A desert is a harsh and unforgiving landscape. It’s a place of death, drought, and desolation. Nothing productive grows here, and if it does, very little survives.
Yet for some reason that I’ve never understood, the deserts of this world have drawn me to visit, hike, suffer, and explore, time and time again.
American naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch wrote,
“Love me or hate me,
the desert seems to say,
this is what I am and
this is what I shall remain.”
His words echoed in my mind as I waited patiently to receive my overnight wilderness pass for Great Sand Dunes National Park. I was traveling on an extended road trip with my cousin, Hunter, and it was my first experience in the park. In lieu of a hotel room that night, we intended to throw our sleeping bags down on the tallest dune we could find. We wanted to escape the road, the hustle, the WIFI, and for the first time in a while, do nothing but listen.
We received our wilderness pass, drove out to a trailhead, loaded our daypacks, and set off into the dunes. The park’s main dune field covers approximately thirty square miles and we set course directly into its hearth. For the next twenty-four hours, we would never see another human soul. After countless hours of sitting stiffly in our FJ Cruiser, this desert seemed like an entirely different world. The deeper we ventured into the dunes, the more wild it became.
It’s said that you’ll never hike the same trail twice. That’s even more true when hiking through sand. We were in a world of fluidity and constant change. Wind perpetually shaped and transformed this landscape. It was as if we were pioneers on an undiscovered frontier, and in a way, we were. No one in the world would see these dunes just as we saw them now.
In the distance, the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Mountains stood proudly, keeping us oriented on our trailblazing journey. The footprints we left were the only proof of our existence, that we were out here, but even they did not last long. The wind brushed our tracks away, restoring the art that she worked so hard to maintain. If I stood perfectly still, I thought to myself, the wind would surely blow me away too.
For several hours, we kept hiking, moving at a steady and slow creep. I huffed up the hardest of inclines and fumbled down the hills just as slowly. My shoes sank in the loose terrain, and sand gave out under my foreign weight. Eventually, I gave up the hiking shoes and let my feet go bare.
When the colors in the sky began to morph, we searched for the closest vista we could find to call our evening home.
From our camp, we could no longer see the mountains. Walls of sculpted sand surrounded us on all sides. Our world was sand and if you had told me that the dunes continued thousands more miles, I might have believed you. Hunter and I cracked a few beers and spent the evening racing up nearby dunes. We flipped, rolled, and jumped off of the tallest dune crests and played like children in the sand.
After setting up the tent and rolling out the sleeping bags, we settled in for the evening light show. The sun rolled toward the earth and lit up the landscape in an indescribable way. It amazed me. Every color in the spectrum made an appearance in the sky concert: orange, pink, yellow, red, and even green, all danced across our eyes.
The end of the sky concert brought with it pitch-black darkness. Without my sight, I was suddenly acutely aware of the strengthening wind that was tossing my hair and tugging at our clothes and nearby tent.
The desert was telling us to go to bed. We obliged in a comfortable and sleepy silence. Hunter and I absorbed the events of the day.
I slept more deeply and more soundly that night than I had in years. The desert mattress perfectly hugged my body’s curves. Around our tent, nocturnal desert creatures stirred to life. Pocket mice scurried nearby, and in the distance, coyotes yipped their desert song. Not only were we strangers in their home, we never even asked for an invitation. Yet they treated us as guests, making music and promising to guard our tent as they do these dunes.
We woke with the sun and were welcomed by a brand-new world. All of the prints and tracks we had left from our antics were erased. Any damage that we left on the ridges of the dunes was repaired. Nature’s artwork was restored, and she greeted us with a new adventure.
Alex is the owner and founder of wanderwritings.com, a travel blog guided by her rabid passion for backpacking and environmentalism. She's climbed up mountains, down trails, and through desert canyons. She's sailed oceans, circumnavigated islands by sea kayak, and survived eighteen days of class four rapids in a playboat. When she's not out on the trail, she's in her office working with the National Parks Conservation Association to fight for the preservation of these wild places.