I sat awake in the cool night air, listening. Around me the winds from the east were rushing down the mountainside. The aspens and meadow grasses surrounding me whirred with a steady rustling. The noises felt ominous in the cool dark, as though they preceded a storm or an imminent bear attack, but in my little tent not even the puppy stirred. It seemed that I was the only one startled awake in the blackness to wonder at what the night concealed from me.
I shifted position, recognizing that the pressures on my growing belly made for an interesting sleep experience on my thermarest. I curled into the fetal position, facing the tent wall as it fluttered in the wind, glowing with the subtle light of the moon’s cool light filtered through the aspen grove where we camped.
Recalling the day that brought me to this spot, I smiled. Rick, Addie, and I had piled into his car and driven the three hours to the Sand Dunes National Park. Rick had visited before, but for me it was the first time and I was pretty excited. Along the way, I watched the scenery fade from the familiarity of South Park, to the arid vastness of the San Luis Valley – a huge, flat expanse of harsh, unwelcoming land. It once was a booming agricultural valley, but now it was mostly dotted with small, abandoned shacks, interspersed with large irrigation systems that periodically brought a shock of green to the swaths of brown grassland. The valley is testament to the finite nature of groundwater and a warning to use it wisely. In the heat of midday, the valley seemed anything but welcoming. Heat vibrated up from the roadway, blurring the brown grasses that made their way, crisscrossed with only dirt roads, to tan sands. As we pulled into a coffee shop to grab a chai and use the bathroom, a sign reminded us of the cost of maintaining the toilet and the need to conserve water. It asked us to flush only after multiple uses. It asked for contributions to help pay for their tank to be emptied each month. It seemed apparent that the valley was not thriving.
Putting this depressing fact behind me, I tried to focus on the dunes, but suddenly I was consumed by questions of if I would even enjoy the trip. Through the wafting heat off the valley floor I could picture myself trudging across an unbroken, unshaded expanse of yellow sand with no water or cool air in sight. A creeping panic began to rise in me. If there is one thing that grabs my survival instincts by the balls, it’s the thought of unbroken and unmitigated heat. My brain immediately flashes to visions of me shriveling to a parched and shrunken shell of myself, and collapsing in the heat, and never leaving the desert. Though many landscapes evoke fear, to me, the desert is perhaps the most forbidding.
We drove into the park, however, and I reminded myself that today would not be spent on the dunes. Today Rick and I planned to hike in the preserve where we could backpack in to a backcountry site to camp. Abutting the dunes is the Sangre de Cristo Range. The winds that bear down the mountains, combined with the prevailing winds barreling across the San Luis Valley, and the winding Medano Creek help to hold the massive dunes in their place. Today we would hike up Mosca Pass, to the crossing point of the Sangre de Cristos, in a low saddle full of wild green grasses and aspen groves.
We hiked for an hour and a half, up the incline to the pass, and were there before we even knew it! The hike was mostly shaded and gradual, and we were moving faster than we thought. We reached the pass just as afternoon storm clouds began gathering on the horizon, so we turned back, took a dog-legged path off the trail, and made our way into a beautiful mountain meadow with a small creek running though it, wildflowers blossoming abundantly, and a tiny, miraculous, hidden cache of Columbines in a shaded aspen grove. It was a little paradise, and after searching out the right spot, we set up camp at the edge of and aspen grove overlooking the meadow from above.
We made a fabulous meal, and Rick broke out two beers he had stowed away in his bag as a little treat. As I sipped my shandy and watched the light fade while Addie bounded through the meadow grasses, I couldn’t imagine a better, more peaceful spot to rest my head and body for the night. I felt a little chill as I sat with intention, trying to share this moment with the little being fluttering in my belly.
We lit a small fire and let the night fade away from us before crawling into our sleeping bags, reminiscing on the sweet perfection of our day. Moments spent like this, together, away from the rush of life in the city, bring both of us back to ourselves and the simple things that bring a smile to our faces.
As we have been busy putting together a nursery, fixing up our home, and trying to establish ourselves in the new jobs, we occasionally lose sight of these simple pleasures. Our trip to the Sand Dunes was a beautiful reminder from the universe that a mountain meadow filled with wildflowers can do more for the soul than weeks of dedicated work to “improve” one’s lot. Reduction, it seems, is often the key to contentment.