Andrew Michael Johnson
In the summer of 2020 we fled the confinements of our house in Kansas City and drove to Colorado. After the first three months of pandemic lockdown, my wife, three young children, and I needed to breathe some fresh air, see constellations, hike, and escape the growing sense that we might be trapped together forever.
After ninety days of seeing the same three small faces every day—faces I love but faces frequently contorting to open their word holes and say things like, “I need another cheese stick,” or, “Google Classroom can kiss my butt,” or, “Moana Moana Moana I want Moana,” three faces that light up with joy at small things like fireflies and then drown in tears at big things like not getting to see their friends—after three months of seeing nothing but these faces, getting in a minivan to stare down 400 miles of Kansas highway sounded like a gift from heaven. We drove hard, and with purpose.
During road trips my wife, Kristen, and I tend to get lost in conversation about our values and how we align, or struggle to align, our daily lives in close proximity to them. During this particular drive, while the kids gazed at windmills along the western Kansas highway, Kristen began to say, “I used to think that I valued togetherness . . .” but her voice trailed off and went silent for a moment. Then she said, “Look, bison!”
Togetherness, like many things, sounds good until you’ve had it in excess. Like a bad gin hangover, you emerge from a season of binging on togetherness only to find yourself woozy, confused, in need of being alone in a bathroom, and tasting pine needles in your mouth. It can really mess you up.
So anyway. We crossed the Colorado border, drove through the Front Range, rolled down into the central valley, and curved our way around the Arkansas River headwaters toward our destination among the Collegiate Peaks. We settled in at our cabin. We made plans for the week. We hiked. We rested. We swam. And on the fourth day, we drove to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
When you love your family but can’t stand being around them for one more minute, try spending a few hours at the Great Sand Dunes during a windstorm. You might find yourself accidentally wishing that one of your offspring might get carried off to spend a few days in the desert repenting. You might suddenly realize that you are contemplating wandering off yourself, just up and vanishing, perhaps reappearing at dinnertime down the road in Salida. You might wonder if you just survived three months of isolation during a pandemic only to die here, sandblasted to death, your face crumbling apart like Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars.
We noticed the strong winds when we arrived. The entire top half-inch of the 150,000-acre park was shifting all over the place. We’ve visited the sand dunes before, but not during a windstorm. We stupidly thought, “Surely we can hike a quarter mile in this, let the kids slide down the dunes on the snow sled we brought, enjoy the beauty of this place.”
When the first gust of wind knocked off my seven-year-old son Ori’s cowboy hat, we should’ve known to turn back. But again, togetherness has done a number on our capacity for discernment. After three months of chanting THIS IS HARD BUT WE CAN DO HARD THINGS, it’s like we forgot that no one was forcing us to walk into a dune storm.
We hiked into the dunes with the strong winds mostly at our backs, occasionally coming at us sideways. For a moment the winds died down and, all things being equal, it was almost picturesque: Children sledding down the dunes, a happy stoner traipsing along with two dogs, a group of nine Mennonites climbing the slope single file, a woman in a bikini out to enjoy a day in the sun.
But all things were not equal, and eventually, we had to turn back and head straight into the wind. Imagine everyone I just described being pummeled by gusts of sand: The children collapsing on the ground unable to move; the stoner crying out while clutching his dogs to his hips; the Mennonites’ beards and bonnets blowing every which way; the woman in the bikini wrapping her thin linen towel around her face and crawling like Scarlet O’Hara, shaking a fist at the sky while falling down every three steps.
We attempted to put on our happy faces, but those wore thin back in May. What remains now is our ability to simply acknowledge when something sucks. The kids are really good at it. So is Kristen. I’ve gotten better at it. But on this particular day I was clinging to my laughter to get me through. I know this is supposed to be a season of deep empathy, grief, and compassion for others, but could I help it if I stood on a dune ridge in a windstorm laughing maniacally at the prospect of 200 of us getting buried alive in sand? Togetherness can make you crazy, indeed.
There was no real threat or imminent danger. This was not suffering. I knew this deep down. I kept shouting loudly through the wind, “Just another ten feet. If you can make it another ten feet, it will get easier.”
My ten-year-old son Annen was the only one without sunglasses, so his eyes were filled with sand and tears. Ori wore his dinosaur pajamas-slash-costume and seemed to be well-suited to crossing such terrain yet still struggled to take each step. Three-year-old Ellery clung to my back in a child carrier and eventually burrowed so deeply that she fell asleep, entering some sort of survival-mode hibernation. We walked hard for the final stretch, holding close to each other, holding the sled and our hats in front of our faces, holding hands, pushing each other forward. Turns out our togetherness was perhaps, in the end, essential.
When we finally arrived back at the parking lot we sat down, laughed and cried, emptied ten pounds of sand from our shoes, and vowed to help each other be less dumb in the future, like such as trust the weather forecast that actually warned us about heavy winds. I am considering a new tattoo across my knuckles: BELES SDUMB.
But the final image I will keep from our Dunes Day is the image of Scarlet O’Hara in the bikini, crawling her way over the dunes, half-blinded by the towel covering her face, reaching the final slope to descend and then suddenly pausing, standing upright, raising her toweled face to the sky, walking with such incredible dignity down the dune and back to the parking lot like a queen, towel-faced and bikinied. May I keep that image in my mind forever and know that even in my raw foolishness I can find some dignity to bare, and that for all its faults and excesses, togetherness just might be the very thing that will keep getting us through, whether we like it or not.
Andrew Michael Johnson is an author, poet, and essayist living in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Sun, Image, Commonweal, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. He is the author of two books: The Thread and On Earth As It Is. He is the recipient of a Charlotte Street Foundation studio residency, an Arts KC Inspiration grant, a Vermont Studio Center residency, a Rocket Grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
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