When I finally came back into cognizant recognition of where I was, it was with a cactus bush in front of me, and I was thinking, “Not these again”. I then proceeded to walk continue on my path towards the center of the bush, and then kept going. Somewhere along the trail I had managed to lose my shoes, and had been walking barefoot through desert scrubland since sometime in the middle of that night, so I felt every needle of that cactus. The sun was now rising, my feet were cold, full of cactus, and I had overshot our car by a mile.
How would any sane, quasi-outdoorsy person end up in this situation? The answer is a two faced friend of mine named tequila.
I frequently overestimate the amount of alcohol I can drink, as my natural tolerance is not as high as most of my friends. When Eric and I rolled into the parking lot at the base of the sand dunes, we had a 750 mL bottle of tequila, a can of iced tea, and the ambition of sharing a nice drink before reaching the top of the dunes under the light of stars alone.
But the sand dunes of Sand Dunes National Park are always full of surprises. From where I stood in the parking lot, I thought we would be standing on top of the dunes in under thirty minutes. Fifteen minutes later and we found ourselves finally reaching the base of the small mountains we refer to as sand dunes, with a quarter of our bottle now missing.
When we were halfway up the dune we had also finished drinking half the bottle, and the stars were fantastic. Because it was so dark outside, we couldn’t see how much we had drunk outside of the light of one of our cell phones, and since we were trying to enjoy nature, we were keeping those in our pockets. In this way we found ourselves drinking a lot more than either of us actually wanted.
But there were more disadvantages to not bringing any light outside of seeing how much we had been drinking. The best way to climb the dunes in Sand Dunes National Park is by following the ridges on the side of each dune. High winds in the area make the sides particularly steep, which is problematic for walking, not to mention drinking tequila.
We constantly found ourselves stepping off a ridge and then trying desperately to stop ourselves from falling into the basin of sand below us in a fashion that probably would have looked hysterical if there was enough light. This happened at least ten times for each of us, so you can believe me when I tell you it was close to a miracle when we finally threw ourselves on top of the dunes, exhausted, and with only a quarter of the tequila bottle left.
On top of the dunes, the fabric of the cosmos had opened like a blanket before us. The foggy band of the Milky Way stretched across the sky like a cloud that had been decked out in the sparkling stones of other galaxies. Behind us the town of Alameda was gently glowing on the plains below, and in front of us the ruggedness of the mountains was outlined by the gently ambience of the starts. I had to look back on thinking of myself as being similar to the miners at the beginning of the trip and said, “I love gooooold,” while I stroked the sand below my hands.
My memory of the situation ended with looking at the last bit of tequila at the bottom of the bottle and saying, “Lookey there, just a little bit left. Lets kill this thing!” Eric will have to take the story from there:
“First of all you started chugging the last of the tequila. I don’t know why you did that, but things started moving fast from there.
We started jumping and rolling down the hill. You took your shoes off and kept saying how nice the sand was. I almost took mine off too but looking at your feet right now, I’m glad that I didn’t.
I was trying to do front flips and kept landing on my head, and you just took off. I kept calling your name, but it was so dark that I couldn’t see you anywhere. You responded maybe twice, and I found myself back at the car a little while later, where I had to wait for you until sunrise. I even made a little fort in some ditch, and pretty much didn’t sleep. Thanks for that by the way.” He showed me his fort the following day. It was about as nice as a drunk person without a light could make one.
I had been walking parallel to the road leading to my car, walking over the scrub grasses of the southwestern prairie lands. Looking back on my nocturnal mistakes, it feels fitting that I was traveling next to the paved road, because that is what I find myself looking for when I travel, exploring the less traveled path leading to the same place as everyone else. Usually though, I have shoes when I do it.
I must have walked into multiple cacti bushes, because when I encountered my last bush, I remember thinking, “Not these again”. Even though I wanted to avoid it, I still walked into the bush. I learned then that when a person steps on a cactus, neither that person nor the cactus comes out on top. It’s a very clever plant.
I had managed to miss the entrance to the park by a few miles. When I finally found the road again, I was guided back to the car by the hazy glow of the early morning sun.
I knew that my feet hurt were going to hurt as soon as the tequila wore off, so I was enjoying the remaining effects of tequila as I enjoyed the beautiful sunrise. Even though I was walking down a road of pain, I will always remember my favorite view of the dunes being on that morning walk, when they were outlined in gold, and the sky was in the process of changing from grey to blue. Then I found the car, and that was even more beautiful.
Eric ran out to greet me from his shelter in the bushes, and seemed to be pretty upset. “Hey You Guy! Why didn’t you answer me in the dunes! I’ve been waiting here! I’ve been waiting right here! Where did you go, and why don’t you have any shoes?” He was very flustered, and I remember it being quite funny.
“I got lost Eric. I got super lost, and I don’t know where the shoes went, but I could definitely have used them. Maybe cowboys and miners wore shoes because they were hard to accidentally take off. But right now I need to sleep. We can talk about it in the morning.”
Without much further debate, we hopped in the car, reclined the seats, and fell asleep almost instantly.
The next day we would be unable to climb the dunes, particularly because the sand gets red hot, partially because I had cactus needles in my feet, but mainly because I had lost my shoes. The hangover wasn’t helping either. We could call it a regret from the trip, but after everything we had been through, the San Juan trip was still a wild success. I think the dunes are more beautiful at night anyways.