Call me Honey Badger
During the eight hour drive to Guadalupe Mountains National Park I decided that I had had enough of obeying the dictates of time and distance. “I need to be on the trail by 2 P.M. to make it up to Bush Mountain and set up camp before the sun sets and it gets frickin’ cold and dark.” Bullshit. It’s fucking oppressive. So I just let go of one of those constraints, and it didn’t really matter which. Just not both at the same time. Never again.
I struggled with this dilemma as I passed Ozona, Texas, which for reference is the last place to get gas before you make it to Fort Stockton, an hour and a half away. Or 108 miles, if you’re keeping track of distance, too.
Sixty miles beyond Ozona, immersed in the flow of time, I checked my gas gauge, which cares only for distance. With 48 miles to go across that emptiness to Fort Stockton, all I could quietly say was “I hate to make mistakes.” West Texas is not a place to make mistakes in your car .
There really isn’t any Plan B out there.
“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation”
Have you ever heard of Bakersfield, TX? Neither have I. It is not on the map. It was not on the road between Ozona and Fort Stockton all the other times I’ve driven out there. But there it was, right at the exit ramp as I ran out of gas, consisting exclusively of a gas station. It was not there on my return trip. Call it Trail Magic.
Later, heading up Tejas Trail, I felt strong. I flew. I was so grateful for my body, all it does for me. I carry a little Tiger Eye stone with me most days for the positive vibes, but I’d left it in my car before heading off because I didn’t want to lose it. I felt so good–joyous, and overwhelmed with gratitude. “My Tiger Eye must be going crazy back in my car, this is just so incredibly good!” At the top of Tejas, after the hard climb, I stuck my hand in my left pocket . . . and my Tiger Eye was there, love made tangible in the palm of my hand.
Bush Mountain is another couple of hours past the top of Tejas, but by the time I reached it I was asking myself why I needed to go that far the first day, why not stop at Pine Top, and maybe just spend two nights up top instead of three? That whole section of trail is nothing but unstable limestone and incline, and the 25 pounds of water I carried for three days out was kicking my ass. I no longer flew, and was not strong. That evening I collapsed in my tent.
Honey Badger is my trail name. Rob Graham bestowed it on me somewhere near Greys and Torreys years ago, but at the time and since, I didn’t feel I deserved it. Real backpackers have trail names, people who thru-hike the PCT and AT. Rob and I were going up Mt. Taylor in New Mexico a couple of years ago and met some thru-hikers: “What’s your trail name?,” to which Rob could answer authentically “A Lo Hawk,” while I just looked off and pretended to not hear the question. I knew the truth, that I had not committed to Honey Badger.
“I quietly take to the ship.”
I’d decided I needed to get as far as Bush Mountain the first night, because I wanted to make it all the way to McKittrick Ridge by the second night, so that I could come out through The Bowl and Bear Canyon my last day. Time and distance. Fucking oppressive. And it occurred to me that I had decided to make this hike because I had also decided to not do something else, and so this trip needed to damn well be worth whatever I had decided to give up. It was easy to push myself after that understanding–everything I do needs to be worth what I choose to give up.
New to me, McKittrick Ridge was beautiful. The trail had actual soil in it, not just rocks, and there hadn’t been any fires up there for quite some time. I flew. I decided that evening to leave my bag of trash in the small foyer area of my tent. Around 3 a.m. I was awoken by a sound my brain instantly recognized as a small trash bag being pulled out of a tent, and yelled “Bring that back!” Got out of the sleeping bag and tent in time for a stare-down with the biggest ringtail I’ve ever seen. “Just walk away, wanna-be raccoon, just walk away.” Ugly-ass; that’s right, just keep walking. Fuck with my trash? I don’t think so.
I let go of time. The miles are hard in GMNP, scrambling up and down crumbled limestone trails, and then there’s all that water to carry, and a cruel sun. But the time–the time just is. For those of you who know me, you might be surprised to learn I have problems with linear time. I’m pretty good at showing up for appointments and work on time, but it really doesn’t register with me that one thing might precede or follow another. Time is a great, flowing river; I jump in and out, travel along in my stream, passing by and through other streams of time, each very real and tangible. I feel immersed in all of it, but my relationship to it is a human construct. It has caused me a lot of sadness.
From McKittrick it was a pretty easy shot out to Pine Top for my last night. Every step became an imperative: make this moment worth what I chose to give up that brought me here, to this place right now. I offered myself a few additional miles by looping off the main trail through The Bowl, hotter and drier than I’d expected. “Why did I decide to do this?,” but I knew that answer. That evening, situating my tent, laughing after two brief loses of consciousness followed by partial blindness, I rewarded myself with 16 ounces of water and an early dinner. It had been a day worth living.
That last morning out I was up very early. The trail down from Pine Top is practicable in the dark, and walking down a desert mountainside under the stars fills me with a deep sense of peace and contentment. About half way down, my headlamp caught a radiating glow on the trail, the eye of a nighthawk sitting quietly as I passed, invisible save for that eye. When she realized she was not, in fact, invisible, the silence of her taking flight was remarkable–no beating of wings or rustling of brush, only a silent transition from stillness to flight. Further down, I passed through a trail section of quartz, and a thousand twinkling flecks reflected back my light underneath a thousand-starred night sky.
I reached the trailhead and my car right at sunrise, where everything was luminous, if not yet clear.
Like Ishmael, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin. Call me Honey Badger.