An expanse of coarse sand that serves up a distinct first impression of “toxic wasteland” or “nuclear storage site”, the West Greenwich Sand Dunes transport you and your family to the post-apocalypse. In other words, the perfect place to go for a walk in 2020!
There is an official entrance and parking lot, but I and a few others chose to park on a turnoff off Hopkins Hill Road. I recommend this approach because it drops you right out on top of the eastern set of dunes. Big signs warn that hunter orange is required. Approximately two of the eight people and one of the three dogs I saw were wearing orange.
A short (20 feet) wooded path opens up into the sandy expanse. The other set of dunes, due west from where I’m standing, hunch in the distance, oddly geometric with flat tops and steep sides. Winding stripes of snow linger in the small undulations left by dirt bikes and ATVs, which provide just enough change in aspect to protect the snow from the late-afternoon sun.
I wander south across the eastern dunes until I reached the tallest one. The sun shines brightly, glinting off the quartz in the sand, not enough to warm you up but enough to make you squint. The slope beckons, and with an imagined yell, I sprint down it, arms swinging wildly, feet kicking up dust, almost floating, losing control of my self and releasing the rage and resignation of this pandemic year. The flat bottom comes up too quickly, and I wheel and skid to a stop.
At the base of the dune, stones have been laid into a fire pit and the letter S. I turn around and trudge back up the sand, embracing the sisyphean: a reckless sprint down, a grunting climb up, over and over. The first time up the hill is the hardest, then your feet slowly carve in stair steps: our present selves setting up the success of our future efforts. Even if the dream is to throw yourself back down the mountain.
Warm enough now to shed my jacket, I set my sites on the western dunes. To get there, I have to cross a borderland of sandy expanse to reach the knife-edge of a scraggly grassland with three roads cutting through it. Left, middle, right? I choose what’s right in front of me, so head down the middle road, green grass poking through the tire treads, my browned-white Keds sucking the wet mud.
After an interminable amount of time, dazed and glazed, I find myself at the other edge of the grassland. Ahead, a black shape on the sand that looks like the burnt wreckage of a WavyGuy. I squint and approach. I have a weird vision that it’s a large snake, coiled and anticipatory. The mirage clears into three charcoaled logs.
Maybe because they are shaded, but these dunes don’t provide the same pleasure even though they are taller. I walk up one, hesitating at a piece of pink quartz, picking it up and running my thumb across it’s smoothed face. The place feels unnatural enough that I leave the stone on the mountain. At the top, I find the steepest point. I charge down, and I’m ready to head for home.Written on December 13th, 2020 by Elizabeth Case