The Great Sand Dunes of Colorado are a freak of nature – literally. Wind patterns and the position of the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains combine with river courses in the surrounding San Luis Valley to provide a unique environment, trapping sand in a pocket at the foot of the mountains. The result is a wonderland of towering sand dunes in what appears to be the most unlikely place.
We had, for the time being, descended from the mountains and entered a vast plain of scrub and farmland and the road stretched out before us to the horizon.
We caught sight of the dunes for the first time as we travelled south on Highway 17 towards Alamosa.
They looked incongruous against the the mountain backdrop and, at first, it was impossible to gauge their size within the landscape. But as we approached the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve we began to appreciate how immense the dunes were.
The dunes rise to 750ft, cover 30 square miles and contain an estimated 5 billion cubic metres of sand (Wikipedia), making them the tallest sand dunes in North America and we were about to climb them.
We set out to the base of the dunes and our ascent was hard-going, our feet sinking into the sand and the heat of the sun on our backs. Some people carried ‘sand boards’ (snow boards for use on the sandy slopes), making their climb more difficult.
We could see sand-boarders whizzing down the slopes ahead of us and it looked like such great fun until you realise that it took them a couple of hours to get to the top and only minutes to come down again.
At one point, Rachel stopped and would go no further; like a puppy dog sitting down and refusing to move. A gentleman would have stayed with her but, unfortunately, she was with me – I abandoned her to continue the ascent as I had my heart set on a particular peak and had to reach it.
The ascent made my lungs scream “stop you old fool, you’re not 20 anymore” but I ignored them and huffed and puffed my way to the top.
I made it and was rewarded with an amazing view of the dunes and the San Luis Valley below, which, Wikipedia tells me, is about the size of Connecticut. It was a wonderful experience to witness such a wonder of nature.
The descent was much easier and on the way I met a man coming up. He was almost on his knees and was wheezing expressions like “Good God”, and “Help me”. I felt sort of sorry for him and provided words of encouragement – we stopped to chat. This was Daniel and in the next 20 minutes I heard his inspiring life story. He was from Romania and was orphaned under the Communist Ceausescu regime. His American parents went to Romania and adopted him, giving him a new life in the States. He told me stories of his early life, most of which he knows only secondhand from his biological family, who he has lost touch with, and from photos. He plans to return in a year or so to find his family if he can. I had noticed how, on his climb up the dunes, he took the time to speak with everyone and he had a refreshing, open and friendly demeanor and he told me of his hopes for the future and his gratitude for the freedom we were both experiencing on the dunes’ slopes at that moment. One of the most striking things about him was his accent, which we laughed about – I spotted Spanish, Australian and South African (anything but Romanian) to name a few and the accents interchanged constantly with every sentence. He said it was due to his travels. He thought I spoke “the Queen’s English” and I tried to explain to him how wrong he was! I have to say that Daniel made my day. He shook my hand multiple times before we exchanged photos of each other. I would have liked to show them here but, as I didn’t get his permission, it’s not appropriate to do so.
I rejoined Rachel, who was by now hot-footing it down the slopes to the toilets as I had been longer than expected. What a wonderful experience this had been and in spite of all the wondrous landscapes of the day, it was Daniel I remember most.
Next, we head for New Mexico.