As we left Utah and entered Colorado we began assessing our boondocking options. The 7.5 mile hike had me wiped out, and I requested the free-est closest site with a view where we could nap, ASAP. Not difficult- as all of Colorado is beautiful to look at- anything would suffice. Celeste routed us to a spot a couple of miles off of the highway down dirt roads that weaved us through southwestern Colorado farmland. We began climbing uphill for a few turns and entered a spot with panoramic views of the area. In the distance we could see the San Juan mountains, the Abajo Mountains back in Utah, and the flat desert land of New Mexico and southern Colorado. We were at the tallest point for miles with nothing obstructing our view. And below and surrounding our van in every direction- an immeasurable amount of cow patties. Free sometimes means shit. But at least this was beautiful shit. Exhausted from the day, we ate tuna and couscous for dinner and laid in bed leaving reviews on campsites we had visited previous nights before while waiting for sleep. We made it to sunset and watched the light disappear from the sky with the scent of cow shit blowing in the wind.
We awake to the eve of the eve of the last day on the road; the point in our trip where we are bone-tired from the constant movement yet still committing to enjoying the present and all too aware how much we will miss this in a week. Both longing and loving. There was more comfort in vanlife than we ever found in tentlife, which typically left us longing for home by the last stretch. Lucy isn’t perfect, but she felt safe and constant. She always held open her arms after a long hike AND she had immediate shelter to sleep.
We headed towards Durango and Sand Dunes NP— our next big destination a couple of hours away. I had been looking forward to this leg of the trip for a while and wanted to waste no time. On our first roadtrip we drove through this part of Colorado and stayed in a campground not far from the park. It was something like 6 or 7 days where we took a crash course on camping in and out of our car to the Grand Canyon and back. It was fantastic— and exhausting and uncomfortable. We had plans to stay at some alien themed campground in southern Colorado but decided against it when we saw the campsites were entirely on gravel. That first trip we were packing around those giant foam puzzle piece mats to sleep on— which felt entirely like sleeping on a thin foam mat over the topography of everything below the tent. Hard. Bumpy. But mostly just so hard. We reserved a site at the nearest campground and pulled into a plush grass oasis with rabbits sprinkled everywhere. Everywhere— hiding in holes, hopping through bushes, laying in the storm drain. I remember setting the tent up and throwing our sleeping bags in, and immediately falling into the luxurious natural mattress we had been gifted. There were hot showers and electricity and a pool that overlooked the sand dunes. And so many rabbits. It was paradise.
After what feels like hours on the familiar roads and highways that surround the campground in Hooper, CO, we pull into a full lot with a glimpse of the busy pool. We find out that there are only a few ‘overflow’ tent sites left with no hookups and I scold myself for not calling ahead. Still, hot showers. Rabbits. Pool. After showering at the pool that was far too full of families to be enjoyed, we found our site at the very back of the campground, passed the plush green glass and beside an old camper that has clearly not moved in a while. A flock of mallards loitered in front. Our campsite consists of three planks of wood on the ground and a fire pit, essentially in a gravel parking lot next to the resident hippie uncle. Awesome. Oh well we have firewood. And ducks. We back into our site as to not face the campsite that is very close on our left and opt for the view of the hippie uncle’s campground a little further away on our right. We set out tiny chairs in the shade of the van and tried to pretend we weren’t sitting in this man’s ‘yard’. He looked around 50 or 60 with a round belly and gray hair to the middle of his back, coming in and out of his camper to his Volkswagen beetle that had ‘turbo’ in bold letters across the side. His door swung closed behind him each time but his screen door spilled out orange light and classic rock, sung both by the radio and himself. He crawled into the driver side of his beetle, with his bare feet hanging over the edge of the seat and wiggling his toes to the rhythm of the music. We sat staring in awe of the evenings entertainment. Neither of us had acknowledged the consistent decline of the situation. We had such fond memories of this place and hear we sat, with no rabbits or grass or nearly empty pools. We were hilariously disappointed, and then not disappointed at all. We sat, illuminated by the fire and the glow of the stars as the campground fell silent, amused and tired but full of wonder and gratitude.
We arrived at the sand dunes early, excited to finally see the much anticipated mysterious national park. We found a spot in another nearly-full lot and prepared for a hike. When we climbed out of the van we joined dozens of families corralling their little ones, carrying umbrellas and coolers and chairs and heading towards the dunes. We passed through the brush and found ourselves beside flowing water that stretched far across the sand in front of us. Medano Creek flowed irregularly across the expanse of flat sand. Shallow, icy water carves the surface, pushing sand into different shapes and patterns, creating constantly changing islands amongst tiny streams. It is mesmerizing. I can imagine it being refreshing in the summer sun, the only refuge from the heat in this desert-like terrain. But in the morning breeze its chilly, and I clench my teeth as I run through the streams and use sticks to draw in the sand.
We wander around staring at maps and hunting for the trailhead before opting to cl,bs the sand dunes instead. I started the ascent— 40 steps at a time— stopping to breath and watch the people below get farther and farther away. At the top of the highest dune visible from the creek below, the sand blew and stung as it pelted our legs. We tied bandanas around our faces and I quickly took my camera out for a few shots before tucking it back away. Around us I saw people inching by in the distance and others sledding down the slick surface of the dunes with the sun now blazing above. Sand dunes are killer.
When we were fed up with the wind and the sand, we followed a group down a very steep slope, feet sinking beneath the surface of the molten-lava-hot sand. We ran down the side and trekked the rest of the way back to the van, tired and more than ready for the silence and solitude on the road. It turns out, there isn’t much else to do at Great Sand Dunes National Park. In summertime, it’s basically a water park for the locals. If we had more time (and money) maybe we would have rented off-road vehicles to explore the quieter areas of the park. But by mid afternoon we had had our fill. We made the decision to camp just inside of Kansas a bit closer to home, and packed it all up and headed out.
On our way out of Colorado we pulled over because the light was really killing it on the mountains and I wanted to try to get a shot. But I pulled over too late and instead we stopped to take some lousy photos and commented on the trash that was covering the area and remarked about how awful and lazy and careless people can be, how somebody should really clean this up. Earlier this year I had started going on walks and picking up trash in my neighborhood so as I stared at the familiar site I was faced with the reality you are the ‘them’ that should clean this up. So we threw on some gloves and filled all we could into our last trash bag. It was that immediate-satisfaction we are all so crazy over. I wished we had done it the entire trip. (Check out #trashtag and #trashtag yourself! I mean, if you want to.)
Initially I had planned for four posts, but I have one more in store to elaborate on the impact of this trip and my plans for the future. Thank you as always for reading and following along on my journey <3.
Photographer on the road