Great Sand Dunes National Park  and Zapata Falls

A couple hours South of Poncha Pass the valley widened and the mountains grew shorter with peaks more dispersed.  We neared Great Sand Dunes National Park.  40 miles (roughly 65 km.) we spotted a beige cluster in the southeast distance.  The fact it was visible from such a distance suggests the scale of it.  We stopped for a quick bathroom break off the highway at a pit stop with no more than 2 of any item in stock, and less than a ¼ of the shelves with anything to catch the dust at all.  There was a diner attached.  If crickets paid they might make ends meet.  How these communities and places survive is a mystery to me.  The sandy, infertile, and incredibly inhospitable land was littered with mobile homes and trailers whose tin roofs were weighed down with old tires so not to fly away with the winds that whipped the land into it’s current condition.  Living in Edmonton and Saskatoon I’ve been questioned by many as to how we survive seasons.  The seemingly unfathomable cold is nothing compared to the un-growing, unproviding lands these are.  With cold brings snow, brings melt and feeds growth.  The native plants seem to barely survive here.  It’s hard to imagine this land providing in the sense we are accustomed to in the fertile, frozen north.

We lucked out coming into the park.  It seems those at the gate were on break.  The typically manned pay window was closed tight with a sign saying “gone, will collect payment on re-entry”.  Awesome!  National Park entry fees are $30.  Based on our cheap living budget that’s 3 days of meals for the two of us.  The dunes were barely visible from about 1km before the park gates until almost 2km after.  By that point they seem to quadruple in size.  What looked once like a sandy first rise up a desert mountain was suddenly a deep mass of sun warmed wash.  From the sandy, mostly frozen creek-bed below the dunes there is no camera lens that can capture the volume of what lies before you.  Carefully we skipped across 100m (300 feet) of partially frozen, still running, wet sand wash to get to the dry warm beach that is the base of the dunes.  And a beach it was!  This is by far the cleanest, softest, purest sand I’ve ever seen or set foot in.  It was dry 6” deep and I just can’t explain…  think the “champagne powder” of sand.

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With a quick preview and a plan of making the 750 foot vertical climb the following day, we left the park and headed up the next mountain south to a free campsite at the base of Zapata Falls.

I have a thing for waterfalls.  I find them absolutely fascinating and am obsessed with seeing and participating in as many as possible.  How exactly does one participate in a waterfall?  Good question.  I haven’t really given this much thought until this moment, the first time I’ve tried to explain or justify my obsession.  There is such a power behind any waterfall.  The only way they exist is because of thousands of years of water, something that seems so soft and gentle, forming rock; something so hard and un-formable.  You can participate by hiking nearby, ascending the same landscape they have cut through with no regard to its previous shape.  We swim and bath in the pools they form.  We jump off cliffs with them, feeling for a brief second the same power plunging into the pools below.  That’s all if you’re lucky. In most cases we participate simply by being there to observe and feel a power and force that cannot be measured by any man-made unit.

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Zapata Falls was all of that, but frozen.  Paused in time as for what you can see.  Your ears and feet disagree though.  Under thick, cracked ice, mostly clouded with air but for a few glimpses through a clear block.  This flow was alive and well beneath a frozen cloak of cold trying its best to put you on your backside with every slippery step.  I feel winter may be the best and possibly only real time to view these falls.  From the end of well groomed trail leading to them, the frozen state allows you to climb back into the tight and tall canyon, around a bend where the giant falls stand.  Without the solid water I’m not sure we would have witnessed this sight.

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Half-way back to the main parking area, the trail forks and leads an alternate route back to one of the best laid out campsites we’ve stayed at yet.  Two large loops, one for tenting and one for RV’s are lined alternately, either side with pull-through stalls, each complete with a bear-proof storage bin to keep food items in overnight, as well as picnic tables and steel fire-pits including removable grilling grates.  It seemed there wasn’t a site that didn’t offer beautiful panoramic views of the valley below, with the city of Alamosa to the South, the distant peaks of the San Juan Mountains to the West, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park to the North, slightly dwarfed by the Sangre De Cristo Mountains behind.  But just slightly.  From this elevated viewpoint we were able to, for the first time, really view and comprehend the 31 square mile sprawl of the dunes.

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Truck and Trailer- sunset view
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Rubix looking at the sunset from the trailer.
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Hitting the road

Colorado wasn’t the first stop, but it was the first stop beyond a Wal-Mart parking lot or a roadside sight that demanded more than a drive-by “Hey look!  Oh you missed it?  Oh well.”  It was/is the first real stop, other than Devil’s Tower, which was incredible!  Forgive the grammatical past tense and present tense contradictions.  I write this recalling what happened as it happens.  If that doesn’t make sense it’s because it doesn’t.

Colorado is the first real stop.  Everything up until now since leaving Canada has been a step on the way here.  It started with the border.  Neither of us have had anything to be afraid of crossing a border in the past but this is different.  We are towing a trailer that’s 45 years old with no visible serial number, registered as something it isn’t because nobody knows what it is, peppered with bullet holes.  Add to that we have 4 dogs with us entering a country with security that is at an all time high, with inaccessible compartments in the trailer.  I’ve watched a few episodes of Border Patrol and have seen people’s setups ripped apart for less to justify this fear.  The process was surpisingly  smooth though.  The usual questions of “do you have any firearms?” or “any drugs or alcohol?”  to which our answers were yes and no respectively.  Of course we brought along some of our local brewery’s finest fun juice.  And then they asked about food, plants and so on, specifically dog food.  We admitted having about a 1/3 bag of dog food with us, to which we were asked if it contains any lamb or pork.  I’m not sure why that would matter other than maybe some little known disease concerns.  Of course we said “no, pretty sure it’s bison”.  The border agents asked for trailer keys and went back to take a look for themselves.  Upon returning they welcomed us to the country and wished us luck on our trip!  The sense of relief after that was almost overwhelming.  High fives were exchanged between Angela and I and at least one dog.  The other good high fiver was in a kennel (Jake the asshole) and unable to exchange accolades.  We were over the moon.  The adventure has officially begun!  Fast forward 4 hours and it’s time to feed the dogs.  We pull out the bag of bison dog food to see there is no bison at all.  The first two ingredients are pork and lamb!  I wonder what they actually looked at in the trailer?

I’m not sure what I was expecting but for some reason I was surprised to see that Montana looked a lot like the Saskatchewan we just left.  Maybe the high of the start of an adventure deluded me into expecting something completely foreign.  It wasn’t.  Not at the start at least.  But as I stopped counting kilometers and started to count miles it started to change.  The endless flat landscape began to roll.  The horizon became pock marked with brown pimples.  The scenery was changing.

Along with the scenery I noticed the quality of road had changed.  Saskatchewan roads are well known for being some of the smoothest in the universe.  That is when compared to the cratered surface of the moon.  When it comes to North America smooth is not a word I would use to describe them.  It’s typical in other provinces to hear complaints about drivers from Saskatchewan, but it’s not their fault.  I’ve spent a lot of time in a vehicle mostly as a driver, but also as a passenger in multiple provinces.  One observation I’ve made is that when someone displays any sort of below acceptable driving behavior the immediate reaction is to look at the plate, and then the person.  “Damn Alberta drivers” or “of course it’s an Asian woman”.  Well Saskatchewan drivers get as bad a rep as anyone else.  But there is a reason for it.  We drive like we’re lost looking for a street sign everywhere because we’re actually just trying to navigate potholes.  Even if the road is smooth, I believe it has become genetically engraved.  That said, as I realized all I had to do was keep it between the lines I began to observe my surroundings more and enjoy the new sights I was seeing.  Montana is a beautiful state!

The rolling hills slowly grew tall.  And the smooth rolls began to tear apart exposing sharp cliffs of brown sand supporting tufts of yellowish green grassy bushes looking ready to fall over the edge.  The further south we drove the bigger the cliffs grew and more jagged the hills formed.  Soon it became layered sand towers sticking up 50 feet tall from a monotone desert looking field.  With no water in sight.  So what force shaped this place?  Water did.  Millions of years ago.  The entire landscape we were taking in was formed by ancient seas at a time so far past I can’t even associate it with time as I understand at all.  It’s a humbling thought.  To think our presence there is not even a blip in history.  And yet the current impact in my own history I will never forget.

As we continued winding our way South through Montana the sandy towers changed back to rolling hills and back to sandy towers again.  Dry creek beds were lined with ancient looking trees that rose 80 feet in the air, dwarfing large barns.  Many of the leafless trees looked like they’d been through hell twice at least.  The 15 degree weather likely tricked the mind into expected fall leaves but none were seen.  Instead what stood were ragged broken, fallen and regrown relics that appeared burnt.  Dinosaurs not buried with many dead neighbors lying about.  Who knows the last time they had water was.  Soon though we saw green again.

The hills on the horizon grew spikes.  Pine trees started to scatter about the landscape providing some much missed color.  And the ground was stained red in places.  We’re close to Wyoming now.  Within minutes of crossing the border it’s as though a page has turned.  We are almost instantly in a mountain pass winding through spindly pine forest and trying to focus on the road while spotting deer around every bend.  This is more like it.  Something about being in the mountains just feels like home.  Always.

Welcome to our Adventure blog!

Hi Everyone!

Here is where you can follow us as we head out on our latest adventure. I am so excited that the dogs get to come along with us this time on our vacation!

We are going to be spending the next six months traveling the central/western USA and possibly venturing into Mexico as well if we can find a caravan group to travel down with.

Our traveling accommodations for the trip is our 1973 Streamline Crown Imperial that we gutted and customized to meet our lifestyle needs. We will do a post on our trailer renovation once we have it completed and are on the road. To see our progress so far check out our Instagram @streamlineliving for progress pictures.

Traveling with the dogs we are going to be on the lookout for pet-friendly places to visit. Jake (9yr Australian Shepherd), Erika (12yr Black Lab), Rubix (5yr Australian Shepherd) and Gus (2yr Great Pyrenees mix) are going to be so happy when they find out every day is going to be an adventure day! The dogs instagram is @lifetraveledwithdogs if you want to follow their adventures. Let us know your suggestions on places to see!

We also have a love of craft beer, wine or cider. We would love to check out as many places as we can on our trip so we can keep our kegerator (yep we did put that into our trailer) stocked.

That’s all for now, off to work on the trailer some more to get it ready!