Holy Grail in the High Desert

by Ian King

You’re headed due north on the high desert floor, flat as a pancake, the endless sagebrush passing by as if part of the background scenery in an endlessly looping cartoon strip. It’s not just “desert dry” here in the high mountains; there’s been a severe drought out this way recently, adding insult to injury, or for some species, for some flora, it’s led to a new opportunity amongst the survival of the fittest, as the least well-adapted drop by the wayside, fodder for nature’s Grim Reaper. It looks very much like death stalks the land, but there’s life—stubborn, defiant life, no matter how dormant or slow-moving or desiccated it may appear to the untutored eye. New life, new growth, awaits hidden behind scaly bark or buried in the sand deep enough to find succor in the surprising dampness the water table, seeping close to the surface, still providentially offers up.

In the early morning half-light, the sun yet to rise from its resting place in the east, you’re not expecting any surprises by now. Your car rumbles on, suppressing your emotions, dulling your senses. You’re half-ready to go back to sleep if there’s much more of this.

They’re out in this godforsaken wilderness, some place, you know they are—but where? Up ahead, on the northern horizon, you can clearly make out the craggy outlines of the Sangre de Cristo range; the mountains are piled up, making what you suspect must be a most formidable barrier to farther progress north and even to the east. This road you’re on, clipping along at sixty-five, just has to run smack into them at some point, and you wonder, every ten minutes or so, whether what you’re looking for can really be somewhere between you and “The Blood of Christ,” bearing nary a trace of crimson-red in the hazy dawn light, and looking, rather, a sickly, insipid, blue-grey, the color of your mood.

Almost an hour in and the road you’re on abruptly diagonals to the northeast, disturbing your near-slumber and mildly alerting your senses to the possibility that some sort of change might be afoot, although you’re none too optimistic about that. To your left, the Sangre range is much closer now; the blue-grey pallor is infused here and there with the dark-green of the pines molding its lower slopes, along with the first autumnal yellowing of the aspens, and the variegated hues of the mineralized rock strata. You can even make out the foothills to the range at this point, low-slung and oddly pale and featureless by comparison. Things are picking up a bit, you tentatively conclude, even though your primary quarry seems as elusive as ever. The truth of their existence still appears to be entirely fanciful—an ancient myth from the pioneering days, you half speculate?


To the left, and about to dare a crossing right in front of you. Four or five skinny, nervous does nervously skip across the road, one after the other like soldiers on patrol in enemy territory or in a minefield. You bring your car to a slow halt to let them safely pass. Finally, a buck, still quite young he looks like, brings up the rearguard, showing rather more confident disapproval at your presence than the ladies in his harem have just done. He has a decent-looking rack, something you wouldn’t want to have to tangle with, but everyone’s cool and he takes his arrogant time getting out of your way. It’s a treat to see these guys, even reassuring that there’s some serious mammalian life in such a forbidding place as this. Even so, they’re a somewhat passing fancy, one you’ve thrilled at a thousand times before. As beautiful as they are, deer are not what you’ve come this far for—at least not today, on this trip. Your grail is of an entirely different order of majesty, if you can ever find it.

And, lo and behold, you do, mere seconds later, almost at the point you’d given up all hope. Just a couple of hundred yards ahead there’s a small building and a barrier, and you can see the road continue on, on the other side of them. The road curves left in a great sweeping arc, an asphalt rainbow almost, teasingly promising a pot of something or other, perhaps, at its far end. You follow the road with your eyes, trying to focus against the desert backdrop. Suddenly you realize that the foothills you think you’d spied just minutes before aren’t true foothills, whatsoever. The sun’s rays have just breached the mountain crests, and shadows are popping up everywhere, rendering clear what had been initially rather opaque phenomena. There’s much more here than meets your untrained eye, a novice to the high desert landscape.

They’re here, you realize, they reallyare here! Right in front of your nose, suddenly snapping into a sharp focus as if someone had just turned the lights on. Your first sentiment is “moonscape,” but you know that’s too much of a cliché. But there really is no escaping it: the massive pile of sand dunes approaching 800 feet high in places look weird and wonderful at the very same time. They look surrealistically out of place back-dropped by the Sangre range, but also seemingly totally at home in their majestic presence, as if this high mountain desert is the one and only venue they ought to have occupied. At least that’s what Nature has determined in her evolutionary, geological wisdom, and who can argue with that? The dunes’ overpowering bulk makes them look rooted here; like icebergs to a lesser degree, you’ve been informed, a good bit of them lying below the visible ground as well as above it.

Your first instinct, of course, is to utterly give in to the intoxicating primeval attraction they hold for you, and to plow straight into them as if you’re a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia. Childhood memories flood back when you were playing in the dunes at Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast, sporting your newly-acquired French Foreign Legion hat (a cool hat to keep a cool dude, cool), and totally convinced you’re a derring-do soldier afraid of nothing in the strange vastness—sand, sand, as far your childish eye could see, held in place here and there in great banksides by the colonizing tufts of wind-swept dune grass. You realize that the Yarmouth dunes were mere pimples compared to what lies before you now, but the memory adds to the great pleasure of being in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

They knew what they were doing when they developed Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado: they situated the visitor center with its expansive veranda and stone viewing plaza out back in the sweetest spot there is. Out there, looking west, you feel as if you’re in an enormous outdoor, drive-in movie theatre, the smoothly-sculpted vastness of the dunes providing an IMAX movie screen of biblical proportions on which the natural light will dance as it morphs from dawn to high noon to dusk, and the reflections of the scuttling clouds will imprint their moving shadows as the wind drives them towards the Sangre range, as if they were on some sort of meteorological conveyor belt. And you’ve learned that it’s been that very same divine wind that has piled up the great dunes in the fetal curvature of the mountains over the eons, and that still continues, in the crawling slowness of geological time, to do so today. The dunes are a work-in-progress, you realize, and will continue to enchant for years to come as they morph and mold and evolve, one or two or three grains of sand at a time.

So, you spend endless hours encamped on the stone plaza, silent and gazing intently, exhibiting a patience you’ve rarely had before, waiting for that “perfect storm” moment when you hope to snap the picture of a lifetime. Quite soon, you’re sure you’ve gotten it, but quickly realize that the great kaleidoscopic show hasn’t stopped yet, hasn’t ceased to promise something just that little bit extra, to come if only you tarried a little while longer. And it does: over and over until the disappearing sun finally extinguishes the light. You’re trapped by expectation, a fear that you might just miss the most magical of moments. But you’re masochistic in this way; you love your punishment—if that’s what it truly is.

When you get back home and look at the thousand pictures you’ve taken, you have a moment of revelation, as much spiritual as it is photographic, a scientific manipulation of the visual spectrum. You realize that just about every picture you have of the dunes is unique, delightfully special in its own, once-in-a-lifetime, way. Even more, you grasp that there’s a great likelihood that at least some of the shots you have are truly cosmic moments, that no one except yousaw the dunes in that specific configuration at that specific time! It’s a communion of a really special kind between the Trinity of you, your camera, and Mother Nature.

Scores of shots you’ve taken record, moment by episodic moment, the kaleidoscopic dance of the dunes as the wind casts gyrating cloud-shadows across the surface of the great sand piles, crimped like decorative pie crusts here and there, egg-washed smooth and ready for the oven. Mashed together in sequence, you apprehend that the shots are the individual frames of a slow-motion movie capturing nature doing its own signature thing, unmolested and free in a joyous way. And you suddenly appreciate in a moment of epiphanic delight that the beauty and the glory of alllife on earth is only fully on show when it is truly at liberty, beyond the grasp of anthropogenic constraint and exploitation. At least that’s what you hope for. You crop many of these shots into wide-angled panoramas, enhancing the grandeur that’s really there as much as you can. You try, in this limited way, to make the world your oyster. Then there’s a collection of other photos where you’ve zoomed in a bit, say half way or so to the dunes’ actual surface. There’s still majesty, all right, the great dunes commanding everything, putting all else in view into a diminutive comparison. But in the vastness, a few small black dots pop up, some scattered haphazardly like buckshot, some in a neat single file like foraging ants on a mission. They remind you of specks of soot, perhaps, marooned on a snowdrift. In any case, the dots look hopelessly outsized on the broad canvas they speckle. You know they’re people and that they’re moving, but you also know that it’ll be a good while before they’ll get to where they’re headed, if indeed they ever do. Sisypheans all, you suspect, in their attempts to reach the summit of the dune they’re scrambling up, fooled by the smoothness that once suggested ease of passage. Gaspingly, they must know better by now as they sink and sweat into the almost tractionless sand.

Closer still, the uniform vastness gives way to at least a glimmer of unexpected variability. First, you become aware that the dunes are colored, betraying the childish stereotype you’ve always had about the pigmentation of sand. There’s yellow, all right, and in abundance, but in many different hues, some propagated by mineral chemistry, some by the cloud-scattered sunlight. But the yellows morph even further into a full palette of artists’ paints: burnt orange, violet, creamy white, blue—even grey to near-black at times.

But there’s more: the almost incongruous greens and yellow-greens of colonizing flora, looking like thin rafts of algae left behind by the raging river that once passed by for a brief time at the foot of the dunes just last spring. It’s the struggle for existence at its Darwinian best, you theorize, although it seems almost pathetically desperate in the apparently tenuous foothold such life appears to have now in the drought-stricken aftermath of the vernal flooding. Nonetheless, bushy tufts of new generations of sagebrush are taking hold, looking like upside down goatee beards on the chins of the dunes’ smooth skin. The bushes huddle together in close formation, as if they believe they have strength in numbers, all for one and one for all. On their communities’ perimeters, collective bushiness abruptly gives way to the fragile singularities of newly-born, thin blades of yellow-green dune grass, poking through the sand and looking like they’re out of place, strangers in a strange land. The blades of grass are wispy-looking and flop and flounder at the behest of the wind, like drunks staggering in place. Or, perhaps, they remind you of a balding head hanging on grimly to the last few strands of straggly hair that fitfully remain in place somehow. Whatever, it’s life on the margins, and you marvel at that, too.

And then, as if God is playing cheap tricks on you, the desert really surprises you, throws you for a bit of a loop. You blink, not sure you’re not having an hallucination, or being fooled by some sort of mirage. Like a defiant finger sticking up from the desert floor, and proudly standing tall in its own space, as if fearing contagion from the sagebrush and the dune grass, a bright purple splendor—an imperial purple or that of an ecumenical religion, perhaps?—pops out at you like a jack-in-the-box, close to insolent in that impish way. Suddenly life at the margins seems much more promising than you’d at first assumed. You circle the proud purple plant, taking in every possible perspective; you lie on the sand framing it in your camera against the dunes and the Sangre range in the distance. It’s like you’ve found life on Mars! It’s like you’ve discovered a lone last sentinel, standing guard in the great desert, but looking out for what? It’s listening to the universe, you surmise, trying to detect signs of life out there in the great cosmic vastness. But, you realize, the blazing bush is that very signal itself, and it thrills you.

But even still, the magic show is not quite over yet. You zoom in further, tight and close, turning the microscopic into the macro. On a grass-tufted sandbank there’s evidence of more life still, although indirectly so as all you witness are the delicate signs of its former passing, abstract patterns pitting the sand like trace elements of life left behind in the darkness of night by anonymous paws, feet, even writing bellies or swishing tails, or a probing proboscis or two. Fauna are here, although not in sight. They’re undoubtedly hidden now, buried in some sort of shade or burrowed deep enough to find a cool dampness, the elixir of life. And on a neighboring dune, arcing like a great smooth breast against the cobalt-blue canopy of sky above it, you see the hoof prints of homo sapiens and wonder deliciously for a fleeting second if Neil Armstrong hasn’t been here before you, and you think you see him hopping about in a lunar weightlessness and are almost sure you hear him croaking “One small step for mankind…,” but it’s no good, you throw your arms out expecting to take flight only to feel the weight of your body and the give of the soft sand keeping you firmly stuck on terra firma and subject to the inexorable drag of gravity. Besides, you know you’re not alone out here in Great Sand Dunes National Park—those sooty dots you saw before, there’s plenty more where they came, pockmarking Nature’s sculpting with human acne.

You scale the rise ahead of you, wondering where the human tracks might lead. But on the other side they disappear and there’s literally nothing but sand—except, that is, for a lone banana at the peak of its yellowed ripeness lying there on the desert floor. Astronaut food, perhaps, after all? Or have you just stepped into a Magritte canvas, encountered the surreal? You whisper to yourself, half in jest: Ceci n’est pas une banane! You’re tempted to appreciate the carelessness of Homo as a nice aesthetic touch, and do so for a moment. But then you remember Magritte’s admonition: Such is the Treachery of Images, and you’re forced to concede that the yellowed fruit is not really a banana at all, at least not in this setting, this particular ecological niche. It is, rather, blightingly exotic, alien in an invasive, insulting way. It is nothing more than arrogant human negligence as excrement, blighting Nature’s pristine table.

And then there’s the last act: sunset. You shuffle through what seems like a million shots of golden-yellow, then purple-red, streaks slowly filling up the darkening sky. It’s a movie you’ve seen so many times before; how can it be so fascinating, so intoxicating? But it is, every single time. It’s more than an all-time favorite movie; it’s literally a primeval fascination, like fire, like the dunes themselves, that speaks to the very depths of your emotional and spiritual being, that pre-historical ape-man unsettled by the pending disappearance of the Sun and fearful that this time it might just not come back up again on the morrow. So you worship it, bid it a fond adieu, let it warm you just one last time before supper and sleep. 

You tilt your camera, deepening the reds, bronzing the golds, as if you’re trying to extract every last bit of warmth the dropping orb might still be putting out. Almost there, almost there, the horizon seeming to reach up and swallow it. The Sun lingers on in desperation, becoming gloopy and misshapen as the light bends with earth’s gravitational warping. A last flare, like a car’s oncoming headlights on full beam, dazzles you. Then it’s gone—Plop!Like a smooth blood-red pebble into a pitch-black pond. God has just turned the lights off.

The dunes have retreated now to an amorphous expanse, greying into a fuzzy featureless backdrop, quickly disappearing. They’re once again the seemingly minor footnote at the base of the glooming Sangre range, just like they were at dawn that very morning. It’s a little sad to lose the show, but it’s getting distinctly chilly now, time to get some sustenance before turning in. But at least you know if you come back on the morrow, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve will surely do you the favor of an incredible encore, and the magnificent movie will start all over again.