Great Sand Dunes

This is the seventh installment of a series about the Mountain Dude.  The Mountain Dude, some readers may recall, made a few enigmatic appearances in JJ in the 21st Century.


They baffle and challenge the mind. You know they’re real but your mind can’t integrate them with all you thought you knew before.

I’m not talking about the Trumps.

The Great Sand Dunes in the San Luis Valley in Colorado are a true wonder of the world, explained easily by geology and wind, yet unfathomable as a physical expression of beauty and whimsy. They shouldn’t be there, nestled at the feet of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains, like some embellished juxtaposition from a scifi novel cover picturing another planet.

But there they are.

Are you tired of me trying to wax poetic? How’s this: The sand dunes are fuckin awesome. Not ironic awesome like a burrito truck serving an awesome brunch (watch those hipsters line up!). But awesome as in inspiring awe- the jaw dropping wonder tinged with fear and realization that, after all, we humans are pretty small and powerless despite our games with money and prestige. I didn’t realize I was in a long grim mood until I saw the dunes and my mood was lifted and shaken like a dusty bedspread. I could see clearer and things smelled better as I soaked it all in.

My hitched ride (yes, people still pick up hitch hikers out here) dropped me at a combo gas station/motor inn where they sold me a shower in a wooden outdoor stall incongruously stocked with Paul Mitchell shampoo and conditioner and tiny bars of floral scented soap. It took some time to rinse the conditioner from my long scraggly hair and beard. After, the guy who owned the place said, “You’re positively glistening!”

Thanks bro. I think he may have liked me because he offered me a discount on a room and said I could have dinner with him.

“No thanks,” I said. “I’ve lost the ability to sleep indoors.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “Suit yourself,” he said.

I intend to.

He did get his Mexican worker to drive me to the ranger station where you need to get a permit to camp in the backcountry of Great Sand Dunes National Park. The permit is free in money but costs in the sense that the word permit implies permission and is contingent on the permittee following certain rules. The cost is the knowledge that permission can be denied, perhaps without reason. This is the federal government after all. They want to count you and know where you are.

These park rangers. Someone ought to write a book. Always affable, never warm. Always official, never mean. Slightly ridiculous in those Smoky the Bear uniforms, less than cops, more like serious mall cops of the wilderness. Those hats weigh heavy on the ranger head. I try sometimes to get them to come out from under the brim.

“How many nights?”

“Not sure,” I said.

“We need to put a time frame on the permit.”

“Can we leave it open ended?”

“No sir.”

“So I put down a certain date and if I want to extend it then I need to come back here and renew?”

“Yes, sir. But you can’t spend more than 10 nights a year in the backcountry.”

“I’ll stay for four nights.”

“Okay.” His keyboard clatters.

“I think it’s kind of remote out here,” I said. “Do you miss anyone back East?”

“Back East, sir?”

“Yeah. Do you miss someone special?” I knew he did. His loneliness came into my mind like an IV drip from his brain bag. Also the gauzy image of a woman in a leafy place reminiscent of a Virginia or maybe New England forest.

He swallowed and looked at a point over my shoulder. “Well sir, I wanted to be out west and put a bid in…”

“It’s okay,” I said and would have put a hand on his shoulder if it didn’t require leaning over the wide government counter. “The story’s still being written.”


“This isn’t the end,” I said. “This won’t be forever.”

Tears were in his eyes. “Thank you,” he managed. The screen door bumped open behind me and he cleared his throat. “Now let’s go over the rules and regulations. No open fires. Do you have a stove? Dispose of all human waste at least 200 feet from any water source. To dispose of waste, dig a hole 6-8 inches deep…”

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