A Sandy World

Whenever my voyages take me through southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, I can’t resist the beckoning of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. Regardless of the number of previous visits, the beauty of its unique landscape attracts me time and again. This was the case in early April 2016, during my return trip to Colorado Springs from Monte Vista, where I had gone in search of Sandhill Cranes.

Wind in the San Luis Valley is not unusual, but on this particular day, nature seemed bent on demonstrating the conditions which led to the dunes’ formation. A strong southwesterly whirled up dirt and dust and blew it to the northeast, draping a hazy veil across the sky. In clear and calm weather, the mounds of sand can be seen from miles away, but on this occasion, they were only visible once I neared the entrance of the park on the 16 mile road leading north from Colorado Highway 160. The sinuous shapes of sand appeared like a mirage behind the curtain of swirling soil, beneath the white clouds adrift in a cerulean sky, and before the backdrop of the snow-laced Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Nearly dry Medano Creek Bed

Nearly dry Medano Creek Bed

This early in the year, intermittent Medano Creek on the southern fringe of the dune field, conduit of the mountains’ snowmelt, was nary a trickle, and I crossed it without soaking my toes. Not many visitors were about on this windy weekday, but we were in for a blast. I longingly thought of my bandana at home, which would have served well as a protective mask, but a t-shirt had to function in its stead. Despite my best attempt, its fabric flailed in the gusts, allowing grainy matter to make it into every exposed orifice, and underneath my clothes. Upon the High Dune at nearly 700 feet, I was assailed by horizontal barbs. So vehement were the squalls, I was barely able to stand up straight. Only several feet below the crest could I find enough relief to take in the views—the sensuous, skin-colored curves of the dunes, the vastness of the San Luis Valley, fringed by the distant San Juan Mountains, the craggy ridge of the Sangres behind me. Whereas most humans struggled against these inhospitable conditions, ravens were in their element, riding the wind like a roller-coaster, screaming their delight into the air, reminding me to make the best of what each day brings.

Sand Dunes with San Juan Mountains in the distance

Sand Dunes with San Juan Mountains in the distance

Back at the car, under my sunglasses a ring of sand encircled my eyes; my nostrils, ear canals and mouth felt gritty; and I emptied out heaps of silt from my shoes, socks, and pockets. Later, at home, kernels covered the shower floor before spinning down the drain, recalling one of Colorado’s most unusual landmarks, making me look forward to my next excursion there.

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