Life is a desert of shifting sand dunes. Unpredictable. Erratic. Harmony changes into dissonance, the immediate outlives the profound, esoteric becomes cliched. And vice versa.-Ella Leya
My early morning alarm shattered the silence inside of our new (used) Dodge Journey. Vince and I had just spent our first night camping in our new ride after a 20 hour drive to Colorado. Vince groaned and buried himself further into his sleeping bag, but I felt around for my sandals and then crawled out into the brisk mountain air. The sky was painted in delicate pastel shades, but my mind was on everything except for the scenery.
In truth I was wrestling with more than just the usual jitters of anticipation on the first real day of our road trip. After cancelling all of our travel plans for the year (one trip because of my ill-timed broken leg and subsequent surgery, and two more because of Covid-19), it didn’t feel like it could be true that we were actually traveling again. What would it be like? Would we be able to maintain social distance and sanitation practices? Would my leg be up to the challenge of all the hiking we planned?
I started making an easy breakfast of oatmeal and tea while I enumerated all of the safety measures we’d taken to minimize risk for the trip. We had kept ourselves as isolated as possible for the two weeks beforehand, bought the Dodge which would be used to keep us self-contained throughout the trip, and filled it up with wipes, a literal gallon of sanitizer, a liberal stock of masks, and plenty of water reserves. We had meal prepped so that we could cook for ourselves instead of having to eat in public. I had freecampsites.net on the ready so we could find places to stay off the beaten path, and I had also put research into the parks we planned to visit so we could be sure to go at non-peak times. As for the leg, I supposed I would find out about that soon enough.
As I finished up breakfast, Vince finally resigned himself to waking up too, and I quickly made him a bowl of oatmeal. I wanted to be at our first stop, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, before crowds of people started to arrive so we sped to get ready and soon we were back on the road, driving toward the tallest sand dunes in North America.
It was a good decision to arrive early. There were very few other cars heading our way when we arrived and snagged our obligatory park sign photo. The air was still cold-great for hiking- and it was early enough that mule deer were still milling about the grasslands that sprawled out in front of the massive dune field.
The dune field itself was a little hard to believe. I had seen pictures of it of course, but actually watching the mountain of sand grow more imposing as we drove towards it was somewhat surreal. From a distance, the dunes seemed reasonable enough. The mountains in the background towered over them, making them seem shorter than I’d imagined. But as we drew closer to the dunes, their sheer scale began to dawn on me. By the time we pulled into the nearly empty parking lot of the dune field, I was beginning to question the sanity of attempting to climb such a mammoth pile of sand on a recently broken leg.
I hadn’t come all this way just to look at the thing, so I grabbed my trekking poles and Vince and I began the arduous but familiar task of sand hiking, which is best described as regular hiking, but ten times more annoying. As we walked I was impressed by how alien and downright unreal the dunes looked. Anywhere where footprints existed made sense to my eyes, but any fresh, untouched sand looked like some sort of glitch or optical illusion. It was simultaneously beautiful and strangely difficult to look at, as though my brain couldn’t figure out how to interpret what my eyes were seeing.
Much to my relief, arriving early had paid off and the dunes were fairly empty of other visitors. Random groups dotted the hillside here and there, but it was not difficult to pick a path where we wouldn’t come into close contact with other hikers. We started our ascent, with me feeling a bit apprehensive about how my leg would perform. Most of my lingering problems have to do with pain in the tendons in my knee cap. My recovery involved about eight weeks of putting absolutely no weight on my broken leg at all, so my longest lasting struggle had been bouncing back from atrophy in all of my muscles and tendons. Hiking up a sand dune can put a lot of strain on the knees so I took my time and relied on my trekking poles to take some of the pressure off of my knee. Fortunately the sand was still cool from the night, so we were able to take off our shoes and walk barefoot, which made things much more comfortable.
As we slowly made our way uphill, I stopped to admire the dizzying view often.
I’ve read a lot of social media and blog posts where people really lean in to how hard it is to climb this dune. It also looks incredibly intimidating from the bottom. It’s a little hard to fathom how you’re going to walk all the way up it when you’re just standing and staring at it. For all of the hype and my own apprehension, I must admit that it was a bit easier than I expected. It was certainly a slog, as is any dune climb, but I think having spent countless hours of my life exploring the sand dunes of Lake Michigan had me more prepared than many visitors to the Great Sand Dunes.
With experience on our side, and the lingering cool morning air, it didn’t take long for me and Vince to crest the top of the first dune, and the view we found was nothing less than spectacular. Mountain peaks loomed behind the north end of the dune field, but if you looked west, the only thing to be seen was pristine, untouched dune that looked to clean to be reality.
The scene also had an absolute quietness about it that added to the unearthly atmosphere. Vince and I got to enjoy the alone time for a while before the scene below us began to change. There still weren’t many people venturing to the top of the dune where we stood, but we could see the parking lot filling up, and people scattering onto the shorter hills below us. Many were carrying sleds or sand boards. Everyone below us looked minuscule in comparison to the grand surroundings.
With more visitors arriving, and the heat of the sun starting to hint at uncomfortable temperatures, we donned masks and started the descent. Soon we were back at the car with most of the day left to try to fill with activities. After all, what do you do at Great Sand Dunes once you’ve already climbed the dune?
We decided to hike the Mosca Pass Trail, a 6.4 mile out-and-back trail with 1,459 feet of elevation gain. It wasn’t the most exciting trail I’ve ever hiked, but the constant ambient smell of pine resin baking in the sun was pleasant and it wasn’t very heavily trafficked, so Vince and I once again were able to enjoy a nice, quiet hike that put my leg to the test. This was by far the most elevation gain I’d attempted since the accident, and perhaps more importantly, it was also the most elevation loss. When it comes to knee pain, downhill hiking it always worse, so I made it up the trail without incident and then I struggle-bussed the entire way back down. We only stopped briefly to admire the one viewpoint the trail had to offer-a glimpse of the dunes from the canyon we were hiking through.
Suffice it to say I was SORE by the time we arrived back at our car. Sore and very relieved to get to sit down. It was abundantly obvious that my hiking for the day was over, so we drove through the park a little further and got one last look at the sand dunes before calling it a day.
Overall I was feeling tired but accomplished as we left the park to go make camp and cook dinner. Day one of the trip had been a success, and I was ready and eager to curl up in the Dodge for a good night’s sleep before moving on to our next stop!