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Kelso: Sand dunes sing a low refrain

Posted by Anne Burke on February 02, 2011

Road Journals Blog—It’s beautiful and eerie. Kind of like a distant foghorn, or someone playing a cello, or maybe the approach of an alien spaceship.

Making the Kelso Dunes sing has to be one of the most exhilarating things one can do on a pile of sand. It’s the getting there that’s the rough part.

Seven hundred feet tall, the dunes are among the biggest in the country. They sit at the end of a graded, dirt road in the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California. The sand blows in from the Mojave River sink and dried Soda Lake to the northwest.

You make the dunes sing by running or sliding down them. The harder, damper sand underneath the surface magnifies the vibrations of the loose, dry sand on top, in the way that the body of a cello magnifies the vibrations of the strings.

But what comes down must first go up.

It had already been a tough slog hiking up the sandy trail from the parking lot. I was tired. But standing at the base of the dunes, they didn’t look so difficult and there was plenty of daylight left. Anyway, people from all over the world climb these dunes. How hard could it be?

I made a huge strategic blunder in choosing to ascend the face of the dune instead of following a zig-zaggy route up the side. (The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, right?) The dunes are so steep, however, and the sand so loose, that each time I planted one foot in front of the other I lost half the progress I had made sliding downhill.

My feet quickly became lead weights. Each step took every ounce of energy I could muster. There was nothing to grab onto except some yellowed tufts of rice grass, which visitors are not supposed to disturb and which would have been useless anyway.

Mother Nature gave the fringe-toed lizard that skitters about these dunes special scales so it won’t sink into the sand. I had nothing but force of will.

By the last few yards, I was crawling on all fours. When I finally made it to the top, I collapsed flat on my back to await the heart attack that was surely coming.

There was only one other person at the top. Paul Brewster, an actor and photographer from Los Angeles, had come to Kelso Dunes to shoot the late-afternoon shadows and warm colors. The mountains to the east, brown just a few minutes earlier, had turned purple. The sand that looked near-white under the harsh midday sun glowed golden, with shadows making elegant geometric patterns.

Paul headed down first and I followed a few yards back. I had no idea when or how the dunes were supposed to do this singing business, or what it would sound like. At first, I heard nothing. But it didn’t matter. After the brutality of the ascent, gliding down the dune was a blast. In addition to being the law, gravity can be a lovely thing.

Paul noticed it first. “Did you hear it?” he asked when we were partway down. “It’s like a bass drum.”

It was. Or sort of a very ethereal boom that sounded like it was coming from way off in the distance. Then more booming noises. It was so all-at-once creepy and exciting that I gasped and got goose bumps. Paul let out a Bart Simpson laugh.

We kept going, kind of giddy. After a while, the boom started to sound to my ears like the distant drone of an airplane. The farther down we walked, the closer it seemed to be, until it was seemingly under our feet. And then it went away.

“That was wild,” I said.

“That was awesome,” Paul replied. And it was.

Q: Have you ever been awed by an unexpected facet of nature? Please share.

Anne Burke wrote about the Beanery at Kelso Depot in the March/April issue of VIA.

Photography by Anne Burke

This blog post was first published in February 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

  • sand patterns at Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve picture
    Photo caption
    Sand patterns at sunset.
  • lizard at Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve picture
    Photo caption
    Desert lizard.
  • Kelso dunes from the top in the Mojave National Preserve picture
    Photo caption
    Kelso Dunes, from the top.