There is a sublime moment outdoors: you are working hard, hiking up a steep incline or navigating a difficult current, and then suddenly you lift your head and see something that drops the bottom out of your perception of the world you are passing through. The picture above is of that moment at Guadalupe Mountains, as I came around a switchback that opened out into a view that goes on as far as your mind will take it. There’s a spot just like that at Big Bend as you reach the end of Laguna Meadows Trail and it crosses over to join the South Rim Trail. You come around a bend, the bottom drops out, and all you can do is stop and say “Wow!” And then I get angry a bit, mad that I can’t see this stuff all the time, cursing my own doing because you really can’t blame anyone else in the world for where you really are, and then I breathe out and let it go and fall in to what I’ve come to see.
Learning to see things really well is a great gift of the outdoors. I remember arriving in the Maldives, and one day our boat captain–a man who had never scuba dived himself–said he wanted to show me a nice dive site he knew about. He took us out in the middle of the atoll, far from any visual references, looked down, and told me “there is the big reef with the hole where you will tie the boat, there is the little reef next to it, and out to the side is the third reef.” I looked down, saw only water that went on forever, and said “just give me the rope” before diving down to where, as he’d said, I’d find the hole in the reef 30 feet down. You dive, and you learn, and one day you have your own boat out in the middle of an ocean full of visual references that you have learned to see, and you point out the dive site in detail to a boatload of people who trust you but see only water that goes on forever.
This trip to Guadalupe Peak amazed me by the universality of what makes being “outdoors” special. I had forgotten what wind, real wind that you have to deal with for long periods and adapt to, feels like. In New Caledonia we lived on the windward side of a very big island, and the strength and direction of the wind determined pretty much everything we did each day, despite the fact that the daily forecast for six years was always “sunny, with winds of 10-15 knots.” Dead calm or full hurricane, the French National Weather Service played it safe by sticking with the average.
The U.S. National Park Service was not kidding when their website informed me that “strong winds are a constant on Guadalupe Peak. Gusts of 80 mph are not unusual, and 50 mph winds are common.” I was pretty proud of pitching my new tent without too much trouble in that 50 mph wind (note to tent manufacturers: please include a warning with new tents that states “as you unpack your new tent, pay attention to how it is rolled up, because you’re going to have to get all this back into the bag when you’re done”). And about the “2-person” tent designation: you will have to be really good friends with that second person before fitting the two of you in there. I was comfortable enough, but when the wind picked up to 60-70 knots that night it felt a bit claustrophobic. And don’t judge me by that picture–I know what you’re thinking. There were times at night when the wind literally sounded like a freight train as it roared across the peak above me, and I knew that I’d momentarily feel the downblast as it rolled off the backside of the mountain. Unable to sleep, I went outside my tent somewhere around midnight, just to feel that kind of power working against me again. Those stars, that infinite night sky I had come to see, was right where it was supposed to be, reminding me how small I was, to be humble as I considered my place in the midst of so much. To my astonishment, the desert floor at night was lit like a large but dispersed city, and remained lit all night long. All that oil fracking apparently takes place in the night, and when you pass through during the day you will not see very much outside the road. Amazing.
I was pretty happy to jump out of my tent a few minutes before sunrise. It’s something to see, on a big, flat horizon like that. I broke camp, confused by my only half-full backpack, which had seemed over-loaded just yesterday. Had I forgotten my sleeping bag somewhere? I hadn’t really eaten very much, so the only thing I could figure out to explain so much more space than the day before was all the water I’d drunk. Either that, or something big blew away up there, but I figure if I don’t miss it, it couldn’t have been that important.
The last mile up to the top was easy, compared to the day before. I just left my pack at the campsite and hauled ass, because I had a suspicion that once I came down I wouldn’t have any choice but to make the drive back home and I wanted to get through that with some daylight left. The view from the top was what you would imagine I felt obliged to get a picture of myself at the top, just to prove I’d been there, and also a little bit because I hope that some day 10,000 years from now, someone will uncover my digital image and invent some kind of really cool story about the man on the mountaintop who was obviously king of the world.
I also felt obliged to injure myself just a little, because that’s how I roll and also I didn’t have any dramatic pictures up to this point. Your own blood reminds you that you are not Superman.