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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Great Colorado Countryside

The journey down from the mountain passes towards Great Sand Dunes National Park continued through the afternoon. We stopped where we could to take pictures of the marvelous countryside.

At last the passes opened up into a much bigger sort of plain, one which had flat land as far as the eye could see. The patchwork of giant squares formed by the intersection of straight country roads every few miles was divided evenly between empty barren spaces and large, dry-looking commercial farms. The mountains stretched out along the edges of the horizon to either side.

We zig-zagged our way towards one particular wall of mountains and after awhile it became apparent that the tall yellow lumps that nestled in their shadow were no mirage but our destination, Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The dunes, part of America’s newest national park, are at almost 1000 feet the highest in the entire United States. They were formed over tens of thousands of years by the action of wind blowing sediment particles from the surrounding valley up against the mountains. A pair of seasonal rivers pull sediment from the edges of the dunes each spring before their deposits are blown back atop the ever-growing piles once more. After spending a brief time in the visitor’s center, we opted to hike into the dunes to catch the sunset.

Traveling barefoot, the sand felt at times hard packed like a wet riverbank and at others like the soft, loose top sand of a Caribbean beach. Near the dried beds of the seasonal streams, vegetation was able to take hold.

The ascent itself was quite difficult. It should have been easy compared to the steep Grand Canyon climb we’d made just days earlier but, in fact, fighting the sucking pull of gravity amid the dunes worked an entirely different set of muscles in a similarly painful way. I hadn’t made it more than half way up before my calves burned mightily and I needed to rest.

I tried to remember everything I’d learned in movies about people lost in the desert. I think I’d heard something about walking the crests of the dunes, so I tried that and it helped a bit. I ended up doing something like a duck waddle across the top while the action of my passing upset the virgin crust and set off avalanches which resonated like the deep songs of a dozen humpback whales.

At last, with my feet cold and blistering and every inch of my clothes caked in a fine layer of sand, I crested the tallest of the dunes in the whole park.

I’d made it with a bit of time to spare before sunset, so I explored the area around the Grand Dune and gained a healthy appreciation for the many surprising qualities of an endless supply of sand. I most appreciated the silence that settled like a blanket between the gentle gusts of wind which sent soft rustles of sand coursing over the tops of the ridge line.

At last, perched atop the dune, I beheld the finest sunset I’d seen in months, otherworldly for the landscape that it illuminated:

The sun set, the light began to fade, and I quickly realized that the initial plan to get some night pictures of the dunes was folly amidst their discombobulating contours. My friend had climbed a different dune to catch the sunset, and we both set off to return to the parking lot before darkness fell.

For a while, the journey was great fun. Descending felt a bit like walking on the moon must. There was something very low-gravity about it all, aside from the crunching rumble as each footstep set off resonant ripples throughout the structure of the dune. After a time, the sand started to feel awfully cold and I put my boots back on, shaking them out every so often when they filled with so much sand that I couldn’t even wiggle my toes.

Eventually it got dark enough that I could barely make out the contours of the way ahead and had to make educated guesses about which direction I was heading. In the troughs, it was easy to experience a mild feeling of disorientation or even vertigo in the darkness. I soldiered on and was eventually rewarded by seeing car headlights far ahead in the parking lot, so I headed towards those, remembering their location when they eventually faded.

I found the bikes but not my friend, who hadn’t made it out yet. I had a tense half hour during which I tried calling his name and cell phone to no avail and mapped out all sorts of ways I was going to try to track him down in the darkness. I turned on the bike to a loud idle and pointed the headlights into the dunes, hoping to guide him home. At last I saw his headlamp on the dunes and he made it back to the parking lot, tired but well.

The night ride to a motel in the nearby town of Alamosa, CO was cold and stressful as we tried not to get pancaked by passing wildlife but we made it in alive and awoke ready for our final leg together up to Denver. Like the previous day’s ride from Ouray, the scenery through which we passed covered just about every possibility. Again, the iPhone road photos are the best way to see that:

After a long and satisfying ride, we made a final descent from the hills and into the Denver area. We dropped over 2000 feet and the temperature rose considerably.

Denver is an interesting place. It’s a blend between a big city and an outdoorsy little town. When we arrived, we had enough time to take a walk down the central mall on 16th street. The atmosphere was nice despite a high rate of vagrancy.

I bid my friend goodbye and he headed back to Houston while I headed to Home Depot to make some repairs to my saddlebag rails. One hour and a lot of skeptical looks later, I was good to go and so I found a motel and rested up for what I thought would be an exciting journey into Rocky Mountains National Park.

As it turned out, though, the next day’s weather would have none of it. I pushed from Denver through Boulder and into the park beneath cloudy skies, hoping to do the scenic ride along the tops of the mountains to one of the distant visitor’s centers. I’d already spent a lot of time riding in the Rockies but it’s hard to ever get enough of those incredibly raw vistas and valleys. The ride I wanted to do was supposed to be one of the most scenic in the whole chain.

Alas, when I got to the ranger station at the base of the pass, they informed me that it was already storming at my intended destination and the front was moving rapidly towards us. After a moment of indecision, I regretfully vowed to someday return, spun the bike around, and exited the park.

It took several hours and many poorly lit photographic failures for me to finally escape the lingering grasp of the mountains. Ahead stretched a week of solo riding across the flat center of the country on my way back towards New England. I hated to leave the splendor of the West, but there was a whole lot more country to see ahead so I sucked it up, opened the throttle, and headed east.