Go To The Top

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by Joe Mudd on February 10, 2012

As a young family we didn’t take many big vacations. We decided shortly after Sarah was born to become a one income family, so money was always tight. Big vacations cost big bucks.

There was also that little matter of my not wanting to travel much. Let me take a few trips around the yard on the lawn mower and give me a glass of iced tea – that’s what a vacation was supposed to be in mind.

But I did get talked into one big adventure.

By big, I’m talking about 5600 miles, 17 states and 21 DAYS away from home.

Go West Young Man Family

We started out with only one predetermined destination – the Grand Canyon. The rest of the trip was to be pretty freeform, only a rough sketch.  So if something along the way looked interesting, we often went to check it out.

Early in our adventure we were driving across southern Colorado, enjoying flat plains covered in wild flowers. Snow covered mountains rose in the distance. We came upon a sign pointing to an approaching crossroad to our right.

“Great Sand Dunes National Park,” it read.

Hmmm, that might be interesting. Right turn.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

As the name implies, The Great Sand Dunes National Park features sand dunes. 39 square miles of them.

Here’s an interesting fact we discovered on our trip – rivers in the west are full of sand, not water. I don’t know why they do it that way, but trust me, they do.

So here’s what happens. The winds blow down out of the San Luis mountains to the west. They travel across the Rio Grande river, pick up sand and carry it across the vast mountain valley. When the wind strikes the Sangre De Cristo mountains on the eastern end of the valley, the sand falls out and piles up.

It’s been doing that for centuries.

The result is the vast dune field that gives the park it’s name. This is sand like you see in the movies, when they show people staggering across the desert, on their way to a hot, dry death.

We arrived at the parking lot. A little dirt trail led off through the surrounding trees. There was no where else to go, so we followed it.

The trail ended at a 30 foot wide stream. On the other side of the stream was sand. Sand as far as the eye could see. Sand in great rippling dunes, some as much as 700 foot high.

It’s a pretty place. Picture pure, golden-brown sand, surrounded by trees and a stream. In the distance you see snow covered mountains. Postcards are born here.

After removing our shoes, and wading the creek (man, that’s some cold water in there), we hit the sand. First we crossed a beach area, about 100 yards long.

And Then There Were Dunes

The early summer day was bright, the sky crystal clear and deep blue. The warm winds that formed the dunes was with us, and the temperature was climbing fast.

I don’t know what picture comes to mind for you when you hear the word dunes. I’ve always thought of nice gently ripping sand. What lay before us were small mountains of sand.

We climbed a 50 footer, crossed the valley on the other side, and climbed the next.

Climbing these steep sand hills was a real workout. The sand under foot shifts and slides away as you walk. So you step up two or three feet, but slip back down a foot before you get dug in enough to hold your position. It’s hard work.

Up and over and down, up and over we went.

After about a half dozen or so of these these mini-mountains, we came to a deep valley. Up ahead, maybe a quater mile away, a huge monster dune loomed into the sky.

We old people had exercised more in the past half-hour then we had in the previous month. The sand mountain in front of us was hundreds of feet tall. No way was I climbing that thing. We decided this would be a perfect place to put our blanket down and enjoy the view.

The children, not being as wise as their parents, wanted to continue.

“I want to go to the top,” pleaded Richard.

A Plan Formed In My Mind

“You kids go ahead and climb to the top. Mom and I will sit here and watch,” I said. No way was I climbing that thing.

Off they went. Down the valley, and up the first hill, then up the next they climbed.

Their progress began to slow. Sarah took a break. Richard kept going.

As they crossed valleys between hills they often disappeared from view. They both took frequent breaks, but the distance between them grew. As they got farther away, it became hard for us to tell which of the many climbers on the dunes were them.

Debbie grew uneasy.

“Maybe one of us should have gone with them,” she said.

“Us,” of course, meant me. No way was I climbing that thing.

“They’ll be fine,” I reassured her.

On they went.

Sarah was taking longer and more frequent rest periods. The distance between them grew and they were now far apart.

Richard was getting really far away, and it was hard to pick him out, as he disappeared in the numerous small valleys. I had to use the video camera, on full zoom mode, to watch him.

Slowly, finally, he made it to the top of the monstrous dune.

He stood, catching his breath at the top, looking back from where he had come. He then turned around and looked on the other side.

“He’s not going down the other side is he? If he goes down the other side, I’m going to have a heart attack,” moaned his worrying mom.

Richard headed off down the other side.

“He’ll get lost! Someone is going to have to go up there and get him!” Debbie screamed.

You know when she said, “Someone,” who she meant don’t you? No way was I climbing that thing.

“Don’t worry so much. Richard will be fine. He won’t go far,” I told her. “He’ll be back soon.” No way was I climbing that thing.

We sat down on the sand to wait. Debbie chain smoked, as I scanned the horizon for signs of my little Boy Scout. Fifteen minutes passed.

“Someone is going to have to go up there and find him.”

“Just have patience, he’ll be back soon,” I said. No way was I climbing that thing.

Sarah finally made it to the top, rested, and began her return. Thirty minutes passed.

No sign of Richard.

Debbie, frantic now, said “You have to go up there and find him. NOW!”

I was going to climb that thing.

I packed the video camera/spotting scope over my shoulder, kissed my wife goodbye and headed off into the sand.

The sun was directly overhead and very hot. I picked out a longer but slightly less steep route to the summit and trudged on in the boiling hot sand.

Each of the successively higher hills became harder to climb. At each upward step my foot would slip back in the sand about half way.

I reached the top of a dune about midway up the big hill. My calves were screaming. My lungs were screaming back at them.

It was time to stop for rest.

I spotted another man, about my age, fifteen feet away. His face was flushed red and he was sweating profusely. He was bent over, hands on his knees, breathing hard.

“Nice little walk up here, isn’t it?” I casually remarked.

“Huff, huff, wheeze,” he replied.

“I didn’t want to come up here, but my kid went over the top and my wife said I had to come find him,” I confided.

He shook his head in an understanding nod and said, “When you get there, send my kid back too. I can’t make it any farther.”

I got a description of his son and left him alone as I struggled on.

The sun was merciless. The sand was merciless. I was sweating like crazy.

I hadn’t had a drink in hours. My mouth was parched. My tongue was so dry it began to flake away. My vision blurred.

Overhead, buzzards circled in a greedy death watch.

I could see the headlines now, “Man Dies Tragically, Attempting Rescue of Son on the Sand.”

I staggered on.

I reached the final valley. The last hill to the top lay on the other side. It was a huge mountain of a sand dune.

I stopped for one last look back at Debbie, for I knew I may never see her again. I couldn’t tell where she was. In the vast ocean of sand behind me, all the dunes looked alike. The people were too small to identify from here. I realized, I could get lost up here.

I wondered who Debbie would make come up here to find me.

Turning back to the mountain before me, I raised the video camera for one last scan of the peak. Slowly, I panned the horizon. Over there to the left, just coming down from the top, was kid about the right size. I zoomed all the way out. Yes! It was him.

“Richard, get over here,” I yelled.

I sure hoped he could find his way back down from here.

There is a valuable lesson to be learned from this little story. We had violated one of the most basic rules of parenting: be specific and always sweat the small details.

When we gave Richard permission to climb to the top, we had failed to mention what top we had in mind. When he got to the top of the hill in front of us, he discovered it wasn’t the top after all, as there were taller hills farther on.

Richard always liked to be the first one up the hill, to reach the summit first.

I guess he’s still doing it.

Photo credit NPS

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