Geowoodstock to TBEX: Zapata Falls and a Tale of Toe Woe

I’ve alluded often since last June to the demise of my big toe while visiting Great Sand Dunes on the final leg our Camp Granola’s five week cross country expedition. Well, it’s finally time to tell the tale.

Zapata Falls…

Like I mentioned in my post about Great Sand Dunes, there are lots of trails to be explored in the area of the park. One of the ones I’d never ventured out to during previous visits was Zapata Falls. With a week at the park, I wanted to spend more time expanding my sense of this area by getting outside of the park proper. Not that I couldn’t spend a week playing solely in the dunes mind you, but with paw burning sand temperatures we couldn’t take His Beagleness out during much of the day so exploring cooler areas was in order.

A pre-toe-disaster frolic in the stream.

So off to Zapata Falls we went for a morning hike, knowing we’d be in and out before lunch. It’s a short, and consequently popular, trail that leads to a slot with a waterfall. In order to get to the falls you have to ditch your boots and very carefully slip upstream over the slick, round rocks of the stream bed.

The funny part of this is that George was the one excited and Fred unmotivated at the start. Once we began trekking through the frigid Colorado stream water though, George was singing another tune and Fred became exhilarated by the adventure. They’re like a box of chocolates those two boys… And since the beagle pretty much disapproves of everything, I had no expectations he might enjoy this outing. He’s a little trooper though and made it up without problems other that giving me those disapproving looks of his.

Post-hike frolic…

With our quick waterfall exploration behind us, we took the time to enjoy playing in and around the stream sans boots. This is always Fred and George’s favorite part of an adventure, the opportunity to experience and explore on their terms and no agenda with regard to time.

So we played a bit, I tried to grab a few images so I could share this fabulous place with you all at some point, we played some more. It was just an all-around relaxing day until…

Even His Beagleness got in on the stream frolicking… and it showed.

A good outing goes bad…

George wanted to play a game of who-could-keep-their-feet-in-the-freezing-water-the-longest. I was happy to oblige but rather than packing my gear away knowing I still had some pictures left to take, I tucked my tripod and camera behind a nearby bench and carefully placed our packs around the legs. I was quite aware this was a high-traffic trail and so, took what I thought were reasonable precautions. In theory the camera was well out of the way.

Looks so harmless doesn’t it?

I was wrong. Very. Very. Very. Very. Very. Wrong. Did I mention very?

Standing near the stream after toasting the boys at their own game, I was a good 20-25 feet from the bench and my camera. There were lots of folks milling about but nobody near my tripod. There a was large group slightly downstream from us looking about and enjoying the scenery. No big deal…

Until I realized to my sheer terror that a lady in that group had a dog on an extendable leash. She was facing away from the bench but her dog, nearing the full extent of his leash… and might I add, well beyond the 6-foot rule, was headed directly away from her and between my tripod legs. You know, the ones I’d taken such care to protect.

Of course, it all happened very quickly but, as you’ve probably experienced in those moments, it seemed like slow motion at the time.

I thought the slippery, tricky climb upstream to the falls would be the most dangerous undertaking at Zapata Falls. Wrong!

Like my life depended on it (…and in many ways it does!), I sprinted like an axe-murderer was on my tail. Half-way to the bench, I managed a shout that got her attention at which time she managed to pull the dog back. About a nanosecond later, I plowed my right foot into a jutting rock and heard my toe snap like a twig in winter. Searing, intense, faint-inducing pain shot up from my foot, through the top of my head, and is probably floating out in space somewhere to this day, a miasma of insult, pain, and anger that some future astronomer will name the Val Nebula.

At any rate, my forward momentum carried me to the bench where I held myself up, shaking with agony. I managed to choke out a gutteral “I heard it snap.” The woman, now just on the other side of the bench from me said “I heard it too.” She paused a moment as I tried to move my foot and then she walked away.

That’s right. She walked away.

Damage control…

I was obviously in far too much pain to be concerned with this woman’s sheer lack of responsibility or basic human decency in that moment. I had to assess my situation and perform enough basic first aid to get myself, my two kids, and the dog back down the short but bouldery trail to the car.

Believe it or not, this is the next day and it was actually looking considerably better by the time I got to the ER. (And yes, I realize my foot is really dirty… camping will do that.)

My first step was plunging my foot into the frigid stream. Who needs an ice-pack when nature’s got it going on, no? That at least numbed things a bit so I could regain my mental composure. I sat there for a bit, allowing the cold water to work it’s magic and holding my swooning head in my hands.

With the pain down to a numb sort of throbbing, I was able to formulate my exit strategy. As I was planning, the “dog lady” was emerging from further down the trail, headed back to the trail head, and again proceeded to simply walk past with nary a word spoken to me. Grrrrrr…

Realizing she was not worth my energy even on a good day much less this particular day, I focused on taping up my toe to the best of my ability. The next decision was trying to hobble down a rough trail bootless and likely bumping the toe repeatedly in the process or cram my now enormously swollen foot back in the boot where it would at least be protected from further boulder insult. I opted for the boot, knowing it was a short trail and that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be able to get it back out.

The next step was getting boys and dog packed up. No problem. This was followed by the quick realization that even the slightest pressure on my right foot was excruciating. I don’t generally hike with poles or stick so I had nothing to brace myself with… except my tripod. So as much dignity as I could muster, I hobbled my way down trail using my tripod as a makeshift walking stick to at least minimize the pressure on my foot.

This is the sandal hack I performed on my Keens with my multi-tool back at camp. Not pretty but it got me through the next two months since they were all I could wear.

Back at the car I immediately pulled of my boot with a moan of relief that creeped out some nearby hikers. Now I had to face driving back to camp. Turns out I’m a pretty decent left-foot driver. Once back at camp, we obviously didn’t do much else except ponder the state of my foot and what lied ahead… how big would it get, is it just a little broken or a lot broken, how exactly am I going to get camp broken, the car packed, drive back to Georgia, etc.

I do want to point out that in spite of the circumstances, overall I kept my cool. My mind was racing certainly, but outwardly to the minions I had the whole situation in control. I’m also known for my, shall we say “colorful” language, so I have to say I deserve huge credit for choking back the string of profanity that almost came spewing forth from my mouth like the Three Gorges Dam had failed, sending a torrent to scour the land as far as the eye can see. Many young ears were spared that day…

The aftermath…

So pondering all of these things, the biggest question in my mind was how broken it was. Just a little and all you do is tape up and let it heal. A lot broken is a different story.

I needed an answer to that question so I could decide what to do next, so we took a field trip down to the Alamosa ER to find out. Turns outs it was somewhat weirdly broken in that I wedged off the end of the toe joint from blunt-force, straight-on impact. That meant no need to rush home to my foot doctor, just tape up and take it easy. My idea of taking it easy was hanging out at the dunes so I extended our time there by a couple of days to avoid having to pack the car until the pain and swelling had subsided at least a little… plus I had some unfinished business left.

Unfinished business…

I’d been meaning to shoot this gorgeous sunflower and the amazing tree (shown below) and couldn’t bring myself to leave without doing it, broken toe be-damned. Seriously the most painful photography I’ve ever undertaken given the squatting and various positions I had to get into to get the shots. Actually it was the most painful camping trip I’ve ever undertaken in general. Even with Fred and George’s help, getting through basic tasks like cooking meals was horrendous.

The slippery stream trail to the falls.

But the boys still wanted dune action so we still went out to the edge to play every day. There was no way I was getting very far in but they were content with the fringes under the circumstances. I can’t tell you what a bizarre dichotomy it is to be in such a fabulous place but to be there in pain and stuck at the edge like a kid with his face pressed against the candy-store window… so close yet so elusive.

We managed to make the best of our remaining time given my new limitations by cutting back on adventures and slowing down our pace. Just accepting the situation went a long way towards alleviating the initial grumpies I had for not being able to summit the big dune… there’s always next time and I’ll certainly be back.

So that’s the story of the toe. I know there are many who scoff at the level of pain I claim for this injury but the foot is indeed one of the more sensitive, nerve-packed areas of the body. And I know it’s by far not the worse thing that can happen on the trail but it is something I now struggle with daily, but that’s a discussion for next time…

And now for your moment of green…

I spent over an hour shooting this tree with pain shooting up my leg from my insulted toe. Was it worth it? You betcha. Is it weird to be in love with a dead tree?


  1. What a story! I’m so sorry that your toe was the casualty here 🙁 My only tripod accident involved my own girl and a video camera… traumatic, but not as painful as your tale. Thinking they should remane the falls “Zapatos Falls” in your honor.

    1. Zapatos Falls… LOL. For such a small appendage, it’s certainly had a big impact on my life! 😛

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