Snow and Sand in the Dunes

Mar 6, 2018

Credit Ernesta Vala

One afternoon at about four o’clock I set off for a walk in the Provincelands dunes. I took the entrance off Snail Road, and as I walked up out of the miniature oak forest and into the dunes themselves, the sky began to cloud over. But the red ball of the sun dropped below the cloud bank in the west and flamed on the horizon, casting a rosy glow across the broad expanse of sand hills.

It had been about a week since the last snowfall, and the mix of sand and snow on the slopes and ridges of the dunes made it a place of many surfaces. Where the snow had blown clear of the dunes, I walked on slopes of rock-hard, footprint-proof sand. In other places the snow had drifted three feet or more in the hollows or in the lee of the hills. There were also spots that looked like solid sand, but, when I set my foot on them, it broke through a thin coating of wind-blown sand that covered deep pockets of older, crusted snow. So the two elements, sand and snow, took turns, leapfrogging over one another. Each was at times immobile, frozen in place. Each at other times was volatile and windblown, blowing over, skimming, covering and burying one another in a kind of playful dance.

In the whole vast dune field I saw only three other figures, running across a distant ridge, carrying tripods and what I assumed was camera equipment. They seemed in a hurry, as if in a rush to record some ephemeral climactic moment in this scene. But every moment is ephemeral out here, and climactic, every moment the beginning and end of some vast, eternal process. They were about a half-mile west of me, and when they stopped and began to set up their equipment, I wondered if my own distant figure was part of what they captured in their lens.

The dunes are notorious for the tricks of scale and perspective they create. Without the usual objects of relative dimension to judge by – houses, trees, people – things on the dunes, and the dunes themselves, can appear both larger and smaller, farther or nearer, than they are in actuality. For some reason the mixture of snow and sand greatly heightened the illusion of scale that day. The dunes appeared as landscapes of enormous extent, miniature Sierras, full of rugged, knife-edged cirques with fluted ridges. The tufts of bleached dune grass seemed like tall stands of bamboo. Dark, inland seas of low pines stretched out across the floors of the dune valleys, and here and there enormous, canyon-like blowouts crevassed the hills.

The proportion of real to perceived landscape seemed to be about 100 to 1; that is, the dune fields and everything in it appeared 100 times their actual size. Even the diminutive dune shacks a half-mile off looked like huge houses it would take half a day to reach.

But at the same time I felt like a giant myself, a hundred times my normal height. Like a colossus striding the dunes I could cover vast distances with each footstep. I could travel a mile in less than sixty seconds, climb a hundred-foot dune in one stride, or scale a mile-high peak in a matter of minutes. All I needed, it seemed, were some miniature herds of inch-high elk or bison making their way up the sand canyons to complete the illusion.

(This essay first aired in 2009.)