by Amy Kolen
Though it’s only late morning, the sun has already burned off the clouds in the thin air, leaving the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains as brief white blazes in the sea of blue sky.
Behind me, Medano Creek, one of the waterways that seasonally flows through the Dunes, creating, in this great desert, oases of vegetation, including cottonwoods, willows, currants, and Rocky Mountain iris.
In front of me, the dunefields of the Great Sand Dunes. Tiger beetles and other insects found nowhere else make this place home, thriving through bursts of bubblegum pink Skeletonweed and tendrils of violet scurfpea.
Even in a place you might not associate with varied life forms, life flows as freely as the creeks that border the dunes, North America’s tallest.
In front of me, Michael climbs the sand, creating his own path on this vast, trail-less expanse. With each step, waves of sand cascade over the ridge, his trek adding to the divergent, shifting, still-visible-but-not-for-long footprints of those who wandered before we arrived. I walk a bit, then sink into the hot sand, calling to Michael that I’ll wait for him, and watch him grow smaller and smaller as he makes his ascent.
If we measure time by the Dunes’s existence on this earth—420,000 plus years—to the years we’ve been together—over fifty, forty-eight of those married—we haven’t been together long. But we’re securely bound, as tightly as the grains of sand and sediment surrounding us. What happens to one of us happens to the other.
The notion of change certainly manifests as his boot prints become less distinct—though don’t completely disappear—but the momento mori image of sand in an hourglass, signifying our limited time on this planet doesn’t seem to hold. So many square miles of sand and larger grains and pebbles that appear to go on forever, that could never be emptied.
On this bright, cloudless day, our first neurologist visit hasn’t even been scheduled, when she’ll review symptoms and conduct a physical exam, or the second visit, two weeks later, when she’ll discuss MRI results—scans that may change everything. And while she’s talking, I’ll recall something I read: Just because one or three or ten terrible things have happened to you doesn’t mean more aren’t on the way. When the neurologist matter-of-factly explains—eyes trained first on Michael, then me—how the test results jive with current physical symptoms and lists possible next steps, a rush of words will silently stream through my head, in non-verbalized defense to what may be eleven or fifteen more terrible events down the road. How could our puny mortal plans all be buried beneath this sand? Be erased? How could they even fade?
I reach into my pack for sunscreen, and rummaging through its many pockets, randomly recall something Daniel said to me decades ago, when he was maybe eight years old. Helping him get organized for daycamp, I was verbally giving him a rundown of where the best place for everything might be in his pack—a small interior zippered pocket for chapstick, a larger exterior pocket for water—when he yelled, “Stop it, Mom! I’m being smothered in words!”
I knew exactly what he meant. I used to have the same feeling where my own mother’s well-intended instructions were concerned.
You can be smothered by words, by medical tests and physician follow-up explanations, especially in the face of the natural world’s mystery, too enormous to describe. It’s just as well that I’m not fluent in the language that animates this wild place. I still my thoughts, lay my head on my backpack, stretch out in the sand, breathe, and wait for Michael moving up the ridge as far as suits him, on his own time.