Words by Jesse Cody
Filling out my permit for a few days of hiking in the backcountry of Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado, the park ranger who handles such permits said to me, “It’s probably too late in the day to hike out to where you want to camp for the night”. “Don’t flash your ego Mule! Nicely explain that you like your chances,” I thought to myself. What I wanted to ask was, “What? You’ve never heard of the Boston Mule?” This is where all my readers are most likely shaking their heads at me in utter embarrassment.
It was roughly 14 miles from the trailhead to my desired campsite for the evening. She explained to me that no one would be out that far camping for the night. In fact no one had hiked out that way since before the parks closed a month prior. This all sounded exactly like the lay of the land my sweet little heart desired. No folks. Peace and quiet. Inspiration. And sand. Lots of sand.
As I set off at 2:30 in the afternoon I figured at roughly 4 hours a mile this would give me plenty of time to hoof my loaded pack and the extra girth around my waist out to camp long before the sun found its way beneath the ocean-like sand dunes. Before making my way on the grind of a hike I had in front of me, I stopped high above this unique landscape scene asking myself what movie it reminded of. It’s become quite a ritual in my travels and writing to conjure up movie scenes similar to the one I was living. As I looked out, I felt a bit like Lawrence of Arabia as he explored the vast desert, minus one important luxury: a camel to carry me across the dunes. Where the hell was my camel?
It wasn't long before I realized that “the trail” was going to be fourteen miles of tedious slipping and sliding and trekking up and down long sand dunes throughout this wonder of a Colorado desert. An hour in, I was asking myself, “Who’s bright idea was it to put a desert in the middle of Colorado, and why is the wind ALWAYS blowing in the desert?! Always!!”
The thought of hiking deep into the desert’s backcountry seemed magical at first, but soon enough I came to understand why so few trekked this far out. Just imagine taking on a hike where the mountains you climb have beach sands dumped across them as far as you could see. As I moved my way over dune after dune, I wondered to myself, “Is this where the ocean will somehow appear?” Nope. No such luck.
Covering those four miles an hour seemed like a distant dream. I moved at a pace dictated by the desert. The quicker you moved, the more you slipped about. It could be agonizing. This was a discomfort unique to the desert, one that I knew well from previous sandy sojourns in the Mojave and White Sands. My twisted mind invited the discomfort in. Let’s tango, desert.
My pack was stocked to survive three days in the backcountry. Though there were a good amount of clouds in the sky, the sun somehow found a way to shine through. And my skin found a way to chafe in the only place the sun don’t shine. My feet felt the burning heat from the sand through my lightweight trail runners. My calves punished me for subjecting them to such a rigorous sandy workout. I acquired an extra 5 pounds of weight in sand, which ruthlessly deposited itself as a permanent fixture in my gear. There was no point dumping it out because ten minutes later, a new batch would snuggle its way between my toes. And then there were the fire ants. Oh, the fire ants. Those bites left a lasting impression.
The misery of it all came to a head when four miles in, I was approached on the trail by a small family headed back to their drive in campsite (must be nice). “Hey mate! Are you hiking to the backcountry?”, voiced the father of the group. “I sure am.” I said through gritted teeth, trying to hide my suffering. “I was just saying to my family how miserable it would be to have to hike these dunes with a full pack. You’re a better man than me,” Papa Bear proclaimed. Welp. I nearly whimpered. So much for hiding my suffering. Still, I proudly belted out as I hiked on, “This is what I do, and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world! But is the beach this way?”
The rest of the day was much of the same, but my pace seemed to level off at a respectable 3 miles an hour. I could tell just over halfway that I would have plenty of light leftover to guide my search for accommodations that night. This gave me time for photos and reflection. Each dune presented another site to behold and instead of thinking about the sand in my shoes, the late afternoon mosquitos who were hungry for a hiker this far out, and my nearly depleted water supply, I simply looked out deep into the desert and thought, “I fucking love that I get to be here. That I can say I witnessed such a wonder.” The sun’s rays pierced through the clouds like laser beams, causing the undulating golden dunes to glisten majestically, an infinity of sine curves receding into a horizon of snow capped mountains.
As the sun set, I leaned back against a log to enjoy my roll of deli meat and side of corn chips. There was a brook for water and an actual grassy field beside my camping area. As I chowed down the last of my cold cut menagerie, I was surprised by a group of elk arriving for their nightly feed. I slept well that night, and come morning, I was off. With a bit of misery sprinkled in, I enjoyed the next couple days of hiking this sandy backcountry.
When my hike came to an end, I stopped by the visitors center for a couple of cold drinks to take on the road. From behind me I heard, “You made it!” from the ranger who previously had her doubts about my journey. “I sure did,” I voiced humbly. “Did you get all the way out or did you have to camp short of your desired destination?” she asked gleefully, not expecting me to tell her I in fact reached camp with plenty of time to spare. “I arrived early enough to take in the sunset alongside a pack of elk as they fed. That’s why I venture further than the rest. Solitude lures me, willpower gets me there.” She shook her head with a bit of surprise and said, “I guess you have some experience hiking.” What!? You’ve never heard of the Boston Mule?
Hike the Good Hike
Read more from Jesse Cody aka the Boston Mule here. And feel free to leave any comments or questions below, we always look forward to reading them!
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Hiking in winter offered me the feeling of being truly alone without feeling lonely: a feeling a lot of people can identify with right now.
Seasonal depression is real and practicing self-care is important now more than ever. Going on a hike in the winter is a great way to get endorphins flowing and get out of the house. Not to mention there’s no bugs, no crowds, and more views on trail; don’t let the winter scare you away, rather, embrace it and have a good story to tell.