Wednesday, October 06, 2010
If there is one thing that I have learned in our visits to our nation’s parks is that I am not nearly insane enough to be pioneer. It first occurred to me when we were in the Badlands as a passing thought, “Can you imagine stumbling upon this for the first time?”
It became more coherent in the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. “Seriously, half a day’s wagon travel from Kansas City and you hit this?” Imagine the ocean. Now imagine that it is made out of tall grass. Now start walking.
That night at the campfire would have been like, “Um, I think I forgot my wallet. I’m like one punch away from a free wheel rotation at Willy’s Wagon Shop. I’ll probably head back, but don’t worry I’ll catch up.”
Finally this summer these nagging thoughts and humorous asides coalesced into a fully formed thesis.
The pioneers of westward expansion were flippin’ insane.
We were in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which with some skillful camera work could easily have been used for the location shots in Lawrence of Arabia. We were surrounded by mountains, and though it was shorts weather, the temperature was moderate. Yet before us stood monolithic mounds of sand. We were at the base of God’s hour glass. If Paul Bunyan had a big blue cat instead of Babe, then this would be its litter box. No cactus or tumbleweeds, no rattlesnake whipping a wave across the desolation, no variation in color, just the monotony of the ocean, writ not in water or grass, but the muted yellow of sand. Yet at the highest point I could see of people marching like ants on a pheromone trail creating a dotted line between unending sky and interminable sea of sand.
Those tiny specks of humanity represented a challenge; if they could make it, then so could I. There would be no turning back. No defeat, no surrender. I can conquer the sand and I will drag my wife and seven-year-old son with me. So I packed our earthly belongings, or in this case water bottles, a couple of apples, and some sunscreen, into my backpack and struck out to seek our fortune.
The initial part of the sojourn was over level, relatively compacted terrain, but the distance alone inspired the first bubbling of complaint from Evan. It would be a theme for much of the vacation. There must be a part of child brain that demands parameters on any trip. It is what leads to the ubiquitous whine, “Are we there yet?” Without a concrete end in sight the only alternative is infinity, and to be honest looking at the unbroken horizon of sand I can begin to understand.
With a little pleading, manipulation and lies Colette and I were able to get Evan to reach the peak of the first dune. Walking in sand is the classic two steps forward one step back scenario. I had to consciously lift my foot out of the sand and plant it perpendicular to the direction of the miniature sand slides each movement would make. Sand crept into my boots and added weight so that I was soon lifting an additional five pounds per foot.
We had scaled several dunes and though our destination looked no closer the path back to the car had expanded as if the camera of my eye had suddenly zoomed up and out to reveal that we had become the ants. The appropriate Ennio Morricone score blending a scream of terror and the distant call of a vulture played in the background. It was becoming clear that we were not going to make it. In fact as some of the ants had crossed our path on their return I had noticed that they were all part of a high school cross country team. I group of humans bred to endure the lack of oxygen and water as well has the monotony of running in perpetuity. We were going to turn back.
Sitting at the top of the dune, sand creeping into every crevice, I inspected the sandbags laced to my feet. Grains had worked their way between the rubber sole and leather body of my shoe. The front end was flapping up and down like a bizarrely deformed duck. This would make a good excuse. I couldn’t make it. My shoe fell apart.
With clearly defined parameters the whining had settled down. Evan had surpassed me in exuberance, and I had to frequently tell him to stay close to us. The sole of my left boot began to flap as well. My longer strides had allowed me to pass Evan on the upward slope of the last dune. Following close behind, he called out to me. I told him I would stop at the top. As I removed my backpack and plopped on the sand Evan handed me a foot-shaped piece of blue rubber. For the last ten minutes I had been hiking in what amounted to a moccasin.
I placed the mocking shoe rubber into a zipper pocket of my backpack and continued with my soleless right boot. The grasping hands of sand kept pulling at the sole of my left boot necessitating that I lift my leg higher than normal in order to extricate it. We eventually made it to the car, and I disposed of my hiking boots. Luckily, I had a pair of Keens that would protect my feet for the next twelve days of vacation. Our hikes were all of the out and back variety always ending with a collapse into air conditioned car and familiar sounds of an iPod playlist. I get the solitary explorers, the mountain men, the trappers. They were solitary. Loners with nothing better to do and nothing to tie them down. But the pioneers that packed up their families, their homes, their lives and just started walking? They were flippin’ insane.