each zigzag moved us up 10 feet or so. We eventually reached the ridge and, surprise, we found someone’s trail of footsteps, a comfort after the emptiness. Our goal was waiting to the north. It was a relatively easy stroll until the very last obstacle, a 30- or 40-foot wall of sand.

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IMG_1717The loose sand was so steep each step fell back nearly as much as it gained. I leaned forward to use my hands, moving a few seconds at a time before my palms got unbearably hot. My legs were sore, and my heart was pounding. Damn it, finish this, I thought.

I scrambled the last 10 feet as fast as I could. Ryan came behind me. After almost five hours of hiking, we had made it. I could hardly stand with the tiredness and height, but we were there. I think my eyes got a little damp. We stayed for a few minutes and snapped some photos. We made it.

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IMG_1720The highest point in the Great Sand Dunes, facing northwest. The next photo is facing about 150 degrees to the right.

IMG_1725Going down was easy, our feet gliding through the sand back to grass and easier hills. The valley gave us a clear shot out of the dune field and to level ground, but we had to trudge a couple more miles to get back to our starting point. The valley walls had a sparse beauty, and the shadows were perfect as we walked by. We weren’t terribly sweaty or out of breath – the weather this weekend was beautiful, 60-some degrees – but our legs were nearing complete fatigue. We had drunk most of the gallon of water we carried with us.

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IMG_1740It was a maybe an hour before we reached the creek, and with the water at our feet, some of our energy returned. The moving water was unsettling to look at after such relentless stillness. People appeared on the horizon, the first we’d seen in hours, with a little black dog. These people aren’t exhausted for some reason, I thought with a tired laugh. We were back. We’d seen more of the park than most. I was proud.

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IMG_1756We went back to the hotel, got some pizza and watched TV, a fine end, as far as I’m concerned, to the most challenging hike of my life. The drive back the next day was all that was left.

Thanks for looking.