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…”

The Mountain Dude: “Why is Everyone so Angry?”

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


I watched a National Park Ranger talk down a tourist from Ohio who was enraged that you couldn’t just stop your car in the middle of a busy road to take a picture of deer in a meadow. The driver clearly did not want to consider parking forty yards away and hauling the bulk of himself and family out of the car for a clearer look and contemplation of the beauty at hand.

I emerged from the trees where I had been watching the deer and contemplating the beauty at hand. “That was really hard for you,” I told the ranger after the car harrumphed away. “You just want to be liked.”

“Excuse me?”

“Sorry, nothing. Why are people so angry?”

“I think they just want what they want when they want it.”

We watched the deer, unhurried and silent, eating in a sunset meadow backed by 12,000 foot mountains.

“The internet,” I said. “We’ve confused convenience with an advance in civilization.”

“That’s a bit of a leap.”

I had to concede that he was right. It’s one of the traps of wandering alone most of the time. You’ve already filled in all the logic between observation and conclusion and take it as given, very tidy in your own head. Hence, tourist is angry in national park because of the internet and it’s illusion of easy attainment. I often get that puzzled look from people when I present my conclusions without my logic. Not that they want to hear my logic either. Still, I try.

“Guy from Ohio and his family want to get off their couch and have a vacation. They research national parks online because that’s getting back to nature. They read reviews and read about wildlife and stupendous scenery. They miss the parts about crowds and altitude. They use a GPS. They have no adventures on the way, except when little Daisy drops her plastic tray of gas station nachos and the flourescent cheese sauce gets on the upholstery. Dad is pissed. They get here to discover traffic in the gateway town. Straight-up traffic. And it’s hot. Then they go to the hotel to watch TV. The WiFi is spotty. The continental breakfast is free and there are as many sausage patties as you can eat. By the time they get out of there, it’s 9:30 or so, the same time that every other family is leaving their hotels. They discover another traffic jam at the entrance. Then there’s no parking at the lake they want to see and they have to take a shuttle which is packed like a New York subway at rush hour. On the way back to town, they see these deer, these beautiful tranquil deer grazing with a backdrop of awesome mountains. They slow down and stop to take pictures. Then you, the ranger, comes to move them along.”

“We’ve made it too easy to get here. Now we do crowd control all summer.”

“It’s supposed to be hard to get here. Instead of a physical challenge it’s a game of patience.”

“You don’t seem challenged.” He looked at my backpack. “Where are you camping?”

“Up there,” I said and gestured with my chin to the mountains.

“In the backcountry?”

“Where else?”

“Can I see your backcountry permit?”

I fished it out of my pocket and he looked at it.

“This is supposed to be displayed on the outside of your pack.”

“I don’t like the sound it makes when it flutters.”

He thought about this a second. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll let it go.”

I started off, away from the road, down the trail.

“Hey,” the ranger said. “Be careful up there.”

“You be careful down here,” I said as another car slowed and stopped so mom could lean out of the passenger side window and take a picture of the ranger in the meadow with deer in the background.

“Move along please,” the ranger said. “You can park right over there.”

“Jesus Christ,” the mom said and dad gunned the engine and the car leapt away.