It’s a Great Sand Dune, Charlie Brown (plus the UFO Watchtower)

There’s something about wind that makes me anxious. A good storm is one thing, but wind, even (or especially) without rain gets my pores opened and pupils dilated, and my thoughts are whirled around in the chaos.

In our own whirlwind, Evan was offered his dream job and we made the hard decision to rent a modest casita in Santa Fe while he tries to make it work. It’s affordable enough that I can continue traveling if I want to, after my Great Divide Trip. We were camping in the Santa Fe National Forest and after our 14 days were up, he flew to Pittsburgh to get some of our remaining belongings and I took off for a somewhat solo camping trip with the dog, waiting out the time until we can move into the house and enjoying my last forced forward motion for a while.

I landed in the valley outside Great Sand Dunes National Park, at the UFO Watchtower in Hooper, Colorado. I arrived four days ago, and it was hot and windy as I struggled to find a place to camp. Even on the Wednesday before Memorial Day Weekend, the Park’s campground was closed and I was too late to get a pass for backcountry camping. I was also camping for two, looking for a place that would be both suitable enough for myself to enjoy for five nights alone—not that I can’t leave, but it’s nice to set up shop somewhere for a while and appreciate it, plus if the Park was already full then only more people would be coming and camping sites would be increasingly sparse—but also for my hiking buddy Megan who was meeting me for two nights of campfires, good food, and exploration.


The UFO Watchtower was started by a woman named Judy who moved here from Denver to start a cattle ranch before realizing “cattle can’t eat sand.” The area has long been a hotspot for ET energy and activity, for as long as humans inhabited the area and likely before then. She had been talking about the idea for so long and after she sold the cattle and started working at the nearby gas station, one of the police officers in town said, “Judy, it’s time for you to build that thing.” She’s had 26 psychics come to the area, and all have pointed out two vortexes in the same spots, which overlap. She made a shrine of sorts in the area, where human visitors leave parts of themselves (expired photo ID, money, lucky charm, etc.) for the ET visitors to hopefully acknowledge as peaceful offerings or identifiers in the inter-planetary wars (joking/not joking). I asked if dogs were allowed in the vortex area and she said, “Sure, if he’ll go in. My dog’s won’t.” Sure enough, Major Tom hesitated at the edge, had a bowel movement, and very reluctantly followed me around the area.


The first night, I had the campground to myself, save for an old man a few sites away who also had an old dog and was also living in a van. There was a porto-potty, which I was told may be dirty but was getting replaced the next day, and it was filled to the absolute brim. The wind was wild but settled down enough around dinner time to start a fire for dinner. I made a modest fire for food and sat with it until the flames burnt out. There are mountains to the East, North, and West, including the dunes which are visible from where I’m stationed, and as the storms the surrounded them blew over they shrunk and grew in the clouds. I went to bed then the fire and sun were out. Maybe it was the nerves of staying in a new place alone with one lone neighbor, or sleeping in the van for the first time in a while, or the wind that picked up and growled outside my tiny home, but my sleep was restless. The moon was so bright it cost a shadow and I was tempted to think it was an alien beaming at my van, though I could see the moon, not even full bright in the sky as a hazy sun. I heard a solo bird that called out, uh oh, uh oh and around four in the morning, digital peeps that sounded almost like singing, not human nor motorized nor animal, but rather a calling out from something entirely and completely foreign.


After coffee and oatmeal the next morning, Major Tom and I did some exploring in the park, hiking away from the tour buses at the dunes and instead enjoying some quietude of the tree-shaded trails by the river. I saw multiple signs about backcountry camping so back at the visitor center, I inquired about the waiting period before receiving a permit. At many other parks I’ve visited, the waiting period of up to six months, but here, it was a non-issue. I explained I hadn’t yet talked with my friend and wasn’t sure if we were going to camp, plus I heard a storm was rolling in (and could see and feel it coming, with the new winds ushering in a looming cloud) and didn’t want to set her up for failure. The porto-potty had not yet been cleaned or replaced, but the idea of sleeping in rain, snow, and wind wasn’t as alluring as the safe structure of a van. They gave me a pass anyway, just in case we decided to camp, along with instructions and insight on the trail. If I ever have beef with the Postal Service, Park Rangers will surely take their place as my favorite federal agency.


Megan arrived and saw the UFO Watchtower and immediately wanted to stay. It helped that she had a minivan to sleep in and we brought lots of food that would have been cumbersome to carry the three miles to the camping area along the trail. It was too windy for a fire, so we drove to Crestone, where my sister’s friend worked at a brewpub, Crestone Brewery. The food was great and it was wonderful to meet one of my sister’s close friends, but the real gem of the evening was people watching and evesdropping on the people next to me, who were raving about the benefits of drinking one’s own urine. By the time we got back to our campsite, it was rainy and cold. Major Tom had run off twice in the early morning and afternoon, and got into his food container, so he woke me up a number of times in the night to use the bathroom and drink water. There was snow on my windshield and it was still snowing/raining. I had left the food and a lot of our stuff out, but I was too tired and cold to do anything more than open the door for the dog and let him do his business. Unlike Pittsburgh, things dry out in the west. IMG_1142

It needs to be stated outright that Megan is a great cook. She’s primarily a baker and makes incredible pies, but in the morning I made burnt coconut pancakes (both the pancakes and the coconut were burned) over the campfire and she made homemade polenta with sautéed mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and wild greens. Both parts of breakfast were pretty good, but come on. I can’t compete! The theme transpired into the evening when it rained again, and we made ramen to warm ourselves after a long day walking on the dunes. Megan backed her minivan up to our table to block from the wind, and we cooked from the comfort of the car, with the opened back door as a rain shield. I used my dehydrated vegetables, and fresh kale and zucchini, and we topped off our ramen with miso mayo and Sriracha. For some quick and easy comfort food in the rain, it was gourmet.


The morning we hiked the dunes, we couldn’t see them because the clouds were so low against them. When they finally rose, they were completely snow-covered. It’s a 20-plus minute drive to the dunes, though, and the snow was beginning to melt. We crossed the water and made our way up, aided by the water that had cooled and hard-packed the sand for easy hiking. Megan had hiked it last August and it was so hot that even through her leather boots, she had to constantly move her feet in order for them to not get uncomfortably hot in the sand.


We stopped again in the warm creek water once we got down from the high peak. It was different than when we crossed a few hours ago, with different deep spots, maybe wader or narrower, different patterns. Sitting on a log, I watched the sand bed change, the water moving the sand in small increments until finally multiple waves moved at once and created a whole new floor with new patterns of flow. Again and again, the ripples moved in sync, holding a pattern and losing it, agreeing to something new. We were escorted out by the storm clouds again rolling in. Back at the campsite, we had rain during our ramen dinner, but otherwise it was cold and relatively dry.  Just like the river bed, we watched the storm clouds come and move across the mountains, change their shapes and colors with shade and snow, the sunset light blushing the white snow. We drank vodka and talked around the fire as we watched as the clouds eventually passed and the stars appeared—not one by one, but in flushes of thousands at a time, like cartoon platelets of stars being added one on top of another. If it weren’t for the cold, I would have convinced myself to stay up most of the night, watching the Milky Way.

Today I’m again alone, but Judy told me tonight a group of people from nearby Alamosa, Colorado, will be here to call upon some aliens at the Watchtower. They’ve been calling from Alamosa, and maybe the ETs will follow the pleas.