Escape Dunes

This is the ninth installment of a series about the Mountain Dude, a wandering guy with an ESP-like “gift”.  The Mountain Dude, some readers may recall, made a few enigmatic appearances in JJ in the 21st Century.


When driving on the Medano Pass Primitive Road (four-wheel drive), the Escape Dunes and Ghost Forest can be viewed approximately 1/2 mile up the road. Here, shifting sands have crossed Medano Creek to form new dunes. The “escape” dunes create “ghost forests” where trees die through suffocation and starvation.

So I’ve heard that question a lot. “Can you control it?” The short answer is, “sometimes”. Sometimes I can batten the hatches against before the spigot flow starts. But it takes vigilance and conscious effort. Once the flow starts, it can’t be stopped except by moving away from the source. At least I haven’t found another way.

That’s why I keep moving.  At least that’s what I tell myself.

It doesn’t happen with everyone. Some people are closed to me, thankfully. I saw this therapist once. He tried to believe me. He listened and nodded and tapped his pen against his lower lip. When I finished, he leaned forward and said, “Man is the God who shits.”


“Think about it,” he said.

I’ve certainly thought about it over the years, especially after shitting all over someone or being shat upon by life. But it came up again when I walked up into the mountains, away from the main dune field, and came upon an area of escape dunes and the resulting ghost forest. There was a photographer up here, tripod and all, and I sat in the sand and watched him. He was a restless middle-aged fellow, fidgety with his camera gadgets, worried about the sand getting into his various apertures. He had a remote shutter release and he was setting up for a shot down to the dune field from up here in the escape dunes. It was getting late and soon the dunes would explode into an orange umber blaze as the surrounding foothills grew dark. I’ve seen this happen and it’s captured in my mind, this image of something as close to the divine as anything is likely to get.

I approached the photographer cautiously. No ESP flow from this dude. At least not yet.


“I was wondering if you would walk over,” he said. “You live out here?”

“For a few days.”

“Well I’m torn about that. I envy you, of course, being out here away from all the…all the…”


“Worse than bullshit,” he said. “Vitriol. Hate.”

“Sounds about right.”

“But then you also must miss a lot. I mean, most people are still good.”


He finished some final adjustment and made sure the cord for the remote shutter release wasn’t tangled and he stood next to me looking out over the dune field. A few minutes maybe until sunset.

“My wife thinks I’m crazy coming out here all over creation to get pictures of beauty. I suppose some people fish or hunt and they feel this way, but I don’t want to hurt any animals. I need to be out here or out there or wherever. I feel like I hunt this natural beauty. It’s always available. And it’s free.”

“For now,” I said.

“We can create so much. We’re freer than we think. We can move around and think and try to love.”

“But we succumb.”

“Yup,” he said. “We succumb. By commission or omission, we still succumb.”

“Man is the God who shits,” I said.

“That’s pretty pungent. But I know what you mean.”

We watched as it grew dark around us up here in the ghost forest. The dune sea blazed into coral and a fine haze in the air gave everything a dreamy feel. He pushed the button and the camera clicked.


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Surge Flow

This is the eighth installment of a series about the Mountain Dude, a wandering guy with an ESP-like “gift”.  The Mountain Dude, some readers may recall, made a few enigmatic appearances in JJ in the 21st Century.


I camped in the transition zone, the dune apron, between the dunes and the mountains. A Medano Creek ran along the base of the first tall dunes. I sat on the bank and watched the strange pulsing water move along the sandy bottom. The water has a kind of tidal rhythm as little sand bars are formed upstream then suddenly erode sending a quiet surge of water downstream, every twenty seconds or so, a condensed version of so many cycles. Aren’t we all forming and holding on against the pressure, then breaking down and letting go? Over and over and over again. At least I am.

The suck of the past.

There was a time when I thought I would be someone. A famous writer or thinker or public intellectual. Do public intellectuals even exist anymore? Are they just those dumbasses on tv holding forth on the latest utterings of cruel politicians? Or partisan bull-shitters swimming in some toxic think tank?

Anyway, there was a time when I wanted to be like Emerson, sharing my original personal not-handed-down experience of the world, self-reliant with the knowledge that great men wrote those great books sitting and struggling as I was trying to write a great book. Grandiose? The unrealistic dreams of youth?

Of course!

I wrote a short story in a college writing course about a group of young men, one of whom would die by gunshot. I was very proud of the story. It had a wallup. It was austere. It was a black and white interior photo of some uncluttered room, a good well-balanced photo of young men at a table laden with beer bottles and playing cards that left you wondering about the fate of such young men as these. One of them shows the others a gun which, by the Chekhov rule, means that someone has to get shot by the end of the story. In my story, there is no obvious conflict but, after the card game ends, one of the men, the one who showed the gun, tortured by an unnamed occurrence in his past, parks his car on the way home and shoots himself in the head.

That’s it.

I was very proud of this story. It had flowed out of me after a period of not having any ideas, of losing a girlfriend and hating my roommate’s hippy girlfriend ( and then my roommate), of being confused and alone in the world.

The writing “teacher” and most of the other students were not happy. I was accused of emotional ambush, of treating the reader with disdain, of minimizing suicide. They did not hold back and I was not capable of receiving criticism. I sat there and took it, but on my way back to the dorm I stopped in a little grove of trees and sat down on a bench. I decided that I would not be a writer anymore. There was no fight in me, just resignation. In fact, I resolved to leave college that day and pursue my own education, on my own, future be damned.

Someone had followed me from class to the little grove. A woman from the class. Clara or Clarise or Cherise. I hated her writing but she was kind and sensitive. She was a little heavy, hair dyed black, dressed all in black, and had this way of displaying her cleavage like, “I reject all color and levity!  Now look at my boobs!” I appreciated that.

I wanted to wallow. I DID NOT want to feel what she was feeling. I tried to shut off the valve of the sensing. Too late.

Sadness pulsed toward me. But also firmness, bedrock below the typical sadness and loneliness of most humans. An image of a mountain rising beyond a foggy lake. She was solid. Sad and solid.

“They were pretty harsh,” she said.

“Yeah. Fuck ‘em.”

“Are you coming back?”


“So what are you going to do? Wander the earth?”

“Hmmm. Yup.”

“And write about it?”

“I’m done with that.”

She leaned over and put a hand on my arm. She was earnest and really cared and I tried so hard to look at her face and not down her shirt. I think I may have succeeded.

“Don’t stop writing,” she said. “Don’t ever stop no matter what you do.”


But I still left college that night.


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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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The Baggage

This is the sixth 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.


I hate the term ESP. It evokes images of second rate documentaries, complete with gauzy slide shows projected into the mind of a paranormal freak from his spooky muse. I may be a freak, but I don’t feel like that kind of freak. Abnormal, maybe. Unsettled, yes. But, look around. Who the hell wants to be normal these days?

Plus it doesn’t come to me in visions. It’s more like a knowing, like when a word or memory goes missing then comes back, emerging from the blank place fully formed and plain as day. You know the blank place? It’s not a there/their/they’re sort of thing. It’s like when you forget how to spell a common word like “restaurant” and you spell it “resturant” and it looks wrong on the page, feels wrong, but you can’t pull the correct spelling from you brain. It’s in the blank space. Then you remember and it’s there again, unblemished, plain as day.

That’s how the sense about people emerges. The knowledge breaks the surface like a sea creature, a roiling of the water then a sudden appearance.

An example from college. A class in 20th Century European literature. The professor, a younger man with strong opinions passing for passion. He tries to compensate for his lack of gravitas with the affects of the academic. Long hair cut to shoulder length. The glasses. The sweater. The vague smell of pot and cats.

The secret undergrad girlfriend.

How do I know? Because I was in love with her, too.

We were in a class discussion about Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice”, and listing the portents of a descent into fluid unreasonable fetid passion when something was triggered and I just knew that he was sleeping with my friend and secret love Alex. I knew because I felt his worry that she was not in class that day, but his worry had nothing to do with her health or well-being. His worry had everything to do with a recent spat and what she might be doing that very moment that might lead to discovery, humiliation, and termination of his employment.

That son of a bitch.

Standing up there holding forth on these old world authors. Sleeping with my Alex. (Granted, she was no one’s Alex, would never be anyone’s Alex, and that’s one of the reasons I loved her.)

Clearly something had to be done.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that a proportionate response to a common human foible might include sidling up to Professor Pompous Ass after class and just letting him know that I know thus increasing his worry, making him squirm, but not destroying him or his career.

But, I didn’t know about proportionate response. Or about careers. I was just all thwarted love and impulse.

So I followed him after class.

It was midmorning and, sure enough, he headed over toward Alex’s apartment just off campus. There weren’t too many people around, too early for the lunch rush, and I ducked behind a thick tree when he comically turned to scan behind him before entering the building. I waited a few minutes before following him in. At Alex’s door, after pressing my ear to the door, but before barging into the apartment, there was a vague sense that I should just walk away. But…

ESP plus poor impulse control. Not a good combo.

They weren’t having sex. They weren’t embracing. Professor Pomp sat on the couch, leaning forward with his head in his hands. Alex (my Alex!) stood in a bathrobe near the window, smoking a cigarette and looking down at the Professor. It looked like a photo with streaming sunlight from the window, cigarette smoke in the sun rays, her in profile, him straight on in misery. A photo entitled, “The Breakup”.

Of course they were surprised to see me. My righteous anger dissipated almost immediately upon entering and I just stood there and we all looked at each other before I backed out and closed the door and fled.

He kept his job. Alex never spoke to me again. I tried to apologize, once. She said, “Fuck off, creep”. I dropped 20th Century European Literature and then transferred to another school in another state at semester’s end. I moved on.

I’m always moving on.

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Simple, but Not Easy

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


I walk into Grandview, a tourist town that’s seen better days. There are abandoned mini-golf courses and abandoned shooting galleries, perfect for a Scooby-Doo mystery. There are still tourists, but they are not looking for quaint pastimes. Why play mini-golf when you can play games on a phone in an air conditioned car? Sad. How will kids ever learn to reduce their siblings to tears without trash talking and gloating at miniature golf?

The abandoned golf courses move me, maybe because they represent the death of the past, a childhood gone forever. Or maybe because they’re just sad and represent a bygone era for us all. Or maybe I just backpacked for a week through some serious mountain terrain and I’m a little bit lonely, a whole lot weary, and a little bit teary.

I should write a country song.

Oh yeah, I’m hungry as hell, too. First things first.

Burger. I crave burger. And beer. But mostly burger.

There’s a place with a patio. Good news for me and the people who may be inside. I haven’t bathed for ten days or so and no one wants to be in close quarters with me. No one. I prop my pack against a fence post and sit down at one of the tables. I’m half expecting to be kept waiting and then for a manager, not a waitress, to be deployed to suggest I move along. This happens sometimes, mostly in the East and Midwest, those bastions of supposed tradition, values, and worry. But this is Colorado where they see a lot a wandering folk in the mountain towns and they don’t much care if you’re dirty or deranged or damaged. Plus they’re generally friendly and curious. At least curious enough to see if you have the money to pay for lunch. So out comes a waitress.

“Hi there, can I get you a menu?”

“Burger,” I say. “And fries.” Did I mention I haven’t spoken to anyone since the lady near the lake and after a week I’ve slipped into mono-syllabic caveman mode? Delightfully, she plays along.

“Man want burger? Man want cheese?”

“Beer too?”

“Many kinds. Man want list?”

“Girl choose.”

And off she goes.

I count that among the best interactions I’ve ever had with a person. She brings a pint and smiles. “Did you just hike through the park?”

“Yeah. It was fantastic.”

“I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ve done a lot of loops but never all the way over.”

And then I get the flash of feeling, the ESP, or whatever you call it. (I call it the sense. The book, of course, will be called “The Sense”.  Or maybe “The Sensing”.  Has that been done before?) Anyway, this golden blonde long legged beauty of a twenty-something Colorado girl, serving burgers and beers at a pub in a mountain town, is simply a very happy person. Unlike most people, there is no hidden sucking pit of despair and fear inside of her.

“What’s your secret?”

“For what? Hiking the park?”

“No. For being comfortable in your skin. For being content.”

“Wow that’s a little deep. Maybe I’m sad on the inside,” she says and smiles. A couple walks over from across the street and sits down so she moves away with a raise of the eyebrows, promising a return with food and maybe an answer.

When she returns with my burger (large, with cheese and bacon(!) and a heap of fries) she says, “It’s not a secret. I just decide every day to be free and grateful. It’s simple, but not easy.”

“I try to do that. But the baggage…”

She looks over at my pack leaning against the hitching post. “Looks like you put it down over there.” She looks back at me. “Enjoy your food,” she says.

And indeed I do. Gratefully.

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“What Happened to You?”

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


“What happened to you?”

I get this question more often than I like. If I had scars from facial burning or I was missing a limb, most people would be too embarrassed to ask. Most people would pretend not to see and treat me like I wasn’t damaged at all. They might even whisper about my courage to even carry on in such a condition.

But, I’m a disheveled wanderer who can’t keep my mouth shut. People are bolder when they can’t see the damage or they perceive you as shiftless, possibly dangerous. I’m not rudderless, though. If I had a bumper sticker, it would read, “not all who wander are lost.” Just like Gandalf.

Unlike Gandalf, I have no wizardry other than this emotional ESP that, coupled with my big mouth, doesn’t help at all. I’m not like Johnny Smith in the Dead Zone who can see someone’s future by touching that person or that person’s stuff. I remember in the book Johnny Smith shook hands with some politician and saw clearly that this politician would become president one day and lead the world into nuclear holocaust. The Cold War was in it’s long wind-down and nuclear war was still on everyone’s mind. Anyway, Johnny Smith sets out to murder this politician, therefore saving the world from nuclear holocaust by ending him before he becomes the president who destroys the planet. This was a story from the imagination of Stephen King, of course.

Can you even imagine such a crazy far-fetched fantasy in this day and age?


I can’t keep my mouth shut. And it’s better to walk the earth having fleeting encounters with people. Better for them and for me. When I piss them off irrevocably, I move on.

In high school, I couldn’t just move on. My skills were there but I hadn’t really separated them out from the adolescent surge of hormones, from my own desires and despair. I could perceive things and say things people wanted or needed to hear. I could say just the right thing to teachers. To parents. To girls.

Girls. With them I really had to start honing the response to my perceptions. For instance, I learned pretty quickly to say, “It’s all going to be ok” at just the right moment rather than, “I know you’re heart is breaking but it’s not appropriate to be in love with your cousin.”

Bland generalities, boldly delivered at just the right moment. “It’s ok to cry.” “Life is really hard.” “He doesn’t deserve you.” These generic insights were key to getting to first base and sometimes beyond. “Wow, you really understand me,” some girls would say. The better to get into your shirt, under your skirt, into your bed.

Yup. But can you see that I was learning how to be a fraud? And that being a fraud can get you things? I hadn’t yet learned that the things you get by being a fraud are hollow and make you sad in the end.

“What happened to you?”

One of the things that happened to me in my early twenties: I was riding an Amtrak train across the country. It was the middle of the night and I sat in the upstairs lounge car which is like a big glass bubble with seats facing outward so you can watch the USA speed by. I sat chewing these mushrooms and as the dawn rose and this ecstatic psychedelic depth opened up inside of me I watched the Nebraska prairie emerge from the gloaming. As I sat suspended in the train bubble it was impossible to tell if I was rocketing through the prairie or if I was motionless and the prairie was flying past me as I was dangling above in some weird glass pod. Space and time ceased to exist for an hour or two and I just sat there in a detached suspended bliss until some people came in to eat Hostess cakes and the awful ceaseless sound of crinkling wrappers brought me back to a rather limited reality.

That happened to me, too.


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Evolution or Devolution? The Mountain Dude’s not in the Mood

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


I met an older woman, lean and tan and fit, hiking above Lawn Lake. She’s a mountain woman who’s been hiking forever, unfazed by steep trails, wildlife or the presence of an unkempt grumpy Mountain Dude.

“I believe in evolution,” she said. “And I don’t mean growing a longer snout to eat burrowing bugs.”

“What do you mean, then?”

“I mean, evolution is happening, like it or not. You can either help or hinder. That’s our choice.”

“Do you mean stop acting like children, grabbing all we can, as fast as we can and fuck everyone else?”

“Hmm. I don’t like the F-word.”

“Sorry. I’ve been thinking about something similar.”

“Cursing is a choice. We choose our words. Otherwise we’re unconscious.”

I was beginning to regret our conversation.

She sat on a rock and opened her pack. I expected a baggie of gorp but she had some jerky instead. She held out a strip to me. “Elk,” she said.

Elk jerky as a peace offering? That’s a start.

We chewed our jerky in silence.

“Don’t be so afraid,” I said. “The world isn’t that bad.”

“Who said I’m scared? Aren’t you scared?”

The residue of the world was all over me, still, from the towns and cities I came through to get here. Civilization. The people, the tourists, the park ranger, all indifferent or demanding, they just get in the way.

“I’m not scared. But I’m concerned.”

“’It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.’” She sang this in a mock cracked voice.


“Who else?”

“I have trouble getting past his whole Christian period.”

She chewed and looked into the trees. “Yeah, but he was…is… on the side of evolution.”

“Is it really either/or?”

“Pretty much. We will evolve or die off. Some fight it. Many fight it, these days. Most people it seems. It’s fashionable to fight it and be proudly sinking.”

“Fuck ‘em,” I said with a little too much emphasis on the F-word.

She stood up. “I told you I don’t like that word. What’s wrong with you?”

“I’ve been cast aside,” I said. “And I can’t shake it off today.”

“You’re angry.”

“And you’re rigid. Life can only disappoint the rigid and righteous.”

She gathered her stuff and moved off down the trail.

“And cursing doesn’t mean shit,” I said. “It’s just expression.”

Suffice it to say, we agreed to disagree. Or at least I did.

Later, I pitched my tent and sat watching darkness fall. One thing about the mountains. Once the summer sun sets behind a ridge or peak, the temperature drops immediately. That’s unlike the humid eastern mountains where the heat lingers in the thick air. That heavy heat has no where to go, the valleys trapping it, forming puddles of swampy June air. Up here, in a high Rocky Mountain valley, it’s easier to shake it off because the air is thin and much of the heat just lifts away.

At least that’s what I tell myself. But I’m no scientist.

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