Throughout the years, these dunes have always magnetically allured me as a kind of spiritual home. I never quite figured out, until this visit, why they, of all places, satisfy my inner being so much. I’ve flown over them at 30,000 feet to see all thirty-six squares miles of them at once, camped by them in cold andblustery sleet, and ambled to the top of them in 100 degree heat. But this time during cool, dry, windy weather, I’ve come to understand them in ways unknown to me before. It is not just there size of over 700 feet high that makes them “great.”
At five o’clock in the evening late in May, I caught my tenth glimpse (but first solo) of the Great Sand Dunes looking like a giant brain beneath the snowy Sange de Cristo Mountains. My head ached from a long drive from Laramie, Wyoming in heavy interstate traffic through Denver, and I was weary of a year’s worth of seemingly non-stop teaching at the university. But I just had to ramble out onto the dunes and wade through an ice cold, pulsing river of melting mountain snow. One of the pulses, created by sand rhythmically letting loose all it can momentarily absorb, almost knocked me over before I regained balance. My sharp headache vanished like a pile of wind-dispersed sand. The wind gusted to 30 knots and blew stinging, multi-colored and multi-mineraled particles of sand against my skin. That million year old volcanic debris from the San Juan Mountains across the San Luis Valley felt good stinging my face and hands and gritting the enamel of my teeth. Advancing beyond receding waters of the pulsing stream, I left tracks amid the river’s waterprints of welt marks in wet sand. But already dry wisps of sand blew out across the wet welts to change their shapes before my eyes. From there on, I had the dunes to myself and proceeded through strands of Indian rice-grass up into the dry tan mounds rising 700 feet above my head. Despite the wind, the sun, in a blue turquoise sky, felt good.
I followed a narrow ridge at the crest of a dune angling upward at 30 degrees. Sand blew over the edge of the crest suspending my shadow in mid air giving me an eerie feeling. At the very crest, the sand seemed firmer than to the windward side where softer piles of fresh sand formed continually, poetic proof of the existence of Proteus, Greek god of metamorphosis.
Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay “Natural History of Massachusetts” that “Nature is mythical and mystical always, and works with license and extravagance of genius.”
The Great Sand Dunes are a living testimony to mythical and mystical elements of Nature. Deep, dark pits below me seemed to be of another world, especially viewed through a veil of windblown sand. As I hoofed along the crest, unbelievably jagged and snow-laced spires of Crestone Peak inched their way into my horizon growing larger until I stood at the top of a protean world spreading in waves and merging with sky.
Back at camp, after an exhilarating run down slope and splashing through icy waters, I cooked a modest meal and leafed through a paperback volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson that I brought along with me. He confirmed my beliefs about human relationship to the land. In “Hamatreya” the spirit of Earth says,
“They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me,
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone,
How am I theirs,
If they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?”
A seven hundred-foot, million year old wall of shifting hand is surely a case in point. Indeed it is the Earth who holds us–even our sand-particled shadow in the wind.
I looked up from Emerson to see a golden fire setting over the dunes darkening in layers of deep shadow. Wafts of sweet-scented narrow-leaf cottonwoods blew through the campground as robins started their evening chorus. With the moon rising over Sierra Blanca Peak, I walked leisurely out toward the head of the dunes past sweet sage and ghostly ring muhly grasses as dry as the cactus and greasewood. My eyes caught distant phantom pinon pines engulfed in encroaching sands under darkening skies. I walked up to them and examined their root-like branches at ground level and under. The trees were becoming sand and helped form new mounds, burial mounds for them, and new dunes for the living sands. John Muir always believed that seeming destruction is but an act of creation even in something so violent, or as he would say “joyous,” as an earthquake or volcanic eruption.
I took out some juniper wood brought from our home in Laramie from the car for my campfire under the brightening stars of the Big Dipper and other constellations. It was the sweetest smelling campfire possible. As Edward Abbey writes in Desert Solitaire, juniper smoke evokes all of the magic and power of the American West. Juniper smoke is like incense, like a prayer puffing out Thoreau’s chimney at Walden Pond. I got out my bedroll, found a soft spot in the sandy soil and crawled in to star gaze. A bright star rose over the dunes, while the moon hid behind the hissing and creaking branches of a pinon pine. The Big Dipper floated directly above me head, and only desert breezes and a distant stream broke the silence. Silver threads of clouds illuminated by the moon were the last thing I saw until dawn. I dreamed of the many earlier trips I had taken here with my wife and kids, but this time I thought a solo trip might prove rewarding.
Dawn at the dunes! No words can do it justice. The shrill whistle of “pearl-dip, pearl dip,” made by a circling hawk, awakened me. Ten mule deer fed on new pine branches within a few feet of my sleeping bag. A chorus of robins, western meadowlarks, and warblers picked up in tempo as light increased in the east and a reddish-golden moon set to the west. I raised myself up on one elbow to have sand particles flick past my eyes; my eyebrows and hair were laden with sand much like those phantom pinon trees of last evening. Then it dawned on me why these dunes mean so much to me, to my inner spirit. They literally, as well as figuratively, made me become part of them. Becoming one with the land is the central message of contemporary Native American literature. It is through becoming one with the land again that the character Tayo of Leslie Silko’s novel Ceremony arrives at psychic wholeness after his devastating experiences in World War II. When Tayo, part Pueblo Indian, part Euro-American, watches a mountain lion high on a ridge in western New Mexico, wholeness, at long last, enters his war-torn soul. He speaks to the lion: “‘Mountain lion…mountain lion, becoming what you are with each breath, your substance changing with the earth and sky.'”
The shifting, blowing, glowing, darkening dunes of sand here in southern Colorado do much for the human spirit seemingly locked into a body. Their presence becomes part of your hair and more importantly part of your psychic and spiritual fiber. Their force becomes our force and through them we can come back to ourselves. I left the dunes with sand in my hair and even sand inside the Emerson paperback where these tiny particles further punctuated “Hamatreya.”