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.

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