Monday, October 9, 2017

Pinch Me: Camping in the Dunes

I'm a lucky human being.  I've been blessed enough to visit loads of stunning, fascinating, glorious places--Yellowstone, Switzerland, San Diego, Bavaria, the Grand Canyon.  I've experienced a lot of neat things--took the stairs at the Eiffel Tower, fished the Pacific Ocean, saw the lights in Times Square, tip-toed up Angel's Landing, heard a glacier crack and moan.
So, this is a pretty bold statement, but....backpacking in the dune field at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve might be my coolest singular experience to date.
Yellowstone will hold fast to my heart overall--we've had far too many days and nights together for her to be unseated just yet, possibly ever--but goodness me!  The dunes!!  The dunes!!  They were magnificent.  I was floored.
I was unprepared for hiking in the dune field in a couple of ways.
First, it was difficult.  Much, much more so than hiking an equivalent distance/elevation change on the firm, rocky trails where I spend most of my time.  Just as playing beach volleyball is harder than playing in a gym the sliding surface of the sand really upped the ante on that hike. 
A friend who had also hiked the dune described it as akin to trying to go up an escalator moving the wrong direction.  I had to agree.  Sometimes it really was two steps forward and one step back.  As we neared the high point I was struggling--feeling the weight of my pack all the more as I fought for balance and momentum in the shifting sands.
Finding the resolve to push onward when things are hard has to be one of the great lessons I've learned while hiking.
Second, I was also mentally unprepared.  I'd never been immersed in a landscape like the dunes.  I struggle again, just now, to convey my thoughts on this. 
The 30 miles of the dune field is a vast, ever-changing canvas.  Climb up on a high dune ridge and the scene opens wide, rolling away to the mountains in the distance, dune after dune after dune.  The sameness, the expansiveness is captivating. 
Look closer and each dune is a unique personality, revealing a soft side here, ripples from the wind-tides there, scattered with tiny footprints from invisible night creatures.
I knew it would be breathtaking to behold.  It is a national park after all.  Never the less I was absolutely stunned.  The dunes are gorgeous from a distance...
...and kept getting even cooler and more striking as we hiked into their midst.
Though it was less than a 24 hour foray into the dune field it proved to be a rather glorious display of nature's dramatic shifting moods.
We hiked in to the dune field accompanied by a strong breeze and light drizzle, sand whipping our faces.
We peaked out on the ridge separating day-use from overnights under a sapphire sky littered with puffy, white clouds.
We hunkered from a forceful gale bowing the tent and dusting everything--everything!--with blowing sand.
We ate dinner under a ceiling of impenetrable grey.
We slept under a dome of stars on the leeward side of a 500 foot dune.
We woke surrounded by a most otherworldly mist which had rolled in overnight.
We bounded down the dunes hooting and hollering, packs and all, under an increasingly hot, blazing sun.
I know some folks think "bad" weather like wind and rain ruins an outdoor adventure.  I've come to realize that they're actually just one more component of the adventure.  I've learned to like it.  To revel in the wild-ness.  I mean, if I wanted complete and cozy comfort I could have stayed home... 
That is the second great lesson hiking has taught me.  Some of the most formative, illuminating experiences come in the form of trials and testing circumstances.
Matt lamented that the cloud cover would interfere with our intentions for stargazing, but as there was nothing to be done about it we just went about making dinner--the winds had mellowed enough to consider boiling water--and watching the storm swirl about, lighting flashing on the distant horizon.  We sat in the tent--as a shield against the wind--with the door wide just watching the scene roll and unfold.  The storm was all around us, but the worst had passed. 
And then, after sticking around long enough to enhance the sunset, the clouds took off and the sky was wide and clear.  We pulled the sleeping bag out of the tent and right onto the dune.  We snuggled in our sleeping bag sharing oooohs and aaaaahs over one shooting star after another until we drifted off.
After waking on the dunes--our sleeping bag sodden from the moisture in the air--we spent the morning exploring what I can only describe as something from another world.  Another planet.  The mist would roll up the dunes in waves, we could see them crest the ridge until the dune was completely swallowed up by the sea of white. 
Like islands the peaks of distant dunes would emerge only to disappear again moment later.  It was unreal.  We sipped our tea atop one tall dune watching the scene change as the sun rose and burned off the shroud of vapor.
And then, just like that, the mist was gone and the sun was strong in the sky.  We clamored all over the place--running, cartwheeling, moon jumping down the steep dunes over and over again.  I felt like a kid at the beach.
That night under the stars and the following morning in the mist was something I'll never forget--or be able to convey properly.  I fail to come up with the right words--euphoric, unbelievable, transcendent, spectacular, mystical, humbling, dynamic, sacred, enthralling, surreal, unfathomable, magnificent.
I guess I'll try those.

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