ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Our National Parks: Particles of Sand

Updated on September 28, 2018
juneaukid profile image

Richard F. Fleck started his career as a park ranger naturalist in Rocky Mountain National Park and has visited scores of national parks.

Particles of Sand: The Great Sand Dunes

Particles of Sand *

Throughout the years, these dunes have always magnetically allured me as a kind of spiritual home. I never quite figured out why, until this visit, they, of all places, satisfy my inner being so much. I've flown over them at 30,000 feet to see all thirty-six square miles of them at once, camped by them in cold and blustery sleet, and ambled to the top of them in 100 degree heat. But this time during cool, dry, windy weather, I've come to understand them in ways unknown to me before. It is not just there size of over 700 feet high that makes them "great."

At five o'clock in the evening late in May, I caught my tenth glimpse (but first solo) of the Great Sand Dunes looking like a giant brain beneath the snowy Sangre de Cristo Mountains. My head ached from a long drive from Laramie, Wyoming in heavy interstate traffic through Denver, and I was weary of a year's worth of seemingly non-stop teaching at the university.. But I just had to ramble out onto the dunes and wade through an ice cold, pulsing river of melting mountain snow. One of the pulses, created by sand rhythmically letting loose all it can momentarily absorb, almost knocked me over before I regained balance. My sharp headache vanished like a pile of wind-dispersed sand. The wind gusted to 30 knots and blew stinging, multi-colored and multi-mineraled particles of sand against my skin. That million year old volcanic debris from the San Juan Mountains across the San Luis Valley felt good stinging my face and hands and gritting the enamel of my teeth. Advancing beyond receeding waters of the pulsing stream, I left tracks amid the river's waterprints of welt marks in wet sand. But already dry wisps of sand blew out across the wet welts to change their shapes before my eyes. From there on, I had the dunes to myself and proceeded through strands of Indian rice-grass up into the dry tan mounds rising 700 feet above my head. Despite the wind, the sun, in a blue turquoise sky, felt good.

I followed a narrow ridge at the crest of a dune angling upward at 30 degrees. Sand blew over the edge of the crest suspending my shadow in mid air giving me an eerie feeling. At the very crest, the sand seemed firmer than to the windward side where softer piles of fresh sand formed continually, poetic proof of the existence of Proteus, Greek god of metamorphosis. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay "Natural History of Massachusetts" that "Nature is mythical and mystical always, and works with license and extravagance of genius." The Great Sand Dunes are a living testimony to mythical and mystical elements of Nature. Deep, dark pits below me seemed to be of another world, especially viewed through a veil of windblown sand. As I hoofed along the crest, unbelievably jagged and snow-laced spires of Crestone Peak inched their way into my horizon growing larger until I stood at the top of a protean world spreading in waves and merging with sky.

Back at camp, after an exhilarating run downslope and splashing through icy waters, I cooked a modest meal and leafed through a paperback volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson that I brought along with me. He confirmed my beliefs about human relationship to the land. In "Hamatreya" the spirit of Earth says,

"They called me theirs,

Who so controlled me,

Yet every one

Wished to stay, and is gone,

How am I theirs,

If they cannot hold me,

But I hold them?"

A seven hundred-foot, million year old wall of shifting sand is surely a case in point. Indeed it is the Earth who holds us--even our sand-particled shadow in the wind.

I looked up from Emerson to see a golden fire setting over the dunes darkening in layers of deep shadow. Wafts of sweet-scented narrow-leaf cottonwoods blew through the campground as robins started their evening chorus. With the moon rising over Sierra Blanca Peak, I walked leisurely out toward the head of the dunes past sweet sage and ghostly ring muhly grasses as dry as the cactus and greasewood. My eyes caught distant phantom pinon pines engulfed in encroaching sands under darkening skies. I walked up to them and examined their root-like branches at ground level and under. The trees were becoming sand and helped form new mounds, burial mounds for them, and new dunes for the living sands. John Muir always believed that seeming destruction is but an act of creation even in something so violent, or as he would say "joyous," as an earthquake or volcanic eruption.

I took out some juniper wood brought from our home in Laramie from the car for my campfire under the brightening stars of the Big Dipper and other constellations. It was the sweetest smelling campfire possible. As Edward Abbey writes in Desert Solitaire, juniper smoke evokes all of the magic and power of the American West. Juniper smoke is like incense, like a prayer puffing out Thoreau's chimney at Walden Pond. I got out my bedroll, found a soft spot in the sandy soil and crawled in to star gaze. A bright star rose over the dunes, while the moon hid behind the hissing and creaking branches of a pinon pine. The Big Dipper floated directly above me head, and only desert breezes and a distant stream broke the silence. Silver threads of clouds illuminated by the moon were the last thing I saw until dawn. I dreamed of the many earlier trips I had taken here with my wife and kids, but this time I thought a solo trip might prove rewarding.

Dawn at the dunes! No words can do it justice. The shrill whistle of "pearl-dip, pearl dip," made by a circling hawk, awakened me. Ten mule deer fed on new pine branches within a few feet of my sleeping bag. A chorus of robins, western meadowlarks, and warblers picked up in tempo as light increased in the east and a reddish-golden moon set to the west. I raised myself up on one elbow to have sand particles flick past my eyes; my eyebrows and hair were laden with sand much like those phantom pinon trees of last evening. Then it dawned on me why these dunes mean so much to me, to my inner spirit. They literally, as well as figuratively, made me become part of them. Becoming one with the land is the central message of contemporary Native American literature. It is through becoming one with the land again that the character Tayo of Leslie Silko's novel Ceremony arrives at psychic wholeness after his devastating experiences in World War II. When Tayo, part Pueblo Indian, part Euro-American, watches a mountain lion high on a ridge in western New Mexico, wholeness, at long last, enters his war-torn soul. He speaks to the lion: "'Mountain lion...mountain lion, becoming what you are with each breath, your substance changing with the earth and sky.'"

The shifting, blowing, glowing, darkening dunes of sand here in southern Colorado do much for the human spirit seemingly locked into a body. Their presence becomes part of your hair and more importantly part of your psychic and spiritual fiber. Their force becomes our force and through them we can come back to ourselves. I left the dunes with sand in my hair and even sand inside the Emerson paperback where these tiny particles further punctuated "Hamatreya."

*An earlier version of this essay appeared in my out-of-print book Where Land is Mostly Sky (Passegiatta Press, 1997)

Great Sand Dunes

© 2009 Richard Francis Fleck


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • juneaukid profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard Francis Fleck 

      7 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thank you, Sandpits. I appreciate your comment

    • profile image

      Sandpits Shop 

      7 years ago

      Fascinating hub, really enjoyed reading that. Sand is amazing. That nation park is out of this world.

      Thanks again

    • juneaukid profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard Francis Fleck 

      8 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thank you very much, bluebird. What a great hubname.

    • bluebird profile image


      8 years ago

      Very, very nice hub. I really enjoyed it. Especially since these same dunes were part of my childhood, having lived in Alamosa for thirty years. We went at least two or three times every summer. I was in the process of doing a hub on the Great Sand Dunes, but after reading your hub, I could not have done it justice any better. You described it so well! Thank you and may God bless.

    • juneaukid profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard Francis Fleck 

      8 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thank you Dolores--the Great Sand Dunes National Park is mystical indeed.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Richard, you do live large. Your writing paints such beautiful pictures of the places that you visit, but this one was exceptional. I love how you include the sounds and smells of a place, it really puts me there.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      9 years ago from London, UK

      Wow, what a fascnating article. Your writing is so captivating. The description of everything makes one feel you are there. Thanks you and I am glad I found that article.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)