Frost highlights strange runes upon the Oregon dunes. First the winds brush symbols. Squiggles. Diamonds. Arcs. Waves. As night falls, temperatures drop below freezing. The salty wet air freezes upon all places where shadows imprint their shapes on sand. Morning breaks. Sunlight casts a brittle light across dunes that yesterday were tawny and today are streaked in white crystals.
The hieroglyphics written on sand suggest both nuances and grandeur of the dunes that in this place are wild and unfettered. For two nights, we’ve stayed at the Eel Creek campground—one of only two parties to land in this shelter over Thanksgiving. Hiking the uphill John Dellenback Trail through a coastal forest rooted in sand, I stop to touch a madrone tree with shaggy bark as red as the belt of a kingfisher and limbs that sway their way upward as if to beckon all birds to perch. Soon, we step into the wide open sand dunes that roll, rise, and plunge their way to the Pacific ocean still two miles away.
From the top of a high dune shaped like El Capitan, Wes and I can see the cobalt sea whipped with white waves, way out past a border forest that skirts its way between beach and dunes.
We exult in the exuberance of sunshine after several days of tumultuous downpour, wind, and hail that made us consider a motel in Yachats, but our Halcyon pop-up camper on our truck proved her rugged prowess and we pressed on to the next campground of several over the week. After all, we had propane heat, a stove, and a bed with a down comforter. Still, the typically easy set up was a challenge in this fiercest of afternoons. I was ready in rubber boots, raincoat, rain pants, and umbrella. I felt like a sailor with waves crashing over a ship’s bow. Later, we saw texts from friends asking how we’d fared in the “bomb cyclone.” Apparently, this was no ordinary coastal storm.
On this morning of silenced wind and cloudless sky, we revel in the intricacy of frost at our feet and the immensity of a dune ridge flowing away and down from us. I cannot resist. I’m that child again—racing full tilt with our black lab Pepper leaping and prancing at my side. I run and run and run all the way to the bottom—laughing and holding my arms out like a bird. After spending much of the year dealing with a frustrating hamstring injury and reinjury, to stride effortlessly with gravity as my friend and the forgiving sand cushioning every step, is to feel as if I’d sprouted feathery wings. For a few minutes, I inhabit my eight-year-old self on that first trip to the dunes with my family. Then, my brothers and I sprinted, jumped, and somersaulted. We were one sandy and happy heap of a family.
Catching my breath, I hike up a steep dune hand over hand, feet sinking into softness on the lee side. Wes comes running down next and Pepper gallops between us. In this moment, all that matters is the exultation of play. Abandon all seriousness here!
So we wander, squiggling our own pathways up and down dunes and through small islands of pines, where we find the canine prints of what might be a trotting fox leading us through patches of wild strawberry plants that form a network of rhizomatous roots. Each clustered plant glows in greens, reds, and ice crystals.
To decipher the runes of frosted and unfrosted dunes is to read the story of wind that funnels and twists, ripples and flutters, of wind that knives sharp edges and gentles others, and of wind that is constantly shaping and re-shaping the sands. Patterns form of light and dark sand, of all that is simple and all that is complex. Like the sand paintings of Buddhist monks, the intricacies are meant to be swept away and created anew.
Therein may lie the cryptic message of the runes. Believe in change, of what’s new, and renewed, and be like the wind. Write the story we want the next generations to know. And never ever forget to play and laugh like children. Finally, be humble. Let our best acts be lost in the wholeness.