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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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PART ONE:  AUTUMN

Star Dune, Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Colorado

Chapter 1:  sand
Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Colorado

Along the eastern slopes of the San Juan Mountains are a few foothill farms trailing into the San Luis valley in a tinny smatter of irrigation works. There's a gas pump and a great little dive where you can get oversized buffalo burgers; the buildings there look new and old, both, hastily thrown up and already peeling. They are overpowered by the sky.

The rest of the San Luis has been left to itself. I crossed it at noon, moving east. The sand dunes loomed ahead, bleached like a ghost of hills, and the Sangre de Cristos rose behind them. In the afternoon there was a skitter of pronghorns around the dune fringe, copper and white, delicate, with ebony sculpts of horns.

I parked in the Great Sand Dunes National Monument parking lot and went in and filled out a ticket at the desk. It was like a desk at a museum except that the staff wore uniforms, and they were there to be helpful -- they wear the worn smiles of professionally helpful folk -- and one of the ways they're helpful is that they make sure the ticket is filled out. You need to fill out a ticket if you're going to pack into the country. They take your data -- name address license plate number number in party number of nights -- and they give you a copy. The copy is made of white cloth, like the cloth tags on mattresses. This comes with a piece of wire so you can attach it to yourself. It's the National Monument and Park version of a dog tag. Afterward, I hiked some miles in along Medano Creek where it comes down off the Sangre de Cristos and skirts the dune field and then I set up camp and ate some jerky and walked into the sand.

A mile in, I lay down on a dune and breathed. That's all. There was sky, sun, sand, mountain wall, air: that's all. The cloth tag flapped from my pack zipper a mile away, and I could bleach to unidentifiable bones and be buried in a morning's breeze. So simple. No fuss. The sky achingly blue and the sun an absolutely round fire. All around me nothing but sand.

***

The sand is a quirk; a conspiracy of river, wind, ancient rain, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The Sangre de Cristos are still rising. Their rock is pressing up an inch a year like the arc of a spine. The peaks rise six thousand feet from the valley floor and the long vanishing line of them is curved like the blade of a saw pushed against a wall. They give a twist to the sky as if they could spring anytime and throw a hefty chunk of central Colorado -- the Wet Mountains on which they brace their backs -- clear to the Appalachians like a hockey puck.

The Sangre de Cristos start their run north and then curve northwest, here, where the sand is, at the angle of tension. Held in their serrated curve is the flat valley of San Luis, a hundred miles long almost half the length of the state -- and nearly fifty miles wide and eight thousand feet high. With less than ten inches of rain a year and day after day of strong wind and high-altitude sun, the San Luis is parched like the surface of a stove, if one can imagine a stove top larger than the state of Connecticut paved with grit and rabbitbrush.

At the far edge of the valley the San Juan Mountains rise, a bulk of volcanoes that shoved into old seafloor some thirty-five million years ago. From here, from the sand, the San Juans are a curved wall the color of shadow. Down them runs the continental spine and in them are the source waters of the San Juan River -- a major tributary of the Colorado -- and the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

The Rio Grande comes down this way into the San Luis, flowing east off the Great Divide as it did all during the last ice age, and when the ice began to melt some twelve thousand years ago there was a lot more water there and the Rio Grande was a lot more river. It carried the outwash of the San Juan glaciers and the runoff of the rains that rimmed the glaciers and all that water clawed the San Juans as it came. This river (truly Grande then) came through the San Luis and on south through a slot in the Rockies into New Mexico, where it still runs, more or less; only it ran big then and chaotic and rumbling with glacial debris. It braided itself across the whole of this valley, dropping levees of sorted stuff at high water and puncturing these or looping around them at low, leaving a valley full of silty oxbows and bars and beds of grit and cobbles. The Rio Grande then bore little relation to the modest countrified body that it is now, tucked in the lee of the San Juans, wreathed in cottonwoods; in those days it rolled glacial rubble off naked rock and ground it to powder and spread it, generously, south.

The wind -- never a small thing either -- has since brought some of this north again.

Picture this: twelve thousand years ago a spring southwesterly came up here, as up a flight of stairs, into the San Luis. It met a dried-up oxbow, picked up what it could, and went on as a kind of fog. This wind had a long fetch and was urged to greater speed by the first north-trending wall of the Sangre de Cristos. Funneled up the valley the faster the higher it came it swept like a howling broom over a flat floor that had nothing much on it then but glacial and riverine grit. The prevailing wind here still runs from the southwest and still blows strongest in spring and early summer, and still picks up what naked grit it can, as a matter of course, and has been doing this now for quite some time, naked grit being plentiful.

What I've heard at the buffalo-burger dive is: "the gol-darned dusters up here'll blow yer hat clear to South Dakoty some days an' blow you after it too if y'ain't got a horse t' hold you down ..."

Which is the size of it, I imagine. Then, right here, the thickened wind meets the barrier of the mountains' curve. Pushed into updraft, eddied, its energy lost to friction and turbulence, the duster drops some of what it carries. The wind doesn't stop exactly but it does drop the heavier part of its load, which happens to be from two to three tenths of a millimeter in diameter. It keeps its finest dust and carries that up through Mosca Pass and Medano Pass and Music Pass (in order from south to north) and so on, over the top. In June here there are days on end when the whole rise of the Sangre de Cristos is veiled in a brownish cloud.

So nowadays there are trillions of tons of grit here, a hundred and fifty square miles of wind-dropped sand, some of it piled in dunes a thousand feet deep.

***

I came out of the dune field an hour ago and now the last red light has faded from the mountain wall, a red brighter than burgundy and deeper than raspberry, the reason maybe for the name: Blood of Christ Mountains. Sangre de Cristo has an echo of Coronado or Onate and their ragtag troops coming a-horseback down Medano Pass long ago and camping, maybe, close to here, on Medano Creek. In Spanish, medano means dune.

Now the dunes have gone mauve behind the cottonwoods that line the creek. The dunes rise there like a wall.

***

The sand has the texture of coarse flour or fine-ground cornmeal. There are grains of russet sandstones, white quartz, and black magnetite from the volcanic San Juans. The cumulative color has the sensuality of sunbaked flesh. The black magnetite grains are heavier than others; they tend to lie on the dune faces after other lighter bits have blown away. These ripples of darkness give some slopes the double color of coyote fur.

Once it's here the sand is combed into lines of transverse dunes -- from the air these look like monster ripples -- or, at the fringes, barchans: rams' horns in Arabic. When the sand is blown out of some loosely vegetated pile, it takes on the shape of a reversed croissant, a U-shaped or "parabolic" dune, arms facing the wind this time and held there by roots. Where winds swirl and back and fill, the sands pile up and up, creating their own stable currents in the air, building star dunes: single high peaks rooted in a series of trailing arms. Here the winds do turn in summer, coming back down the Sangre de Cristos, herding the sand into itself, building up some of the most monumental star dunes to be found anywhere. Some are a thousand feet high and more. Plumes of blown grit sift from their crests.

I climbed one of these this afternoon, no easy thing. I straddled the crest of an arm and went up slowly, heavy going, leaving dents. The wind moved in sighs, throwing sand under me in spurts of gold; the slopes glittered with moving grains tossed from ripple to ripple in a movement called saltation -- meaning leaping -- but these are little leaps, the sand never moving up higher than inches, grains bouncing and streaming across the dune face and leaving the crest itself sharp and serrated like a tomato knife. When these leaping grains come to the creek they fall in and are washed away. They don't jump high enough to cross the water. The creek -- six feet wide -- is the eastern edge of all this.

The wind has been northerly here for a while now, you can tell; the steeper dune slope is always the one downwind. The shallow slope guides the air up and over the edge, cutting its force into space, sending it into turmoil, and at the leeward side the sand drops out. it happens that sand won't lie at a steeper angle than 34 degrees so that once it does pile that high it begins to slip -- as it does underfoot --  shifting downward in long cascades, taking one partly with it, so it takes a while to get up top.

From there, from the star's high center point, the dunes stretch immense and endlessly varying into the mountains' rise. Their perfect curves go gold and black in the late light. Perfect is the word I wrote down, up there, again and again, meaning shape -- curves and ripples -- and light, which lies in these shapes.

The wind moves steadily past one's ears. Up there the sand conforms to the body, warm, steady, sifting into every pant leg and sweatshirt wrinkle, burying one's boots; smoothing one into perfection, too. Down between dune peaks are scant furrings of blowout grass, curved like hairs in a body hollow. Out in the heart of the dunes nothing lives at all except three species of insects: a circus beetle, a tiger beetle, and a giant sand treader camel cricket. All of them are nocturnal, all make their livings on whatever the wind blows in for them to scavenge. None of them lives anywhere but here. No one knows much about them. Trillions of tons of sand and one hundred and fifty square miles of country are all theirs.

***

The night is too long to sleep through. When it gets too dark I light a candle lantern and write home, watching the stars against the dunes' smooth curve. It gets cold fast here. Dry land does that, and dry air. We're already eight thousand feet up and the mountains loom six thousand feet farther, starfields scattering between peaks.

In the morning there are still stars over the sand's flanks, different ones. The creek is still making its small creek song in the darkness. Sometimes in late summer the creek disappears into its bed, goes underground, and then the sand crosses the creek's hollow and dunes march this way. They've done this again and again. When the creek fills up with autumn rain it washes through what barriers have blown in, leaving new raw dunes stranded on this side. These grow over, grasses coming in, then brush, trees. This place between creek and mountain wall is filled with the rumpled curves of forest and high prairie; the land shape under them is dune. In dawn light I walk down the crest of one of these, down a trail worn there by mule deer and everything else. High ground is where you travel when what you want is to keep an eye out for everything else.

Grasses, low junipers, red-leaved currant bushes. Trails of rabbits and kangaroo rats, burrows like a warren. A single nuthatch spirals up a cottonwood. Dawn sunlight comes in one spreading ray through Medano Pass; the predawn light leaking evenly from the sky gives red and yellow leaves the brilliance of a dream. A single mule deer grazes on the rise of the first dune. Sunlight creeps down the flank of naked sand at her back until she is silhouetted on her ridge.

Crossing the creek where it bends, I hear her cough and thump off. The sand is damp with dew and wears the perfect imprints of everything that moved in the night. A printed page.

The ricegrass is seeding, heads bent and heavy. Here and there is a bright head of a sunflower in bloom, black seeds half quarried away, foursquare tracks of white-footed mice coming and going; it's high autumn stash-building time. Their foraging trails are woven and crossed by tracks of the Ord's kangaroo rat (must be Ord's, no other K-rat lives this far north), only its hind toes touching and eight-to nine-inch leaps between these, single trails branching from packed trails ... to a burrow, trampled; a single arc of entrance in damp sand. Tracks of insects: beetles, crickets. Here and there holes the width of pencils, the foci of insect scrawls. Now, everything is underground. I quarry down among the snarls of grass stems coiled like pale wire. Less than two inches down the sand is cool, dark, the texture of milk chocolate. This is where they've gone. Roots, animals, this is where they are. In summer the sand surface can heat to 140 degrees F and that's no place to be.

There are bird tracks in the ricegrass, too. The deep pokes of deer. The days-old trail of a coyote on the ridge. The sun is full on the dune face and I strip off vest, sweatshirt. After another mile I start back toward the creek. It's still in shadow there. There's something too Saharan on the dunes at nine A. M.; a hot bright drumming in the ears.

Down the last tilt of naked sand and down a slope of ricegrass, scurf pea, through clumps of yellow-blooming rabbitbrush. By the creek are clusters of young cottonwoods, slim trunks blue-gray, leaves deep gold over creek water running brown dark with slashes of sky blue. The green-silver slope of grass, the sand pale as sugar in the light. Tiny paths everywhere. The grasses filled with birds: chirps, pips, nasal chatter. The ground alive with the rising falling of birds jumping to peck at ricegrass heads that hang like green drops.

Lying in the cottonwood shade, belly to slope, I watch the birds come all around. Up there the shoulder of a star dune is as sterile as the Mare Tranquillitatis of the moon, as baked as the scarps of Mars; the sand shifts itself too fast for anything to keep a foothold. Here the grasses have wired themselves down and hold the desert fringe. Then ... huff of breath, rip of grass torn, and four mule deer come, slowly, two does and two half-grown fawns, moving the slow grazing way like cattle toward water or shade this time of day, still breakfasting.

They come within ten feet. Then one doe lifts her head, fast, black nostrils wide, she's got wind, and with a snorting whistle -- loud barking wheeze of alarm -- they're all four off across the slope running heads up and tails up, leaping zig and zag on all four feet at once thump thump like deer-shaped superballs dropped from the blue. The last doe pauses on a sand brink against blue sky, on the ridge of raw sand, then she's gone over.

She won't go far. Nothing does, except the crickets and beetles that live in the heart of the dunes. That's the unchanging place that's changing always. Desert core, quirk and masterwork of elemental things.

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