English: View atop High Dune, Great Sand Dunes National Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When I left grad school, and just drove, traveling, I had destinations, but no route to speak of. I wandered, and, looking back, the things I remember often aren’t the things I thought they’d be.
Sure, there was the thunder of Niagara, and somber majesty of Rushmore, but it was those strange little moments between places. It was waking up to the lumbering of a harvester in the pale light before dawn on a foggy morning. It was a perfect little Main Street town in Oklahoma, where every shop, home, and business was a boarded-up husk. It was the rusting hulks of the iron ore ship along Superior’s cold shores. Seals in the moonlight in the Bay of Fundy. I could go on, and on, and on, but everywhere civilization was as full of decay and new growth as any forest. It was so alive. The highways and the rails the veins and arteries of a breathing, growing, hungering continent.
The world is strange and wild, and we are, whatever we think, made in its image. We have changed it, are changing it, but we reflect it in spite of ourselves.
It’s a strange thought, then, how many things I have left to see, if I have the wherewithal to get to them, and how many I would like to see once more, but never will again. I couldn’t even trace the route I drove anymore, and–if I did–everything would be different.
You can’t drive the same road twice; that’s just the way of the world.
So here I am, looking back, and I see that my life is full of things I’ve already done for the last time. Some of that is good. I might go back to Great Sand Dunes National Park, but I’ll know the sand will form up around me, and render my down sleeping bag useless. The older wiser me would also probably pause to wonder why I was the only who applied for a back country permit that day, but to take that from my younger self would be a form of cruel robbery. I wouldn’t trade it.
Look at that guy who has no idea how cold he’s about to be!
Not for the world.
Camping on a sand dune in a sandstorm on a cold windy night is miserable in such a myriad of strange and creative ways that it’s not really worth describing. You just have to be there. Besides, it was when I woke, if waking is what you do from five hours of gray shivering haze of minute-long catnaps, that this story finds itself.
There was something primordial about waking up chilled, shivering, aching with the cold, before the first light of dawn, feeling the insidious creep of dew and the surprising weight of the blowing sand which had half buried me. I was glad for it, it defanged the wind. There I was only living person for miles, beneath a sky full of stars–no matter how many times I visit somewhere far from the city lights, I find myself thinking, I forgot there were so many! Memory is simply not up to that task.
Rising, shaking off the sand that enveloped me as entirely as the useless sleeping bag, I felt almost staggeringly alive, like something emerging from a grave, or perhaps just a past long buried. As I set about shaking off the sand, packing up, and moving, my body shook the chill and my limbs banished the ache, and some deep part of me was certain this was how I meant to wake up; cold, hungry, aching, damp, and before the sun.
The air had gone still, and the light of those stars, reflected off the dunes, was enough to see by. It was too cold to be still. So I had put in a mile on soft sand before the first lightening of the eastern sky. Miles are a long way on sand, cresting dunes and then running and sliding down them like waves.
Then the sun rose.
It’s one of life’s purest truths that at some moments we are more alive than others, and I have rarely been so alive as I was when the sun rose over me, and my shadow stretched back along the trail of my passage, the only footprints on the dunes, already vanishing.
It was extraordinary. A place I can’t go back to, and a place I’ll never leave.
Next time, I’ll bring a sleeping pad and some sort of polar fleece lining.