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Colorado's Great Sand Dunes have the power to leave you speechless

April 3, 2017 Updated: April 3, 2017 at 4:14 pm
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Visitors hike along the ridge of a sand dune as the sun begins to set Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, near Alamosa, Colo. The huge sand dunes are North America's tallest. See Gazette.com for a photo gallery. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

MOSCA - We fell silent on the final stretch of road. I was with people who, like me, had never visited the Great Sand Dunes, the site that has that kind of power, to leave any first-time visitor speechless. It is a natural response to seeing something that seems so unnatural, so alien here at the edge of the San Luis Valley, "something half mirage, half illusion," mused one writer 60 years ago.

Mankind throughout history has tried to reckon with the scene. The dunes, the tallest on the continent, have been called "majestic" and "bewildering" and also "eerie" and "terrible." Imagine a befuddled Thomas Jefferson reading the dispatch from Zebulon Pike, the president's man to explore these western boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase. From the Sangre de Cristos, Pike looked out at the swirling, sandy swells and reported: "Their appearance was that of the sea in a storm."

The dunes will capture more imaginations as the warm months settle in. The mighty humps in southern Colorado are waking from their winter slumber, set to come alive with hundreds of thousands of tourists who sled down the steep sides or frolic in the shimmering waters that bizarrely border the sand.

People will park by the sign welcoming them to the protected wilderness, "where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." They'll walk through a tree stand that clears, like a portal or wardrobe to Narnia. They'll come to the white, soaring waves like an inverted beach against the blue sky. And they'll think they've come to another planet.

The sun sets on Medano Creek Saturday, Aug. 30, 2015, in the Great Sand Dunes National Park near Alamosa, Colo. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

As sci-fi as it seems, there's a nonfiction explanation here. The dunefield has been building over unknown generations in this once tropical valley. What time left was a dried-out layer of mud and sand, and the mountain gusts from either direction blocked grains from migrating far. The winds instead began stacking them up.

All the while, the dunes have overseen the human story. Artifacts of man dating back 11,000 years have been found in the sand, with arrowheads still popping up today from the tribes pushed out by the white men. Early accounts are from homesteaders who feared the ever-expanding mounds eating their land. The dunes watched as cattlemen and sheep men waged wars in the surrounding fields, watched as prospectors came to dig for gold (the dunes were suspected to conceal fortunes).

The greedy fever compelled a valley woman, one Elizabeth Spencer, to rally up a conservation effort, according to historical accounts. The Great Sand Dunes were proclaimed by President Herbert Hoover in 1932. Later, Army soldiers brought their convoys and tents and used the dunes as practice for their campaign in Africa during World War II.

By then, the dunes were a national curiosity, with some comparing their majesty to the Arabian Desert. They stand at elevations of 7,500 feet and higher, according to the park brochure, which warns visitors of danger such as lightning and floors that heat to 140 degrees.

There are legends of the dreamscape's dreadful nature. According to one, three boys were herding sheep when a storm suddenly bellowed. The sand swallowed, and the boys and sheep never were seen again. One writer in a 1924 article recalls "groping in deadly swirls" as "wind devils" encircled him. Other tales are about the "mewing" of the dunes, their singing or whispers like banshees.

On our visit, the desert was silent, except for the hum of planes above that reminded us we were still in modern civilization. And we felt no peril, just utter confusion.

At first glance, the dunes appear simply and marvelously like brushstrokes on a canvas, but it soon becomes clear the painting has dimensions, unperceivable dimensions. Exploring here is a rather arduous affair. We followed our shadows to the sky, our steps sinking into the face of what we thought was the top dune. We got to the ridgeline, huffing and puffing, to find a new landscape bursting before us - a new set of basins and higher crests.

We observed oddities along the way: how the grains sparkled in the sunlight and danced in the wind; how stones ranged in shades of white, black, red and green, with evident layers of time; how some gray patches in the sand were solid, and how on the top of blacker spots our spit solidified to bubbles.

I meant to ask someone at the visitor center about the loogie mystery, but I forgot. And I regretted that until I realized this is a place of wonder, and no explanation is necessary.

And there's no describing the elation we felt when we let gravity fling us down the dunes. We ran, our arms and legs flopping about. For as long as it took us to climb, we were down in no time. It felt like we were flying, and maybe we were.

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