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Medano Pass, Great Sand Dunes

5 a.m. Saturday
I wake up, as much as can be expected at this bloody hour, and stumble out of the bedroom to get ready... things go downhill from there. Amy and I leave late, I forget my hat(s), we forget to bring breakfast for Sun, and I can't see squat out of my dirty window and have no washer fluid. And I didn't get the body mount fixed. We wait for 10 minutes for a left turn light to give us the go so we can stop in a gas station, and we are too late to meet Charlie in Castle Rock. The 'fast food' breakfast turns into a glacially slow, unexplained 10 minute wait. We're on the road way too late to meet Roy but they threw in a couple of apology sandwiches free.

I completely miss 115, then completely miss 83 which would've taken me to 115, then realize all this 10 miles south of the Springs. The U-turn burns up more time. Yet in spite of all this and partly due to my lead foot, we arrive in Westcliffe way ahead of time.

Silver Cliff
We arrive extremely early and stop at an antique store sidewalk sale for a few minutes. I find a small, Tonka Cherokee Chief, red and black (like a narrow track version of John Clark's rig) for $6! Our first good Omen! We arrive in Westcliffe moments later and meet with Roy, Charlie, and his son Sean, who are finishing breakfast. We wait until a few minutes after 10 and leave as the Memorial Day parade is gearing up. I quickly obtain a goofy, floppy, camouflage army hat that serves me well in the desert sands.

We reach the trailhead and begin driving through private property (the 10' signs every 100 yards told me so) consisting of some absolutely beautiful land. Things start to get bumpy with some climbs. We hit some good twisty spots that gives Charlie's suspension a good workout and some tire spin and I discover the same obstacle is passable in 2wd with a locker. Wow! We stop for a long lunch, Jason still hasn't shown up, we head along towards the Great Sand Dunes over some moderate but very fun trail, mostly humps of dirt with the occasional rocky section. We begin to look for campsites. We find a couple possibilities and then we run into the downhill rocky sections and creek crossings.

Jason pops out of nowhere, like usual, and we continue on to the Sand Dunes. The sight is as amazing as it is weird. A big pile of sand in the middle of nowhere. It looks... wrong. We tour down nearly to the pavement, fighting through a hoard of rude, idiotic people in SUVs some of them cussing and bitching on the radio. Uh, this is supposed to be a relaxing vacation, folks. Some people. We decide to turn around and search for camp. Roy gets stuck at "The Point of No Return" and I like an idiot sit there waiting to see if he is going to make it. By the time I get my sorry butt back to help (after snapping a picture of course) Charlie's already pushed him out of trouble. I feel like a putz.

We head back and find an ideal campground, even if the ground is a little slanted and we all slide around that night in our respective tents. The scenery is gorgeous, a beautiful clearing in the woods. After setting up camp and starting a fire I head back to the Dunes to meet a friend. The real adventure begins...

Great Sand Dunes Nat'l Monument
I bounce and splash my way back to the pavement, and meet my friend. But not before waiting for a hi-centered Suzuki Sidekick get out of the deep sand. It's later than I expect and my tummy is growling. I'm pooped and am looking forward heading back. He has to move the car to another parking spot. By the time we get there, he isn't feeling well, and heads off to a motel. As I return to camp, a couple asks me for a ride to their campsite nearby. Well... OK They're friendly, nice. After the taxi run, I get back to the trail and find another hitchhiking couple and taxi (bounce) them to their destination a mile or more along the trail. Also nice. One from Missouri, her male friend from Dublin, Ireland.

Boy am I tired now. Somehow, it's been over 2 hours since I left. I'm sure every creek crossing is the last one before camp. I'm wrong 8 times. Finally I arrive & find bratwurst waiting on the grille (wow, very cool!), courtesy Charlie and Amy. I chow down, cook up some coffee, I fill 'em in on my adventures, and we sit around jawing in front of an excellent fire that Jason's girls keep feeding. They're both great kids and Aspen is adorable. Sean is fun and we have a great time goofing around.

Sunday, Camp
The blasted alarm goes off, and I fumble around trying to shut it off. I go back to sleep. I awake again, and very slowly drag myself out of the tent to get breakfast and coffee started. We all are up by 8 or so, and enjoy some more conversation, a cool morning, and some food. I'm not trying to brag, I'm really more surprised than anything, but I manage to cook up the best camp coffee ever. Wow. I slurp it down along with bacon and eggs, and pretty soon we're back on the trail. Only I've had enough of this part of the trail. So I give Amy the keys.

She has a blast on her first four-wheeling behind the wheel, crawling down the bumpy hills and through the creek crossings, none more than about 12" high, and we make it to the Sand Dunes, meet my friend who is doing better, and we go out to explore the vast expanse of sand. There's a creek running through near the entrance and we get our feet wet and then hike towards the dunes. And hike. And hike. And hike. Man is it hot. And hike. Finally we're all up on a modest hill a fraction of the height of the entire sand mountain. Amy and I decide we'll hike to the top. Ha. The rest take the more intelligent approach of staying put and eventually heading back.

We hike and hike and hike and it gets hotter and hotter and we realize the bottle of water wasn't anywhere near enough and that the Sand Dunes are a LOT bigger up close than looking at them from the other side of the water a half-mile away. Hiking up hills in sand is... hard. We get our picture taken by my friend, Ulysses, from the hill below and he heads down. So do we. Lots of effort only to get about 1/3 of the way up! We arrive at the water after trudging through the sand, and I am thankful for my comfortable hot-weather hat. Charlie asks "uh, where's Ulysses?" Oh crap. Did we leave him on the hill?

We hike all the way back. No Ulysses. We hike back to the water. No Ulysses. Amy hikes to his car, no one. She hikes back to the hill again. It's hours later, everyone left while we hiked back to the hill the first time. Nothing. I'm starving to death and real thirsty. Amy's in similar condition. Our eyes hurt from scanning specks (people) on the sand. We talk to rangers. We search. I leave a card on his car to let him know I'm around. Finally we find him in the parking lot, discover that we kept missing each other, and head to the truck back at the visitor center and eat some MREs that tasted like the best meal we've ever had. We head home, tired, sunburned, dehydrated, but full... and happy from a much-needed, relaxing weekend outdoors.

In all, a real fun time, some good wheeling and camping, great people to be around, some real life adventure, and some amazing sights and experiences at the Great Sand Dunes!

Michael