Camping in a National Park sounds like the most idyllic experience when popping a tent and lying one’s head near the earth. However, the popularity of many of the easily accessible parks combined with warm spring weather often means I am not the only person to contemplate a night among the stars curled up in my sleeping bag. Take Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, for example. May is a delightful time of year to enjoy the Colorado scenery. There are equal chances to encounter snow and rain as sun and warmth, but if the outlook calls for the latter, expect solitude not to be on the itinerary.
Families cluster together, often abutting, and voices carry beyond the confines of the campsite. I awoke partly because of the dawning light, but also because Clark Griswald wanted to know if anyone in the two-site area occupied by him and his family wanted the last blueberry muffin. I would have answered affirmative and maybe helped him discover that he needn’t yell so loudly and so early, except directly in front of my tent grazed a family of mule deer, quietly meandering through the campground, who I wanted to continue to keep me company as I started my morning. I am sure Clark and his clan completely missed the creatures, who apparently do not want the last blueberry muffin either.
When young, we rarely visited national parks, and when we did, we stayed for hours, not days. Great Sand Dunes fell in the middle of a commute from Durango to Denver. The summer warmth on the sand coupled with the lack of cold water in the family station wagon resulted in a lack-luster effort to enjoy the scenery. Pre-me, however, I recall watching discolored home movies with younger versions of my parents hiking to the top of the dunes with even younger aunts, and uncles, and cousins. By the time my siblings and I made an appearance, such outings ceased and similar images never existed.
Now I am back. I can climb as high and as far as I like. In early May, the sand doesn’t blister, it chills. The dark mountains in the backdrop outline the dunes, capped with snow rather than just richer shades of brown. Separating me from the soft sand trickles a river – not deep, but giving a sinking feeling that squishes and oozes under my new hiking shoes. I could press forward, but as the melted snow glues sand to my soles, my socks realize they are not impervious to the early spring thaw. Perhaps, though, leaving my sinking shoeprints in the sand leaves more of an impression than the loud voices offering muffins to the neighbors. I will not reach the top of the dunes any more than I will disturb the mulies in my campsite. I am leaving an imprinted, shoe-shaped u-turn as my only mark upon the landscape, and the only image I will capture of my return expedition to the sandy slopes.