Above, Below and Just Beyond Texas, Part I

The plan was simple: Get off work the Friday afternoon of Veterans Day weekend, load up the car, take a nap, then drive eight hours northeast to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Arrive around sunrise. Spend Saturday adjusting to the 5,700+ ft elevation and enjoy a brilliant show of fall color on the Devil’s Hall trail. On Sunday, climb to the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas at 8,751 feet above sea level. Drive home on Monday.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is intentionally designed to be remote and relatively untrammeled, to protect the ancient, tiny (and shrinking) pockets of forest sheltered within its canyons. There are no paved roads through the park; the only way to explore it is on foot, or on horseback in some areas. There is no camp store other than the Visitor Center gift shop, so if you run out of food or ice or other necessary supplies, the nearest stores are in White’s City or Carlsbad, both in New Mexico and a minimum of 30 minutes away. There is no electricity or showers at the two frontcountry campgrounds, and no amenities at all in any of the backcountry campsites. You cannot make a reservation to camp in the park, all sites are first-come-first-served. If the frontcountry campsites were all full when we arrived, we would hang out till the 11-am checkout time, grab the first site that was vacated and set up camp before heading out to Devil’s Hall.

Since buying ice or food is not an option at GMNP, we replaced our ancient, cracked cooler with a larger and better-insulated model. The park is surrounded by oil rigs and fracking wells, which in our experience usually means that the tapwater will taste terrible. We are kind of water snobs and did not want to risk it, so we also picked up a 5-gallon insulated water dispenser. I upgraded my regular waist pack to a daypack, and Luke bought a multi-day pack in case we could not secure a frontcountry spot at all and had to pack into a backcountry site. Our tent is too big to be ideal for backpacking, but dividing its components into three separate bundles, one for each of us, makes it very manageable. Water was our biggest concern, especially since at this point in the planning phase we were sweating through the relentless inferno of a Texas heatwave with no end in sight. Running out of water in the mountains is no joke. We also bought light, packable rain jacket/windbreakers, since mountaintops can be chilly and windy even in summer. If all went according to plan, we would spend our Veterans Day weekend taking in some of the finest Autumn scenery and mountain vistas that Texas has to offer.

Spoiler: All did not go according to plan.

When Elizabeth was a wee bairn, she used to get stressed out when events did not unfold as expected. I used to tell her, “Be the rubber ball, not the glass ball.” The idea is simple enough for a small child to understand. If a glass ball is dropped or thrown, it shatters. But a rubber ball just bounces back and keeps rolling along, undaunted and undamaged. The glass ball is fragile, the rubber ball is nearly indestructible. “Be the rubber ball,” I would urge little Elizabeth when life got too unpredictable for her comfort.

The entire Guadalupe Peak expedition was very much a rubber ball sort of undertaking.

The first twist came about two weeks before the big weekend, when an unseasonal cold front loomed unexpectedly into the forecast. Suddenly we were planning for frosty conditions instead of worrying about keeping our food cold. No problem. I picked up a couple of merino base-layer tops, one midweight and one heavyweight, and a small camp stove for making hot drinks and heating meals. We decided to leave the insulated water dispenser at home, since icewater probably wouldn’t be high on our list of necessities. We brought all our hydration in packable jugs and insulated flasks. Packing up to a backcountry campground was no longer an option, since we didn’t want to spend another several hundred dollars on packable winter bedding. But at this point we were 100% committed to climbing that mountain, so I figured if all else failed we would find a nearby motel. Luckily all of the forecasts said that Sunday would be the clearest day of the weekend, so our basic plan was unchanged.

The Monday before we were due to leave, my supervisor said that he was mistaken about Veterans Day being a paid holiday at our company. But he was sympathetic to my situation, and approved my request for an unpaid personal day off. No problem.

The next day, Luke’s boss announced that there was a big task coming in, and everyone would be required to work on Veterans Day. No getting out of it.

I chewed over all of our options, and finally decided that I would drive home Sunday night instead of Monday. Luke could sleep on the way home and still make it to work on Monday morning, and I could spend Monday recovering at home. Nooo problem.

It was either Thursday night or Friday morning when the forecast suddenly changed. Still cold, but now Saturday would be the only clear day of the weekend. Sunday would be completely overcast.

For us, climbing mountains is mostly about the views. There is little point in summiting a peak if you cannot see anything from the top. We would just have to go up on Saturday, and deal with the altitude change and sleep deprivation as best we could. Noooo problem.

Friday in Austin was miserably cold and drizzly. After work we packed up, dressed in our warmest layers and tried rather unsuccessfully to nap. I think I dozed off for maybe an hour. It would have to be good enough. I brewed a pot of yerba maté so strong it tasted like coffee, grabbed a jar of dark-chocolate-covered espresso beans, and off we went.

Eight hours later, the sun was just rising as the Guadalupe Mountains came into view.

The day was gloriously sunny and mild. We could not have gotten better weather for this hike.

The white rocky outcropping in the picture below is El Capitan, and the rounded summit just behind it is Guadalupe Peak.

The park was already teeming with guests, mostly hikers who had come to see the fall colors in McKittrick Canyon and Devil’s Hall. The frontcountry campground was full, and we could not wait around to see if a spot would open up. Guadalupe Peak Trail is a 6-to-8-hour round-trip journey, and we’re not fans of hiking unfamiliar trails after dark. We found a restroom, exchanged our now-too-warm clothing for lighter layers, and then I asked a park ranger at the Visitor Center if there were any other frontcountry camping options in the area.

Quick tangent! I just recently learned about the National Park “passport” stamps. If I had known about them sooner, we could have started our collection at Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon. There are six Guadalupe Mountains stamps to choose from, one for each of the park’s most popular destinations. I bought a pretty postcard at the Visitor Center, found the Guadalupe Peak stamp and officially started our collection.

Anyway, the park ranger said there was a free, very primitive campground just up the road. We could set up our tent there and then park in the day-use parking lot next to the Visitor Center. “But it will fill up today,” she warned me. I thought she was talking about the campground, but in retrospect she must have been talking about the parking lot. If I had that moment to do over again, I would have snagged a spot in the parking lot, headed straight up the mountain and let the camping situation sort itself out later. But at the time that seemed like a bad idea, so off we went to secure a spot in the primitive campground.

“Just up the road” turned out to be 27 miles up the road and across the border into New Mexico. And the “primitive campground” turned out to be a rocky parking lot next to a field. There were a handful of RVs parked around the edges of the lot, and two tents already set up at the edge of the field. I’m like 85% sure that one of the tents was a homeless camp. There was an unleashed pit bull wandering around that one. We were already having second thoughts about camping there. But the nearest motel was in Carlsbad, and we just wanted to get on the trail. We set up the tent to hold our spot and drove back to the park.

I had been careful on the drive out to keep our fuel levels above half a tank, but in the final approach to the park there had been no places to fill up. Now, thanks to our 60-mile detour to the “primitive campground,” we no longer had enough fuel to get us to the closest gas station on the route home. At some point we would have to drive to White’s City after all, to fuel up for the drive home. No problem.

Of course, just as we got back to the park entrance, they were closing the gate. All parking lots full. Closest place to park was the Pinery Trailhead turnout off the highway. It meant walking a mile just to get from the car to the Guadalupe Peak trailhead, but you know, no problem. Be the rubber ball.

So we parked at the turnout, walked to the trailhead and started up the mountain.

The first section of trail is a series of steep switchbacks up the East slope. You gain a lot of altitude very quickly.

We discovered right away that our climbing muscles have gotten soft in Texas. That initial ascent was brutal.

But after about a mile and half, the trail curves around to the North slope and gets less steep and way more scenic.

It’s the prettiest hike I’ve been on since we moved to Texas.

It’s not an easy hike. I don’t recommend attempting the summit unless you’re in reasonably good shape. But any part of the trail above that first 1.5 miles of switchbacks is worth the effort it takes to get there, just for the scenery.

So up we went.

About three miles up, we came to a false summit and the backcountry campground for this trail. I am glad we did not attempt to haul our tent and bedding and a night’s worth of supplies up this mountain. That would have been a serious ordeal.

Beyond the false summit, we could now see the Final Boss:

But to get there, we first had to cross a damaged section of trail over a ravine…

…on the highest bridge in Texas.

I have a better view of the bridge from the return descent, but I like to keep things in chronological order.

Once we crossed the bridge the trail started to get steep again, but the views kept getting better.

We took a lot of rest breaks. The woodsy peak in the shot below is the backside of El Capitan.

Looking back down at the false summit, from near the top of the real summit. Those tall pines on top mark the backcountry campground. Brrr!


And up…

And up. We needed our jackets now; there was a chilly wind up there.

The trail gets difficult again near the top. Steep, narrow, rocky. There are places where you have to climb with your fingers and toes. Just below the summit, I ran out of energy. We stopped in the shelter of some boulders, out of the wind and off the trail, and ate the sandwiches that we had packed to eat at the top. Some hikers on their way back down said that they should have done that themselves, because the wind made eating more difficult on the summit.

Thus refueled, we made the final ascent.

There is a Butterfield Stage monument at the top that predates the peak’s National Park status, and a logbook in a metal ammunition box.

We signed the book, and relaxed for a while to enjoy the view. El Capitan looks like a mitten from above.

A plane flew past, below the level of the summit. Just a spectacular view.

Victory was ours!

Read Part II here!

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, environment, Family, Holidays, kids, Life, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Palo Duro Canyon State Park and Other Stories, Part II

Read Part I here!

We stepped out of our tent the next morning into a world of impossible colors. Nature seriously cranked the saturation up to 11 that day. The sky was so intensely blue that the horizons looked like bad photoshops.

This “hoodoo” is one of the first notable rock formations you see on the iconic Lighthouse Trail. To me it looks like a muppet wearing sunglasses:

Lighthouse is an easier and more pleasant hike than Rock Garden, and has a much better payoff at the end.

The mapped trail officially ends at a small clearing with a picnic table and a bike rack, some distance from the eponymous rock formation. From there, a few desire paths lead up from the clearing to the Lighthouse itself. This time we had accounted for the dry desert air and brought extra water, so we chose a path and kept climbing. This ended up being my favorite part of the whole trip.

You can go a bit higher here and get some great views of the canyon.

When we were ready to go back down we took a different, more direct path than the one we had come up on.

We reconnected with Lighthouse trail at the clearing and backtracked to the trailhead.

The only thing left on our Palo Duro to-do list was the Cave.

It’s not deep, but it’s a world of fun to climb around on.

Once we’d worn ourselves out at the Cave, we treated ourselves to a surprisingly fresh and tasty supper of burgers, fries, onion rings and root beer floats at the park Trading Post. Then we returned to our campsite and called it a day.

We woke up early the next morning, broke camp…

…and drove back up into the flatlands.

On the way home we got to see all the scenery that we had missed during our night-time drive out to the canyon. Still mostly just corn, cotton, cows and wind turbines, though. Our next home has to have mountains. We are not flatland people.

Since I’m apparently blogging again, I might post a few of my favorite Austin pics from the past year. Or maybe not; this might be my last post for another year, who knows. I’ll leave you with a few lines from Cohen’s “Anthem,” which is basically my theme song these days:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

That’s how the light gets in.

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, food, Holidays, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather, Wildlife | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Palo Duro Canyon State Park and Other Stories, Part I

Fun fact – the second-largest canyon in the US is right here in Texas!

Palo Duro Canyon is about 120 miles long and up to 20 miles wide in places. It ranges from about 820 feet to 1,000 feet deep.

Full disclosure: I didn’t really expect to be continuing this blog. With Luke and Elizabeth both over 18 now and the custody issue no longer looming in the background, I’m less motivated to keep a public record of their good health and general wellbeing. But Palo Duro is too pretty not to share.

So, some quick catch-up: Austin has been good to us, I’m glad we moved here. It’s such a beautiful city. I don’t know if we would have been happier in San Antonio, but I doubt we would have found the same opportunities there. Maybe things really do unfold the way they’re meant to.

In an earlier post, I described living in DFW as “a slow death of the soul.” That wasn’t hyperbole; if we had stayed in Bedford we would eventually have lost ourselves, or lost everything of value inside of us. Living in Austin has given us back our sense of joy and our appetite for life. And ironically, we’ve become mentally and emotionally healthy enough here to recognize that Texas is not the right place for us to put down roots.

Albert Schweitzer once said, “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” I was fortunate enough to encounter two such people in Austin, at different times and in unrelated settings. Neither was from Texas originally, and both were on their way to better places, but I am inexpressibly thankful to have crossed paths with both of them. They reminded me that those kinds of people and those better places still exist in the world.

In a different post, I described my long journey to the realization that I needed to stop trying to heal broken people. That epiphany was certainly true, as far as it went, but I’ve since figured out that I had drawn the wrong conclusions from it. I thought the solution was to keep the broken people at a safe distance. But apparently if a person isn’t at least a little broken, I have a hard time relating to them at all. Like the Japanese art of kintsugi, it’s all about how they have repaired themselves along the way. Strength, wisdom, compassion, courage and humor make the best scar tissue. Other, less-noble materials can occasionally produce some delightfully interesting results as well. In all instances, the key to keeping these encounters enjoyable is to maintain rock-solid personal boundaries and to make no attempt at any kind of healing or restoration on the other person’s behalf. That’s their journey, not mine. I have my own kintsugi project to work on.

Luke and I have slipped the surly bonds of customer service and gotten regular weekday jobs, which has improved the quality of our lives by about a billion percent. Elizabeth is still working in the food industry, but she likes her current job well enough and she was able to request the Labor Day weekend off without too much trouble. When the big weekend arrived, we napped through the worst of the Friday afternoon and evening commuter traffic, and then rolled out of Austin at 12:30 a.m. Seven hours later the sun rose on a flat world of corn, cotton, cattle and graceful white wind turbines. Around 8:00 a.m. we arrived at Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

The canyon does not reveal itself until you are right on the rim. Its bluffs and spires and whimsical formations all sit beneath the surface of the surrounding flatlands, invisible from even a slight distance. Driving down to our campsite on the canyon floor, we got no real sense of the scale of it. We set up camp in warm morning sunlight, leaving the rain-fly off the tent to let the clean desert breeze drift through, and took another short nap to catch up on missed sleep.

Rock Garden Trail is billed as Palo Duro’s “most difficult and most scenic hike,” with “the best views of the canyon,” so naturally that was first on our list. It certainly is a pretty hike.

But Rock Garden Trail’s best scenery is on the way up. The vista from the top is, in our opinion, rather underwhelming. It does connect with a rim trail at the top that probably leads to better views, but by then we were running low on water and had to head back down. We still hadn’t gotten a really good look at the canyon, and we were starting to wonder if Palo Duro were overhyped.

Back at camp, we checked our park map and found a main overlook right off the paved road near the park entrance, so we drove up to have a look. That finally offered the view we’d been looking for.

There is a visitor’s center with big windows and a telescope, which gave us a rare glimpse of an Aoudad sheep in the far distance. If my camera lens and the telescope lens could have played more nicely together, this would have been a postcard-worthy shot:

On the drive back down to our campsite, we found another nice overlook.

We stopped to check out an old cowboy dugout, a remnant of the canyon’s cattle ranch days.

By then we were getting tired, so we headed back to camp and settled in for the evening. Nightfall brought us a slender crescent moon and the faint splash of the Milky Way across a glittering wealth of stars. Lightning flashed on the horizon, and we debated whether to enjoy the starscape or put up the rain fly just to be safe. After some debate, we decided to put up the rain fly.

That turned out to be the right call. We were awakened in the middle of the night by crashing thunder, howling winds and an absolute deluge of rain. I can’t even imagine how miserable that would have been with no rain fly.

Read Part II here!

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, Holidays, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather, Wildlife | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Reflections in Water

Luke is in California for his final court-ordered summer visit. He’s a little too close to the wildfires for my comfort, but it looks like Anza is in no real danger.

A few days ago Elizabeth and I decided to cool off after a hike with a swim in our apartment pool. The water was perfect, just cool enough to be refreshing.

After maybe five minutes, Elizabeth said, “Now I’m cold.”

Me: “How can you be cold? The water’s barely lukewarm!”

Elizabeth: “You’re fat.”

Me: “….”

Elizabeth: “You have a protective layer of blubber protecting you from the cold.”

I burst into laughter so hard I might have sunk if the pool were deeper. Partly at the absurdity of her statement (I could probably stand to lose five or ten pounds, but I’m hardly into manatee territory), but mostly because she sparked a flashback to the years of my life when no one – and this is literal fact, not hyperbole – no one was allowed to utter the words “old” or “fat” in any context within earshot of my mother. The farther I get from that madness, the more bizarre it all seems in retrospect. Most of my response to Elizabeth’s comment was just relief at how far we’ve come.

While I’m here, I guess I’ll share some pics that don’t really need whole posts of their own. Here are some from the Fourth of July, when a storm almost rained out the fireworks…

…some local flora and fauna…

…and Elizabeth crossing creeks on logs. No log is too low or high or long or narrow or wobbly for her, she’s drawn to them like a cat to cardboard boxes.

I think that’s everything in my random-pic pile. I’ll get back to writing real posts eventually.

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, kids, Life, Weather, Wildlife | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Decision Time, Part IV

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

Read Part III here

Enchantment Rock State Natural Area opens its gates at 8am. We had planned to arrive at 7:30 to beat the Spring Break crowds, but we received a timely warning that earlier would be safer, so we set our alarm for 4am and got there by 6.

Google Maps has the entrance marked a bit farther down the road than it actually is; we missed it at first and had to turn around. There was already a car parked outside the gate when we drove past. We did a U-turn as soon as it was safe and got back to the entrance like two minutes later, and by then we were third in line. More cars immediately lined up behind us. By 7:30, when the sky was light enough to let me take this photo, the line stretched out of sight down the road.

Enchanted Rock as seen from the driveway: basically a granite dome 425 feet high.

When the gate was opened we paid our entry fee, parked the car and headed up the rock. At the bottom there are trails, but pretty soon it’s all just granite.

It’s steep enough to be a workout, but still more of a walk than a climb.

In the background of the next photo you can see the endless line of cars full of people hoping to be let into the park. Only a certain number of visitors are allowed in at a time.

We felt very thankful to be up on the rock instead of sitting in line!

It took us maybe 10 or 15 minutes to reach the summit…

…and find the USGS benchmark.

Being out in the wild climbing again felt amazing, and the views were great.

There’s a cave entrance near the summit with an exit about halfway down the back face. I guess you could climb up through it from the other direction, but it would be harder. Even doing it downhill, the experience was more intense than I had expected. Here is the entrance:

Once you go in, it gets pitch black fast. We had planned to explore the cave and brought our trusty little camp lantern with us as a flashlight.

Most of the pics I took inside the cave came out blurry, since I couldn’t manually focus in the dark and my camera’s autofocus usually grabbed the wrong subject during the moment of flash.

The most important thing is to follow the arrows. They keep you going in the right direction.

It was super fun, but I wouldn’t say it was easy.

There were some really tight spots. A larger person wouldn’t physically be able to make it all the way through this cave.

You practically have to be a contortionist to get through some spaces. That’s my shoe in the bottom left of the next photo.

Speaking of which, I can’t say enough good things about those shoes. I used them hard for four days straight, and my feet felt as fresh and comfortable at the end of the fourth day as they did the morning of the first day. Ariat Terrain H2O waterproof shoes, designed for endurance riders. Easily the best hiking shoes I’ve ever worn. They’re really durable, too. We bought the non-waterproof versions back in 2011 for our trip to the Grand Canyon, and Elizabeth’s pair is still going strong.

I’m not getting paid or anything, I just love the shoes.

Here is the exit. This is not a cave for claustrophobes.

Once we made it out, we just chilled on the side of the rock and watched the turkey vultures circle for a while.

If you click on the next photo to open the full-size image, and zoom in on the red arrow, you can see a little flash of blue from a creek.

I wanted to see the creek close-up, so we made the descent.

Getting down the back face wasn’t as easy as it looked, but we made it to the bottom.

And we found the creek!

We had received a trail map when we arrived, so we plotted the shortest course around the base of the rock and back to our car.

That whole day was so restorative and relaxing. Just tremendously good for the soul.

Google Maps took us home by the scenic route, winding through the hill country on farm-to-market roads, and I enjoyed every mile of it. So much nicer than dealing with I-35.

A few days after we got back, Luke decided it was haircut time again. I think short hair suits him.

So that was this year’s road trip. Elizabeth turned 20 on the third day, but we were all too sugared-out for cake, so her celebration was postponed.

We’re looking forward to the move, and we’re grateful for everything that living in DFW has taught us.

A new chapter of our lives is about to begin, and we’re eager to turn the page.

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Family, Holidays, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Blog at