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Great Sand Dunes

Started: 2013-07-20 17:25:19

Submitted: 2013-07-20 18:21:58

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator goes camping at the Great Sand Dunes and stages an impromptu engineering workshop in the sand

In the middle of June, Kiesa and I decided to attempt another camping expedition with Calvin. I took Friday, 14 June off work for the five-hour drive to the Great Sand Dunes, which went fairly well; the iPad kept Calvin amused. By the time we got to the National Park (which received its full designation since our last visit a decade ago) the in-park campground was full, so we camped at the private campground immediately outside the park boundary. Once we set up our tent we headed back to the park to play in the sand at the edge of the dune field. Medano Creek was running low, between 5 and 8 cubic feet per second (the average peak spring flow in May or June is 40 cfs) but there was still enough water to play in the sand, so I built a moat into the bank around a formation I dubbed Gibraltar, then built a dam to route water into the moat.

Sunset near the Great Sand Dunes
Sunset near the Great Sand Dunes

Once we convinced Calvin to go to sleep (which was not easy, given the late sunset (within a week of the summer solstice)), he slept soundly through the night. (It didn't hurt that it was quite warm at night so that I didn't feel compelled to zip up my own sleeping bag all the way.) This was more than we could say for the toddler at an adjacent campsite, who seemed to be up all night crying, bringing back unfortunate memories from earlier camping trips with Calvin.

We returned to the dunes after breakfast on Saturday and staged an ascent of the nearest dune. Calvin walked on his own; our idea was he could walk as far as he wanted, and Kiesa would carry him back. He made it all the way up to the nearest dune, climbing about 500 vertical feet on the sand, and wanted to be carried all the way down. I thought this was odd; having spent all of the energy necessary to climb I fully intended to take advantage of my potential energy to run down the dune. Kiesa, with Calvin on her back, followed at a somewhat more sedate pace.

Kiesa and Calvin climb the Great Sand Dunes
Kiesa and Calvin climb the Great Sand Dunes
Calvin and Kiesa on top of a dune
Calvin and Kiesa on top of a dune

We stopped to play in the sand using the preschooler-sized garden shovel and rake Kiesa found at McGuckins. I saw something that inspired me to build a step well in the dry sand on the bank above the creek. I dug through the dry sand, found the wet sand below, and continued digging until I reached the water table. I expanded my kingdom and started building tunnels to provide better access to the well and the coastal plain beyond. Before too long a couple of grade-school boys came by and asked what I was building. I explained the well, and how they could find water if they dug deep enough, and they were sufficiently inspired to build their own well. By the end of the day their well had been converted into a massive moat around a central island. (It's easy to imagine it ought to be a castle, but they spent far more time on the moat and didn't spend much time on the castle itself.) I realized I'd staged an impromptu [civil] engineering workshop and contemplated the merits of getting sponsorships from engineering universities and engineering firms to bring sand toys to beaches. I have little doubt that the time I spent playing in sand as a child influenced my ultimate choice of engineering as a career path. (We did our part to nudge Calvin along the same path by building him a sandbox last month.)

Jaeger supervises an engineering workshop at the Great Sand Dunes; Calvin watches
Jaeger supervises an engineering workshop at the Great Sand Dunes; Calvin watches

On Sunday, we broke camp and returned to the dunes one final time before driving home. I returned to the vicinity of my step well complex and laid out a massive four-level stacked interchange on the coastal plain. This would be the culmination of all the bridge-building expertise I acquired the previous day: a full highway interchange between two dual carriageways providing an uninhibited, grade-separated route connecting each input road to each of the three output roads. It's the holy grail of highway design, and it was to be my final accomplishment at the sand dunes.

Four-level stacked interchange built out of sand
Four-level stacked interchange built out of sand

While I was working, after I had built the first set of fly-over ramps, two grade-school boys showed up and wanted to help. I gave them one of the second set of fly-over ramps to work on, the ramps that make a complete left turn, arching over the opposing ramps. Once we'd finished building the ramps we dug tunnels through the ramps where they intersected, turning the ramp into a bridge so traffic could flow. At length we completed the interchange, with tunnels (of various sizes) dug carefully through the ramps at all the right places, with only a little imagination required to see how it all fit together.

Jaeger, Calvin, and the four-level stacked interchange in sand
Jaeger, Calvin, and the four-level stacked interchange in sand

The boys turned their attention to water and built a giant dam to divert water from a large section of the creek toward the coastal plain I'd been building on, then built a system of levees to keep the water from going where it really wanted to go. I remarked that this was like New Orleans: we couldn't keep the water at bay forever; it'd eventually win. The water did, in fact, win, destroying a large section of the levee in a spectacular overflow.

We bid farewell to the sand dunes around noon and drove back to Boulder. I ended up with sunburned feet but otherwise enjoyed the trip and the engineering adventures.

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