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  • Writer's pictureColin Phelan

RT: A Tryst With Death: Mother Nature in the Great Sand Dunes National Park

Note: If interested in reading other writing from this specific road trip, please go to ‘Travel Writing’ tab and click any title that begins with ‘RT’ which stands for 'Road Trip.'

After exiting Interstate 25 we drove westward towards the dunes; fear started to set in. Although we knew the weather predicted some showers and lightening, as we head westward – even catching a glimpse of the sand dunes in the distance – several tornadoes sprouted upwards from the ground and linked with the stormy clouds above. As New Yorkers, we were scared. So began our evening filled with contemplation of and respect for the natural world’s sheer power and beauty.

Once on the park’s grounds, we looped around to the back of the Visitor Center where the backcountry permits were - according to the signage - distributed. The dunes spiraled in the distance. Dark skies prevailed overhead. Sand particles whipped the back of our legs, like little BBs and as Christina put it, “fingers” seemed to be emerging within the winds, miniature tornadoes peppering the distant, intimidating landscape. As I often view my life with Lord-of-the-Rings colored glasses, the dune-field to our west truly reminded me of Mordor, Sauruman somewhere out there, those fingers, his fingers whirling and twirling and shaping the slopes with malice. Lightening struck in the distance, over the first large ridge, the eastern, closest edge of the massive sand dune-field; as we well knew from our research, all backcountry campers must camp beyond that first ridge. What were we getting ourselves into? Where were we headed?

Speaking with a park ranger both assured and terrified us. The wind continued to whip, signs fell, and the noise in the area muted the ranger as she spoke. At one point the ranger even said, “I might have to go take shelter.” This was monsoon season in Southwestern America, so these mid-afternoon storms were fairly common, she assured us. Since we had scoured weather reports in preparation for our trip, I asked, “the rain is supposed to stop though, right?” She responded that yes, it would eventually stop, but maybe pick up again later. In mountainous Colorado, weather can often be unpredictable and volatile, especially during these warm summer months. In the Great Sand Dune National Park, this holds to be especially true: two mountain ranges envelop the dune-valley, and within the dune-valley itself there exist no obstructions to the prevailing winds.

Map of GSDNP

As we waited in the car for the weather to clear up, Christina and I debated if we should just head back to Colorado Springs or wait out the weather a bit longer. Up until about two months ago – when we started planning for this road-trip – neither Christina nor I had heard of this park. Once we discovered it existed just three hours south of our temporary home in Colorado Springs, we decided it would make for a great excursion. As we had read prior and now heard from the park ranger herself, the rules and regulations within the park itself were fairly liberal; here, backcountry camping permits are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis, so we had decided to monitor the weather until the forecast predicted a clear night’s sky. From our home-base in Colorado Springs, we then pounced on the first opportunity to drive southward and camp in the dunes. Sleeping under the dune-field in one of America’s only dark sky preserves, we hoped that the Milky Way might be visible. We were all in, and as our time in Colorado Springs progressed, we decided that this day, Tuesday, July 14th, would make for the best night in the dune backcountry.

Since permits are only issued until about four p.m., we had left Colorado Springs at around noon, budgeting plenty of time to ensure we got that permit. The drive itself was serene (before it wasn’t), and as we drove south on Interstate 25, the landscape seemed increasingly more ‘Southwestern’ than it did ‘Rocky Mountain,’ an observation in tune with our previous comments about Colorado Springs. We passed through several small towns, including Woelsenburg, where we drove past a restaurant called “Tina’s Family Restaurant.” Because another Tina was accompanying me in the car, and because the place itself looked damn-well put together, we remembered the joint, and maybe even planned for a little visit after our upcoming night in the dune-field.

Map of Region, with GSDNP pinned

After waiting in the parking lot for this passing storm to subside, we headed into the dunes. Close monitoring of the forecast deemed that the weather would be safe; after this passing shower another would likely occur later in the evening but nothing which would threaten us in any way. With our last meal for the evening (fried rice) stored in our stomachs, we ascended into a light drizzle. At about six p.m., an hour into our trek, we reached that large, eastern dune-ridge and stared westward into oblivion – or oasis? The weather had calmed and cooled. All of a sudden, the dunes quieted and before us rested a serene beach peppered with patches of brush. We scouted out a distant location to pitch our tent, one at a low enough altitude where we would be safe from any nightly winds. We then filled our stuff-sacks with sand, as we had been strongly recommended to do – the whipping winds have been known to carry tents across the dunes – and pitched our home for the evening. The weather cooled and the wind neared a complete halt. Total silence, total peace, the finger-shaped winds had departed and surrounding us, ninety square miles of motionless sand. Eating pistachios atop a nearby ridge, we sat, relieving ourselves of our packs, and looked northward towards the sunlit 14-ers which envelop the park.

Photo: Ascending the most-easterly dune-ridge; Photo Credit: Christina Marinelli

Photo: Ascent in drizzle; Photo Credit: Christina Marinelli

Photo: Oblivion or Oasis? Photo Credit: Christina Marinelli

Photo: Before the sunset

That is, until the winds picked up and the sky looked as if Sauruman had returned with vengeance and orchestrated a ‘fast-forward’ on the clouds above us (a more appropriate reference here would be that Adam Sandler from that atrocious early 2000s movie Click had, yes, clicked ‘fast-forward’ on the sky above); dark clouds accelerated our way. We bolted back to the tent; we weren’t sure just how well our several sand bags would withstand these winds. Laying inside the tent, we supplemented our weight and waited for the winds to pass. Gradually, the winds slowed, but darker and darker clouds emerged overhead: storm clouds, clouds which didn’t appear to have been in the nightly forecast. To the distant northwest, in particular, massive black skies inched closer and we contemplated, “do we stay? Do we pack up and leave? If there is lightening, won’t we be extremely at risk since we are in the middle of an open field with (metal) tent poles sticking up to the sky?” But we also knew, weather changes were sporadic and this storm could, and probably would, quickly pass. As we also remembered from the forecast, there was only a slight chance of a storm between 8 and 10 pm. It was 8:15, and we made our decision, we would stay. Hiking back would be equally dangerous and doing so would require we trek back up those initial high elevation dune-ridges, leaving us further exposed to any potential lightening.

As our minds were pretty much made up, I took one more look to the east, in the direction of those huge ridges, the ridges which separate the experienced backcountry campers (us?) and those who rent sleds and surf down the safe, easily-exited side of the sand dunes. We were in it. And there, in that same easterly direction, the direction of supposed safety, there emerged a rainbow perched just over the ridge, likely hanging over the parking lot where our permit-clad car was (comfortably) camping for the evening.

I never had the chance to meet my mother’s mother. Well, I did meet her, but she died when I was just the young age of eight. I don’t remember her much, if at all. But I do know that her favorite song – the song played at her funeral—was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” According to all those who remember her, Grandma Mary lingers, watching over us in the form of rainbows. On several occasions my sister even remembers moments when, wrought with a tough decision, she has looked to the sky and spotted the rainbow, Grandma Mary, a nurse and tough mother -- and knowing Papa Bill, definitely the decision-maker in the family. Grandma Mary approached her life with protective vigor and she still guides us, and influences our decisions, from above.

Despite Grandma Mary’s euphoric arrival, our decision had already been made: we reasoned it would be safer to stay. However, there she lingered, and lingered some more, in the direction of the parking lot. What did she want from me? “Stay a little longer if you want us to go, leave right now if you want us to stay,” I postured to her. I wrestled and waited for an answer.

Quickly, clouds covered Grandma Mary and we were left to fend for ourselves; as she had not disappeared or stayed on her own accord, her message and guidance obscured. The sun set and the flashes began. Periodically, we peered outside our tent to check on the clouds. Seeing those dark beasts never made me feel better, nor did they make me feel worse, at least not yet: stagnation. Night emerged and darkness filled the sky, broken up only by frequent flashes: thirty minute intervals where the sky would light up every minute or so; forty-five minute intervals marked with only a few flashes. Moments where the Milky Way shined clear to the south, but the storm clouds surged to our north; and we, stuck somewhere between the two.

Our paranoia – breaching hysteria - continued throughout the early hours of the evening. To the north, the darkness saturated the sky and seemed to creep ever closer by the second; to the south, one of mother nature’s most serene displays, the Milky Way, tried to assert itself against the clouds, vying for a victory of good over evil; us, anxious kangaroo rabbits peeping our heads through the tent flaps at, I’ll even admit, occasional one-minute intervals, in and out, rooting for team cosmos and even trying to identify the players on the team, “The Big Dipper playing well, but needing some more oomf from the junior.” Such moments in jest only occurred when feeling optimistic, when peering to the south; when feeling dread, I affirmed the depths of my despair to the north. As the the north’s melancholy overwhelmed me, I retreated inside the tent and begged my Christina for hope; in the instances when she returned from the south-side flap, she provided just what I needed, assurance and comfort. This back-and-forth – this struggle inspired by and in sync with the greater one above – continued, except for in the rare instances when we squeezed ourselves through the same tent-flap; when both looking to the cosmos, we romanticized, only to be humbled into paralyzing fear when the lightening intruded ever so slightly into the serene portion of the sky; when both looking to the northern storm, we embraced one-another in our imminent death until one of us retreated back into the tent and out the other flap in order to – albeit forcefully - maintain a fine balance within our home.

Photo: Glimpses of the Milky Way to the south

After watching the mesmerizing but terrifying flashes for a bit too long, death crept ever closer. Convinced that the storm clouds had won the match above, I accepted my fate and popped my head out the southerly flap, trying to find some semblance of comfort in the grandeur above, the cosmos, exposing myself of the infinite nature of our universe, of its beauty, of the marvelousness that is life itself; thoughts of death quickly obliterated themselves. The beauty enveloped me, and the lightening became but an afterthought. Nevertheless, with fear evidently still embedded within myself - unexpectedly not immune despite my being one with the cosmos above - my camping partner shouted, “The milky way is lightening up!” As the mere sound of the word jolted me, she quickly corrected herself, “Brightening! I mean brightening!” Even the word conveyed both fear and hope.

As we experienced both the true grandeur and beautiful aggression around us, I remembered something the park ranger had said before we subjected ourselves to this whole mess (and before she fled back into the National Park HQ). She mentioned very casually, yet existentially, “the dunes wouldn’t look like that without it [wind],” reminding us that true, unadulterated wilderness comprises both yin and the yang; God, or evolution, or Mother Nature, or whomever you believe created such a landscape would not have plopped down these rare dunes for people to stroll and marvel at. Such a creation requires thousands of years of hard work, the fruition of which was these violent and beautiful dunes. And we realize, without struggle and strife, we, too do not develop a sense of grit; and grit is what enables us to better identify and appreciate beauty and blessings. Just as Grandma Mary represents a lovely rainbow, I’m reminded that these same rainbows – these flashes of hope and light – come only after the rain.

Gradually, we evaluated the situation, the lightening, and soothed ourselves. Every time the sky flashed, we counted: one... two... three... four... five... six eight... nine... ten...and so on. As I’ve learned in my training, light travels five times faster across a one-mile interval than does sound. For example, if you see a lightening bolt and then don’t hear thunder for five seconds, the bolt is about a mile away. Anything within a mile is considered dangerous. If you see a bolt and then thunder sounds, say, 30 seconds later, you know the storm is about six miles away. Math. As we listened throughout the evening, thunder didn’t once sound even as the sky flashed and flashed. We found this assuring.

Successive revelations further comforted us. We also knew that, being one of America’s only dark sky preserves, it is likely that even distant lightening could light up the sky above these sand dunes. After laying in relative silence, holding the other out of fear of death by electrocution, Christina’s mind remembered that lightening is often caused when warm and cold particles collide, friction. As we peered our heads out our tent and studied the direction of the lightening, we realized those 14ers likely played a role in this weather. The residual warmth bound to the mountains (warmed by the ground) and the cool air in the elevated clouds caused this exact friction. The lightening was, in fact, distant, either beyond or atop the northern peaks, and with a map on hand – measured at many miles from our makeshift home in the dunes.

A third and final piece of evidence eventually convinced me of our safety. With the sun still setting to our west, the sky glistened red, reminding me of the old adage, “red at night, sailors delight, red in the morning, sailors take warning.” It was night, and the sky to our west was red, indicating that a high pressure system – or a system saturated with dust particles – was incoming; as high-pressure systems convey good weather, and as weather generally moves from the west to the east, at least in this neck of the woods – or dunes, in this case - such a sunset indicated the imminence of good weather. The worst had passed.

Remaining slightly anxious throughout the rest of the night -- somewhat assured but simultaneously nervous that a stray bolt could be our end -- we rested our heads and found some sleep, dreaming of the blank canvas around us, of the Milky Way above, reflecting on our conversations about the cosmos, natural phenomena, and our ability to drive ourselves through an uncomfortable situation which, when sat on for a little bit, wasn’t too uncomfortable at all; and above us, Grandma Mary still lingered, not making any decision for us, but present all the while.

In the early morning, Christina woke me and as I opened my eyes I found that sand from the previous night was still painfully wedged near my water-line, a scratched cornea. We watched the sun-rise, packed our bags, and made way for the ridge, for total safety, escaping the dunes before the heat set in, as it is measured that the dunes can reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Alone in the sand dunes, save one other group, we had spent a night, only twelve-hours, in one of America’s most underrated, most primitive national parks. As the sign demarcating the visitor’s center and the dune-field quotes from the 1964 Wilderness Act, “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” True wilderness is, in fact, a place precluding habitation for us humans. I am reminded: twelve difficult hours.

Photo: On a walk of relief the morning of our departure from the dunes; Photo Credit: Christina Marinelli

All in all, we highly recommend camping in the Great Sand Dunes National Park. As this world of ours works, while Milky Way season and monsoon-season tend to overlap, if forecasters predict a somewhat safe evening – as ours had in fact been – give it a go. A drive through an overlooked region of Colorado, $25 park fee, free backcountry permit, a clear view of the night’s sky. When you’re done, and if headed back up I-25 to Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver, or anywhere north of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, stop at George’s Drive-Inn: simple diner food after a complicated, anxious, but productive evening. Simple, balanced, bland food always rubs the tummy right.

Photo: George's Drive-Inn; Photo Credit: Christina Marinelli

Note: If interested in reading other writing from this specific road trip, please go to ‘Travel Writing’ tab and click any title that begins with ‘RT’ which stands for 'Road Trip.'

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