It’s like we took a wrong turn somewhere and landed smack in the middle of Heaven, yet the How to Flourish title of this blog post probably won’t come as expected.
Yes, we meant to be here, my husband and I , at Great Sand Dunes National Monument. It was intentional. And I’d actually been here before, decades ago, as a little girl on one of my Colorado family vacations. But it was so much more than I remembered… Five days later and I still can’t stop feeling haunted by its power. I can’t explain it.
It was no gentle presence. It wasn’t kind or particularly sentimental. It didn’t appear to recognize me, or care much that after thirty five years or so, I had returned. Some places on the map seem to embrace you. This one was totally indifferent. And yet I couldn’t get enough.
The tallest dune is enormous, rising 755 feet from base to crest. With every step you take, like walking on the beach, the sand gives way beneath you, creating added exertion that never lets up. Now envision walking on that beach, in the deep movable sand, not the part sand-packed by the surf, and then tilt it straight up, rising 700+ feet into the air. Not leisurely. In fact, not many people can do it at all. But scaling these dunes to get to the top was something I intended to do. In fact, I wasn’t leaving here until I earned that supreme view, no matter what monstrous unpleasantries it had in store for me.
In that moment, the question of how to flourish seemed pretty clear.
Conquer this dune.
Earn the best views.
Pretty straight forward, I thought. So I began.
It’s always a little disheartening to exert myself in nature with my husband. Not for any reason that he’s responsible for– except that he’s in exquisite shape and I’m not. So I pretend to keep up, until I can’t anymore. And then he patiently waits for me to catch my breath. I go as far as I can and then I stop, and then I progress a little further, and then I stop. Eventually I get there.
That’s all that matters, I tell myself.
But this day, from the moment I initiated my usual strategy, Mother Nature responded with slap after slap. The sun got hotter and brighter, fully emerging from its siesta behind the clouds, the sand just kept getting deeper as I trudged higher, and the dunes became cruelly steep. Finally, already on my version of the closest I’ve ever come to a full-blown death march the wind picked up.
Before I knew it we were getting sand-blasted so severely it felt like being on the receiving end of a firing squad. It was deafeningly loud. But we’d come so far. And just over that higher ridge, was the nirvana of views. I had to make it. My muscles were screaming by now, shaking. My ear canals were literally filled with sand. There was no respite. From every direction came more sand blasting our skin. “Take small choppy steps!” my husband shouted at me through the raging wind, trying to offer me the best strategy for getting up this Sahara-like ridge. My face was broadcasting pure hell, hot and red. “You look like you’re being tortured!” Aaron said to me. “Let’s go back! This is ridiculous!” But there was no way I was admitting defeat when the summit was just forty or fifty feet above me. We kept going.
It seemed way too easy for Aaron. But his effortless stride always gives me strength. I draft from the energy of his strength. And after another thirty minutes of hell, I emerged to the top…
…only to find another layer, hundreds more feet up, and the realization that I was nowhere near the summit. It was just an illusion. Another cruel trick from this callous ecosystem.
I wanted to cry.
I collapsed in the raging sand, covering my face from the sand bullets as best I could, my heart beating out of my chest, my lungs on fire. “I can do this” I told myself. “I can do it.”
So I got back up. And this new giant ridge was even more treacherously steep. The wind seemed to be getting even more powerful. I took ten more steps, which seemed to take forever.
And then my quadriceps literally gave up. My legs buckled underneath me. For the first time, there was no beating myself up to take one more step. My body said, “Nope, game over”. And that was that. I couldn’t argue with legs that would no longer work. I had reached my physical limit.
“You go on ahead!” I screamed through the wind to Aaron. He resisted, telling me he didn’t want to go on without me. I assured him it was no worry at all; that we had come this far (by now we had been hiking up those dunes for close to two hours) and he had to take those pictures from the top! So, finally he trudged up ahead and I assured him I’d be right here when he got back. “Stay alive… I will find you!” He looked back, laughing, playing Daniel Day Lewis in my favorite scene from Last of the Mohicans, then disappeared into the raging sand.
And there I sat. By far, the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in nature. Getting blown around, sand-blasted, my muscles all but dead, my internal organs pissed off in every way, my contact lenses screaming, “what the f*&k are we doing here?!” But all I could do is laugh. I started laughing at the ridiculous self-imposed drama that I was embroiled in with one of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen. “Don’t take it personally,” Mother Nature said, bored and untouched by my efforts, as she filed her nails with the blasting sand.
It was then I realized that in the universal question of what does it take to make me tick, what does it take to make me feel alive, the question of how to flourish, I realized, this is exactly it. Right here. Right now. I dialogued with nature in this embattled form for as long as I possibly could, and then all that was left was to surrender to the sand. Suddenly all that seemed sane was to stop screaming into the wind and start listening.
So I asked her a favor. As long as I was up here, getting the most aggravating skin exfoliation I could possibly imagine, I asked the sand to help me exfoliate my spirit. “Blast off the layers I no longer need”, I said. And I gave the wind permission to remove from me those old patterns that no longer serve me. Then I just sat with her while she did her work on me, blasting and blowing. I sat in the middle of the raging din with my eyes closed, legs crossed and a Buddha smile on my face…
When my husband finally returned, he brought back the most incredible gift, which is the view from as high as he got, shared with you in the image above.
The gift the sand, the sun, the wind and the elevation gave to me–after jack-hammering me for hours– was a feeling of lightness so incredible…I know they listened to me. I left a magnificent coat of used-up experiences on those dunes, heavy with expired energy. A coat I no longer needed or wanted. Nowhere else on the planet could have unburdened me of that as efficiently as these dunes.
It was the best experience I could have ever had.
So, if you were to ask me how to flourish, I would answer you this…understand that every experience has gifts in it. Every experience has something to give you and some expired, heavy thing to take from you.
All we have to do is ask.