On Tuesday, we drove an hour to Great Sand Dunes National Park. I had prepared myself for something like the sand dunes we went to when I was a kid. I was not prepared for what it really was: a two-mile-high, 30-square-mile mountain of sand, accessible only by hiking across nearly three-quarter mile of relatively level but overly soft sand that in the spring is covered with shallow water but was dry this time of year.
We checked out the visitor’s center and then sunscreened up to go play in the sand, in the pounding sun. The edges of the flat section had small, scruffy trees, but the dunes themselves were Sahara-bare. So Tim and the kids set off toward the dunes, and Emmy and I trailed along behind, the sand hot and sneeping into our sandals. It was really hard walking, like on a beach, and we got about a third of the way to the dunes before we were both done. Emmy said she didn’t want to jump on the sand anyway, and I didn’t, so we turned around. Immediately, I spotted a shady spot beside a fire pit, away from where most of the people were coming into the area, but on a hillside in the shade. So we turned back and went there.
I had deliberately worn a bright neon pink shirt so the kids could spot me in a crowd, and it ended up being a good thing. Tim realized we didn’t make it, and he jogged back across the dunes and found us just fine because of my shirt. We told him we were going to stay right there in the shade and play. He went back to the other kids, and they played a while and then Nathanael trotted back to us, spotting my bright pink shirt and making a very straight line right to me. Then Tim brought Elijah and Jack back. We dug down to the wet sand not far under the surface and made sand castles. Soon all the kids and Tim were back again.
So we went off to find a place to fill all our 10 gallons of empty water jugs and have a picnic, and finally settled on an empty group camp site. I filled the jugs first, while Tim set up a picnic, and it was a good thing I did because not long after I had them all stowed away, a volunteer camp ranger came and kicked us out of that site because it was for camping, not picnicking (never mind that nobody was there and nobody was going to be there). We had done what we needed that part of the park for, so we picked up and asked where we were allowed to picnic, and then we left.
By then, the wind had picked up and dark clouds had blown in. There was a tiny trinkling of rain, but not much, and the kids wanted to play in the sand again. Caleb and Anda and Tim were done. But Nathanael, Elijah, Benji, Dan, and Jack wanted to hike back to the dunes and try a sled we’d found abandoned by the garbage cans.
It didn’t work.
But it wasn’t hot anymore, so I followed the boys across the flat to the dunes because I figured Jack would get tired and want to come back right away, and I could walk him back. Emmeline had on a bright pink jacket and she and Tim were playing in our same spot from earlier in the day. I could just see her, a bright pink speck in the distance, but I knew I could find them from that bright pink speck. It was surprising, standing up on the dunes with the boys, that the spot we were playing in was far to the right of where most people were going, and it didn’t look “right”. But I knew it was right because I could see Emmy’s bright pink jacket bobbing along. She was doing was I had done earlier with my bright pink shirt--acting as a beacon to show me the right way to go. She was so very tiny that she was easy to miss--it was easy to look the wrong direction, and I had to really choose to search for the little pinprick of pink. But once I found her, I could focus on her little bobbing dot and move toward it. She was a “beacon”--but she was just a point of pink. Hard to see. But not impossible. So that’s where my family was, and the van, and rest and shelter.
Pretty soon, a vicious wind picked up. It was so strong that a crow trying to fly into the wind was blown the other way and finally had to turn around and fly where the wind willed. The boys had abandoned the sled, so I was holding its rope and I’d filled it with cast-off shoes. Once the sun was obscured by the storm clouds, the sand was no longer burning hot, and so the shoes came off. Even filled with the shoes, the wind picked the sled up and tried to whip it from my hands. The sand blasted Nathanael’s bare legs (he was in shorts, and I in jeans). It was so hard he would turn his back on the wind and curl up inside his coat until the gust passed. Jack would crouch in his coat, too, and Daniel (such a saint), would immediately drop down behind Jack and lay on his side, making an effective wall against the wind to protect Jack. Nathanael quickly got weary of sandblasting, and he and I decided to head back. Jack wanted to stay, so I let him. Dan promised not to lose him, so Nat and I headed back toward the big kids and Tim, following Emmy’s bobbing pink dot to know where to go.
We had to wait for the wind to soften a bit, or Nathanael couldn’t walk for all the sandblasting his shins were getting. But we made it, sled and shoes in tow. I looked back at our track when we arrived at Tim and the big kids and Emmy (ready to fall face first onto the sand and rest). It was very wobbly. We did not make a very straight line because the pull toward where everyone else was going was so strong. We kept drifting that way and then spotting Emmy’s pink jacket and correcting our path. She was a lighthouse for us.
The boys played on the dunes a while longer, and Tim made pictures with rocks in the sand while Anda used rocks to play a game of sand bocce and Caleb took pictures and audio recordings (he collects visual textures and random foley-like sounds). I sat beside Emmy and her sand castle and Nathanael sat on her other side and she and he kept building. And I talked to the big kids and Tim and kept my eyes on the dunes where I could not see the kids, but knew they were playing. I could just see little speck figures moving around, but not our kids. Eventually, the wind picked up again (it was cold!), and I saw the boys appear, one at a time. Elijah I recognized because he had his coat off and he was swinging it. Then he put it on and started trudging toward us. Behind him I saw Benji, who I could recognize by the flash of bright orange--his shirt--inside his coat. So I knew the figure beside him was Daniel. But no Jack?
I knew right away that Dan had to be carrying Jack. I had no doubt about it--I knew he wouldn’t have left Jack. But that trek was difficult with just walking myself across the three-quarters of a mile of sand. And Dan was carrying a heavy 5 year old, and battling the wind. I turned to Tim and said, “I’m going to take the sled back out there and drag Jack back. Dan’s carrying him.” I pointed out the kids and Tim said he should go--he could piggy back Jack back and it would be faster and easier. So he set off on a jog toward the kids.
Meanwhile, Elijah was battling the wind, head down, and he had veered off course. He wasn’t looking for me, and so he was heading too far to the left, to where most of the rest of the people were going. And then I could see he was to the left of that, even. He didn’t even realize he was heading astray. “Turn, Elijah, turn back….” I kept saying to him, but I didn’t even bother to shout. It was over half a mile away, and the wind carried my voice the wrong direction.
Anda, Caleb, Nathanael, and Emmeline headed for the van to get out of the wind. And I knew Tim was going to have to rescue three kids at once: Dan from the weight of Jack, Jack from being too little to go any further, and Elijah from getting lost. I started to fret--I was standing here doing nothing, while Tim was running across the sand and my boys were struggling. I saw Benji double back to try to help Dan, but it was too much. I started to pace, needing to help, but I was too far.
Then the thought popped into my head: Just stand still so they know where to go. That is helping. They need to see you.
I threw my jacket wide so my bright pink shirt was visible from so far away, and I stood as still and tall as I could, being a beacon to them--the same lighthouse that Emmy had been for me.
Tim then caught sight of Elijah going the wrong way, and he diverted his course to catch the one who was going astray. He got Elijah back on track, and then he doubled back to Dan and Benji and relieved them of their burden of caring for the weakest of us. And I stood there, watching them all and knowing that I was helping by showing them where they were supposed to come to.
So I stood there, my pink shirt pointing the right away and helping them find the most direct route back through the blowing, shifting sands, and the Spirit whispered to me, “This is why we stand in holy places.” Tears flowed down my cheeks while I still stood, being the anchor and the beacon so that my little brood could get out of the painful sandblasting storms in the quickest, easiest way possible. My tears flowed and I pondered. I wanted to help, but this was a job for the priesthood. So I sent my priesthood holder out to fetch the one who was too weak to make it back, to strengthen the ones who were struggling to help, and to catch the one who was going astray before he was too lost to turn back. But then all of them--priesthood included--needed me to stand and show them where to go, and that someone was waiting to receive and comfort them and acknowledge their struggles and thank them for their sacrifices and love them and give them a refuge and a rest and food when they got back. We stand in holy places, I understood, to show others where they need to aim for, and because being the beacon helps them get there. We stand in holy places so the ones going astray can find the way back, and so the ones on their way but struggling have somewhere to look for comfort and hope and encouragement, and so they don’t get lost, too. I understood that sometimes we run out to rescue, and sometimes we stand still so everyone can find their way back. Especially when the pull of the wrong way is so strong.
When Elijah got within earshot, he said, “I was going the wrong way, but Dad told me and once I saw you, I knew where to come.” His track was very straight. I remembered earlier in the day when Nathanael had been the very first to trudge back through the heat to the sandy, shady shelter we’d found. I had marveled at what a straight line he made in coming to me. I asked him how he had found me, and he said, “Dad told me which direction to head, so I did and once I saw you there, it was easy.” I realize now that it was important for them to see me, but before they could see me they had to trust Tim and follow his instructions. This is so much what faith is, and what we are supposed to do. Nathanael couldn’t seem me at first, even though I could see him. The lay of the dunes obscured me. But he followed his father’s instructions perfectly and made a straight line until he could see, and then he could come right to me. Elijah spotted me from afar and came toward me, but the storms were too strong and the pull of the way most people were going was distracting, and once he couldn’t see me, he ended up going astray by accident. But his father saw that and redirected him, and he followed those instructions until he, too, could see, and he came to me.
It was all so amazingly laid out before me--the understanding that I was working even by holding still, and that sometimes you can barely see the indicators of the right way to go and you really have to cling to them because it’s just a prick of light instead of a bright beacon--to stay focused and tune out the distractions or you lose sight of the way, and of why we stand in holy places, and that sometimes we seek and sometimes we stand, and the idea that we follow the instructions first even when we can’t see and that eventually leads us to see so we can move forward more quickly and surely. And all of this is faith and the gospel.
We loaded up in the van and headed back, watching a gorgeous sunset as we drove.
This has been important to me as I listened to General Conference. The prophet asked the women to step away from social media, which I was attempting to use to help people see issues that we need to act on. At first, I thought, "I can't leave people who need help! What about the immigrant children, and people who need more information on a topic, and people who need encouragement, and....and...and...." and the thought came to mind, "Sometimes we seek; sometimes we stand."