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.

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