Sandboarding the Ica Desert


"So, where do we go?" I was barefoot in the powder-soft sand, surrounded by dunes as far as I could see. There were no markers, or tracks, or paths near our dune buggy—just nine white tourists, a Peruvian, and our guide, standing in a line on the crest of a towering ridge that overlooked the vastness of the Ica desert.

"I think this is the first run," the guy next to me replied incredulously, looking down the mountain face. The group shifted nervously as we awaited instructions. We each held something resembling a repurposed longboard with the wheels stripped, and black straps tacked haphazardly where feet used to go.

I peered down the side of the mountain—it was so steep that if I were somehow lucky enough to make it to the bottom without capsizing and breaking my neck, then my board would surely drive itself in the ground like a stake—and then I would break my neck. I looked at the faces of the group. "It's a joke. He's messing with us." I turned to the flip-side of the dune. It sloped gently, like a beginner's hill at a ski lodge. "I bet we go on this side."

The group turned away from the drop-off hopefully, but our guide spoke impatiently, and turned our shoulders back towards the steep descent, shoving pieces of a broken candle into our hands to rub against our boards. I was the last to start waxing, and grumbled under my breath all the while—he's insane... he's going to get us all killed—and scraped the length of the board vigorously until I realized that purpose of the waxing was greater speed.

This done, we all kicked at the sand, and our guide looked the circle around with a grin. "Who first?" he asked in English.

That was probably his favorite sentence, I thought resentfully.

We all avoided eye contact. I carefully surveyed the bottom of my board and brushed some superfluous grains away.

"I'll go," A tall Australian girl broke in. He waved her over approvingly and set her board on the edge. It was an awkward matching—her body was much too long for the board, and the top of her thighs and legs were suspended off the end. She was still asking a question about where to hold on when he shot her over the edge. In seconds she was gone out of sight; none us breathed until she zoomed back into view and halfway up the next slope from the momentum.

I made a deal with myself that if five more of our group made it down without a fatality, then I would be the sixth (I know, I'm a real hero) and miraculously, five made it down without incident. I brought my board dutifully to the side and laid on my stomach, grasping the makeshift grips near the front, and squeezing my elbows close to my sides, trying to figure out how the hell to steer and balance.

Our guide gestured for me to scoot further back, so I slide until my legs were against the sand from my knees down. "Like this?" I asked anxiously.

"Si." He replied without concern. "You ready?"

"Not yet," I answered, needing a few more deep breaths.

"Ok," he answered with equal firmness, "keep your chin up," and with a strong push, I was sent hurtling over the edge of the mountain.

There was no way to slow down, or steer, or resist. If I was going to die, then I was going to die. Once I accepted this, something else surprised me. I realized it was quiet, that I was soaring below the wind, over the face of the earth. And it all faded—the shouts, the fears, the other people—until it was only me, with my ears so close to the sand that I could hear Her shifting and shaping beneath me, carrying me to the bottom, until I slowed down and stopped.

I tipped over and laid on my back in the sand. Those swift seconds were like nothing I'd ever felt before...the rush, the speed, the fear, the unexpected intimacy with the earth—I felt and ineffably alive and terrified to do it all again.

The next three dunes, we were without our guide, and I pushed off on my own. The group completed the challenge with only minor injuries—some scrapes, a few sand-burns, a bloodied knee—all buzzing with adrenaline as we trekked back to the dune buggy. It was a full hour later before my heart stopped pounding in my ears.

I'll never forget that experience, or how close I was to missing it. I want my life to be full of experiences that flood my senses and connect me more deeply to the wonder and awe in life. An existence that keeps my heart pounding in my ears, just like this. Turns out, I need every guide the Universe brings me, especially those with the gall to push me over the edge while I'm still saying "not yet." Maybe someday I'll stop resisting risk altogether.

To end with the words of my guide-now-guru, "You ready? Ok. Keep your chin up."

Let's be brave and foolhardy together.