Wild and windswept
A land that moves in endless cycles
GREAT SAND DUNES NATIONAL PARK, Colo. -- The beam of light peeking through the overcast danced on the dunes with pinpoint drama, an opening desert scene that could not have been scripted by even the most imaginative Hollywood cinematographer. Having hiked high up onto North America's tallest dunes, a vast field of sand lay below me, swept by wind and time into hundreds of individual triangular mounds. The mounds were so sharply angled and beaten toward one side that the whole of them put together appeared to be moving, headed to my right as if ocean surf.
The beam of light started from the left, hitting the farthest left mound. The beam "searched" for more mounds, hitting three spires here, four there, and occasionally widening to light up a few more. But there was one moment where the sun could only thread a needle through the thickening clouds. The beam hit just one mound. No residual light so much as glanced off onto adjacent ones. A master mathematician would have marveled at this play of angle and light. With all the others in monochromatic shade, the primary mound glowed like a tent with lanterns ablaze inside.
I would later describe this sight to Carol Sperling, the chief interpreter of Great Sand Dunes National Park. She responded, "The complexity of the dunes, with its quality of light or lack of it, is part of what makes this park unique."
Great Sand Dunes, named a national monument in 1932, and a national park in 2004, is remarkable for its expanse of 30 square miles, for reaching a height of 750 feet in a vast valley bowl where the visitors center is already at 8,200 feet, and for being jammed dramatically up against 13,000-foot mountains. The dunes are here because of a peculiar and endless cycle of natural recycling, in a place where the sand has nowhere else to go.
No one knows exactly how old the dunes are. The most recent best guess of scientists at the US Geological Survey is that they began forming about 440,000 years ago, when an ancient, giant Lake Alamosa dried up into a massive sand sheet. It was as if the sand was at home plate of a baseball stadium, circled by the backstop of the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges. Winds began sending dust into pockets back at the "stands," where it started to build up. Streams from mountain runoff washed sand from the back side of the formation around to the front, where it was blown up onto the dune.
Today, the streams are known as Medano and Sand creeks. Most tourists who hike the dunes in the spring and early summer first have to take off their shoes and wade across the Medano. The stream is a world wonder all by itself. It is one of the few such waters anywhere that "pulses" as it flows over the sand, throbbing like a Slinky in wave after wave, a foot or two apart. The action is caused by "antidunes" that form and break as water pushes sand up, then breaks through it. The creeks eventually disappear into the sand, directly into an aquifer, but reappear somewhere else in the park as wetlands. When the mountain runoffs stop in late summer through the winter, the creeks disappear.
"One of the neatest things is when I have kids dig to find the aquifer," Sperling said. "I explain that you are both standing in the water and you are standing on the water. It is not something that we mere mortals can usually attain."
Medano Creek is where many families go no farther, splashing in its cool waters or building sand castles in the high season of late spring and early summer. When the water is at its highest, children float downriver and teenagers "skimboard" along the waves. "The dual nature of the park, where you can have this stark, open, exposed, windswept expanse, at the same time that you can hear the hysterical giggling of children having the time of their lives is part of the character of this place," said Sperling, who has worked in many national parks, including Denali and Grand Canyon. "It is one of the few national parks that is both so wild and so accessible, where kids can roll around in creeks and play like kids want to play. It may be one of the best examples of a dual-purpose family national park."
The sand is included in that dual purpose, too, with sandboarding and sledding in the summer and skiing in the winter. But my wife, Michelle Holmes, and I were there primarily for a climb into solitude, to disappear for a morning somewhere into that 30 square miles. That was no problem, as being early risers, we were among the first people out there. Walking across the Medano was hypnotic, almost psychedelic, as the pulses rolled by, tickling our feet. Once across, we looked up at a dunefield at its most pristine, where all evidence of human hiking and frolicking the day before had been erased by the night wind.
It was a blank slate that offered no clue of which direction to choose. Do you go right up that slope, or left up that one? That is part of the challenge, because as anyone knows who has been on a dune, even much smaller ones such as the dunes at Cape Cod National Seashore, ridges that seem to angle most directly to the top die out dramatically, forcing you to descend many more feet before coming back up to the next ridge. Momentary disorientations are part of the journey.
And one other thing: oxygen. Michelle and I had the goal of reaching the top of High Dune, the tallest you can see from the road, rising 650 feet above the parking lot (750-foot-high Star Dune, the tallest, is a mile and a half behind High Dune). Now, in a normal White Mountain or Sierra hike, 650 feet of elevation gain is not much. But if you had flown to Colorado the day before from sea-level Boston, as we had, it is a huge consideration.
While Colorado natives seemed to sprint to the top, Michelle stopped two-thirds of the way up. Instead of taxing her lungs, she decided to meditate on the beauty of the sand at her feet and the vista of the Sangre de Cristos. I continued up to within about 100 feet of the top, just high enough to peer over immediate ridges to see out into the vast fields around Star Dune and just in time for the beam of light to sweep across the pyramids, to that minute when it settled on the "tent." The breathless moment made up for being out of breath.
By the time we descended, the giggling families were splashing and the dunes were pockmarked and crisscrossed with the guesswork of trails. Yet individuals appeared as insignificant as single ants.
Sperling said that based on a photograph from 1874, the position and height of the most prominent dune has hardly changed. But as anyone who has ever walked on a dune during the least bit of wind knows, the individual grains are forever being shuffled around, like the "living hourglass" proclaimed by former US Interior Secretary Gale Norton when she announced the creation of the park. The Ute called the dunes "sowapophe-uvehe," for "the land that moves back and forth." The Jicarilla
The fate of Great Sand Dunes went up and down for many years. A backdrop to valley ranching activities of the 1800s and early 1900s, the dunes came under momentary assault by gold speculators, culminating in the Volcanic Mining Co. starting a gold mill in 1932, according to park history. The appearing and disappearing Medano and the tiny amounts of gold discovered made mining a waste of time.
Out of concern that the wastes would become industrial waste, women organized a campaign that earned the notice of the White House. In 1932, President Hoover proclaimed the dunes a national monument, saying they were "features of scenic, scientific, and educational interest." In more modern times, groups such as the Nature Conservancy, concerned about commercial water diversion from the 100,000 acres around the dunes, an ecosystem of grasslands and wetlands containing buffalo and sandhill cranes, organized the purchase of those lands for the national park. Luckily for the park, it is so remote, far from Colorado Springs or Denver, that commercial pressure never overwhelmed preservation. Steve Chaney, the superintendent of the dunes in their final months as a monument, told the Rocky Mountain News, "It never would have happened if there was much opposition."
The great irony of Great Sand Dunes National Park is that without the water flowing around and under the dunes, both recycling sand and anchoring the structure by keeping it critically moist, the dunes most likely would become unhinged and dissipate into something much less magnificent. The sweeping triangular mounds would no longer offer themselves up as stunning pyramids for the pinpoints of light.
"One thing I try to replicate every season is a hike by myself along Medano Creek," Sperling said. "It is not hard to get away from people in a few minutes time. I'm by myself, and I look up at the tallest dunes, backed by snowcapped mountains, with the water at my feet fed by that snow. I look at the transition of the dunes in the golden light. I almost always have an 'a-ha' moment."
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.