Growing up along the California coast, sandy beaches came with crashing ocean waves, the smell of sea salt and the feel of hot tar stuck to my feet. At Mojave National Preserve I experienced a whole different kind of “beach” – one devoid of ocean waves and sea salt, but just as distinctive to the tangible senses as any of nature’s environs. The Kelso Dunes is like no other and on a full moon in April, never to be forgotten.
My yellow Labrador, Tacoma, and I started our hike at about 9 pm with the silver glow of the moon already illuminating our path. 70-degrees Fahrenheit, with a light breeze, made for perfect hiking conditions. The sand was cool as it shifted between my toes and engulfed each foot, the night was silent, and as we began to ascend the main dune field my labored breaths and pounding heart seemed to be the only sounds about me. But occasionally, if I listened carefully, I could hear the dunes "sing". Kelso is one of a few acoustic dunes that produce a squeaking or booming sound as sand grains compress and slip over one another. A silica coating on the grains that helps them stick together also resonates when they are moved.
The loping gait of my four-footed friend sounded like a miniature horse traversing the waves of sand with untiring energy. The slope, now an angulated 85-degree moving mountain made the journey slow as each step forward took me two steps back. Impatient with my progress, Tacoma came skiing down the dune with a mass of sand that buried me to my knees. Now stuck, unable to grab hold of the little urchin, he sat there staring at me, tongue lolling, obviously grinning from ear to ear – “Isn’t this great fun?” And so we commenced our trek to the summit, balancing our steps astride a ridge of sand sculpted so precisely by the wind and weight of each grain that it appeared as though no other life had been there but us, and in that moment that was true. For the footsteps of those that had crossed this expanse during the day were now gone in the light of the full moon.
It was on the low, hummocky, dunes and in the troughs that tiny tracks and trails proved as evidence of life besides our own. The hind feet and long slender tail of the Kangaroo rat showed her bounding journey in search of seeds that would supply all the water she needs. Or the minute dots of the fringe-toed lizard that marked where his scaled toes dug in to allow him to "swim" through the sand. Both of these animals and the plants that live here are uniquely designed to survive. I wonder how we're going to fair.
We made it! Sitting over 650 feet above the desert floor and gazing across the rolling sea of sand that comprises the Kelso Dune field, I was awed by the silence and serenity. It’s amazing how places such as this can turn insignificant the stresses of work, the demands of family, the challenges of health, or whatever may be weighing heavy on your mind. If you can, take advantage of places like the Kelso Dunes, of Mojave National Preserve, they’ve been set aside to provide opportunities and unforgettable experiences such as Tacoma and I’s moonlight trek to the top of Mojave’s sandy “beach”.