What to Know When You’re Going to the Great Sand Dunes (II)

Round 2: Dunes-1, Us-0 

Jesus. Christ, again. After another twenty minutes of pure hell, we find a new spot. This one looks better, more protected. Plus, we can’t feel any wind here. Perfect. 

Once more, we set up the tent and bury it, but this time we don’t even bother with the stakes because we know better now. 

Immediately, we collapse inside the tent, almost laughing. Yeah, this is it. We did it. Now, all we have to do is chill out until sunset and then wait for the Milky Way. 

I lay down and close my eyes, anticipating how magical seeing the Milky Way will be, and that’s when it happens. Whatever god, being, or spirit is looking down on us must have a sick sense of humor because just as I relax, the wind picks back up, even worse this time.  

The rain fly whips against the tent, waving like a flag in a tornado. The tent struggles against our weight, fighting to follow the wind. And the noise from the rain fly and the sand hitting the tent is deafening. This feels like war. 

Again, Matthew looks at me. He doesn’t even say anything, but I know what the look means. We can’t stay here. We’ll have to sleep in the car. 

Fuck. This is it. This was supposed to be my Steven Spielberg moment. We hiked all the way up here. We braved the wind, the sand, and the climb. But, there’s no way we can stay the night here, not with the wind like this. So, we pack up and head back down to the car, the ultimate disappointment.  

The trip down is a fever dream. I know it happened. I just can’t remember any of it. By the time we’re down at the car, the temperature has dropped, and the wind has picked up. We’re shivering and completely coated in sand.

By now it’s 6 p.m. We sit in the car and stare at the ceiling, absolutely exhausted. No words are spoken for two hours. Finally, I get out of the car. Maybe I’ll be able to catch the sunset. That could be nice. But as I make my way out to the flats before the dunes, I see the sun sinking behind the dunes. 

 We could’ve seen the orange light fade to cotton candy and then indigo. I bet it looks marvelous from the top of the dunes. I plop down on the ground right on the banks of the creek. I can only see a fraction of the sunset’s changing colors, but then something catches my eye twenty yards away.  

It’s a coyote, looping toward me. My first reaction is fear, but then that fades to awe. Holy shit. I’ve never seen one in the wild this close. I move to stand up, to walk toward it, but it runs off.  

Yeah, today sucked, but damn, that was amazing. That’s the closest I’ve ever been to something that wild. And it re-energizes me. Maybe we can still salvage today.

Okay, fuck the dunes. Sure, camping in the dunes didn’t work out, but we can still camp out here and see the Milky Way. We’re not supposed to, but honestly, who cares?  We’ve come all the way out to Colorado, and I want my goddamned Steven Spielberg moment.  

Third time’s the charm 

“Get up. We’re setting up the tent on the bank,” I bark at Matthew. He looks at me first in confusion and then in disbelief. 

“C’mon Katelin. Let’s just sleep in the car,” he pleads. 

“You can sleep in the car, but I’m setting up the tent,” I say with more assertion and confidence than I really have. 

I drag everything out and begin my short trek from the parking lot to the banks when I hear a tired and defeated, “Fine. I’ll help you.” 

Would’ve looked cooler on the other side

We set up the tent for the third time. We’re so tired that it takes us at least twenty minutes, but I don’t care because I will get to have my Steven Spielberg moment after all. But then, just as I’m putting together the last pole, I see a flashlight and a pair of black hiking boots. Fuck. 

“Hey youise guys just settin’ up or takin’ down?” the park ranger asks in a Midwestern twang. 

I explain our predicament with the sand and the wind and our general inexperience with Colorado. We’re from Florida. We don’t know how these things work, but he scoffs at us.

‘Youise guys didn’t know the wind dies down at night?” he asks in a patronizing tone. 

I want to say obviously not, or we’d be out there. But I play dumb and promise that we’ll hike back into the dunes.

Yeah as if. 

He takes the bait and wishes us a good one, walking off. Matthew packs up the tent and starts to walk to the car. 

“Where are you going?” 

“Umm, the car, where we’re going to sleep?” he responds. 

“No, we’re sleeping out here. The ranger said we couldn’t set up a tent. I’m staying out here in my sleeping bag and watching the fucking Milky Way.” 

“Katelin, are you serious?” he says as he shakes his head. 

“Yeah, I really don’t care. I’m doing it.”  

Matthew sighs and sinks down to the ground, letting out another defeated, “Fine.” 

We lay down, cocooned in our sleeping bags like caterpillars, looking up at the stars, watching them appear one by one. This is it. In only a few hours, I’ll be able to see it. I’ll have my Steven Spielberg moment. 

Didn’t get any pictures of anything else, so please enjoy this 1/4 of a sunset

The stars come out slowly, and I’m just starting to realize how exhausted I really am. I hadn’t slept well on this trip at all, and the sand dunes took a lot out of me today. I pop a Nyquil—the ultimate traveling companion—set my alarm for 1 a.m., and drift off, finally comfortable. 

Expectations are the death of happiness and good sleep 

I wake up abruptly to a LED flashlight, Matthew saying my name, and a pair of black hiking boots. You have to be fucking kidding me.  

“C’mon youise guys. You really can’t sleep here. You can watch the stars, but you can’t stay here,” the ranger says in a tone that’s so nice it’s annoying.  

Cut us a break. We’ve literally been through hell and back today, and I just want to have a Steven Spielberg moment. Can you at least let us do that?

I’m too irritated to speak, so Matthew does all the talking and playing dumb. 

“Oh yeah we didn’t mean to fall asleep. We’ve just.. uh had a big day, and uh…we’re pretty tired. Won’t happen again. We’ll go back to the car,” Matthew says nervously, laughing at the end. 

“Oooh no. You can’t car camp either, but you can park outside the park on the side of the road,” the ranger explains before taking our information and walking off. 

We pack up our makeshift camp and head to the car. We’ll be on the side of the road tonight, but I don’t care. Spite is driving me now. I am determined to have my Steven Spielberg moment. 

We drive out of the park, and I explain to Matthew that we’re waking up at 3 a.m. and driving back into the park to see the Milky Way. At this point, he’s too tired to argue and just agrees. 

We pull off to the side of the road, and I fall into an uneasy sleep until I hear the chiming of my alarm. I hit Matthew. 

“Get up. We’re driving back into the park,” I demand. 

I’m exhausted but excited. This is it. The closer we get, the more awake I become, anticipating what the stars are going to look like and how my life is going to change after this moment. 

We park in the same lot we did fourteen hours earlier. I swing the car door open and run outside to the bank and look up. 


 It’s too late. We missed it. There’s no great Milky Way. No epiphany. No Steven Spielberg moment. 

Everything we did today was for nothing. The part of the trip that I was most excited for turned out to be the worst. But that’s life.

And maybe the perfect Steven Speilberg moment doesn’t even exist. Maybe life’s not like a movie. And yeah, at face value that sounds like it sucks, but maybe it doesn’t have to.  

Sure, you may never walk off the football field and punch your fist in the sky, knowing that you got the girl. And you’ll probably never become a war hero, run across the United States, and captain a successful shrimping boat like Forrest Gump. And you’ll most definitely not climb the lower Himalayas in search of the lost photograph that’s to be the last cover of LIFE magazine like Walter Mitty. But you might live a little. 

You might have spectacular adventures where you travel the globe and meet amazing people. You might cry a lot, have many mishaps, and fall in love. And then again you might not. But that’s up to you.  

Because whatever the case may be, life’s not a movie. It’s so much better than that because you decide how it goes. And even though things don’t always work out and you might end up on the side of a road, sleeping in your car at 3 a.m., you’ll still have a story to tell.

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