The Song of the Dunes

My decades-long fascination with the East Mojave Desert truly began while doing field research for my masters’ degree in environmental studies.  My thesis topic was studying the impacts on desert vegetation from human intrusion in the form of linear corridors (such as roadways, pipelines, and electric transmission lines).  Unfortunately, graduating on my timeline required that my field work be done mostly in the summer.  Through the generous help of my friend Marc and Mike, my cousin Jeff, and of course my wife Ruth, all it cost me was money for gas, even more money for Gatorade, a few meals of greasy burgers at the famous Bun Boy in the nearby town of Baker, and a few side-trips to make our time out there in the blast furnace of the Mojave in the middle of summer more interesting.

Let's count plants!  East Mojave, 1986.

Let’s count plants! East Mojave, 1986.

After our daily tedium of setting up transects in various locations and measuring and counting creosote, saltbush, and other plants, we traveled widely within the boundaries of what was then called the East Mojave National Scenic Area.  We examined ancient Native American petroglyphs etched in the boulders thousands of years ago, explored washes and canyons and the nearby Granite Mountains, walked through a huge Joshua tree forest more densely vegetated than anything that Joshua Tree National Park had to offer, and imagined an earlier California at the old Kelso railway depot.  And one of our many side trips took us to Kelso Dunes, sparking my ongoing love affair with these gigantic piles of sand.

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Kelso Dunes sits in the Mojave National “Preserve,” an anomaly of the National Park system which still allows historic grazing and mining activities to continue while still offering all of the other benefits and protections of a National “Park.”  Over the millennium, the sands of nearby Soda Dry Lake have been funneled by prevailing winds into a virtual dead-end.  A grain of sand is often used as a metaphor for something small, yet when you combine trillions upon trillions of these small grains with eons of time, the result is one of the largest dune systems in North America: Kelso Dunes.

What makes Kelso Dunes not exactly unique but quite unusual is that it is one of only about 35 “singing dunes” systems in the world.  Sometimes high frequency but more often a low frequency “booming” or “rumbling”, the sound the dunes make under certain circumstances can hardly be described as musical, but the moniker “singing” has somehow been associated with it.

For a thousand years or more the phenomenon has been known, but it was just in 2006 that scientists announced the definitive explanation for the odd phenomenon.  The sound is generated by sheer stress—collisions between grains of sand that causes the motions of the individual grains to become synchronized and ultimately lead to the dune resonating like the cone of an audio speaker.  Silica and moisture content in the sand as well as the size of the sand grains all play a role in whether or not individual dune systems will “sing” or remain eternally silent.

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One late spring morning, I left my house at about 3 a.m. and headed out to the Mojave for my date with Kelso Dunes.  Over the years I’ve found that the reasons I go to certain places may change, but the places often stay the same.  My chosen excuse for visiting Kelso Dunes that morning was photography.

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Full moon rising over the Granite Mountains, 2005.

The light during the hour of the pearl is what usually drives my photography.  It’s always worth several hours of driving through the early morning darkness in order to get to the perfect spot at the perfect time.  As an added bonus, once in a while I might even get the perfect photograph out of it.  But the photograph was just an excuse; it was the experience that actually counted most.

After exiting Highway 40 and heading north on Kelbaker Road, I saw the full moon rising to the east over the Granite Mountains and quickly pulled over on the side of the road.  Fumbling in the dark to attach my camera to the bulky tripod and adjust the settings to compensate for the extremely low light, I found time to make several quick exposures of the moon before the light and the mood changed.  This very brief session resulted in one spectacular photograph that summed up why I go to the wilderness.  I had come to the desert for one specific purpose—to photograph the dunes during morning twilight—and had already stumbled upon an unexpected surprise that made the entire trip worthwhile.  At this point I could have turned around and returned home right then and there and been completely satisfied.  But I didn’t.  I pushed on towards Kelso Dunes.  I wanted more.

Hiking through sand dunes is an arduous task.  It’s not just the old “two steps forward, one step back” cliché—it’s often much worse.  You use muscles not meant to be used for a task as simple as walking.  Working my way out to the northeast, I already knew that my two or three hours in the dunes would leave my calves sore for many days.  But it was well worth it.

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Dawn breaking over Kelso Dunes, 2005.

As I wandered my way through the magnificent dune system, generally heading towards the high point but not following any particular path—because there were no actual paths—I focused my camera on a variety of scenes which together captured the essence of the dunes, from close-up shots of wind-sculpted ripples where individual grains were visible, to wide-open shots where the graceful curves of the dunes illustrated the grand scale of this other-worldly landscape.

—–

The hour of the pearl had limped along slowly and playfully, yet ended as abruptly as an alarm clock waking one from a deep sleep.  The morning sun pierced violently over the top of the mountains, in an instance changing the desert from sublime shades of gray to land of harsh contrasts.

The low angle of the cresting sun cast long shadows, the glistening grains of sand juxtaposed against jet-black shadows just a few inches away.  Although different from twilight, these conditions also made for excellent dune photography, so I climbed further up, cutting across the south face of the largest dune to see what other courses this visual feast had to offer.

After all of my many trips to Kelso, I had long given up on hearing the legendary song of the dunes; conditions of humidity and wind had to be just right, as did the angle of the dune face.  Without a guide or map to show me exactly when and where to experience it for myself, I would be lucky to ever hear the song of the dunes in my lifetime.

It was quiet—desert quiet—as I contoured around then topped out on one of the highest dunes.  Descending the dune, I heard the familiar low grumble of an approaching jet aircraft.

If you spend a lot of time in the California desert, you get used to large spans of almost haunting silence punctuated by screeching jet engines and the occasional sonic boom.  I had had my fair share of encounters with aircraft.  Being buzzed by a B2 stealth bomber on Highway 395 in the West Mojave was probably the most visually stunning example, but there were countless others, due to the proximity of military bases and the propensity for these “top guns” to test the limits of their aircraft over large, open, uninhabited spaces.  Sometimes, they were just plain showing off.

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My footprints across the face of Kelso Dunes, 2005.

I stopped about ten feet below the crest of the dune to listen, and looked around to see where the airplane was.  No plane was visible, and the sound quickly stopped.  I started moving again, and the same thing happened.  Then I realized what was really going on: my foot placements as I walked across the face of the dune were dislodging sand and causing it to tumble down the dune face and creating the low, booming sound.

It was the song of the dunes!

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This story was originally published in A Life Outside 2 (September 2012).  It was reprinted in Confessions of a Weekend Warrior: Hiking Stories (June 2013) and Confessions of a Weekend Warrior: National Park Stories (July 2013). 

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