Life Lessons in Sand
Sometimes in life, the passions that you have are the most frustrating and difficult things that need to be dealt with. Things are not always as easy as looking ahead, or planning what to do next. In fact, most of the time these are just the initial steps. Then there are moments when you feel like you will never accomplish the goals to reach what makes you passionate. In these frustrating times, I always think about one of my absolute favorite things to do: hiking. This is a story of what happened to me last summer at the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.
The story begins with a phone call. My mentor, and coworker for about seven years now (from science fair in school to projects for the Bureau of Land Management), is a member of “Friends of the Dunes,” which is an organization that is designed to obtain funds that the park cannot receive and use them for different kinds of projects in the park. At one of the meetings, a conversation was brought up that a film crew was going to be flying over the dunes in mid-June and they wanted some people to be at the top of the dunes at dawn for the flyover. The crew is making a documentary called “Heart of the World,” which features Colorado’s national parks for the National Park Service Centennial that is occurring this year. Of course, a board member volunteered, and when I heard of this I was slightly envious.
A few days passed and the board member who had volunteered had a conflict, and asked my mentor Loree if she wanted to take his place. When she said yes, she invited me to embark on this journey with her and for weeks I shivered with anticipation and excitement for this wonderful opportunity.
The morning came when we were to hike to the top of Star Dune, and between little sleep from excitement and having to leave my house at 3:30 in the morning to get there, I was already exhausted. We parked the vehicle at the main gate when we arrived, strapped on our packs and headlamps, and began walking across this vast open shrub land to get to the base of the dunes. At this point in the journey, you could not see anything where the headlamp lights were not shining. Every sound that I could not identify froze by blood. Was it a deer? Something larger? Something that thought I looked like a delicious breakfast? I was becoming unsure about this whole trip already and we had not even really started. (It turned out to only be the sound of my hydration hose hitting the top of my pack, funny.) After realizing that I was not in any immediate danger, I began to relax and thought about how fortunate I was to be walking in the national park when the stars were still out in droves. It was one of the most peaceful moments I can remember up until this point. When we reached the base of the dunes, a small outline of the mountains could be seen against the brightening sky, but it was still dark enough that not much else was visible.
At the base of the dunes runs Medano Creek, and in the dark we had to cross the half mile of water (probably only 2.5 – 3 feet at its deepest) to get to the actual dunes. So hopping from sand island to sand island and trying to avoid getting soaked, we walked and jumped until we finally reached the big pile of sand. This was fun and scary all at the same time. A misstep would not have led to anything detrimental, although it would have made for a more uncomfortable morning, but the support and encouragement from Loree made me feel like I could easily get through it and if I messed up I knew she would be there for me.
The rest of hike was going great. The sun was rising just enough to give us light but had not crested the mountains yet, we had about an hour left before the helicopter was supposed to fly over, and we were making great progress ( except when I would stop for five minutes to get ANOTHER picture of a sand cricket.) As the time dwindled and we were making our way to the top, something suddenly did not look right. After a quick confirmation with our Garmin, the one thing we wanted to avoid happened. We had started our ascent on the wrong ridge line and the only way to get to the top of Star Dune (which is where we were expected) was to drop a lot of elevation and regain it by going directly up the side of the slope. Now this was absolutely crazy and I thought that there was no way to do it, but we both knew that we needed to try. So we started walking down about 500 feet in elevation into a little bowl, just to look up at a monster pile of sand that we now had 15-20 minutes to conquer.
One step at a time, we climbed about 500 feet in what felt like no distance and it took all of my strength to keep from sliding down, which is a common occurrence when hiking in sand. My heart was pounding and I was unsure if we were going to make it, but my determination to get there kept me going. The sun began to crest the mountains and although the top of the pile was getting closer, it seemed to be farther away with every step.
When people say that things could not have been timed any better, I now know exactly what that means. Just as we crested the highest ridge that led directly to the top of Star Dune, the helicopter appeared for its first flyby. We kept walking, ignoring the loud flying thing in the sky as we were told to do, and finally made it to the top of the dune for the second flyover. Once the excitement of making it settled down just a bit and the helicopter was no longer in sight, the view became the only thing I thought about at that moment. All the difficult challenges and all of the pain and doubt disappeared when I saw the sun rise over the mountains and gently touch the sand. Once this goal had been accomplished, my confidence in myself increased.
It’s when I get discouraged that I think back to moments like these–times when things were difficult and seemingly impossible, only to be done and to be rewarded with an amazing memory. As I work and feel nervous about not impacting anyone when we do our outreach, or not being able to make a difference in conserving habitat for animals, I think back to this day and remember that with a little perseverance and determination, anything is possible.
P.S. The show “Heart of the World” is premiering on PBS on April 3, 2016. Watch if you can!!!