After a week of gardening and harvesting and two straight days of rain, my host Julie and I knew we had to get out of the house. Having already seen the local sights and done some hiking we decided a road trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park was just the thing.
Being the (relatively) adventurous types that we are, we set out from Canon City headed south “the back way.” I knew we were in for an adventure when just 20 minutes from the house, Julie’s husband said “yeah, this is the road up here…I think” as he turned right onto a narrow unpaved road that appeared to cut through a farmstead toward McKinley Mountain. Then about a mile down the road he’d realized that maybe this wasn’t the right way and decided to turn around. (What’s a road trip without a U-turn, right?) Did I mention it had rained mightily the day before? We spent the next twenty minutes working to free the Ford F150 4WD from the muddy culvert we’d sunken into. Yep. This was gonna be a great road trip!
Finally unstuck, we set off again and found our way into the foothills of the Colorado Rockies along rough unmarked county roads that seemed to serve no purpose except to ferry us into the wilds of Colorado. We strained our eyes around every hairpin turn to spot any signs of Aspens beginning to turn, happily rewarded by bursts of red and yellow in valleys down below. After about two hours of zigging and zagging and climbing and seat clutching, we came to fence with a chain sagging across the road just at the entrance to a densely wooded forest. We knew our route would take us through federal lands at different points and just assumed this was one of the entrances. It wasn’t locked or posted, and didn’t ever appear to have been. I had to wonder at what purpose the chain served and why each one of us that passed bothered to pull it back across the road. These are the things I wonder.
After a few miles, we came upon a low dip in the road across what was probably a creek, but was now just really muddy. There weren’t any tracks to give us any clue that it was passable, so having already gotten stuck, we held our breaths and went for it. Jubilant that we didn’t have to get out and push a second time, we made our way across.
(Cue creepy sci-fi movie music. This is the point in the story – after false starts, mud bogs, odd detours, and successful transits that in hindsight our guard should have been up.)
We bounced along the narrow road darkened by tall spruce and other pines and eventually came into a slight clearing in the woods. We had no choice but to slow down as the road dissolved into…well…into a yard. There were cars of all shapes and conditions parked haphazardly around, a dilapidated wood-frame shed with a chimney was to the left and what looked like the skeletons of long forgotten farm equipment and tools had been abandoned to the right of the road. It looked like a homestead for someone that maybe didn’t get out much. Or a cult. Or a radical prepper. So many scenarios ran through my mind as a stout man wearing overalls and a ball cap ambled towards us. We rolled to a stop in the middle of the…compound suddenly questioning our fate. I’m certain there were people hiding in the trees watching us. Seriously. It was creepy.
His face was covered by a dirty gray beard and mustache and shadowed by the bib of the ball cap he was wearing. He had a beer can in one hand and the other was tucked safely in his pocket. We offered greetings and asked if we were on the right road to the Sand Dunes. The man, still silent, looked up with a little surprise, took a step back and eyed the truck from fender to bumper and peered into the cab of the truck at the three of us as if sizing us and the truck up before offering his answer. Stepping closer, he paused, took a drink of his beer, and then asked in a Sam Elliot growl “You folks going over the pass?” After we confirmed that yes, that was our plan, he just took one more look at the truck’s muddy tires and finally offered “Well, I reckon you’ll make.”
Now, it’s about this point in our excursion that I feel like I’m in some real life vaudeville show – getting stuck, taking wrong turns, chains that don’t keep anyone or anything in or out, and now this character surmising that we’d made it this far so we’d likely survive whatever was waiting for us at The Pass. He abruptly pointed out that we’d missed our turn a mile or so back – that boggy creek we had crossed distracted us from an unmarked turn off, and apparently a “no trespassing” sign that would have kept us off his land. We thanked him. Then we left. Quickly! (U-turn #2!)
By now I’m thinking this is a lot of trouble to go see a big sand pile and it’d better be worth it. Knowing we were on the right path was no comfort given the man’s curious statement about us making it over The Pass. (In bold for emphasis – as it is impossible now to think of this day without hearing these words in low baritone drawl) What did he know that we didn’t? Of course, it didn’t take us long to figure out. I’m not sure where “the pass” started or stopped and online searches reveal lots of 4WD recreation vehicles getting bogged in muddy trails, but what we encountered were car-sized boulders that had to be traversed in order to get through to where we wanted to be. The kind of boulders that tip the vehicle at odd angles and one inch to the left or right can be disastrous. The kind that once you get up to the top of one, you have to get out of the truck to see which way you should go next. After all of the day’s adventures, this was nothing to turn us back.
Finally, on the downhill slide, literally, we knew we were getting close because we could see the golden red glow of the sand dunes ahead and there were campers all along the route. It was brisk and damp and awesome camping weather, and despite the late morning hour there wasn’t much stirring. We had relaxed into a comfortable silence, probably all reflecting on the morning’s events, our life choices, and whether this pile of sand would really be all that.
All was pleasant. Until we saw the yellow bobcat. Nope. Not the cuddly kind that growl and eat small rodents. The big steel kind that move dirt. Almost three hours into this road trip, u-turns, mudbogs, grumpy mountain men and gravity defying boulders and we finally meet our match. The bobcat driver turned off the machine and hopped off to come greet us. His first words, an incredulous “You folks come over The Pass?” The deluge had flooded the creeks and washed out roads all over the area. He’d been sent out that morning from the park end to repair the road so they could re-open it to park tourists. It was posted at the park end…but no one had thought to post it at the “back entrance” because no one expected anyone would try to come in that way. Yet there we were. We briefly told him of our adventures and it must have impressed him because he, in grumpy mountain man style, took a look at the truck then at the washed out road and said to give him just a few minutes. He hopped back onto the bobcat and pulled enough brush and dirt into the road to give us some traction and send us on our way.
We drove the last few miles without incident, the sand dune growing in our windshield like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. As we were chatting with the rangers in the visitor center, it came up that we’d come into the park from the back entrance. And in true fashion for the day, the attendant looked up surprised and asked in shock “You folks came over The Pass?” (In the movie version of these events, this is where everyone would break into song and fete us with a parade and balloons for our victory!)
We went home a different way.