It was the classic story of hanging with the cool kids. I was 20 years old, a third class cadet (aka sophomore) at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and two of my closest friends that fall were first class (aka seniors) in my squadron, the Mighty Barons, of Cadet Squadron 26. In my recollections, we had a three day weekend that fall of 1995. On the spur of the moment, on that Saturday afternoon we jumped in my friend Ted’s late 1980s model BMW 320i and headed southwest to play at Great Sand Dunes National Park, then a National Monument. Arriving in the evening and unable to find a legit camping spot, we hiked up above the camping area to a clearing, setup our tent with sleeping bags, and went to sleep. In the morning, I remember looking down upon the dunes in sheer wonder, like a kid at presents on Christmas morning. We played most of the day on the dunes, climbing up, sliding down, and getting filthy in the process. I remember having sand in my shoes for months afterwards. I always longed to go back, but it took me a bit longer than I hoped.
Driving back from California, Great Sand Dunes National Park was the last stop on my week long running expedition across the country. I spent the night in neighboring Alamosa, a thirty minute drive away to the west, arriving near midnight after my trek from Moab the day prior. The air was crisp, cool, and in the neighboring hills, the aspens began to adopt their autumn golden hue. It was everything a Colorado morning should have and I stood poised to accomplish the last destination on my trail running adventure. The Dunes called.
Arriving mid-morning to Great Sand Dunes, the sun baked the golden sand. Looking at maps of the area, and what I remembered from my trek onto the Dunes long before, I knew that to get a good run in, I should stay off the dunes, instead following the paralleling trail to the east. As much fun running up and down the dunes could be, I wanted some more trails, so that’s what I did.
Of course being only a half mile east of the dunes, the trails still were loose and sandy. I opted to run in my Luna running sandals, crafted in the style of Mexican huarache sandals, to give me maximum agility in the sand and any other terrain I came across. I chose the simple Sand Ramp Trail, which paralleled a dirt “primitive road” for a couple miles before splitting to the northwest. My pack loaded with water, I headed out north along the trail.
I won’t call myself a psychic or anything along those lines, but as I started out, I had a sense of uneasiness. It could have been something as simple as the altitude though—Great Sand Dunes sits at over 8,000 feet above sea level. Or maybe it was the last few days catching up with me. Whatever the case, I took it slow, trotting along the trails and chose a simple out and back for a total of 4 miles. I just didn’t want to press my luck. Two miles out, I reached a small summit overlooking the dunes and looking back towards the parking lot. With not a soul around, I took a deep breath, grabbed a photo, and headed back. Like I had done throughout my journey, towards the end I set up my phone on a tripod to capture some action shots as I ran by. Not paying attention to my surroundings, I put my camera just off the trail on a sandy spot near a small cactus. I took my jogging “action” pics, but when I went to retrieve my phone and tripod, I lost my balance in the sand and came down in the cactus, painting my buttocks full of dozens of small nearly invisible spines. While I quickly brushed most of them off me, some would linger for days after. Luckily though, I was pretty much intact, and finished my run back to the car.
Once back to the car, I trotted out to the big sand dunes. Funny thing though, they didn’t seem to hold the allure they once did. It was wonderful being back after so long, but I realized I was different now. I’d been through a lot in the 25 years since first venturing out onto those dunes. I’d been in an even larger sand box in Iraq twice for a total of over two years. I still had uniforms and boots with the sand in them. No, I was done with the sand, it was in the past. It was time to move on.
Move on I did. I ate some lunch, reflected for a moment, and began the long trip home. At this point, I opted for the most direct route, heading due south on interstate I-25 before jumping off just south of the New Mexico border to take some back roads into north Texas and meet up with I-40 for the rest of the journey. While on one of these back roads in the middle of nowhere, I pulled off for an unforgettable sunset. I think I spent a good 10 minutes photographing it. Not a single car passed in either direction. Later than night I arrived in Oklahoma City and stayed. The next morning I drove the rest of the way home uneventfully.
The adventure complete I enjoyed the next few weeks in the comfort of my family. Eventually the cactus spines would all work themselves out too. These were still COVID times and the dangers still existed out there. Despite of this, I made a great journey and experienced all that America had to offer in a few glorious days. I hope one day to repeat this journey with my family and share with them all I saw and did in this great adventure.