Dilemma in the Dunes
Two days before I was set to return to Colorado Gustavo called me.
“Tav,” he said.
And immediately I knew he had something to say.
“What’s up?” I asked. He launched into his spiel.
“So when you get here after we pick you up at the airport we are heading to the mountains first. But then I want to go to the Sand Dunes again so Elazar can see it and we can spend more time there than we did before.”
He had said that all in one breath, I was smiling on the other end of the phone picturing it. Now he was silent patiently awaiting my response. This would be my third time visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve located in Southern Colorado.
“I’m in. Let’s do it!” I answered. Gustavo seemed relieved.
“You promise you don’t mind going and seeing it again?”
“No, it will be fun.”
I honestly didn’t care that I had already visited this park two other times. You can go to these National Parks over and over again and still feel as if you have barely scratched the surface. The dunes are special because of how they stand out from their surroundings. Think snow-capped mountains rising high in the distance, then suddenly as you begin driving closer you see what appear to be piles of sand that have pooled at the base of those mountains. The closer you come the taller the dunes grow until you feel dwarfed by their size. The tallest dune is named Star Dune standing at 750 feet, it is also the tallest dune in North America.
We arrived at the park during the early afternoon on a Tuesday. The visitor center was still swarming with people because the park tends to attract the most visitors during the summer months. We pulled into the nearly full parking lot and headed inside to grab our backcountry camping permit, you need one if you plan to camp on the actual dunes themselves. They are free and only take about ten minutes to fill out.
While we were doing this the ranger warned us against possible severe thunderstorms coming during the later afternoon. He told us they typically rolled in around 4:30 p.m. and would clear up by 6 p.m. The danger comes if you are high up on one of the dunes, totally exposed and in the open an inviting beacon for lightning.
Gustavo asked, “What do we do if we are two hours from the parking lot and have nowhere to take cover?”
“You pray.” the ranger replied.
He then went on to say that the only thing you can really do is get off the dunes as fast as possible. We nodded, but we weren’t too worried about it.We were also missing the hot sand temperatures, or at least the surface was starting to cool down. During the summer the sand reaches a high of 150 degrees F, and even though you might want to walk barefoot it’s not a good idea, that kind of heat will blister your feet pretty quickly. I realize that I am making this park sound rather dangerous, but I promise you it’s not. Visitors must only understand the unpredictability and extreme power of nature, and simply be smart while in these surroundings.
After leaving the visitor center we made our way to the backcountry camping parking lot. The consensus between the three of us was to go out into the dunes, scout out the place we would camp, then hike back to the parking lot where we would eat dinner and then hike back out, this scenario would make our packs much lighter, and we’d have less to worry about.
We gathered our packs, mine consisted of a camera, my phone, extra layers in case I got cold, sun glasses, plenty of water, my journal, and of course a book. We had eaten lunch before beginning the hike, this consisted of two tortillas rolled with peanut butter and jelly.
As we were heading out through the tall grass where the trail began we noticed the sky behind us growing darker, but we remained optimistic that the wind the ranger had mentioned would blow it to the East and it would miss us. Soon we came to the riverbed we would need to cross, the water wasn’t deep but this section always flooded this time of year, actually causing the main road that leads through the entire park to be closed to traffic. We walked along for a little following the water further up stream to find a more shallow area to cross.
However, I grew impatient and began hopping my way along the drier spots, stepping in the occasional deeper areas and always moving. We reached the other side quickly. Elazar’s shoes were not waterproof so he took them off as he crossed. We walked for maybe two minutes before he had to stop and put them back on because the sand was too hot. We laughed and continued moving. Our destination was High Dune, at 699 ft she had a perfect view of the surrounding dunes, and park. At the pace we were going we had another hour’s walk, and the clouds were approaching with each passing minute.
We didn’t talk much as we hiked, the wind was rather loud and we all had our own paces. Elazar tended to run up the dunes as fast as possible, Gustavo stayed in the middle refusing to leave me too far behind. While I took my time taking photos as I walked and stopping to enjoy the views around me. As I heard a low rumble of thunder far off in the distance I began running up the dune to catch up to the boys. My thighs were burning yet I kept running. Then as I was finally coming over the first crest where I could see Gustavo again, my feet slid a little and I heard a popping sound as something gave way.
I looked down at my feet, both soles on my boots had broken off, but not all the way. They became two flaps that I was trying to keep my feet on. Gustavo turned and saw me walking like Frankenstein, lifting my feet as high as they could go so I wouldn’t get any more sand into my hanging soles.
“My boots broke,” I replied
By now Elazar was by my side as well.
“I wonder why that happened?” he mused.
Before the trip, my boots had been old. They used to be my mom’s during the 80’s but they had held up until now so I hadn’t been too concerned.
“You’re handling this well” observed Gustavo.
The way I saw it was I could have reacted one of two ways. First, I could have gotten really angry about the fact that I had two broken boots and would not be hiking on them in that state, or two I could laugh it off because it was a bit ridiculous and calmly figure something out for the time being. I chose option two. We examined the boots since they weren’t fully detached there was a chance. Gustavo remembered he had gorilla tape in his backpack from a wedding he shot last fall. With the dark clouds closing in on the dunes, Elazar helped hold my foot up and steady on the shifting sand as Gustavo applied the tape.
Once it was on I tested it out. It seemed to do the trick. We stood up and continued hiking. I knew the tape wouldn’t last forever, but we would worry about it another day. In another 20 minutes, we reached the last crest before High Dune and the wind hit us like a ton of bricks. The thunder began rumbling again and another storm looked as if it was coming towards us from the North. I could actually lean back into the wind and have it blow me forward. We looked at each other we were so close, but we also didn’t want to risk getting stuck on the dunes during a thunderstorm. Yet, at the same time, we were more than an hour from our car and any shelter for that matter. The consensus after some debate was to walk back down a bit and wait it out in this valley of dunes that was still in the open but shielded from the wind.
While we waited for the sky to show us what would happen we met a nice young couple who was originally from Massachusetts and were now living in Buena Vista, CO traveling to the sand dunes for the first time. We exchanged pleasantries and told them why we were waiting there. They agreed to give it a shot even though the clouds hadn’t cleared yet. They made it halfway up to where we were originally before the loudest crack of thunder roared through the Dunes. After that, they turned around and headed back to their car wishing us luck.
This was the point when we should have turned back, but we waited ten more minutes. In that short span of time, the clouds began to clear and we could see blue sky along with rays from the sun beginning to break through the gloom. We cheered, pulled our backpacks on and pushed forward and upward with renewed energy and speed. We walked along a ridge until we came to the last hill. Then we raced up it collapsing on top of High Dune at last. The best part about hiking this far into the dunes is the lack of people. We saw that couple from Mass and one other guy setting up his tent and that was it. All of the other visitors stuck to the lower dunes and river. It was very refreshing to be able to walk around and feel like you had everything to yourself.
We decided to stay here for a while. We had a few hours until sunset, and were in no rush. Elazar took out his guitar and began playing music. Gustavo alternated between listening and wandering off to take photos. The sand had cooled. I put my jacket on, took my shoes off, wiggled my toes in the sand and laid back to stare at the sky. I listened to the soft music rolling over me, felt the wind softly blowing sand into my hair, and I fell into the most peaceful nap I had ever taken.
What I learned that day is that the outcome of every situation is how you decide to react to it. I refused to let those stupid boots ruin my day and because I chose to have a more positive outlook I enjoyed myself more. It's all about finding that balance.