As the sand and hot air whipped down hundreds of feet off the dunes and through our little encampment, testing the strength of our stakes, threatening to shred our tents, and creeping into the crevices of our electronics, there was just one phrase I couldn’t get out of my head: “Their appearance was exactly that of the sea in storm, except as to color.” 

Those words were written more than two centuries before, in 1807, by one of the great explorers of the Louisiana Purchase, Zebulon Pike. His book on his journey throughout the American southwest became an international bestseller, not least because his were often the first written recordings of places he saw. The dunes that so wowed him? The same dunes that today make up Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, where I went hiking and camping in June.

It could have been the premise for a cringe-worthy, low-budget Netflix gay film: Four gay men (a couple and an ex-couple) with varying expertise roadtrip down from Denver to camp in the middle of sand dunes towering up to 750 feet. And yes, there were the inevitable cracks about the difficulty of sexual activity so far from running water and horror at having to take everything you bring in back out of the park (I’m referring here to used toilet paper). But it was also cringe in a different way. It was a reminder for me why I love the U.S. so much.

Too often, like magpies distracted by shiny objects, we Americans flit from the Old World pleasures of Europe to the bustle and excitement of Asia. Meanwhile, we’re surrounded by wonders we’d have at the top of our bucket lists were they in a far flung locale. And they’re all wonders that we the LGBT community (despite the progress still to go) can enjoy in ways that members of our community around the world barely dare to dream about.

One of those wonders, which has always astonished me that it’s in the U.S. and long been on my bucket list, is Great Sand Dunes. If you’ve never heard of it (and don’t worry, an overwhelming number of people back east I told I was going hadn’t), it’s a 30 square-mile collection of dunes hundreds of feet tall at the base of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains of the Rockies. The dunes were created by sand deposits from a lake that used to fill the valley and over thousands of years were blown into this corner.

It is stunning.

I’d wanted to go and camp here for so long that I can’t pinpoint the moment I added it to my bucket list. So, sandwiched between a rafting trip in Idaho and a road trip to the Arctic Circle in the Yukon, I set aside a handful of days to drive with friends four hours south of Denver for an experience I’d never forget.

There are a number of ways to experience the sand dunes, but we were determined to camp out in the dunes themselves—which meant getting there relatively early for a first-come-first-serve backcountry permit, followed by traipsing over the first few ridge lines into the heart of the dunes to pitch camp. For those less inclined to trudge up and down giant sand dunes with camping equipment loaded on their backs, the park has a reservation system for campgrounds interspersed along the adjacent Medano Creek and forest.

To ensure we got there in time (but not too early for the snaking line that forms just before the park opens), it meant a 6 a.m. departure from Boulder, where we were staying. We arrived in Boulder a few days earlier to borrow camping gear from my partner’s brother (whose every measured instruction tried to mask his fear that we would screw everything up) and to do one of our favorite half-day hikes in nearby Estes Park—Chasm Lake.

Bleary-eyed but all nervously reining in our crotchetiness for fear of being pinpointed as the one who ruined the trip with acrimony, we piled in the same car. We were an odd mix: Cole, my quick-witted friend whom much of our social circle openly worried wasn’t up to the challenge (a concern that annoyed him); Ben, his ex, who was just a few sprinkles of gay removed from being a bro quoting Anchorman but possessed the redeeming qualities of an up-for-anything disposition and a lead foot to get us there; and Alejandro, my partner and rock, who had the most experience, and therefore upon whom the weight all of this would fall if anything went awry.

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