Overland Expo to TBEX: For the love of Great Sand Dunes

When I last left you in the tale of Overland Expo to Great Sand Dunes I was feeling triumphant about finding a better travel pace, one that didn’t leave us feeling run ragged. I also mentioned that my happiness was short-lived.

Travel math…

If you recall, we were headed towards Great Sand Dunes and it was Memorial Day weekend. The holiday crowds were not something I wanted to contend with. Plus even if we had high-tailed it from LA as fast as possible, there was no way we were going to beat the crowds to the campsites which is why we opted to linger in Taos from Friday through Sunday. That tactic allowed the holiday crowds at Great Sand Dunes dissipate somewhat but it put us in a time crunch. We needed three full driving days to get to Toronto by Friday which left with only three days to enjoy the Dunes. I couldn’t delay getting to the Dunes any longer or it wouldn’t be worth going. This place is too important to me to hold off any longer.

In an act of desperation, I reserved a spot at neighboring San Luis Valley State Park while we were still in Taos. It wasn’t my first choice obviously but showing up and not having a campsite at all would have been quite a bad scene. With this scenario, I could relax knowing we’d at least have a place to pitch the tent, even if it wasn’t the best place, and I would still have decent access to the Dunes.

Dust storm at San Luis blocking what little view I had of the dunes.

Barren San Luis…

San Luis State Park is just outside of Great Sand Dunes in the wide open San Luis Valley that lies between the Sangre de Cristos and the San Juans. The problem is that, while it may lie right outside the Dunes, it might as well be a world apart. Barren landscapes are quite beautiful of course (Death Valley, the Mojave Desert, etc.) but San Luis didn’t excite me, likely because it wasn’t where I really wanted to be.

On top of not being a great location for me, the campsite was a bust too. The arrangement of the table, fire ring, a low railing, electric hookup, and the shade canopy were terribly awkward to me. I found myself frustrated just trying to move around camp and I’m pretty easy-going when it comes to those things. Placing the tent was wonky as well with no space large enough for a relatively flat pitch. And even when I did pick a spot that sort of worked, it made camp flow even more awkward.

The tent pitch itself was one of those super-fun ones where you have to stake it down first to keep it from blowing away while you get poles in. This is of course when Fred and George decided to test Mom’s patience and become sluggish and unhelpful. As you can imagine, this does not sit well with me in general but I get especially bent out of shape when there’s camp to set up. After some gnashing of teeth they got on board and we managed to get our camp groove happening.

Things were coming together ever-so-grudgingly in the heat and sand-blasting wind when we got to the final pole at the rear of the tent only to find it cracked at the end of one section. I almost wish I had a picture of what my face looked like when I saw it. It had to be priceless. If you could depict a string of explosive F-bombs in one expression, I’m sure that was what was on my face because it was certainly what was streaming through my head. I did manage to restrain actual verbalization. My boys don’t bat an eyelash at it anymore but our camp neighbors may not have appreciated my flare for profanity. I do occasionally manage to employ a filter, usually with little ears around that do not belong to my own progeny.

At any rate, I managed to coax the pole into it’s sleeve and rotate enough to minimize pressure on the crack. I knew it wouldn’t hold though so I hunted through the gear to find the repair tube to slide over it. Wouldn’t you know the repair tube wouldn’t fit through the pole sleeve? You know I’m a fan of Big Agnes but I was seriously dumb-founded by this design flaw. This particular pole is not one of the main supports and it was fairly stable in spite of the winds so I didn’t sweat the situation too much for that night but I knew I needed to find a long-term solution since we still had five weeks to go on this trip. I was fatigued and I needed to sleep on it. (And yes, I had woefully left the duct tape out of the gear when packing… huge camping mom fail.)

To add insult to injury, the main-vestibule fly zippers that had been getting difficult to work while we were in Taos decided to give up completely. With the hefty wind gusts and blowing sand, we really needed the fly to be closed up or at least mostly closed so I used safety pins to keep the worst side together and rigged the other side enough that we could still crawl in and out but had enough buffer from the wind. It was all very frustrating and I couldn’t believe by beloved FD6 was giving me such difficulties.

San Luis State Park does have its beauty but I longed to be in the dunes.

Breaking my own rules…

Ok, maybe it’s not a rule (I don’t do well with those), more of a guideline. Even though we’re experienced campers, getting camp set up is still no small task so I very rarely do overnight camps. If I find myself in a situation where a campsite isn’t great, I’ll generally stick with it because either I’m not planning on staying very long anyway or the effort to move isn’t worth the gain.

Sometimes though, you have to bail. This was one of those times.

Getting to the Dunes…

After fumbling around our awkward campsite through that night and the next morning, we headed to the Dunes to enjoy what we came for. As we drove in and the calming comfort of the Dunes seeped in, I knew what I had to do. Instead of heading to the Dunes, I pointed us toward the campground to see if spots were freeing up now that the holiday weekend was winding down. Sure enough, we found a nice spot along the closest loop. It was a no-brainer at that point.

We hastily dumped out what gear we still had in Blubaru and secured our site. Fred volunteered to stay and get things settled while George and I raced back to San Luis to get our tent and other gear left behind. The bright side of moving camp in this scenario was that we didn’t have to pack everything up neatly, we just flung things in the car willy nilly… for the most part. I had to deal with that broken pole delicately and every movement brought further damage.

With the San Luis camp abandoned, George and I headed back to the Dunes to get camp put together so we could finally relax. The groovy thing about being in a happy place is that you tend to let go of your stress. Moving camp was certainly a pain but when you’re doing it in your equivalent of paradise, it takes the sting out quite nicely.

Good gear gone bad…

So my beloved FD6, our trusty camping home for more than two years, was failing me. After a night to mentally regroup and with no duct tape on board, I reluctantly decided to perform tent surgery. The sleeve that supports the rear pole had a narrow point the pole tube wouldn’t fit through so I had to slice open the sleeve just enough to get the tube in and then slide the pole through ever-so-delicately. It proved to be a decent stop-gap measure but I was well-aware that this wasn’t going to hold through five more weeks of travel and who knows how many more setups and break-downs.

Fred and George aren’t exactly graceful gazelles so I instituted and no-entry rule for the rear of the tent where the broken pole was to keep it from complete failure. The only problem is that it was the front vestibule that had the zipper failures. So there were were with a tent that was ill-suited for entering from either end. Awesome, no?

That’s how I ended up spending my first night at Great Sand Dunes burning through my cell data plan doing tent research. The FD6 in its state at the time simply wasn’t going to be usable for another five weeks and there was no way to repair the it quickly enough to keep camping. Buying a new tent was cheaper than the prospect of hoteling the rest of the way… which would have driven me ape anyway. This proved to be the first of many expensive hiccups on our expedition. But more on that as the tale continues.

When you have a special place…

In hindsight I went to great lengths to make this portion of the expedition come to life as I scrambled to put bandaids on various situations… hardly savvy traveling. Fortunately for me this place is worth it but I’m going to have to play it a bit smarter in the future to avoid travel fatigue.

And now for your moment of green…

A view worth the extra effort of moving camp.