Great Sand Dunes National Park

Colorado is a state of many facets.  We have our mountains, our forests, our prairies, our highland deserts, and our…beaches?  That’s right, Colorado has beaches.  With waves no less!

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One of the many National Parks in the state is the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.   Located at the foot of the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in south-central Colorado, at about 8600 ft. above sea level, and near the town of Alamosa, the Great Sand Dunes is as close as it gets for a beach in Colorado.  Or the closest Colorado gets to Arakkis or Tatooine.

Compared to Rocky Mountain National Park or Mesa Verde, there aren’t a lot of draws to this out of the way National Park.  It is overlooked by mountains pushing the limits to be considered 14ers, with many others in the region exceeding that mark. Numerous hot springs can be found in this geologically active area, but perhaps one of the best things about this park is how remote it is.  You won’t find the crowds you do here that you would at RMNP.  The price of admission is still pretty low, with most visitors not venturing past the first quarter mile where the dunes rise high like Saharan peaks.  Snowboarders ride the dunes down and sunbathers drink in the rays as well as linger on the shores of the beach, with real waves created by the geological phenomenon which is Medano Creek.  The process of erosion in the sandy bottom creates dams along the length of this creek as it passes over the floodplain adjacent to the dunes.  When the dams break, the water rushes downstream, creating a wave effect.  During runoff season, these waves can be pretty impressive, but as the snow melts in the mountains above, later in the season, the creek bed is just a shifting trickle compared to earlier in the year.  Either way, it’s still pretty cool!  And it’s a good place to cool your feet or break out the swimsuits.

Beyond the tall dunes are miles and miles of more dunes, and not much else.

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The Spice Must Flow…

So what’s so great about dunes?  Obviously you have never rolled down one if you have to ask that question.  The entire area is literally a giant sandbox.  You can run, fly kites, build castles, dune-surf, or just about anything you can think of that is fun in miles of unvegetated sand.  You just can’t drive on it. So leave your paddle-wheel ATV at home for this trip.

You will probably wear yourself out from running on sand and walking up and down the dunes, quoting Lawrence of Arabia or Dune.  Or Spaceballs.  Or complaining about sand and how it gets everywhere, like a movie series prequel which shall remain nameless.IMG_0191

It’s a good thing there are open showers at the rest area to help with that when you are ready to hose off.  Just a pro-tip, however, I made the mistake of getting my sunscreen on just before rolling down the dunes.  The effect is something like making sugar cookies.  I was still picking bits of sand out of my scalp months after.

Getting Outside of Oneself

Everyday, most of us live in a rut.  We set our alarms to wake us up at the same time every morning.  We pour a bowl of cereal, maybe a cup of coffee, we ride to work, either in a bus or a car or a train.  The world flashes past us and we are observers, watching the sun come up, the city come to life around us.  Long shadows are cast on grey concrete roads.  Groggy commuters stare out from the dirty windows onto a landscape of identical houses, a river of cars, big box stores, gas stations, supermarkets, flashing past like the repeating background of an old episode of the Flintstones.  We might as well be running in place with a laugh track and sound effects telling an audience beyond the fourth wall how ridiculous it all is.

Starbucks in hand, we are in a rush to get to our next rut.  For some of that means the walls of our cubicles, or maybe the familiarity of our desks, for others it might be the inside of a truck or a shop.  The routine is the same.  The people are the same.  We stop and talk about what we watched on TV the night before, or what the Housewives are up to, or how much we hate the Kardashians, (yet for some reason we keep talking about them).  We text each other “What’s up?” and wait for the invariable answer of “Not much.  What’s up with you?”

Getting out more also means getting out of oneself, breaking the routine.  Scaring the wits out of yourself a little bit, because it is that kind of rush that reminds us we are alive. You can go small, which would be something as basic as trying out that tortillaria you always pass by and wondering what could smell so good inside.  It could be taking a longer drive home from work and seeing something new, or riding your bike to work one day instead of driving and feeling the rush of endorphins from an early morning ride instead of a McAnything from the drive through.  It can even mean the old standard of picking a spot on the map, getting there, and then trying to figure out how to get back home. Getting a little bit lost, but knowing that no matter where you go, there you are. 😉

It could mean getting on an airplane and going somewhere nobody has ever heard of a Iced Mocha Latte or Big Mac. Where bread doesn’t come in a bag. Where the biggest frustration of the day isn’t that the traffic lights are sometimes red when you want them to be green. Where complaining about the President isn’t a right we take for granted.  Or why nobody has “liked” your post in the last ten minutes.

We’ve all that that dream of being at school naked.  It rattles us, haunts some of us in our sleep.  But there are plenty of places human beings gather without their clothes, without everything turning into an orgy or escalating into a menagerie of people pointing and laughing at your private parts. Recently I went to a clothing optional resort.  I was naked there, along with just about everyone else.  It didn’t turn into an American Pie movie. It was probably one of the most wholesome experiences I have ever had. It scared the heck out of me at first, but once there, I wondered what the big deal was.  What had kept me so afraid of the experience for this long?  It was just different than what I was used to.  Ruts are scary things because they are not only what keeps us in our lanes, but we also trick ourselves into believing they protect us.  I found a bunch of naked people at a hot springs to be more accepting of everyone and their differences than the last time I went to staff diversity meeting.

I would recommend the experience highly.  It’s sobering once you realize the only judgement you are likely to find is what you brought with you.

I wondered where that insecurity originated from as I soaked.  Was it the first day we dressed ourselves for school and our moms said certain colors didn’t go together, and so they got us a new outfit to dress ourselves in?  Or was it in high school when someone had a better car than you and got more dates? Or was it the day you looked at yourself in the mirror and wished you could just erase certain parts of it all and start over again?  Your hair is too frizzy, you are too fat, too short, your teeth are crooked, your eyes are too brown.  We stopped feeling like ourselves at those moments, loving who we saw ourselves looking from the inside out, and started judging ourselves from how we imagined other people saw us.  For whatever reason, that started to matter. To some it matters more than anything.  We built those fences and we built them high.

As much as it scares us, our brains crave variety.  Inside every one of us is a thrill seeker.  Once we are past the anxiety of getting over out of our ruts, breaking our bubbles, and challenging those fences we have taken a lifetime to build, we become a little more fearless.  What could possibly happen if we realized our fears are self-chosen?  Social anarchy?  Bedlam?  Or would it be an undiscovered country to which we venture and never return? Would we crave excitement like addicts or worse yet, become jaded to it?

What happens if we go somewhere else and start to pick up another language?  Do we risk losing our identity?  What if we run a race, or eat a bug covered in chocolate, or swim naked with a bunch of strangers? What happens if we change our minds about something?  Does that mean we are no longer who we were before we set out?  Is that necessarily a bad thing?  Will our world fall apart once we realize that maybe we haven’t been building a home for ourselves, but rather a prison? Is our prison better looking than someone else’s prison?  Is it as good as the other prisons you see on Facebook or on TV? Those people sure seem happier than you in their prisons!

Perhaps it is better to remain ignorant, because how can we live with ourselves once we understand that we are limited in this world only by our own perceptions of who we are?

Maybe knowing that there is more to life that what we have been told will drive us crazy.  Maybe it’s better to just drink the same coffee in every city, or eat at the same restaurants, listen to the same radio stations, watch the same shows on TV.  Watch our microwave meal spin around as radiation warms it up. Even though it all tastes the same, it tastes much worse when it is cold.  Conformity.  Resignation.  The Mundane.  If that doesn’t keep you up nights, I don’t know what will.

I prefer to scare myself a little every day.

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Horsetooth Reservoir Lake-yaking

Last summer, I got to take advantage of one of the perks of the day job, which is some free access to some pretty great outdoor recreation equipment.  I can check out tents, packs, snowboards, mountain bikes, canoes, paddle-boards, and sit on top kayaks.  So really I have no excuse when it comes to getting out more when it comes to equipment.

On a hot day in June, I checked out a sit-on-top kayak (since all the paddleboards were checked out) and headed to Horsetooth Reservoir west of Ft. Collins, Colorado.  The fee is pretty reasonable to get in, I think around $7 for the day.  Parking wasn’t too bad when I arrived, but it has the potential to fill up.  When I loaded the kayak onto my Jeep, it was pretty easy, but since I do most of these trips myself or with my kids, I realized that it was a little bit more difficult to unload the kayak than it had been at the campus gear shop when I had help.

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Kayaks work better in the lake.  Who knew!

The equipment I was given was a kayak paddle, a kayak, and a lifejacket.  I brought along water, snacks, a lunch, a jacket and plenty of waterproof sunscreen, because being on a lake in the summer in Colorado is much like being a bag of microwave popcorn.  Second and sometimes third degree burns are not uncommon, even on cloudy days.

This is probably awful for me to admit, but once the boat was in the water and I started trying to figure out how to paddle the sucker, the lifejacket soon lost its charm.  I was rarely more than a short distance from the shore anyway, unless I decided to paddle to the other side of the reservoir, in which case, there are plenty of tall wakes and speeding boats to navigate.  There’s something to be said about being a couple hundred yards from shore paddling your way across the grain from boats going 30 mph or more.  The lifejacket went back on in that case.

Mostly I followed the shore line and went into a few inlets, one where large boats were docked year round, and the other which was just the thing for being on calm, flat water without 5ft. wakes to contend with.  Sunbathers, fishers, and people killing beers in the sun drift in and out. Everyone is friendly. On a kayak, it was a good place just to drift and work on the tan.

With following the shore and a few crossings, I probably did anywhere between five and seven miles of paddling that day.  By the time I reached my jeep, I had to lift the boat onto the roof myself.  My eyes were sunburned, my arms, back, and core were aching and that 150lb boat must have weighed a few tons.  It was marvelous.

The second trip to the reservoir was with friends, whom I had told about the kayaking trip, but unfortunately the gear shop was out of kayaks by the time we coordinated plans to meet up. What we were left with was a three person canoe.  We followed much the same course, opting against crossing the reservoir and instead just following the shore to a few of the inlets.

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Do a back-flip! Photo by Jamie Price

We met a lot of friendly folks.  One man even did a back-flip off his boat before giving us beers.  Canoes are a whole different critter than a kayak, with so much of your effort being dedicated just to moving forward in the water, and trying to maintain some kind of course.  It’s exhausting.  Wet.  And when you are done, you have something even heavier to attempt to lift onto the roof of your vehicle. They don’t handle speedboat wakes very well either. My recommendation, leave the canoes at Summer Camp where they belong and indulge yourself in either a powered watercraft or a kayak or paddleboard of some kind.  But they are still a lot of fun if that’s what you are stuck with!

If you are interested in Horsetooth Reservoir, here’s a map!

Tips for paddling on the lake.

  • Stay hydrated!  This is extremely important.
  • Use lots of sunscreen.  Even after caking myself in the stuff, I still got a decent burn.
  • Sunglasses are a must.  By the end of my first trip, I felt like I had sand in my eyes.
  • Food.  Bring snacks to keep up your caloric intake.  You don’t want to bottom out when you are miles from your car.
  • Drink responsibly.  Drinking doesn’t mix with much else.  Driving.  Boats.  People you meet in bars you might think are attractive at the time.  Dares.  Really, drinking doesn’t mix with much else. Including dehydration.  Sunburn.  And other bad decisions.  If you can’t do it right, just don’t do it at all.
  • Pay attention!  It’s not hard to get hurt out on the water. Keeping an eye out for other boats, waves, paddles, and paying attention to the terrain will probably save you a trip in a helicopter to the hospital.  (Especially if you decide against the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man life jacket).
  • Be friendly!  Not only does this get you free beer, but it makes the day so much more enjoyable!  You might find yourself crashing a bachelor/ette party, making new friends, or just adding to the experience of getting out more and doing stuff.

Don’t forget to do something afterwards.  My friends and I got appetizers at Old Chicago.  After that much physical activity, you need to fill the tank up again.  And allow some time to stop feeling the up and down pitch of the boat.  That took a couple days for me!

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Arr! There be pirates! Photo by Jamie Price