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Sand Blast

Catch the new wave of extreme sports at Monahans Sandhills State Park.

By Dan Oko

I had not planned on being in a rush as I completed my West Texas road trip last spring. But there I was, speeding toward Monahans Sandhills State Park after a few days in Big Bend National Park, hoping to catch a glimpse of a little-studied species of recreationist known as a sandrider, sand-boarder or sand surfer. I had heard rumors of these distinctive dune-bound athletes - brothers to the skateboarders found cruising urban landscapes and sisters to the snowboarders found carving on snowy mountain slopes - but I had never seen one in the flesh. Alas, I arrived too late to catch local families sliding along the Monahans Sandhills - a sight I was certain would put me on the fast track to understanding the appeal of this not-so-lonely state park, which draws nearly 100,000 visitors each year.

On that fateful afternoon it appeared as though everybody but me had decided to dodge the heat and abandon the beautiful-yet-barren Monahans Sandhills in favor of shadier spots and air-conditioned enclaves. The native shin oak, a tree common to the area that rarely grows more than three feet tall, wasn't going to provide respite from the glare of the sun. About 30 minutes west of Odessa and a stone's throw from Interstate 20, the 3,840-acre park struck me, as it has many others, as a beach without water. Rolling dunes of translucent sand spread across the horizon in waves that recalled the inland sea that once occupied the Permian Basin where I now stood. Clumps of grasses swayed in the breeze. The horseback riders and birdwatchers who sometimes visit Monahans were nowhere to be seen. As the sun bore down, I found myself sharing the park with three college coeds working on their tans, not a sand surfer in sight.

While sandboarding has been around as a niche sport for decades, it has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Sandriders practice the art of navigating down a dune on a laminated plank in a manner that is nearly identical to big-wave surfers hanging 10 on ocean swells. Television commercials flash scenes of sand surfers set to rock-and-roll soundtracks. Web sites devoted to the sport have begun to pop up, including the online Sandboard magazine, www.sandboard.com, www.venomousboards.com. Extreme-sporting types looking to expand the world's playgrounds have formed Dune Riders International, a fledgling advocacy group "dedicated to the preservation of earth's dune systems for recreational and competitive sandboarding." And from South Africa to Germany and Peru to California, competitions have been sprouting like, well... beach grass through the dunes, boasting events such as rail slides, cliff jumps and slalom races.

Downhill Racer

Unfortunately, while I was there, the chance of my witnessing anybody practicing such tricks at Monahans Sandhills looked slim. Left to my own devices, I rented a plastic disk at the recently renovated Dunagan Visitor Center - the same sort of primitive sled we used on snow during my Yankee childhood - and, armed with a chunk of wax, I bade farewell to my inhibitions. From a likely looking ridgeline, I plunged headlong down a gently graded dune. After about 12 feet, the platter I rode sank quickly into the sand, pitching me down the hill and filling my collar with fine, pale granules. Peals of feminine laughter rained down from above. Ignoring them, I returned to my launching point and tried to guide my surfing apparatus from a sitting position. This resulted in a longer run, though once again I failed to reach the bottom, and felt none of the excitement associated with sports such as skiing and surfing.

Finally, I made my way to the apex of yet another, taller dune, a spot promising a steep leeward slope of some 60 feet or so to the bottom. Again, I launched myself headfirst down the hill. As I sped to the bottom, I imagined this might be as good as it gets: The low-key thrill left me feeling more like a kid in a sandbox than an intrepid adventurer, but it was good fun, nonetheless. After a few more successful runs, now parched and no longer so curious about the mysteries of sand surfing, I returned my "board" to the visitor center and retreated to my campsite.

The Sands of Time

Obviously, this sort of recreation is a relatively recent development at Monahans Sandhills. Geologists tell us the dunes were formed some 10,000 years ago. They extend from the Monahans area north almost 200 miles, into New Mexico. The shifting mosaic of sand, which originated in the ancestral floodplain of the nearby Pecos River, continues to provide scientists with clues as to the early life among the dunes. Primitive human remains going back to the sandhills' inception have been unearthed nearby, and as the sands move before the prevailing seasonal winds, ancient arrowheads and other artifacts have been unearthed. In the past, the sands also revealed the bones of mammoths, giant bison, camels and other extinct animals known to us by their skeletal remains alone.

Through the first half of the 19th century, European settlers tended to avoid the dunes, which were difficult to negotiate via wagon train and also harbored Native Americans, some of whom did not view these paleface newcomers entirely sympathetically. The Comanche tribes were among those who early on discovered the treasures hidden in these sandy hills, relying on the large acorns of the indigenous shin oak as well as on mesquite beans as food sources. The shin oak, despite its diminutive size, is not a dwarf version of another species but simply a small tree. Reliant on water deposits stored underneath the dunes, their roots can plumb depths of up to 70 feet. At Monahans, the shin oaks form a unique, full-scale forest in miniature.

In his 1850 report to the U.S. Secretary of War, Lieutenant N.H. Michler presciently described the dunes: "They are a perfect miniature Alps of sand: in the midst of them you see summit after summit spreading out in every direction, not a sign of vegetation upon them - nothing but sand piled upon sand." About 30 years after the army completed its survey, subterranean wells were discovered at Monahans, and the Texas and Pacific Railroad selected the nearby settlement as a watering stop. In 1928, oil was discovered in Ward County, and petroleum replaced ranching as the region's foremost industry. Today, Monahans Sandhills is one of several state parks that feature productive oil wells and working pump jacks, says superintendent Glen Korth, who has worked at the park since 1997.

Moreover, because Monahans Sandhills is one of the only places in the region where the public can access these dunes, many visitors aside from sandriders come to this spot. The park allows horseback riding on nearly 600 acres, and offers rides in a newfangled military jeep. The sandhills are also part of the Central Texas flyway, which means birdwatchers can find a variety of species, especially after rainfall fills the ponds sequestered in the hills. Avian residents include the burrowing owl and roadrunners, while colorful neotropical migrants can be found during fall and spring migrations. Wildlife watchers will want to keep an eye out for mammals, too, including mule deer, kangaroo rats, coyotes, bobcats, foxes and jackrabbits. Even those who fail to spot feather or fur can pick out tracks in the sand. Taking advantage of its relative seclusion and the absence of nearby city lights, park managers lately have begun hosting a series of stargazing parties.

For many, the ever-shifting sands themselves provide yet another source of fascinating entertainment. Says superintendent Korth: "It's ghostly the way the sand moves. It's real eerie sometimes, like a fog. I'll tell you, it's a unique feeling being out there when it blows around like that." He adds that the wind's capacity to rearrange the landscape - in some cases overnight - eliminates concerns over the impact of sand surfing on the environment. On the other hand, the park does caution visitors to avoid treading on the sensitive vegetation, which helps stabilize the dunes, including grasses such as sand bluestem, sand reed and the romantically named plains lovegrass. Yucca and cactus can also be found in the park.

The Sands of Time

"We're an uncommon breed," says Thomas Rodman of Odessa, who at age 71 may be the world's oldest living sand-rider. The hobby seems to be keeping him preternaturally youthful. He's tall and lean, and though his hair is completely white, he walks with the bearing of someone nearly half his age. Rodman water-skis and recently began wakeboarding, a water-skiing offshoot requiring plenty of strength and agility. "Sliding down is great fun," he says of sand surfing. "It's also a great workout. For an older person, it helps you keep your sense of balance, and for someone my age that's especially helpful because people are always falling down and breaking bones. Of course, once you get to the bottom, getting back to the top takes some work, and that's where the workout comes in. Climbing back up the dune is great aerobic exercise."

In the lingo of board jocks of all stripes, Rodman would be known as "old school." A sandriding pioneer, he has worked with local cabinetmakers to improve his equipment, developing designs for bigger boards, adding metal fins to improve steering, and acting as an unofficial ambassador for the sport. For nearly 35 years, Rodman says, he and his family have been enjoying sand surfing. His best-ever ride to date carried him about 75 feet, which is about the limit anyone could expect to travel at Monahans, where the dunes rarely top 70. To this day, Rodman tries to hit the dunes twice a week.

Before I left the park, though, I still wanted to garner a glimpse of the new-school sandriders who might join Dune Riders. As evening fell, though, my aspiration to make a connection with the young lions of sand surfing began fading like the setting sun. I took solace in the fact that the campground had been filling up with travelers on their way across the Great Plains - hey, this was a popular place after all - and the sights and sounds of the desert as nocturnal creatures began to awaken. A bright moon had begun to shine, and I realized that I had inadvertently timed my visit to catch the full moon. I hurried to the top of a nearby mound, and waited for the moon to come up over the horizon. That's when I saw them: In the heart of the park, like refugees from the set of some modern-day Lawrence of Arabia, a pack of students taking a break from studying for finals at Odessa College were trudging across the dunes.

As I approached, I could hear their whoops of celebration, and I watched from afar as they swooped down the dunes of luminescent quartz. They took turns riding a polished water-ski, a pair of wheel-less skateboard decks that had been smoothed to slick gloss on their bottoms, and a strange-looking Formica board with a small box for the toes of the front foot and grippy sandpaper on top to hold the rider's heels in place. As they carved the now-cool sand, a ride of 75 feet began to look like an eternity.

These young sandriders glowed with the adrenaline I had sought that afternoon. It didn't take much to convince them I wasn't going to bust them; anyway, they had done nothing wrong. Soon, I was whooping alongside them, flying down the dunes, attempting to turn this way and that, trying to spin the board in circles as I plummeted toward the base. My heart was still racing when my companions bade me goodnight and scampered off like apparitions in the direction of the parking lot, leaving me to my campsite and dreams of sand-born adventures in the Sahara, along the Oregon Coast, at Monahans. I had arrived that day in a rush, but the next morning I was in no hurry to leave.

Dan Oko writes for Outside, Men's Journal and other publications from his base in Austin.

Getting There

To reach Monahans Sandhills State Park, take I-20 west of Odessa for 27 miles to exit 86. Turn right (north) onto SR - Park Road 41. The park entrance fee is $2 per person, 12 and under are free. Camping fees are $9 for sites with electricity. For more information call 800-792-1112 or visit Monahans Sandhills State Park. For reservations call (512) 389-8900 or go to Park Reservations page.

Sand toboggans and disks can be rented at park headquarters. Along with sand surfing, other park activities include hiking, picnicking, camping and bird and wildlife watching. The Dunagan Visitor Center features hands-on exhibits of the cultural and natural history of the sandhills, including dune dynamics, Permian Basin heritage and wildlife habitat.

Dune Riders International is an organization dedicated to the preservation of the earth's sand dunes for recreational and competitive sandboarding. For more information about joining Dune Riders International, visit www.duneriders.org or call (760) 373-8861.

- Kim Tilley

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