6:20 am, George and I take off for the Great Sand Dunes, north of Taos, in Colorado. In 2006, Cecile and I had glimpsed them in the distance without making a stop. Jean-Marie Douau described the two rivers that run alongside them: Medano Creek to the south, and Sand Creek to the north. I must see them. Once again, George has offered to come along.
No one on Highway 64 to Tres Piedras, nor on Highway 285 to Alamosa. We make good time. A stop for gas and a cup of coffee..
We turn right toward the dunes. All of a sudden, there they are, brown, spread out at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Softly detaching themselves from the mountains, the clouds roll forward at the passes. Gigantic cotton wool in motion.
At the Visitors Center, a film explains the infinite cycle of these strange dunes: water, wind, sand.
When we get out to explore the dunes, we encounter a freezing wind. We walk a little towards the water that I had seen through the Visitors Center window. But it diminishes as we advance. Close up, it becomes a thin trickle that the sand immediately soaks up. It is too soon; the snow melt is only just beginning.
We get back in the car to explore a little, sheltered from the wind. Then we continue on foot towards the Zappata Falls, drawn by the exciting name. The ascent is steep. Once we get close to the falls, we are seized by doubt. Silence, where is the water? We finally spy a crack in the mountain, and a sheet of ice. It’s the river.
I clamber onto the ice and walk further up. I find an enormous silent frozen waterfall, divided in two. The opening above me is so narrow that I feel like I’m in a cave. Beyond, barely muffled now, I hear the roar of the waterfall upstream. I try to move forward, but the ground is quite steep, and a light film of melted ice makes everything very slippery. I give up; I won’t get to see the water that calls to me so loudly.
George heads out to try and see it from above. He takes a path that climbs to a lake with views of the magnificent peaks around and the endless plain. In the foreground below, the sand dunes. On the sides of the mountain opposite, high pale meadows, almost yellow amid the dark green of the firs and the grey of the other trees.
The path never gets close to the upper part of the falls. We go back down, a little disappointed. A quick picnic.
Le donut, c’est l’inévitable achat dans cette boutique de station service, bazar, super marché de l’essentiel. A la caisse, devant nous, un grand type magnifique genre pionnier de cinéma, en long short sur lequel George fait une remarque et il lui répond qu’hier il faisait très chaud et qu’il s’est aperçu en sortant ce matin qu’il faisait bien froid et oui, depuis le temps qu’il habite ici, il aurait dû se douter que ça n’allait pas forcément se réchauffer, surtout avec le vent qui s’est levé froid et violent. Mais il était déjà parti. Heureusement, il avait sa canadienne bien chaude dans la voiture et tout ça avec des yeux complètement limpides, en rigolant et une tête à peindre et l’allure aguerrie de quelqu’un qui vit toujours dehors. Je lui ai bien dit que cela me plairait de le photographier avec sa veste et son short mais ça ne lui disait rien. Dommage.
A donut is the inevitable choice in this gas station store, provider of basic necessities and odds and ends. Before us, at the cash register, stands a magnificent, tall guy, looking like an early movie star and dressed in long shorts. George comments on the shorts. He answers pleasantly that yesterday was very hot and that he realized, when he went out this morning, that today it was very cold. Yes, since he’s lived here a while, he should have known that it probably wouldn’t warm up, especially with the strong, cold wind that got up. But he was already on his way. Fortunately, he had his warm fur-lined jacket in the car. All this said clear-eyed and laughing, a face to be painted, and the tough look of someone who has always lived outside. I told him I would love to take a picture of him in his shorts and jacket, but the idea didn’t appeal to him. Too bad.
In one of the small villages we pass through, there is a tiny tourist office. We had read somewhere that on the small road we were going to take there were many things to see. I enter the rather dark office, and I hear a “hello” coming from behind the door which, half open, was now hiding a little old lady quietly knitting. I ask her:
– “So what is there to see on Highway 142?”
Great stunned silence.
– “Where are you going?”
I repeat what we vaguely read, and she says:
– “No, that doesn’t ring a bell! I have no idea what there is to see on that road. If you want to go to Taos, you’d be better going through Questa.”
Looking at the leaflets at the back, I find one that happens to mention churches, petroglyphs… along the road we are going to take. She looks at it and says:
– “Well, on that highway I haven’t seen a single one of those things, but you go ahead and report back.”
We take the narrow highway, which passes through the high plains, the mesas, and the Rio Grande. Beautiful light. I go down to the river to take photos. Four horses arrive at the gallop, stop just across from me on the opposite bank, look at me, drink, saunter about in the water. There are wild geese nearby. Wonderfully tranquil. The horses gallop off towards the mesa on the right; high up, I see a red-roofed house.
We didn’t see anything else. The old lady was right.
The rest of the trip back, the light heralds a storm. When we join Highway 64, pounding rain.
On arrival, I find a sad message from Stuart of the llamas.
“The wounded lama died. All the others are fine.”