Sandbox in the Sky: Shifting Shapes of Sandy Scapes – “The dunes are very amorphous forms,” Oden told us. “Start off with a brush and water, and move it across the paper where you want your crests.”

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The Decentraland sky is now dynamic, with a day/night cycle full of new nuances and possibilities for the future.

The day I set out to climb the tallest sand dune in North America began with a gift from above. As I slithered from my warm sleeping bag before daybreak, a light suddenly shone onto my tent. I unzipped the door, poked my head out, looked left, looked right. Then I peered upward. The heavy clouds had shifted to reveal a brilliant crescent moon.

The campground at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado was quiet as I fumbled around, shivering, dressing in what I supposed would be appropriate sand-hiking attire. Wearing gloves, I packed gorp and four bottles of water. A faraway owl cried, “Hoo-hoo!” Outside, the dark dunes stretched out, inviting me closer. The moon lit my path. It was going to be a good day.

When I planned a trip to Colorado for a reprieve from D.C.’s steamy summer weather, I wasn’t picturing spending time in a landscape straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. I imagined mountain hikes and bike rides, rocky terrain and picturesque forests. And that’s what it was like for several weeks last August, when I explored the Rocky Mountains. Then, a friend in Boulder told me about her family’s trip to see the giant sand dunes at a little-known national park just north of the New Mexico border.

“Great Sand Dunes is super fun,” she emailed, attaching a picture of her family jumping down a steep dune, airborne. “It turns adults into kids again. And the sand makes a farting sound when you land — how can you not smile?”

I couldn’t. I packed my car and headed south for some super fun.

Large sand dunes and I share some history. Years ago, I loved hang gliding off dunes in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Then there was the assignment in Qatar, where I went “dune bashing,” as the locals call it, and became so carsick that after only a few ups and downs in our SUV, the driver insisted on turning back.

On the mid-Atlantic coast of the U.S., I — like most beach-goers — am conditioned to stay off the dunes, which are home to many plants and animals and protect the coast from storms. But at the giant sandbox known as Great Sand Dunes, visitors are encouraged to walk, jump, sled, roll and draw as they wish.

“This is one of the few parks where we tell people, ‘Go ahead and write your name in 15-foot letters on the sand dunes,’” said Fred Bunch, the park’s chief of resource management. Rather than remind visitors to stay on the trails, he encourages them to make their own. In his 28 years at the park, Bunch has seen a few wedding proposals written in sand, and then, like the shake of an Etch A Sketch, the next wind erases it all. “Here,” he said, “prints from human activity never last very long.”

It was late afternoon when I first drove toward the park the day before my hike. From a distance, the dunes looked like ant hills next to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Jumbo clouds hovered low, grazing mountain peaks as though dangling from the ceiling in a school play.

I stopped by the visitor center for an art class with a young ranger and artist named Graham Oden. In a room with bay windows looking out to the dunes, he handed out watercolor paper, junior ranger pencils and tempera paints.

“The dunes are very amorphous forms,” Oden told us. “Start off with a brush and water, and move it across the paper where you want your crests. Then add pigment.” He painted alongside us, making light brushstrokes with indigo and maroon. I looked out to the dunes and back to my decidedly abstract painting. As a final touch, I sprinkled flecks of yellow on the bottom of the page, for flowers on the high desert valley floor.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve covers about 150,000 acres in all. The dunes account for only a fraction of that, yet they’re the focal point for day visitors and provide an exquisite backdrop for overnighters. After art class, I drove to the park’s campground, which sits 8,200 feet above sea level. I found a corner site with an unobstructed view of the dunes and asked my neighbor, Richard, if he had dune-hiking advice. He suggested climbing the tallest one, Star Dune: “Pick the least steep slope and go!” He told me to carry a walking stick and take rain gear because afternoon storms are common. “Batten down the hatches,” he hollered as I pitched my tent.

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