My mom and daughter joined me for an attempted hike around America’s tallest free standing sand dune.
A million momentary experiences arrive from all around to gradually build the story of our lives. Specks of sour, sweet, thrills and sadness intermix to give complex shape to our perspective.
Then a storm comes. Our faces sting from bits of history lifted from their context and thrown against us. Old trails are erased. Our own lives become unfamiliar. When the wind dies, we find ourselves in a new landscape where we can choose lamentation or determination.
Having such a curiosity as the largest sand dune in North America right on our regional doorstep commands the admiration of visitors. Or ambivalence.
My mom is here to witness our youngest daughter’s first ballet and oldest daughter’s high school graduation. There is a lot of preparation and little downtime but we find a few hours before the graduation ceremony to drive southeast to the grand dune.
“Don’t worry, the road is straight,” I answer when my mom comments on my speed across the gravel portion of the C.J. Strike cut off.
“It’s not that. It’s my new car,” she clarifies.
I let off the gas as I glance back to see little Brenna in the car seat behind my mom, fast asleep, unconcerned about paint chips.
I enjoy the chance to connect some dots for my mom. “That’s the dam I stopped by the other night … Kayla and I had lunch there when we rode … This is the highway Laura and I took to Nevada … Here is where our group ride turned off to Indian Hot Springs.” Connect.
The car was rocked by wind across the plain. I hoped the Snake River Canyon would be calmer but we see grass bowing low as we wind around desolate campsites on the way into the dune.
“If it’s too bad, we’ll just walk on some trails near the lake,” I reassure my mom. She’s heard the story of our last visit when we were sand blasted by sudden wind. Children cried like they were dying and everything on our bodies filled with sand. We won’t repeat that.
We step out of the car and, although gusty, the air is free of sand.
“Let’s leave ‘scratchy’ in the car so it doesn’t get dirty,” I tell Brenna. She would drag her little yellow blanket everywhere if she could. The threat of “dirty” seems to do the trick. She doesn’t argue.
“Flowers!” Brenna screams enthusiastically upon seeing desert sunflowers dotting the rocky and rippled ground leading to the sandy incline. She runs to pick a bouquet “for mom.”
A circular basin carved by an old Snake River meander, named Eagle Cove, and a balance of prevailing winds have captured sand, grain by grain, for thousands of years to create the massive dune we are approaching around the small lake formed at its foot.
“Brenna, get back here! We need to keep going this way,” I yell. Brenna follows her impulse to examine each flower, each small cove. I love her zeal.
As parents, we are ever contemplating the right balance of boundaries and freedom, structure and its absence. When do we let them discover for themselves that a decision will have painful consequences?
The answer grows elusive as they age until it seems we’re damned (or disliked) whichever way we lean. Even so, we no more wish away the challenges of parenting than we would have driven this afternoon only to walk a trail without bend or hill.
“C’mon Brenna. The mosquitoes are getting your dad,” my mom chimes in. The still air around the water’s edge is allowing several to take sustenance from my bare legs. I’d like to move on. Brenna agrees to follow, flowers bunched in her hands.
The wind feels good on our faces as we rise above shoreline shrubs. Why it isn’t kicking up sand like before, I don’t know. We occasionally stop, close our eyes and let it blow our hair back.
Our progress is slow as we allow Brenna time to explore the periphery of our route but not so slow as the green caterpillar I spot inching across the expanse of sand. A curious place for a caterpillar, I think. Where can it be going? Just out enjoying itself? I know the find will excite Brenna.
“Oh Brenna, look at the centipede,” my mom exclaims. I think the misnomer is kind of funny so never correct it. Brenna stoops with cupped hand to acquire the caterpillar hereafter known as centipede.
Sand answers wind in ways both small and large. A thin layer at our feet moves constantly like a vast Lilliputian army marching in lateral lines across broad hills. Plants clutch at this ambiguity just long enough to make the seeds of another generation before being engulfed. Like us.
I expect to ascend the ridge of the mountainous dune where it comes to ground but we find the way blocked by a fjord. We’ll have to circumnavigate to the backside. It isn’t how I remember it but then again, it was a dark, moonless night when last I came this way.
“I have to go potty, daddy,” Brenna announces. Of course. I should have thought to bring some tissue. Then I remember I have some lens cloths in my camera bag. That should be enough for a little person. I pull a few of the little squares out.
“Squat down Bren,” I instruct. She locks her legs and leans back. “No, bend your knees.” She’s confused about how this will work. I help her maneuver into a proper squat and then wait a few moments.
“I don’t have to go anymore, dad.” I would be shy about peeing here too. There’s no cover.
Finally we reach the foot of the main dune and begin the steeper climb, sliding back a step for every two forward. It’s a bit much for Brenna so I toss her over my shoulder.
The incline eases but the wind is stronger up here. Sand stings my legs but rises no higher. It scares Brenna so my mom and I take turns carrying her, swaddled in a sweatshirt. We’re getting close to the ridge now.
The final fifteen feet is a steep scramble requiring both hands and feet. At first it seems impossible but we slowly climb and claw to the top.
“This is scary!” My mom is surprised by how steep it is off both sides of the high ridge. Not only that but we are blasted head-to-toe by sand up here. We can hardly see. Brenna screams out. We can’t stay here. We can’t take this ridge around the lake. Not today.
But we’ve seen and stood on it and that’s probably good enough for North America’s largest sand dune. We start back the way we came. Already the tracks of our ascent are completely erased. Amnesia.
Brenna’s enthusiasm is waning as we step off the dune. She’s finding every reason to dawdle. “Brenna, can you find some pretty rocks?” my mom cleverly asks. Faintly colored pebbles litter a stretch of ground we’ll cross before we’re on sand hills again. In no time Brenna has filled my pocket with rocks too beautiful to leave behind.
“Dad, I have to go potty,” Brenna announces again. We repeat the same maneuvers with the same result. Before we’re across the pebbled patch she tries once more and this time makes me proud.
Liberated now, she asks grandma to carry her sandals so she can walk barefoot. She runs, slides, jumps and laughs.
If in ten years, twenty years, thirty years, she still prefers to walk barefoot and still giggles while riding a small avalanche of sand, I will be glad.
Tonight my oldest daughter, my mom’s oldest grandchild, will graduate from high school. A new landscape is emerging before her, new winds pushing her. I am proud of her accomplishments but also glad for things that have not changed. She likes to draw, to color, to paint and can’t resist climbing a good tree.
I think the dunes prove that the only way to grow is to move with the wind, to allow for new possibilities without growing rigid.