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?”