Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Guadalupe Mountains and the Trek to El Paso

When I finally arrived at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, one of the park rangers joked that he'd already eaten my cookies. My parents had sent a care package to me, which had arrived a few days before my arrival, and the sheriff from Mentone had called ahead to let the park staff know I was coming. Both of these facts led the staff to wonder just who was showing up and when. What held no mystery was my appetite.

I got a backcountry permit and headed up Guadalupe Peak, the highest elevation in Texas at 8749'. I figured that I could go cross-country to Bush Mountain in the same day. This is perhaps possible with better planning and a better understanding of the terrain. I had neither.

Getting up Guad Peak was easy enough (aside from my pack being as heavy as a sack of potatoes from all the water and food), and the first half a mile of bushwhacking was straightforward as well. That's all the freebies I was going to get.

For the next four hours, I whacked bushes. Sharp thorny bushes. There were shrubs that weren't even especially dangerous, but because they were growing right on top of one another, they became a veritable briar patch of ouchies. I say ouch, but the truth is that I sometimes screamed in pain.

I could've turned around, but I didn't want to give up so soon into the journey. Then after a couple of hours of barely making much headway, I didn't care what it took to finish. I was going cross-country to Bush Mountain even if my legs looked like a whipping boy's.

I remember crouching like a skier on the ridge, the wind blowing tumultuously around me and the trees and brush. Only I wasn't moving. At times the gusts must have been 70 mph. To move would have meant to cascade uncontrollably down the mountain. Unfortunately for me, that happened anyway. Without the cascading, that is.

I was negotiating some shrubs and rocks and had leaned too far forward. I caught myself with my hiking sticks, but because I hadn't fastened my waist belt (the heat was causing a rash on my hips), my backpack kept going. I flipped. Down a mountain.

But I stopped. My arms and legs were pointed to the sky. I was like a flipped turtle. I squinted in the sun, got my bearings, and slowly edged out of my backpack. My shirt was shredded in the back, I had a cut or two, but otherwise I was fine. The vegetation I'd been cursing had saved me from a very nasty fall. Even steven.

That night, I camped in a dry run-off area. I hadn't even made it to the top of the next mountain. That took four hours. The next day, it took an additional six to get to Bush Mountain. After that, I stayed on the trails.

I hiked to Dog Canyon that evening. The next day I hiked back to park headquarters (I had run out of food). Along the way, I met a great fellow, Kevin Wass, who was happy as can be being in the mountains. A Texas Tech music prof, he had gotten his grades in and hit the mountains within 18 hours. I think he was in better shape than I am, too, as he had hiked in with 30 pounds of water (I had only done 15!). We had a long conversation before I continued down to park HQ.

I arranged for another excursion, only this time I wouldn't be coming back. A state trooper had been nice enough to pick me up some groceries, so my food resupply was waiting for me when I got there. I planned a trip along the El Capitan Trail and northwest along the old Butterfield Stage route. I was off again.

The El Capitan Trail is now my favorite in the Guadalupe Mountains. Rated as a moderate hike, it skirts the outside edge of the range, allowing for wonderful views of the countryside and the mountains themselves. I only saw two other hikers on this hike who stopped halfway and turned back. Since the trail is a dead-end, it's understandable but also a pity. I felt like the visually bolder parts of the trail were in the second half.

I camped at an old restored cabin at the base of the mountain. It had been built by a man named Belcher about a century prior, a present to his new wife. I suppose she didn't like it because she only stayed a night! The isolation might have been a little much; there is nothing around it, no civilization for miles. I sat on the porch and watched the sunset, and I couldn't imagine a better way to end a hard day.

The next day proved to be hot and long, though in looking at a map, I might not have cleared much more than fifteen miles. I crossed the Salt Basin Dunes, part of the Chihuahuan Desert. Cacti, flowers, brush, yucca, grasses, and sand covered my path. There were stones too, where water used to flow and perhaps still does when it's a wet year.

Using a topo xerox that a ranger gave me, I found my way across the desert. I may have walked a little on the old Butterfield Stage route (first coast-to-coast route in the USA, connecting a well-used route to St. Louis to destinations in California), but I never actually found a road for it. Everything was one big desert. I could see the water tower of Dell City, some 30 miles off, but I realized after a little hoofing that it didn't matter if I walked that historic route or not. I needed to focus on getting to Dell City, and so I did.

I avoided tall grasses and was constantly looking around. Even basic glances become more trying the hotter it gets. The wind picked up, so I walked often with my head down, letting my hat field some of the wind and grit. I was a little nervous because of the heat (not even yet extreme by Texas standards; probably in the 90s). The whole thing felt like a toaster oven, like I was being burned alive between the sand and the sun. But I eventually saw electricity poles, and using those, I made my way to town.

The wind was something else, at least for me. There were gusts in the 30s to 40s range and big clouds of sand and dust. I walked a lot with my eyes closed, feeling my direction with my sticks. When I saw a sort of lean-to, I went straight to it, even though it was on a fenced-in section of land (it was strange; the building was on a 20'x20' parcel of fenced-in land). The wind blew for hours more, and I ended up staying the night.

Dell City, Dell City junction, Cornudas, Hueco Village. I passed all of these places on the way to El Paso. The mountains were by now a common occurrence, and my attention drifted toward finding good Mexican food. But you can't escape a mountain's presence.

Walking I finally reached El Paso, I looked around: I was surrounded by mountains. The name literally means "the pass," the route through the mountains that people traveled to reach what is now known as New Mexico. They were probably a massive pain to someone walking or riding a horse and, during the wrong time of year, extremely dangerous. I see them as tall and elegant, a destination in and of themselves. I don't see these mountains as an obstacle that I must find a way through, rather something I want to find a way into.

I saw my first West Texas mountains from over 50 miles away. Walking slowly toward them has been one of the pleasures of my trip, perhaps of my entire life. I'm surrounded by mountains now, and will be for several weeks, but I'll remember the Guadalupe Mountains, how they rose from nothing and ushered this weary traveler into their world.

Until next time...


Karma said...

glad to hear your still enjoying the hike and the mountains. sound like bushwhacking was an adventure all to it's self, lol. happy trails smatt

Aunt Esther said...

Sometimes I yearn for a small isolated cabin like you encountered. Hope all is well with you.

Chris said...

I will have to drive up there now and check the mountains out on a weekend! That part of your hike sounds wounderful if you leave out the bushwhacking!! Be safe my friend!