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.