“We’ll do whatever you want to do,” Dad said to Shannon and me.
It was Thursday, and we were to leave Saturday morning. There were a few things we still wanted to do on our trip, but we hadn’t assigned any times or days. All week Dad had been trying to drop in on a Jeep rental place called “Fast Eddie’s,” but they were so busy guiding ATV and Jeep tours that they rarely were at the office. He had left a few messages, but nothing came of it.
So, that morning, we decided to go to Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was about a two-hour drive from Red River, in southern Colorado. I had been there as a kid in summer of 1978, when Mom and Dad took my brother and me. If I’m off on that, it’s only by a year either way. Dad drove this time, too, because he knew the road and could make quicker work of it.
The route took us through a valley of scrub brush flanked on either side by Rocky Mountain peaks. Just shy of the New Mexico-Colorado state line, a highway worker stopped us.
“If you’d have been here two minutes ago, you would have made it. But, you’re going to have to wait about 20 minutes for the escort to get back,” the worker said.
The crew was resurfacing a five-mile stretch that day, he said, and we could get out of the car if we wanted.
A few minutes after he and Dad started chatting about everything from speed limits in work zones to the fines levied for exceeding such limits, Ben and I got out of the van. He could stretch his legs while I snapped pics of the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign.
Just as Ben and I got within range of a good shot, a backhoe belched a cloud of thick, black smoke. It spread across both lanes and blocked my view of the sign. “So much for that picture,” I said.
Nearly 30 minutes after we arrived at the work zone, we pulled out to follow the escort truck. I slid my window down just in time to get a photo of the Colorado sign rushing past.
“What’s that truck doing?” Ben asked.
“He’s taking us through the work area so we can be safe,” I said. Then I got an idea. “You know when there’s a crash on Cars they have a pace car go out and lead the cars around the track?”
“Yes,” Ben said.
“Well, it’s kind of like that. There’s work being done and they want to make sure everyone stays safe until it’s finished.”
On our first view of the Dunes, Dad stopped to let me get a pic. I took several hoping to stitch them together into a panoramic shot. With the help of Autostitch, I managed it with no hassle.
After a quick drive through the main parking area, we found a vacant primitive campsite and pulled out our picnic supplies. We sat eating our sandwiches and enjoying the breeze when the rain started. I tucked all our cameras inside Homer as we took our last few bites.
We barely got back to the main lot before the rain stopped. Mom, still having leg problems (which I don’t think I’ve mentioned until just now), stayed behind while the rest of us ventured out onto Nature’s seemingly misplaced pile of sand.
The walk out to the dunes was like a walk on a damp beach. The sand was fairly densely packed and didn’t give much with each step. A creek flows through the area during spring storms. Ben threw some sand and pointed out various illustrations etched by those before us. Mercifully, none were vulgar. Someone had drawn a tic-tac-toe board about 10 feet wide, but apparently couldn’t find an opponent; the squares were blank.
Standing atop the first Dune, Shannon graciously managed Ben while I tried my best to overload my camera’s sensor. I played with my settings every few shots, but mostly I was waiting for the weather to change. A dark cloud hung over most of the Dunes, and heavy rain completely obscured the tallest mountain peak behind them on the east end. Dad had broken from us early to head off in that direction.
Tired of wrangling Ben, Shannon told me she was taking him back to the van. Right as she walked away, a man carrying a boy about Ben’s age approached. “So, is he asleep?” I asked.
“Just trying to keep the sand out of his eyes.” The sand gets very loose on the higher sections, and the wind was picking up. He walked away, following in Shannon’s fading footsteps.
I wanted to go higher. I wanted to reach the top and see what’s on the other side. The brochures said the sand goes on for eight miles to the north, and I had seen only a few pictures online. The wind, the rain — everything was working against my quest to see the other side for myself. It was like the dark side of the moon; everybody knew it was there, but only those willing to make a big sacrifice had seen it.
Instead of heading up, I turned back toward the parking lot. I caught up to the man carrying his boy. Ben squalled somewhere below, out of view, “Yeah, that’s mine,” I said.
“You mean the one yelling, ‘Let me go, let me go?’”
“That would be him,” I said. I formed a clear mental image of Shannon trying to keep Ben moving, and quickened my pace to catch up and alleviate her frustration.
We do that as parents. It isn’t quite “good cop, bad cop,” but just a change of personnel can improve the situation. When the other parent tags in, it’s almost as if someone opened a valve to release pressurized steam.
The situation was a bit different this time. The sand had worn out Ben’s little leg muscles, and made the going just tough enough that Shannon couldn’t carry him. I hoisted Ben up on my back, and ultimately my shoulders, to finish out our meager walk on the Great Sand.
We capped the trip by driving around a campground with breathtaking views of the Dunes on one side, mountains on the other. The drive was worth it.
We returned to our cabin late enough that we didn’t feel like making dinner. In the tradition of my childhood, Mom cooked up frozen pizza.
Update: This guy’s page shows some great views of the dunes, beyond the top. The sand covers 39 square miles.
Next up: That elusive Jeep ride and the highest New Mexico peak attainable by motorized vehicle.