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Dirt Surfin’

Scott Willoughby

Somewhere down Hwy. 17, beyond the official UFO watchtower, past the Colorado Alligator Farm and on the far side of the crystal and incense shops surrounding the New Age outpost of Crestone, we turned left, moving due south to due east like an archer’s arrow piercing the metaphysical faade of the San Luis Valley. After another deliriously straight 20 minutes of asphalt, the spell was broken and we wound our way through the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains before coming to a halt at Colorado’s greatest anomaly the Great Sand Dunes National Monument.Covering some 50 square miles and rising almost all of 1,000 vertical feet off the valley floor, the Great Sand Dunes are perhaps the most surreal sight in the state, like a swath of the Sahara grafted onto the side of the snowcapped Sangre de Cristos. I half expected Sting to make a cameo appearance as we waited for a second moon to peer over the horizon.As luck would have it, neither occurred on this “Dune” adventure, and Johnny and I were left alone to ponder the mystic realm of this existential apparition au natural.In some half-dozen visits, I’d never really been able to wrap my mind around the Great Sand Dunes, either how they got there or, for that matter, why. I mean, they damn sure look pretty at sunset, but where’s the water? What purpose beyond the odd French Foreign Legion escape fantasy did they serve?Armed on this occasion with a roommate’s 8-year-old Fat Bob and a can of silicone, I was bound and determined to find out.While there’s no shortage of colorful explanations as to why the massive sea of sand exists at a land-locked elevation approaching 8,000 feet, the truth they are teaching at the nearby visitor center is as boring as just about all geological revelations the wind blew it there. After teaming up with water to scour the mountains on the west side of the valley, the omnipresent gale supposedly carries the sand northeast to the opposing mountain range and loses its punch when it hits the towering barrier. The result (if you believe the androids that the aliens left behind to spread such outlandish cock-and-bull) is one enormous sand box that’s awful easy on the eyes.As it turns out, it’s also an epic snowboarding spot. Even without the snow.”Look at all that freshy,” Johnny joked as I strapped a backpack full of boots, water and the trusty Fat Bob snowboard to my shoulders. “Not a track in sight.”As we selected our route up and scouted various routes back down an enormous sand bowl, it became painfully obvious as to why the slopes remained untracked even so late in the afternoon. Indeed, my first snowboarding trip to the dunes was a seemingly endless exercise in epiphenomenalism, so I’ll set the record straight now: the hardest thing about snowboarding on sand has very little to do with snowboarding, or should I say, sandboarding. It has a whole lot to do with hiking up steep, massive heaps of transient dirt with 30 pounds of gear strapped to your back.Sure, sliding around on mounds of sand presents a unique set of challenges, but foremost among them is actually getting to the top of said mounds. Even on the ridges, steep slopes might require 20 steps to move 10 feet as your legs are swallowed by the loose granules of terra (non) firma forming them. That alone makes a pre-ski season trip worthwhile.”It’s steeper than it looks,” Johnny reminded me as I experimented with a crawling technique I’d seen on the cartoons. “That doesn’t work. I already tried it.”Even after we had reached the summit of the third “range” nearly 1,000 vertical feet up, I could sense Johhny’s doubt. He was only here for the hike, training for the “real” ski season a month away and insisting on taking photos of my white mouse run down the steepest section of the big bowl. “Otherwise,” he explained, “you’re not going to get enough speed.”I sat in the soft sand to strap on the snowboard before looking down a rollover face of some 40 degrees and drawing in a dusty gulp of air. Johnny had set up just below, rested and ready to document the event. Here goes nothing, I thought, and pointed it south.Slowly, the board etched its line through the sand, gaining obvious momentum with every inch. Soon enough, the sand began to feel like heavy spring snow and the familiar sensation of speed took hold. Better reign it in, I thought, as I attempted to check my momentum with a heelside turn before hitting the steepest portion of the slope. Almost immediately I felt the edge wash out and straightened the plank back down the hillside before losing control. Next epiphany: turning is not an option. Neither, I’m fairly sure, is crashing.As it turns out, it’s pretty easy to break the 35 mph barrier on a Fat Bob over nearly 500 vertical feet of sand piled up at a 40-degree angle. Too easy. Better try the toeside, I thought. This time the edge held somewhat, and I began stretching a sandy arc across the bowl like a longboard surfer during fall swell at Maverick’s. But even the delicate toeside maneuvering wasn’t enough to maintain a reign on speed, and I was forced to put my faith in the sand, hang on and face the G forces until gravity was done with me. And all too soon it was.By the time I reached the bottom, the sand’s consistency had won me over. From top to bottom, it was smooth as butter. Butter that’s been dropped in a fresh box of kitty litter, but butter just the same.”Damn, you got going pretty fast there,” Johnnie yelled as I hiked back up the hill for seconds. “How was it?””Fun,” I blurted. “A little scary,” I confessed after.”But now I know what they’re here for.”


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