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Sand In My Pocket

You don’t have to be good at everything in your life, but it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy new experiences even if you are not good at them. - Steven Aitchison

Monday, 9 October 2023, Great Sands Dunes NP

First stop: the Visitor Center, to stamp the 62nd page of my passport book. When I stepped up to the desk, I mentioned it to the male ranger on duty, who said, "That's great! Which one do you have left?"

"The one the furthest away."

A female ranger, who had her back to us as she handled another visitor, blurted out her guess. "Gates of the Arctic?"

"That's what the ranger in Mesa Verde guessed! But further."

The first ranger nailed it. "American Samoa?" I nodded, and he asked whether I've notified them. "Often, the park will print out a certificate honoring that achievement and present it to the person." Put that on my to-do list!

The dunes obviously rate as THE attraction here. I've reserved Tuesday for lollygagging in nature's big litter box, so I asked about a trail on the other, forested side of the park road. He suggested the Dunes Overlook Trail, which I'd noticed on the park map. Sounds like a plan.

After watching the park film, Bill and I drove to the trail and donned boots for the hike. The trail had a sandy base (to no one's surprise) as it paralleled the dunes through the trees. After a half-mile, it turned up slope for its second half, gaining elevation for the vista.

Two benches at the top encouraged us to sit and catch our breath.

The dunes spread out before us, reaching 750' above the valley floor, shadows playing over their surfaces. To our side, a vein of aspens added their electric yellow to the scene.

We soaked in the beauty. Hard to believe this epic journey of landscapes, wildlife, and nature is winding down. What will follow it?

With the day growing long, we hiked back to the car, then drove to the dune's parking lot. Yellow cottonwood trees lined the trail from the lot to the dunes, and we followed them to gaze at that immense pile of sand.

Time to head to Alamosa to check in and grab dinner. Afterwards, with the night having fallen, we drove 40 minutes back to the park. Time for the final exam for my expanding skills in star photography.

The biggest challenge was finding the right place from which to shoot, followed by choosing the best angle to avoid the encroaching clouds. Interesting to see spots of light on the dunes - people climbing the dunes by starlight.

Now that I have the basics down, I can concentrate on the details.

Tuesday, 10 October 2023, Great Sand Dunes NP

Sand everywhere.

In my pockets, in my shoes, in my hat, blowing in my eyes, matted in my hair, crunching in my mouth, burrowing in my ears, even hiding up my nose.

Welcome to sandboarding!

While planning this trip, I'd heard that they rent sandboards just outside the park. Two types, actually - ones which work like snowboards, with straps for your feet that you stand on, and ones you sit on, with straps to hold onto. I've never snowboarded before (despite years of skiing in my younger, crazier days), and since I'd found out in March that kayaking skills do NOT easily translate to SUP, I assumed my old skiing skills would only serve to frustrate me if tried to adapt them here. I opted for the sit-on-top. (We rented only one board, planning on trading off.)

I remembered the cheesy adventure with the sand discs 17 months earlier in White Sands NP, and wondered if this would mirror that experience. I needn't have worried. Instead of the dinky dunes at White Sands, this park offered substantial sandy slopes right at the edge of the dune fields, with L-O-O-O-N-G runs further up. We climbed to the top of the first dune, where two other families enjoyed the sledding. Watch them for tips!

Me first! I waxed the board, plopped down on it, pushed off, and whee! until 2/3 of the way down, when the board rotated sideways, sending me head over heels. Sit up, brush off, and plod back up the dune.

Bill waxed up, pushed off, and got all the way down before crashing on the run-out. My next run succeeded, but the GoPro didn't start, so no video. We each did several more runs, giving me several more films of spectacular wipeouts, with the video spinning with images of sand, board, and sky. While resting from the climbs back up, we loaned the board to others on the scene to try a few runs.

For two hours we cavorted in the sand, talking with other visitors. Finally, I handed Bill the GoPro, asking him to get a video of me from the bottom. He turns it on, gets ready, then calls up to me, "It's not working!"

Lord only knows what happened, but the screen now blared, "S/D card error!" Turning it off and back on fixed the problem - but only later did I find out the camera recovered by reformatting the disk, erasing the morning's highlight reel of my 'agonies of defeat'.

(Several days later, while I visited American Samoa, the S/D error occurred again - but that time, cycling power didn't erase my videos.)

With it working again, I made one last run, one of my few without crashing, sand blowing in my face as I picked up speed. What a blast!

We returned the sandboard to the car, then ventured back to the dunes unencumbered. Picking out a promising sand ridge, we plodded uphill, steadily gaining elevation, resting often to savor the high views of the valley and dunes.

When I approached one couple sitting on the edge of the ridge, they looked up and smiled at me.

I caught my breath and asked them, "I'm looking for Lawrence of Arabia. I'm supposed to meet him here. Have you seen him?"

They laughed and pointed at a hiker high up on another ridge, silhouetted against the blue sky. "That's him up there!"

Bill and I climbed further, but bailed before reaching the top.

On the way down, I practiced 'running' down the slope - take a jumping step, let your momentum slide you further down the slope, then repeat with the other foot. Quite a quick way to descend! (and to collect more sand.)

As we traversed the sand flats back to the car, I spied an older couple taking pictures of the dune fields. In a helpful mood, I wandered over and offered, "If you hand me your camera, you can climb to the top of the dunes, and I'll take your picture." The woman quickly and politely declined.

After we cleaned off the best we could, I grabbed my Canon camera and shot a few more photos of the dune fields.

As we drove away, I kept looking back to see the dunes recede in the distance.

Truth be told, the Colorado parks shone far more brightly for me than I feared they would. I would even rank the Dunes as perhaps the most unADULTerated (literally) fun I've had for the whole challenge (though geo-caching in the Petrified Forest also struck a chord). Mesa Verde's ancient ruins ranked high on a history scale, Black Canyon's scrambles tested me as few adventures have, and Rocky Mountain's colors and patterns dazzled me.

But I do have one more National Monument to visit tomorrow, before taking this epic overseas...

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