To Great Sand Dunes (Days 12, 13)


Juarez, a poor, scarred town just a stone's throw away from El Paso, was, several years back, the epicenter of a brutal Mexican drug war and, in fact, the deadliest place on earth in terms of overall homicide rates. And though the drug war has since relocated and Juarez is now, for the most part, free from the ghastly slayings and mid-afternoon public plaza kidnappings that terrorized the town in years past, it is still a damaged place, a hotbed of pettier but no less violent crime. Juarez is not a place for anyone to travel alone, much less an American, and especially not an American on an utterly vulnerable motorscooter, and so, itching for a chance to experience the city, I compromised with my better senses and agreed to visit, on foot, for just a few hours.

Walking into Mexico is as easy as walking into an amusement park ride: you insert two quarters into a small metal box, slide through a turnstile, and there you are. No ID checks, no questionnaire, not even a you-must-be-this-tall-to-enter yardstick. No, the only hint I was entering a different country was, well, a pretty big hint, in the form of a fifty-yard no-man's-land between the United States and its neighbor to the south, a zone with watchtowers and redundant barbed fences and telling graffiti memorializing those lost, or killed, in their ambitious pursuit to relocate from one end of an arbitrary border to another.

Once I was in Juarez, the scenery changed. The shops appeared smaller, the buildings older, the people a bit more haggard. Still, though, this place didn't feel like a warzone; it just felt like the central plaza of a developing country's metropolis.

And then I walked a bit further.

Suddenly, a mere two blocks across the border, the mood of the town took a swing. I began to notice families walking, heads down, eyes looking anywhere but into the eyes of another. Everything felt rushed, hasty, as though being out in the sun too long was something to be avoided. I saw no pleasantries exchanged, no smiles from neighbor to neighbor, no women and children milling about without a care. No, children were pulled this way and that, each tethered to his or her mother's hand, no questions asked, and everywhere, there was the sense that trust was not a commodity this city dealt in.

Juarez is, it seems, a city with PTSD, an entire people so terrified by violence, so violated by their own, that armed guards standing outside of a Main Street bank, assault rifles in hand, is the norm. Juarez is a place where a friend is a liability, a stranger is a threat, and a car's backfire is a call to duck and cover. It's a place where a foreigner like myself doesn't belong, its wounds too fresh and too deep for multicultural curiosity to be appropriate, or so I felt.

And so, after a short time, I left. Back toward Texas, back toward the United States, not through a turnstile like the way into Mexico but into an hour-long line, where I watched fellow humans harassed and scolded by customs agents, treated like no American would ever be treated, and ever was treated, for that matter, for when I happened to pull out my passport for a quick glance, my American passport, a customs official called over "Hey! You American?" and I nodded, and he pointed to the right, to the express lane, to the lane of smiles and "welcome back"s where my word and my citizenship were all that was needed to prove my worth as someone deserving of entry to the land of opportunity.

I'm still not bought in on this whole immigration thing, you might say.

In any event, I returned to El Paso, realized I had no recollection of where I parked and spent the better part of an hour searching for my scooter, and then headed off, past the "Now leaving Texas" signs for a third and final time, for my next destination of White Sands National Monument.

Texas and New Mexico seem to have entertainingly different understandings of time and space. I had noticed this earlier, when traveling from Carlsbad to El Paso, where because Carlsbad sits in Mountain TIme but Texas east of El Paso sits in Central TIme, one actually has the unique opportunity to, while traveling west, arrive somewhere before they've even left, leaving the caverns at, say, 4:30PM and arriving at the Guadalupe Mountains, just across the border in Texas, by 3:45. And, no matter how much I recognized that these time zones were arbitrary, approximate means of tracking daylight, I couldn't help but feel, when passing those state welcome signs, that I was hurtling through a vortex, conquering time itself, cleverly cramming another sixty minutes into my day through some navigational trickery.

But in space, things get even more strange, where the authorities of Texas and New Mexico appear to actually disagree on the locations of certain towns or landmarks. On the Texas side of the border, White Sands was declared to be, say, 68 miles away, but then, ten feet later, one would pass a "Welcome to New Mexico" sign, and ten feet after that, almost as if to say "our neighbors to the south got it wrong and we just want to set the record straight," New Mexico will boldly declare "White Sands: 76 miles."

Though I'd prefer to blame Texas for this mishap, for the monument isn't even in that state, I'm afraid shoddy work on the part of the New Mexico highway crew is likely at fault. For it was not just this interstate contradiction that puzzled me; all throughout southern New Mexico, carefully checking against my tripometer, I found subtle inconsistencies of distance: two signs, eight miles apart, suggesting identical mileages, some signs actually adding miles to the count, and then some, after only a four-mile drive, claiming that one's destination was now twelve miles closer.

In any event, I arrived at White Sands after some number of hours and some number of miles and found the national monument to be exactly what one would expect from the name, white sand, but about seven times in the intensity and scale of whatever one could imagine. White Sands isn't just a pile of white sand; it's a sea of it. It's hot, it's blinding, it seems endless. The monument is little more than a fifteen-mile drive between massive white dunes, dunes so large children bring sleds to slide down them. In sum, it's a lot of sand.

Though I enjoyed my scenic drive, I had little else to do there, and so I, retinas ever grateful, left after just an hour. Next, I was off to Santa Fe, a long, windy drive through the pleasant plains of western New Mexico, a drive so long and windy that I had to stop in Albuquerque, just an hour shy of Santa Fe, for the night. Eager for a bed, I pulled into the first motel I passed, quickly booking a room on the far side of the parking lot, second floor.

The room, for which I had exceptionally low standards, fell short of even those. For one, the lights didn't work, which wouldn't in itself be a dealbreaker, for I was there to sleep, but more importantly, the room was flooded in an odor of aged tobacco, of ten thousand cigarettes extinguished at the bedside table, and I couldn't breathe. And so I returned to the front desk, past the open door through which two older gentlemen were injecting a substance of likely illegality into their forearms, and asked for a refund, and then bounded to the other side of Albuquerque, just as unimpressive as the first, but at least with a clean, decent hostel. And there I slept.

The next morning, I enjoyed a scenic drive to Santa Fe, a sleepy town so much more lovely than I'd imagined. Instantly, I fell in love with Santa Fe's architectural consistency, its mud-brown pueblos on each and every street, its astonishing number of art galleries throughout the historic downtown area. And while some of this splendor wore off with the growing realization that most of those shops were nothing more than white people selling other white people Native American souvenirs of questionable authenticity, I forgave this fault without due justification, just so caught up in it all, the history and the culture and the pace.

During a pleasant lunch in Santa Fe, looking down at my scooter from atop a balcony, I determined it was only fitting for it, my trusty sidekick, my obedient steed, to have a name, if only for the purposes of inventing one more synonym by which to call "my scooter" or "my bike." I'll admit that I did not think long on this decision; I was, at the very time, reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract, and feeling particularly moved by the philosopher's discourse on the chains of established civil society, which so brutally conflict with man's natural liberty, I chose to call it Rousseau, hoping, I'll admit, that attributing the name of such a great mind to a mere machine would not be interpreted as a badge of dishonor.

In any case, Rousseau it was, and with that I finished my lunch, tucked away my book, and returned to the road toward Taos, the nation's oldest continuously inhabited community, for some 1,300 years, tucked away in the northern mountains of New Mexico.

Almost as soon as I personified it with a name, Rousseau began to take on personality. Until this point, she, yes, she, had performed admirably, tearing across the eastern half of these United States without the slightest of troubles. Along the way, many had stopped to ask about Rousseau's abilities, her power, and I always beamed, patting her lovingly, explaining that keeping up with traffic was no challenge at all, her powerful little engine capable of speeds up to ninety miles per hour.

And this was true still, but now, climbing those steep hills of Taos, she began to slow. for the first time, to struggle in achieving sixty miles, fifty miles, forty miles per hour. Fortunately, the roads in that remote section of New Mexico were empty, as so we merely trotted along, Rousseau almost hinting that it was due time I looked around and enjoyed some scenery while on the move.

Indeed, the scenery was astounding. Tiny towns built on the edges of cliffs, proud peaks in the distance, birds flying along well underfoot. And that New Mexico sky once again. I didn't mind the slow pace, not at all.

About an hour later, we arrived at Taos. I parked, paid the admission, and entered the small village, surprised at just how readily I was transported back in time. To my left were small, single-story pueblos of lovingly handmade construction, and further out, a larger multi-story structure sized to fit hundreds. To my right, a small sacred creek, which I later learned provided the town, still inhabited, with all of its drinking, cooking, and bathing water, and beyond that, more dwellings, adobe nooks with rounded contours, the other side of the village.

I was moved. There I was, walking by persons whose families had inhabited this very place more than thirteen centuries ago, a place with virtually no pollution, no blowing debris, no crime nor classism, a place where, after a millennia, the river was still safe enough to drink from. In the distance, children played, chasing dogs about the fields, riding tricycles along the creek, no parents looking on with paranoia or grave concern, for this was a safe place. There was trust. There was community.

After exploring for some time, I began to make my way to the town's exit, but serendipitously stumbled upon a tour on the way out. The tour, led by a young man born and raised in Taos, quickly grabbed my attention, and so I tagged along, thankful to be learning so much from this firsthand inhabitant. For nearly an hour, Julian spoke of the history of Taos, his people's beliefs and their betrayal by Europeans and their struggle to balance their harmonious way of living with the luxuries and comforts of the modern world, a struggle that has cost their village nearly ninety percent of its population, down from a peak of two thousand inhabitants to only a few hundred, Julian, who lives outside of town, included in that count.

Thanking Julian for what turned out to be an absolutely wonderful tour, I departed Taos and continued north, into Colorado, racing the setting sun to Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Colorado, if road signs are any indication, is not very proud of its Great Sand Dunes. Whereas I saw arrows for Big Bend hundreds of miles out, and navigational hints for Carlsbad and White Sands far, far away from their respective landmarks, I worked my way through southern Colorado without ever seeing a sign for the Dunes, spare the one directly outside the park entrance, announcing an exit for the park in one mile.

I do not understand why this is. Great Sand Dunes National Park is a wonder, and the state of Colorado should do everything it can to shout its name from their much-favored rocky mountaintops. Though they appear small in the distance, dwarfed by the monumental scale of the Rocky Mountains behind them, each mile along the park's fifteen-mile pull-in brings them closer, larger, more captivating. Upon arriving at the dunes themselves, one can't help but feel as though the White Sands to the south are nothing but a child's sandbox. These dunes, they are of indescribable magnitude. With some rising over 750 feet, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Space Needle, each of these manmade marvels could hide safely behind any one of those piles of sand without the slightest hint of their presence.

And the dunes are, unbelievably, only part of the park's splendor. Great Sand Dunes National Park, facing north, appears to be pure fantasy, a mashing together of three starkly different terrains into one marvelous vista. To the left are the dunes, created by soil deposits and erosion of the Rockies, literally mountains made of mountain dust. Front and center stand the proud Rocky Mountains, off in the distance but seeming just ever so close. And then, to the right, an alpine forest, fir trees climbing a small range in its own right, a sanctuary for the region's flora and fauna. And finally, in the center of it all where you stand, flowing from the Rockies right along the dunes, a shallow creek, running through sand too fickle for it to ever carve a proper channel, a creek so shallow it can be walked across without wetting an ankle, but still ever-running, the cumulative melt from the those ancient snow-capped mountains.

Yes, the view from that angle looked artificial, doctored, like a poster from Colorado's state tourism board urging travelers to come visit the Centennial State with a tantalizing composite illustration of all the state has to offer across its many miles: sand dunes, and mountains, and forest! But altogether, actually existing in the same plane as they do in Great Sand Dunes National Park, is unexpected, and the effect is mesmerizing.

Climbing the dunes is tough work, for they are, as I may have mentioned, astonishingly enormous. They are also, it turns out, made of sand, sand which collapses underfoot and requires two or three times as much energy as walking on solid ground. And then, were the distance and solidity not challenging factors on their own, the dunes are also steep, so steep that one must carefully chart out their course along the winding ridges that connect each dune, lest they be forced to turn around or make an arduous, often impossible climb up a dune's face.

Out of breath, my large pack not helping matters, I collapsed on top of a respectably high dune and gazed into the distance, watching tiny specks work their way to the summit of those desert hills. I watched the sun set to my right, the hikers return to their tents to my left, and a family of deer gracefully nibble on a dying shrub down below. I lazily gave thought to where I would camp that night.

Earlier, entering the park, a sign had alerted me that the campground was full. The campground,, it turned out, was not full, as the group sites were unreserved and wide open, but those were for large groups, and by reservation only, and I had neither. At first, I considered just camping there, hidden away in some far corner, but pulling through the campground earlier, I had spied a camp warden making his rounds, checking vehicle permits and reservation receipts, and so, not particularly eager for a fine or a rude late-night awakening, I had parked Rousseau alongside a restroom and taken off into the dunes, and there I was, cloaked by darkness, alone.

So I descended, to the foot of the creek, and here I pitched camp, among these sandy giants, shielded from the warden's line of sight, with the most glorious views from the small door of my small tent. It was a cold night, the dunes home to madly wild temperature extremes, but I felt fortunate to be slumbering among such beauty, and doubly fortunate to be woken up, by the cold, around 3AM, at which point I decided to take a peek outside the tent for unknown reasons. And peek outside I did, instantly taken aback, nearly blinded, by the multitude of stars in the sky. And the Milky Way! Right above my head I saw it, a cloudy streak across an otherwise speckled sky, a sky I had never before seen in such clarity and detail. It was breathtaking. I sat and stared for minutes, shivering outside of my sleeping but hardly caring, until finally, reluctantly, I zipped up that window to the heavens and bid that amazing starscape goodnight.


  1. My second tattoo, out of a, for now, total of 9,and the one which initiated the "Far East Series" is one I designed myself. It is the word TAOS, underneath an arrow, pointing up my forearm, to the next tattoo, which was to be the Singapore Lion. Every tattoo was done in the Country of Origin (excluding Nepal's where I couldn't, for the life of me, find a tattoo place that even looked minimally hygienically safe) including TAOS, done by a young Native American man. TAOS was the point of departure, and seed of inspiration, for 2 years of upcoming, impromptu, world travel. Backpacking it. Alone. Thank you, you remind me I must return to this extraordinary place in space and time. Giulia


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