Sometimes nature takes ahold of you, embraces you, rattles you, and unexpectedly transforms your consciousness in new and profound ways. I try to share some of my nature adventures because spending more time in nature has been shown to increase happiness and overall life satisfaction and I want to encourage others to never stop exploring and being taken by the larger world around us. I recently trekked out to Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado to do some exploring, little did I know the impact it would have on me.
Sand Dunes is located in Southern Colorado in the San Luis Valley surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. Within the valley is a thirty square mile area of nothing but sprawling sand dunes, some of the highest in the continent, reaching up to 650 feet. Sediment from the mountains slowly filled the valley over many years and the southwest winds blew the sand into one corner of the valley, hence Sand Dunes National Park.
I found it mesmerizing traversing this sandy landscape. The combination of the valley, the dunes, and the mountain range made this place seem ethereal and other-worldly. It was a combination of spectacle not soon to be forgotten. I remember standing where the sand met the soil, where a small creek ran through the base at the start of the dune formations. The small creek would prove to be a cool refuse from the heat of the day. The creek almost acted to symbolically separate the lush from the desolate, like a monolith between worlds. I crossed the creek and slowly began my trek up the dunes to the far dune in my sight, High Dune, which stood at 650 feet.
Walking in sand can be its own challenge, walking uphill in sand even more so. Each step you take, the ground seems to silently claim you, sucking in your feet with its dynamic nature. This is a place where you can very easily and tangibly perceive the influence of wind on the environment. The dunes are constantly changing and shifting with the sporadic wind. The very ground you walk on is deceiving and unforgiving. It’s an area that appears to be lifeless and yet is constantly in motion.
I remember staring down at my feet, for looking up and seeing the distant dunes and the path ahead only creates mental barriers for reaching your goal. The view is beautiful yet intimidating. One foot at a time. You get used to tunneling in, paying attention to the here and now, your immediate surroundings. And with that, I noticed the intricate patterns in the sand, how my footsteps influenced it, how the soft kiss of the passing wind influenced it. Looking closely, I could make out the tiny little mounds of sand all around me, just as detailed and complex as the whole. They were dunes among dunes. I thought from the vantage point of an ant, a square foot of sand would be the equivalent of the whole for me.
The dunes seem to fold in on themselves endlessly. It was a flowing landscape of shifting patterns, glistening vibrantly in the morning sun. Through the heat and the sweat, I felt delirious, almost hypnotized by the vastness. I let the landscape consume me. All around I could see nothing but sandy endlessness and I basked in it.
I would occasionally stop to rest, picking up clumps of sand and letting it slowly fall through my fingers to be carried off in one direction by the wayward wind. I had a thought come up in those moments. I remember reading about how there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on earth. Now I know that Sand Dunes is only a miniscule percentage of the sand grains on earth. Still, noting the mountains of sand all around me and the number of grains I could perceive simply by picking up a handful, it made that fact all the more mind-blowing. It became more tangible because I had an example right in front of me. Even beginning to conceive of the number of grains in that place was inconceivable.
I visualized the mountains of sand and imagined being able to see through to all the grains making up the dunes. I then translated that into an equal number of stars, likely with their own system of planets and orbiting debris, and it broke my mind. It felt like staring into infinity itself. It was unfathomable. We can’t even begin to grasp or conceptualize numbers that big and yet they exist and are part of the universal fabric as us. I took time to just stand still in the middle of the sand and almost meditate on this concept.
Pretty soon the technical jargon of the numbers dissolved and I was left with nothing but pure respect and reverence for our beautiful universe. The staggering size and expanse of our universe was conveyed very clearly to me in that moment and I felt a strong sense of elation and oneness. I was reminded that this is why I explore nature. This is why I venture out into the unknown. You never quite know when the spirit of our world will flow through you and fill you with a deep and meaningful peace.
I made it to High Dune around noon. From High Dune, I got a view of the entirety of the dunes, along with the San Luis Valley and the surrounding mountains. I was awestruck by the view and simply sat in the sand for a few minutes gazing out. I took my shoes off and sank my toes into the sand. The deep sand was cool and yielding and I felt a renewed sense of connection to the land. It was intimate and engaging and I sat at the top, without thought, simply letting my awareness take me to new heights. It was a fleeting kind of heaven on that lone hill of sand and I made sure to breath in each moment to its fullest.
The hike down took place in the early afternoon, when the heat of the sun really made its presence known. Even through my shoes, the heat of the sand could be felt. The terrain was searing and unforgiving. There were times where I had to slide on my butt just to give my feet a rest from the heat. The afternoon sun set the sand ablaze and at times I felt like I was slowly being cooked alive. I found it more fascinating than alarming and made the most of the trip down, running frequently to speed up the descent, which proved to be its own source of fun. It felt like I was a kid playing in a giant sand box at times and I felt a peculiar kind of nostalgia.
Making it back to the small creek, a wave of relief and a sense of accomplishment hit me. The first couple of steps in the water with my bare, dry, red hot feet was a new sense of pleasure I can hardly describe. A new appreciation for water was formed in that moment and I was filled with gratitude at the cool comfort of its embrace. A short hike back and I had made it to my truck, the journey complete. I had never experienced sand dunes before, at least not to that extent, so I felt rejuvenated by a sense of adventure and a newly found love for life.
Exploration is in our blood. Venturing into unknown terrains is how we have survived as a species, as life. I am truly grateful for the adventure I have had, and for the adventure of life. The world really is our sand box. It is our giant playground with which to explore and experiment, to have fun, improvise, and to find purpose. Enjoy this form, this humanness, and everything that comes with it. See all that you can see. Life is about the journey. Every journey is made up of a series of steps. Make each step count and feel the weight of their purpose, for our lives, like grains of sand, are fleeting and swept away by the winds of time.