Tuesday, November 02, 2004

A National Park All to Ourselves

We were heading from South Dakota to California, and the Weather Channel showed a large winter storm coming down over our planned path. This was a big one, with high winds and snow alerts, covering the several states. I am reluctant to drive the RV in conditions like that. We decided to change course and head south on I-25 as fast as we could. Near sunset, Mary Ann poured over the maps and directed us towards Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The dunes are in a high mountain valley, surrounded on nearly all sides by mountains. It is actually a desert, and over the ages, sand has collected in a crook of the eastern mountains. The dunes are hundreds of feet tall and a fun place to play, in the summer.

We found that most of the campground was closed off, but that was okay, because there was only one other site being used, and they left the next morning. The snow came as predicted, but in this valley, it was just a light dusting, highlighting the dunes with bands of white, and crowning the sage with a glistening icing.

We decided to stay another day, taking a restful morning and then heading out in the afternoon to visit the two nearby National Wildlife Refuges. The valley was criss-crossed with irrigation ditches from earlier decades, fed by water from the nearby mountains. There were wetlands all around, feeding the source of the Rio Grande River. We traced the dirt roads in Alamosa NWR and startled a porcupine and many very skittish ducks. Not that I blame them. Public hunting lands and the wildlife refuge are close neighbors, with the same roads serving both. Hawks and a Great Horned Owl were icing.

Over in Monte Vista NWR, we watched the sandhill cranes come in to roost for the night. I have to wonder about their cold toes. When they fly, this very large bird trails its feet behind them, so as they pass overhead, you can see their feet clearly. The air was dropping below freezing by sunset.

Heading back to the RV in the campsite, not only was the entrance gate unmanned, but all other visitors and campers were gone. We had the whole National Park to ourselves. We fired up the generator and the heater and I worked into the evening packaging up stories to send out as soon as we located a post office. Mary Ann went to bed early, hoping to catch the dawn for shots of the dunes.

At 5 am, when she awoke, sensing that the heater had stopped working, we found that the batteries had gone dead early. The cold had sapped the capacity out of them. But we bundled up and hopped in the jeep to get to the magic viewpoint before the sun touched it. The jeep's thermometer reported 2.7 degrees F. and even shifting the transmission was sluggish.

But the morning shoot called. Even with frost obscuring the windshield, we headed over to the mountain pass road. The one with the large sign saying "Point of No Return", giving a wide place to turn around. Shortly past that, the road turned very soft, with deep sand. The jeep went into four-wheeled drive and we surged on. It got worse, and I shifted into 4WL. Just as the road started to get better, as it turned up into the mountains and showed more rocks under the sand, Mary Ann realized we had passed the viewpoint and we turned back.

She hopped out and began taking first-light pictures as the sunlight tipped the mountain peak.

It was then that I realized we didn't quite have the national park to ourselves. As I rummaged in the back, hunting for her gloves, I disturbed a visitor -- a quick little brown mouse that had found our jeep a nice cozy place to wait out the chill. He left in a hurry. At least I think he left. He could still be back there with the jumper cables and tow straps.

The shadows didn't cooperate with Mary Ann, and we moved several times as she tried to get the shot she visualized. We won't know the results of that until later, but for me, this has been a morning to make me breathe in deeply and smile.

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