When I checked in at the Ranger Station for my backcountry permit, the Ranger was unusually nice and conversational. I’m always preoccupied checking in, thinking about the next step and in a hurry to be on the trail, so I wasn’t really listening when he said what sounded like “make sure you secure all your food at Marcus; we’re having problems with drunken cowgirls there.”
I know my way around GMNP pretty well now, and if you’re going to find cowgirls anywhere in the park it would be there. Still, this gave me pause. “I’m sorry, did you say there’s drunken cowgirls at Marcus?” He just looked at me, made a little noise somewhere between a sigh and a groan, and said “Well, no. Javelinas–there have been problems with packs of javelinas overrunning the Marcus campsite. Make sure you secure all your food and gear.” And just like that, before I had even begun, my three-night backcountry trip suddenly seemed slightly less interesting than it could have been.
I wanted to test out some new tactics this trip–a lighter, smaller tent, less food and clothing, less water–in preparation for this season’s later big hikes. I had this weird idea that I could be stronger and faster this year than last. I call it “checking out the machine.”
The machine let me know right away that I’d forgotten how hard the hiking is in GMNP. The trails are mostly rocky rubble, and going downhill in particular is a misery on the feet and knees. You work hard to get to the top of some pass or mountain, but once there you are instantly robbed of any sense of accomplishment because now the trail is going down before it clearly goes right back up the next peak.
Normally I go through an initial phase of wondering why I was out there doing something so uncomfortable when I could be drinking a coffee and reading in my back yard, but not this time. The views are always stunning, no matter how many times you see them. But it is the absolute silence you sometimes find way outdoors that is life changing. First, you’re aware of the silence, and then you think about how constant noise has somehow become an integral part of your life, and then you take a breath and feel the silence change something inside you. It is a wonderful feeling.
I made it to Marcus my second night: neither cowgirls nor javelinas appeared, but it’s pretty easy to imagine either at that spot. That western side of the park was once ranchland, and there’s even a corral down in Dog Canyon. As usual, I had the park to myself, which I always find amazing. It affords the rare opportunity to take yourself and other humans out of the center of your thinking, to recall that life does not revolve around us alone.
You generally don’t see a lot of wildlife in Guadalupe Mountains, although I have seen clear evidence of deer, elk, and mountain lions. Knowing they’re there, as you walk along you wonder where they’re hiding. But if you’ve ever stumbled into the ass of a bull moose you had not noticed prior, then you know how hard to see even the largest animals are when they don’t want to be seen.
What you do see are a lot of strong and beautiful plants. You find an agave (they were popping up everywhere), and your brain just can’t imagine “why?” What’s the point of this perfect mandala on top of some desert mountain in the middle of nowhere? Why make it beautiful when there’s no one there to see it? It just needs to work, not please me. It’s a bit like finding a gift with no card on your front porch when it’s not even your birthday.
I came across this plant up on top of Bush Mountain. You have to understand, Bush Mountain is up around 8,000 feet–literally straight up from the desert below and one of the tallest points in Texas. It was cold, and the wind was gusting up to 50 mph, and here was this plant, flowering. I looked at this thing, so alive in such a hard place to live. I thought “what would make a life in a place like this? On a rock? It is so very much alive.” But of course I was just imagining myself in the plant’s place, as though what I wanted out of my life mattered at all to this plant. I mean, I like visiting places like this, but I wouldn’t want to live there and raise a family. But it might as easily have asked me “and what is this man doing here, where there are no drunken cowgirls, or even bands of rampaging javelinas?”
It takes precisely two hours and seventeen minutes to hike from Pine Springs trailhead to the Pine Top campsite carrying a full load of water and gear for two nights in the Guadalupe Mountains backcountry. I know this because I had written that time on my map from a trip there three years ago, and that is exactly how long it took me this year as well. I do not believe in coincidences.
Pine Top is the first designated backcountry campsite after you’ve made it up Tejas Trail, only a 4 mile hike but a 2,300 foot elevation gain up a very rocky trail. Carrying all that water, you are happy to stop. As usual at Guadalupe Mountains National Park (GMNP), I had the place to myself–and by this I mean the entire 86,000 acre backcountry.
My plan was to go from Pine Top to McKittrick Ridge for the second night, then backtrack the ridge and come down and resupply with water at Dog Canyon Ranger Station on the isolated New Mexico side of the mountains. From there I could complete a loop of the Park on the west side, necessitating another 2,000-plus foot climb and two more nights. When I told the permitting Ranger that I needed permits for four nights, she professionally assessed me as possibly an idiot, but warmed up to me once I explained my plan and she realized how charming I am. Mostly, it was the plan.
On a side note here, on a GMNP trip I made a couple of autumns ago I was stopped by a Ranger on the trail who said I had an “ambitious itinerary” after he’d checked my permit (https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2018/11/13/the-sun-the-stars-and-the-fall/). At the time, I was pretty proud that a Ranger thought I was doing something “ambitious” in the backcountry, but I noticed this time that “ambitious itinerary” was actually written on my permit. I don’t know if this is some kind of NPS official terminology for potential fools or if I started something, but–again–I don’t believe in coincidences.
Although Ranger LeAnn was reassured that there was at least a minimal chance that I knew what I was doing, she was clearly extremely worried about fire in the Park. “You’ve been here before, so you can see how incredibly dry it is this year. We’ve had fires almost every week, and we’re just waiting for the big one to come roaring down the canyon and wipe everything out. Have a nice trip!”
That first night up in Pine Top, I awoke at 2 a.m. in a lightning storm. Curiously, in my little tent up high on a ridge, with white-bright flashes and instantaneous crashes of thunder seemingly just the other side of my thin fabric shelter, it didn’t register with me to be afraid. I was tired, and I just lay there thinking “this is so cool.” You feel close to something.
I was up early the next day and made the eight mile hike to McKittrick Ridge fairly easily; you are already on top, so although there is some up-and-down you do not really gain much altitude. I had come in to McKittrick two falls ago from the other end, and that is one of the most beautiful hikes in the Park, something I definitely recommend. After I set up my tent I had time to kill, and so hiked further down the ridge overlooking McKittrick Canyon. On my return I could hear a small plane buzzing circles back toward Pine Springs Canyon, and sure enough the lightning storm the night before had started a large fire near the trail I had come up–and needed to go back down to return to my car in three days.
That night I went to sleep worried about my route out, but I was already deep in the Park and really couldn’t do anything but go to sleep and take it a day at a time. A light rain began around 3 a.m., relieving my fire worries a bit, but shortly afterward I heard two small explosions not far away and instantly thought “what idiot is shooting fireworks out here?,” followed by “that’s the stupidest thought you’ve had in a long time.”
The next morning I stumbled out of my tent to find that the ridgetop was now in the clouds, and the rain was simply the moisture in the clouds accumulating on all the trees and precipitating out. My morning ritual is pretty much just sitting quietly stunned and staring into space as I wait for that first cup of coffee to reconnect me to the world, so the gradual realization that there was a very large tree lying across the trail in front of my tent that hadn’t been there the night before was consternating, but explained the explosions I’d heard. I suppose all that moisture and the drop in temperature finally sent the burned-out snag down. I have always thought that a tree coming down on your tent in the middle of the night was one of the stupidest ways to die in the backcountry (this is not as rare an occurrence as you would think), so I took the miss as a positive sign. Life is better when you look at a tree that could have randomly killed you but didn’t and think “well, that’s a good sign.”
The third day’s goal was to descend to Dog Canyon and fill my water bladders, take a short break, then head off to the Marcus campsite for the night. This section of trail would be the longest day of the trip, but I’d done it before and knew it wasn’t all that hard. I had just gotten past Lost Peak when I looked up and found a horse and rider blocking my path. But behind the wrangler in front were two mounted Rangers behind.
You know you’re in deep West Texas when you are having a conversation with a real working cowboy on his horse while you stand to the side to let him get on with his work–Dennis the wrangler, who would later offer to transport me in his truck to get me back to my car on the other side of the Park. “You’d drive me all the way to Pine Springs?” I asked, and he just looked at me and said “I don’t see what else we can do.”
The Rangers were wonderful, a credit to our already amazing National Park Service. “Have you heard about the fire?” the one who looked like a reformed biker asked, long braided beard and tatted up including “Live Free” on the knuckles of his left hand. I knew what was coming. “They’re asking everyone to exit the backcountry,” which I knew meant specifically me. We talked for a while, thought about me going back up to McKittrick and exiting at McKittrick Canyon, which would still put me 10 miles or so from my car. “You could try hitchhiking,” said the lady Ranger, who I was slowly falling in love with, long braid in back, those incredibly white and straight outdoorswoman teeth, up there on her horse wearing that hat. She was just totally rocking that Smokey Bear hat. But I laughed at the idea of someone picking me up out there in the middle of nowhere, and she laughed too, so we just left it at me needing to resupply with water at Dog Canyon and I’d figure it out from there.
There is not much to do in Dog Canyon, except resupply with water. It’s a nice place, but I wouldn’t want to stay there; I did notwant to stay there. There was not a cloud in the sky, but I could see the clouds spilling over the tops of the mountains like waves over a seawall, all that moisture I had come through in the morning trapped on the side of the mountains with the fire, and I was pretty sure the Rangers would tell me in the evening when they got back that I could continue on.
But of course I was dealing with a governmental agency, and so that evening I got the bad news from rough people, who nonetheless repeatedly thanked me for my “understanding and patience.” I just said “it’s not your fault, you didn’t start the fire,” but went to bed with a plan.
I figured that the fire was probably fairly drenched by all that moisture in the air on the other side of the mountains. I also figured that I could skirt whatever fire there was by following my planned route well west of Tejas, and would only have to pay close attention for that last section from the mountaintops down to my car at the trailhead. And I especially figured that I needed to get up early and pack my gear so I could sneak out of Dog Canyon before those Rangers showed up to work.
But Rangers and cowboys start work early. Dennis was there first, to take care of the horses. Then the other two starting work before anyone I know clocks in, driving up and pretending not to notice that my pack was completely packed and I was obviously getting ready to hit the trail. “Well, the entire Park backcountry is closed,” tattoos said evenly. “Let’s find out what can be done.”
From then on it was just an exercise in remembering how wonderful people can be. Dennis wouldn’t be able to drive me out until they’d finished their day of work upcountry clearing trail and fighting fires, but he was happy to help me when he came down. But the Park Host volunteer, Kevin (who is the only nice person named “Kevin” I have ever met), said he’d take me to Pine Springs. We had an incredible hour and a half drive across the New Mexico and Texas high desert, passing herds of elk and old mining roads while talking about retirement, and beer, how Jeff Bezos destroyed the West Texas cowboy economy, what truly matters, and many, many other things. You could do worse in a fire.
The sign just before the Guadalupe Mountains National Park entrance said I had entered the Mountain Time Zone, and then the Ranger who issued my backcountry permit let me know that the clocks were set back one hour further last night for the end of Daylight Savings Time. In the space of a few minutes I had traveled back in my life two hours, although the sun had not moved at all.
It was going to take about four and a half hours to get up to McKittrick Ridge from the canyon trailhead, and I needed to make it up the unfamiliar trail before that sun set. When darkness falls higher up, it gets very dark and very cold, very fast. You need to be ready to curl up in something warm while your hands still work.
McKittrick Canyon is known for its Fall colors, and the first few miles up the creekbed are easy and beautiful. The first few miles are also embarrassing, because you’ll be thinking you’re some kind of badass backpacker, but you’ll be passing families dragging along the 80-year old abuela to see the pretty leaves, and little Chinese schoolgirls dressed like they’re going to Disneyworld. But almost no one continues further into the backcountry from this side of the Park, and because you’ll stick out with your pack and tent you’re going to draw the attention of the authorities. I hadn’t even made it to the actual trailhead from my car when I heard “heading into the backcountry? Let me just check your permit,” which was sort of cool because the Ranger got all excited about my itinerary. He called it “ambitious.” No one has ever called me “ambitious.”
The grandmas and schoolgirls and families out for Fall pictures peter-out after the first three miles or so, and you’ll see a lot of moms or dads carrying exhausted kids for their long walk back, which also made me smile because I will never have to do that again. At 3.4 miles the path shoots up, narrows, and shoots up some more. You eventually hit The Notch, which looks like an actual notch cut in the mountainside. You step through The Notch, and you are mountain-goating the next few miles on a narrow and rough cliffside ledge. It is an impressive climb.
I will be turning 60 soon. I’m not really happy about it, but accept that it is as inevitable as the sun rising and setting, the stars moving across the sky, and the leaves changing with the seasons. I had put off all of this hiking for years, put off many things, waiting for circumstances to be just right, but circumstances are never just right. You are either going or you are not; there is no “want to go,” as Yoda says, and so I decided that I was never going to get any younger, and I should just get going. When you see sixty coming but still have so much you want to see and feel, you know you have not timed things right.
I never saw the sun set that first night. It dropped behind the mountains, with still a ways to go before it disappeared below the horizon and took its light with it. But when I arrived at my campsite I realized there had been no transition, no evening, just night, and the suddenly cooled air brought the strong winds that the Guadalupe Mountains are known for. I had planned on sleeping beneath the stars without my tent, just to feel that freedom, but at that moment all I could think of was getting out of that wind. I quickly pitched my tent and dove in, leaving dinner for breakfast tomorrow.
It is an astounding wind. In the Guadalupes you are aware that you are high above the surrounding land, because everywhere you look beyond the mountains, all you see is low, flat desert, and you know you are sort of sticking out up there, nearer to heaven.Laying in your tent at night, you hear that wind just overhead, like a jet sitting on the tarmac with its engines at full power but the brakes locked. And then you’ll hear this suddenly lower-pitched roar as the wind drops down out of the jet stream and hits the surrounding peaks, and you know you need to hunker down because in about five seconds it will be upon you–one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three . . . and when it does hit your tent it is as though the hand of God has smacked down on your little fabric cocoon, noticeably smashing a bit of the air out of your lungs.
I knew each day’s leg of this trip was going to be a long haul only because the trace on the map I’d follow was long, and so I planned to be up with the sun. But the sun never really rose. I would see the glow below the ridgeline, and then the next time I noticed the sun was up. It would seem to hover there, all day, somewhere between 1/3 and 3/4 of the way up, never crossing straight-up noon. The temperature at those elevations in the Fall doesn’t vary much–high 40’s to mid-50’s–and so without that mid-day cue I could never really tell whether I was hiking in the morning or in the afternoon. I just walked, deaf and blind to east or west, bathed in a sunlight that looked and felt filtered by a soft gauze through crystalline air.
You don’t meet other hikers in this part of the park. Perhaps an authority, checking the fucking permit of the only backcountry hiker in the whole 86,000 acre park. But on my way down to Dog Canyon to re-supply with water, I met a guy hiking up for the day about five miles from the Dog Canyon trailhead who looked like he’d spent a good life outdoors. He was happy, amazed at the beauty, and then he said “I’m just out with my dad. He’ll be along.” I swear, his father looked like Gandalf the Grey. Long, whispy beard, hair pulled into a pony tail, wide brimmed hat–and so happy and at peace with who he was, shriveled and tanned and very old. We chatted a bit, and I told them how to get up nearby Lost Peak. As we parted I said “just be sure to get down before dark,” and Gandalf laughed and said he was not worried by time and distance, but there were beers on ice waiting for them when they got back. When I left them it was as if the miles I’d already hiked had never happened, as if the day were just beginning.
Dog Canyon over the Marcus Overlook, where the wind was so strong it blew off the backcountry permit tag wired to my pack and kept it. Up the Marcus Trail, which I thought was going to be the most difficult but wasn’t bad at all.My pack seemed oddly empty at the start of this trip, and there was not much left to carry at the end. My last night, back up on McKittrick Ridge for the hike back over The Notch, the tent was rolled and my pack was ready by 4 a.m. That moonless night was so very, very black, and it is amazing to recognize that there are such degrees of blackness. Where I sat, against a stump on the forest floor, my eyes took in only an absolute absence of light. Where I knew there were trees or ground, I saw only an empty black field with no depth. But looking up through the trees, where I could clearly see the millions of laser-bright stars, I realized they were set in a softer darkness that permitted me to experience the total blackness of the forest.
I wanted to time my descent of the McKittrick Ridge goat trail for the aurora, and so I brewed myself a cup of coffee and watched the stars. If you have ever sat for very long beneath a desert night sky, you realize that the stars are moving across the sky, and the expanse of their canvas and arc of their journey can make your legs wobbly if you look too deeply and begin feeling the Earth turning beneath you. But this night the stars were not moving across the sky, just hung there in precisely one spot, as though time had stopped. I sat and waited, waited for the stars to move, and for the sun to come up, but eventually I just said “well, it’s never going to get any lighter than this. I should get going,” a statement which I immediately knew was untrue yet true at the same time. I asked myself why, but it was hard to argue a frozen firmament, and so I hoisted my pack and found the trail.
I never saw the sun rise on my trip down from McKittrick Ridge. The sun went up as I went deeper down the canyon, a few steps ahead of the light.
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.
This is a picture I took on the morning I came down from the Guadalupe Mountains. In my hand is Broken Arrow, my last water. You may know the term “broken arrow” from the Mel Gibson movie “We Were Soldiers.” Mel and his troops are about to be overrun by the North Vietnamese army, and things are not looking good. They’ve done their best, all they could, but their training and equipment and bravery have not been enough to get them out of this jam. So Mel calls out “Broken Arrow!” over his radio, announcing to the world that he can no longer save himself, and American air power swoops in and blows the hell out of the North Vietnamese army.
My Broken Arrow was a bottle of water. Last time I went to GNMP I let the National Park Service scare me into taking about 500 gallons of water along in my backpack, and things did not go as planned. This time, fortified with substantial experience and a growing sense of the futility of life if you couldn’t just damn well walk wherever you want when you felt like it, I relied on my own instincts and stripped my supplies down to a minimum. Very little food (I’m not hungry hiking, anyway), and only enough water to make two cups of coffee every morning–because life is not worth living without two cups of coffee every morning. Plus my two liter water bladder in the pack. I was confident that this would be enough, but just in case I created Broken Arrow, my last water if things went really poorly. I decided that if I had to open Broken Arrow, I had failed and needed to get back down to my car and showers and comfortable beds and just go home and watch TV.
Didn’t need Broken Arrow. I thought about drinking it on my way down at the end, luxuriating in extra water, but I wasn’t thirsty. Broken Arrow was the child of an adult life spent always knowing how to get out of a rough spot when things don’t go as planned. Because things never go as planned.
There’s a lot to be said for planning, for covering the unexpected eventualities, for getting out of a mess. I have certainly gotten into more than my share of messes in the natural world over the years, and covering those eventualities literally saved me. It is something to know “I would be dead now if I hadn’t . . . .” But, you can’t know everything, see it all beforehand, prepare for the truly unexpected. I’m not sure if you’d really want to .
I saw this thing growing by the trail somewhere up on top. That stalk growing out of the agave is about nine feet tall. I have no idea what kind of agave it is, or what’s going to come out of that thing when it finally blooms. But I think it’s going to be wonderful.
“Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.” Steven Wright
From the top of the Bush Mountain Trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, you can still see the trace of the mid-1800’s Butterfield Overland Stage route off to the southwest and just your side of the Gypsum Sand Dunes and Alkali Lake. Four hundred fifty-eight miles in 126 hours, for just that segment between present day Cook County, Texas and El Paso.
I made the 510 mile trip from Austin in my new Mazda in eight hours. Eight hours seemed like an incredible undertaking just to find some altitude when I first started these trips, but I enjoyed them and it’s actually quite an easy drive. First time in the Mazda, so I was pretty amazed to hit my normal first gas stop at Harper with the gas gauge still almost on full. You even gain an hour crossing into the Mountain Time Zone just before arriving at GNMP, so I still have the best part of a day ahead of me once I arrive.
I felt a lot less awesome about myself when I looked down and saw that stagecoach route and thought “that must have been one really horrible trip.” As my friend Rob Graham says, “every time you think you’re out doing something badass, somebody else comes along doing something even more badass.” The people on those stages came through 250 years ago, but somehow out there you feel like it wasn’t so long ago.
A day later, I found this piece of fossilized coral up on top of the Tejas Trail, 8,000 feet above sea level and now about 250 million years away from the ocean it was once under. We live in an amazing world. I can stand on a desert mountain trail that was once the Capitan Reef on the Delaware Sea. From there, I can look down and see the distinct imprint of pioneers passing through two centuries ago in stagecoaches. Amazing.
Rob, I know it’s not really your fault. I think you’re awesome. I didn’t understand why you had to tell me that you were leaving for a week trip in the Collegiates when I told you about my trip to GMNP; now you understand that when you say “one week,” I hear “57.68 pounds of water.” But you’re still my inspiration.
So I’m at my “oh, shit” moment on the trail, wondering how I’m going to continue to carry this much weight up that big a climb, and the logical thing to do is continue to reduce the load by drinking a pound or so of water. A pound sounds like a lot of water to drink, but it makes surprisingly little difference to the load you’re carrying.
I surprised myself on the way up when I realized my heart was pounding. Not beating really fast–pounding, like it used to do when you were a little kid and you’d run around playing and then you thought your heart was going to explode when you finally stopped. “Cool!,” I thought, “this reminds me of my childhood,” until I remembered that I am 55 years old and was perhaps having a heart attack. There was definitely a feeling of accomplishment when I made it to the top of that ridge, so I celebrated by drinking some more water.My plans were pretty fluid at this point, limited only by my inability to walk any farther. When I’d checked in at the Park Visitor Center, the ranger had told me that I’d have the entire backcountry to myself (you have to obtain a Backcountry Permit, so they know pretty much who’s in there most of the time). You need to let the rangers know your itinerary, but at this point I figured I could go anywhere I pleased; it pleased me to stop at the first designated camping area. As I suppose most people do, my first act upon arriving at Pine Top was to take off my pack and sit down. Once I’d recovered a bit, I decided to walk around, see if I couldn’t find a more perfect spot to pitch my tent. After about 10 minutes of checking out the possibilities–in an act so typical of me that I now find it hilarious every time I do it–I spent the next half-hour trying to find the spot where I’d left my pack, food, water, and shelter as the sun began to set.
Once the tent is pitched, there’s not a lot else to do up there at first other than seeing how much water you have left. I was disappointed to find that a third of my load was already gone, while my pee was about the color of spicy brown mustard, so hydration was going to be an issue. I figured now was the time to think through the problem for future reference, because I probably wouldn’t give a shit once this was all over. I tried writing this down in my tent that night, but when I tried to roll onto my stomach to write, my feet would cramp; then when I tried to roll onto my back my hands would cramp into claws. So here goes: if multiple nights in Big Bend or GMNP are the goal, then you’ve got to pack with only that goal in mind. That means Step (3) is water. Food gets reduced to a “sundry;” nothing that needs hot water added to it. You can live on energy bars for 3 days, although you might not poop for a week or so.
Sunsets are beautiful up high in West Texas. You share them generally with flies, but these were really cool flies. I’ve never seen such a variety, none of which bit. They remind you that Nature abhors a place to sit. Rob, you’ve spent a lot of time outdoors, so you tell me if I’m wrong: in Nature, you will never find a spot truly flat enough, of the right height, not swarming with ants or covered in sharp little rocks, upon which to comfortably sit and watch a sunset while you swat flies. You have to stand there, and after a while you sort of start to wish the sun would just go ahead and get it over with so you can go in your tent to escape the flies, but you know the big finale is coming so you stick it out. It’s always worth the wait. And then it gets cold, really fast.
So then you’re lying in your tent, looking up at the flies trapped between your tent and the tent fly (I just realized why it’s called that!). You have a lot of time to think about just how stupid flies are. I also wondered how you manage to take whiskey on your trips, because at that point I was figuring it also weighed around 8.24 lbs/gallon. Priorities, I suppose.
I was up with the sun and ready to continue the next morning. I awoke a little disappointed in myself, because my favorite thing to do out west is to get up in the middle of the night and look at the stars. You really feel like you’re walking on a distant planet at night on a mountaintop surrounded by that many stars. But I didn’t want to wake up the 20 or so flies still trapped above my tent, so I just opened my eyes a little at some point and stared up through the mesh.
I spent a bit before starting off again, trying to calculate how far I could go on the water left, thinking a step or two ahead and looking at the map for alternatives so I’d be sure to not only get where I wanted to go, but get back. But mostly I thought about how you’ve done these incredible walks, hundreds of miles, days on end. Even knowing that you didn’t always need to carry all your water, I don’t know how many times I said to myself “how the heck did he do that?” I don’t think I really appreciated what an incredible accomplishent all you’ve done has been until now.
Well, I followed your advice and have gradually reduced the weight of my backpacking gear to pretty much nothing. The sleeping bag weighs 3.3 lbs and is super comfortable no matter how cold (or not) it gets. My tent is probably a little bigger than you would choose, but I was figuring maybe some day I’d be sharing it with one of the boys so got a two-person tent–packed weight 4 lbs 3 oz., and I’m glad for the extra room when I’m by myself. The best addition has been the backpack, which is awesome. When I slung it on the first time before taking off down a trail upcountry, I immediately wondered if I had really put the tent and sleeping bag inside, because the pack felt empty: the ULA Circuit, 4200 cu. in., 39 oz. Just totally awesome.
Rob, I’ve known you for a long time. I admire you. You are one of the few people I have known in my entire life who is totally, completely honest with me–with Rob what you see is what you get.
So why, Rob? Why did you hide this ugly truth from me? It’s a “lie by omission” Rob.
We both know there is no water in either Big Bend or Guadalupe Mountains National Parks. We have discussed this before. We both know a backpacker will need a minimum of one gallon of water per day. Rob, you are the one trained as an engineer. My degree is in Liberal Arts, god damn it, you knew I was not going to do the math.
My goal was to spend three nights upcountry. So three gallons of water, right? Three is a small number. Then why Rob, with all the emphasis on weight that any conversation with you concerning backpacking gear ultimately devolves to, why did you not clarify to me that the real number I needed to think about was 8.24 lbs? You knew that is what one gallon of water weighs, and for some reason which only you will ever understand, hid it from me.
My usual preparation for things like this is to throw everything I could possibly need in the back of the minivan and go. I know I have enough stuff in the van when I say “fuck this, I’m done.” But once I’m face-to-face with the trail, I’m quite methodical. Step (1): you have to carry everything you’ll need, so start with the backpack. Step (2): sleeping bag and tent go in the pack, because I’ve learned that they are always necessary no matter the weather. My first mistake was thinking that Step (3) was food, because I like food and what I eat is totally integrated into my idea of what it means to spend time outdoors. So food is what went in next, which isn’t much: mostly energy bars and instant breakfast cereal and ramen. Lightweight stuff you just add water to. Step (4) is then “sundries,” which is an easier way of saying a change of socks, shirt, toilet paper, toothbrush, and a bunch of etc’s.
Which leaves only water, and I’m thinking about that magical number 3. Three gallons of water doesn’t sound like much, so I’ll just put that in the bag and I’m off. About this time, this is also where I looked up and said “I had planned on doing this trip a couple of weeks ago when it was cooler; it must be 85 degrees today.”
Rob, you’re going to perhaps do an involuntary little Engineer’s Laugh here, but I have learned that an 8.24 lb gallon of water takes up only 231 cu. in. of volume, which sounds inconsequential inside my 39 oz. Circuit backpack’s 2400 cu. in. main compartment. Unfortunately, that is a “book number.” In the real world, standing at the trailhead in 85 degree full sun, contemplating a 2300 foot elevation gain in four miles of trail, those three gallons of water, all 691 cu. in., 24.72 lbs. of it, are substantial. My 15 pounds of gear now weighs 40.
So, what can come out of the backpack? Sundries go first. If sundries were truly important we’d name each item individually. They take up a fair amount of space, but weigh perhaps a pound all taken together. Next comes food, things I had planned on eating not only for calorie replacement, but for the intangible value things like drinking coffee brewed on a mountaintop at dawn or chocolate slowly chewed at the end of the day add to being outdoors. I am not risking leaving the tent or sleeping bag behind (which turned out to be a good decision), so all that is left to pare down is water. This is how the thinking goes:
if I’m very disciplined I can get by on less than a gallon a day. You remove some water, but there is still not enough room and too much weight. So,
I know I can go a long time without much food, and I can eat as much as I want when I get back, so about half of those calories are staying here. Still not enough room , so
you strap as much water in bottles to the outside of the pack as you can, and start walking.
About one hour later, less than half-way up and feeling both the weight and the heat, I come around a bend and have my “oh, shit” moment when I see this: To be continued.
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.
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 hotel 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.
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.