Letting The Bottom Drop Out

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. img209

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.” 030 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. 034 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 049 051I 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. 063

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.




Did you know that the Mescalero Apache weren’t actually called the Mescalero Apache? They thought their name was the Nde, according to the very first paragraph of the National Parks Service’s map and brochure covering Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Everybody else called them the Mescalero Apache, but they thought they were the Nde. Boom, just like that, I learned something new. Further on, the brochure explains that “explorers and pioneers saw the mountains as an important landmark . . . but the Nde did not welcome the intrusion of new people.” In hindsight, that seems reasonable.

I was still steaming about everybody else trying to tell the Nde that they were actually the Mescalero Apache, insisting that they were someone whom they fundamentally were not, as I took off from the trailhead with a couple of hours daylight left to make it up to the campsite. Like Big Bend, one of the things that makes Guadalupe beautiful is that there is almost no one else there. The parking lot was nearly empty, and at that hour you needed to be either on your way to a hotel019 somewhere far away, or pretty close to pitching your tent. There is not much “in between” at Guadalupe Mountains–you are either camping in the backcountry, or you are not in the park. That lack of people made even the lower trail feel like an adventure, until I ran into more Germans coming down the trail.  Well dressed, these Germans.  One old guy following a severely old guy, but one who exuded health and vigor.  Maybe he was Austrian.  “You are going to sleep on the mountain?” he asked.  “You will not be alone; I saw another backpacker at the campsite.”  All I could think to say was “too bad!” and laugh, but I thought it was pretty cool that this ancient hiker wanted me to understand that he had made it up as far as the backcountry campsite (Later, at the deserted campsite and peak, I wondered what he needed to prove to me important enough to lie about.  No one likes being lied to by vigorous old men).

Nde actually means “The People,” which sort of surprised me because the people where I used to live were called Kanak, which also means “The People.”  Like the Inuit, I suppose that the Nde felt sort of like they were it, all there was in the world, and everything else emanated outward from their being.  The Kanak took it a step further:  they historically didn’t call themselves anything at all, and kanak is a Polynesian word used to identify “the people”–lower case–living on this new-found Melanesian island.  Kanaks identify themselves more with their place, their tribal origin–I am a Linderalique, or I am a Koulnoue, a Pindache.  We are so far now from that.  I am simply George.

The hike up was not easy, but there are worse difficult things to do.  I reminded myself frequently how much I prefer moving fast with nothing but food and water, sleeping near the trailhead and avoiding carrying the heavy load.  Without the pack, you are freer to lift your head and look about, but as the weight of the pack increases so does my tendency to look only down.  But the whole point of this particular trip was to sleep near the top, get a little closer to touching the stars.  I am not knowledgeable about the stars, but I know what I like.  I lay on my back one night long ago, purely by happenstance, in an empty clearing surrounded by silent jungle.  The night sky was enormous, and I felt my mind expand out beyond its confines as it tried to take in this immensity and all that it implied.  And slowly, discreetly, from little corners of the bush around me, I became aware of the intricacy of human experience right there on my little piece of solid earth, suspended beneath infinity.  Kanak women walking down the trail home; a pair of Gendarmes hiding in their jeep in the trees, hoping to catch a peeping tom; just above me, dozens of rousette, giant fruit bats, taking off for their nightly foraging.  The stars make you part of everything, and nothing.

The trail up climbs 3,000 feet in a very short distance, and it was washed out in several places due to early September storms. 025  026

I broke the tension during one particularly steep stretch when I whined a bit and asked “Geez, does this trail only go up?”  To which I responded, after more reflection than you would think necessary, that “Yes, it does only go up.  You are walking to the highest point in the State of Texas.  Just exactly how stupid are you?”  Even when you know who you are, it’s good to ask questions.

Arbeit Macht Frei

The only other visitor at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park Visitor’s Center had a precise German accent and very nice clothes. “Are there any restaurants in which to eat here?,” a reasonable question unless you’ve looked at the map or any other traveller’s information before driving hundreds of miles out into the middle of the West Texas desert. “I am from Germany, and our parks have restaurants.” I was in a bit of a hurry to get moving, but my brain couldn’t resist thinking “and I am from Texas, and took a couple of minutes to read the Park info and know that the closest gas and food is 37 miles away, ma’am.” Instead, I tried using the only German phrase I knew, make her feel at home: “you’ve pretty much got to carry in anything you want to eat and fix your own food, but arbeit macht frei.”  arbreitOkay, I didn’t actually say that to her, but–again–my brain couldn’t shut up.

Beverly at the register let me know that the government would probably be shut down and the park closed by the time I got back, but not to worry, enjoy your camping.  She even said that I was free to hike other trails once I’d finished overnighting on Guadalupe Peak, but then politely pointed out that all the other trails were closed due to recent storm damage.  She laughed when I asked if the Park Rangers would be issuing citations while on furlough.

Guadalupe Mountains really is out in the middle of nowhere.  I’ve been a couple of times to Big Bend, which is now a place which I used to consider out in the middle of nowhere.  It’s basically the same trip out west to the two parks:  I leave home around 5:30 in the morning, and once I get out past Fredericksburg, out near Harper, my brain finally accepts that I really am going to drive eight hours straight just to go for a hike.  Then I loosen up a bit, and always feel like my brain is clawing its way out of a sack of really vile goo.  This was the first time I’d made the drive through intermittently thick fog, which was fine except for the fact that during all my other trips down this road I have always been amazed by the constant presence of deer crossing the road or squished on the centerline.010I figured at 50 mph or 80, either way I wasn’t going to be able to miss the thing, and perhaps slowing down would just expose me to the danger for a longer period.  A man can rationalize just about any behavior he finds convenient.

Fort Stockton is where you turn south for Big Bend, and this is where everything changes as you head northwest instead for a roundabout ride to Guadalupe Mountains.  The landscape down to Big Bend is “empty,” but it rolls and there is always something in the distance that tempts your eye.  The landscape into the desert above Ft Stockton, out in the direction of Pecos, is something else entirely.  Imagine an abandoned, overgrown drive-in movie theater parking lot.  Now take away the screen, but leave perhaps the abandoned projection booth on top of the empty refreshment stand, because you do occasionally cross inexplicable shacks off from the road. 011

I eventually arrived in Pecos, and passing the high school the first thought I had was “Pecos Seniors ’14, Get Out Now!”  I would normally say you can’t judge a place just from one drive-through, but they weren’t hiding anything behind wooded hills in Pecos.  What they do have in Pecos, and for the next 100 miles or so, is a never-ending procession of fracking industry big rigs, tanker trucks, drilling equipment, and thousands and thousands of pickup trucks.  North of Pecos–I would say “between Pecos and . . . ,” but I never discovered anything permanent after Pecos–you are rolling through a moonscape, surrounded by everything our technology can think of that rolls, grumbles, and drills.

And out in the middle of this moonscape, in the middle of a road so straight you’d have to work hard to screw something up, I came upon the most masculine, industrial traffic jam I have ever seen.  Somewhere further down the road, a drilling rig headed one way had hit a double-wide trailer being hauled the other, and all this industry came to a halt.014As far as the eye could see, nothing but pickups and oil field workers, and me in my mini-van with the Semper Fidelis sticker on the back.

After an hour and a half of waiting, I see a guy drive his pickup up to the head of the line, turn around, and stop at each vehicle on his way back.  “If you want to know how to get around this, follow me!”  Yes, yes!  A man among men, someone to take charge, I will follow him!  His eyes may be huge and dilated, he may be very excited, he may have even giggled crazily as he formed up his posse, but . . . he is driving a very big pickup truck, and I am driving my minivan.  So I did not do a u-turn, but sat and waited, watching for the trail of dust as Pancho Villa and his army of oil field workers blazed off through the desert.

And sure enough, after another 20 minutes of waiting, I see off in the distance the enormous billowing dust as tanker trucks and pickups race down Pancho’s shortcut.  Surely, I think, if all those vehicles can make it down that caliche road at that speed, I can do it in a minivan without breaking an axle.  Manhood has spoken, and u-turn I make. 016This picture was taken at the beginning, before I got deep into rig country, before we were bumper to bumper at 50 mph, before I appreciated that the trucks and rigs coming the other way would also be barrelling down this road.  It was pretty cool, that primal moment with my brother roughnecks, understanding that nothing makes you feel more like a man than playing hard and not breaking your toys.

Which brings me almost to the actual hike up Guadalupe Peak and the overnight, which will have to wait until tomorrow.