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’s footsteps 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. The utter quiet and stillness of the dune field pushed on my ears. 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 heart rate wasn’t just from the climb. I was anxious. Straight forward was a featureless swell of sand. 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 foothold to stop me.

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, found the trail of an earlier human visitor, a comfort after the emptiness. Our goal was waiting to the north. It was a relatively easy stroll along the level ridge 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 too hot in the burning sand. My legs were sore, and my heart was pounding. Damn it.  Finish this, I thought with my jaw clenched. I scrambled the last 10 feet as fast as I could.

At last, 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 as it gave way beneath us. The valley gave us a clear shot out of the dune field and to grass and easier hills, 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. Most of the gallon of water we had carried with us was gone.

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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 dimly. 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.

 

The Dunes: Day 1

IMG_1442The sand of the Great Sand Dunes was once part of mountains that rise almost 70 miles to the west. It eroded and washed down into a massive lake that researchers think dried up more than 400,000 years ago. With no water holding it down, the sand blew eastward until it reached the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. There the sand – about two cubic miles of it by my rough math — dropped and piled hundreds of feet high, though we’re not sure when exactly this happened.

The dunes were so big we could see them 16 miles away on Saturday, a smudge on the horizon tinged blue by distance and the early morning. The backdrop of mountains made them look even bigger. When we stopped outside the park to take a look, a pack of coyotes began yapping excitedly from a mountain to the right, a high-pitched chorus that continued for about a minute before quieting.

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IMG_1457Sunlight had yet to break over the mountains when we got to the parking lot. We were the only ones there, probably because it was freezing. Medano Creek, a shallow stream of snowmelt that girdles the dune field’s east side like a moat, was frozen into delicate shards of ice like I’d never seen before.

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IMG_1465Time to climb. Our goal was High Dune, which stands around 700 feet from base to peak. It’s the second-highest dune in the field and stands within eye-shot of the entrance, making it a popular destination. Might as well, right? We made our way up as the mountains’ shadow moved down the dunes.

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IMG_1544A raven squawked at us from High Dune as we approached, a black dot on the distant mound. It was gone when we got there. Around us was silence, quiet so absolute it seemed to press on my ears. I don’t know if I’d ever been anywhere so quiet. Mountains lined the north and east horizons; behind us stretched the flat valley.

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IMG_1550Other people began arriving as steam was drifting from the warming slopes; first a lone figure striding confidently under High Dune (in the lower left of this next photo), then a group of four speaking Chinese, who waved and called out to us happily. The crowd kept growing after that.

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IMG_1653That was it for hiking, at least during the day. The night sky was clear when we came back to see the stars. I could count on both hands the number of times I’ve seen the sky so dark. It’s almost gritty, thanks to the sheer amount of tiny points of light — the longer you look at one patch of sky, the more stars you see. They were like sand, I thought. The next photo has the Little Dipper on the left, a line from a satellite and part of the Big Dipper (sideways) on the right. The photo after that is facing westward toward the dunes.

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Saturday was for the second-highest dune. Sunday would be for the highest.

Thanks for tagging along!

The Dunes: Road Trip

IMG_1230Oklahoma is beautiful in the morning.

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.

IMG_1228We 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.

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IMG_1276From 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.

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IMG_1329Signs 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?

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IMG_1361(These dogs weren’t in one of the empty towns, don’t worry.)

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.

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IMG_1388Nothing 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.

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