a Rabbit Windshield Darkly
Part 3: Terlingua, Texas, to Los Angeles
It's only eighty-some odd miles to Alpine from here. I'd like to stop by there on my way out of the Big Bend, but I don't particularly want to take this highway. I'd rather drive west along the Rio Grande to Presidio, then go north from there through Marfa. I figure that I'll be down here another time - I'll send a postcard. I make the turn at Study Butte onto the road to Lajitas.
I stop in Terlingua, home of the annual Terlingua Chili Cookoff. I know this cause I've seen the ads with Frank Beard advertising for Dennison's Chili (I think). Reminds me very much of the terrain around Barstow, California, and Calico in particular. The soil colors are variegated: greens, purples, pinks, lemon-yellow, orange-orange. Lots of ruins. Some of the ruins I figure would have been difficult to classify as to exactly when they became ruins. A couple of river-rafting and outdoors expedition outfitters have made this place their headquarters. Lots of signs warning of all the open shafts. In more ways than one, I suppose. I mail a few postcards.
Along the drive to Lajitas, I pass occasional signs of development. Somebody must be crazy to be developing land out here. Somebody must be crazier to by this developed land from somebody out here. Maybe it's the Japanese.
I slide down a long grade on the way into Lajitas. Along the way is a museum on the south side of the highway. I stop and go in, pay two and a half bucks and enjoy the cool insides of this worthwhile place. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the place at the moment. Much information, lively presented, about the happenings in this here part of the country during the last hundred and fifty years or so.
Lajitas comes and goes. The road west from here follows the Rio Grande very closely; the river has entered a narrow canyon, and the road skirts the north bank along a rock ledge while the south bank, in Mexico, is a solid rock wall. Signs along the way here warn of a car diode ahead: a road where vehicles may only be able to go one way because of the very steep grade. The warnings seem to indicate that only cars pulling heavy trailers are at risk of having to turn around and drive all the way back to Alpine to get out. I think that, as wimpy as my little truck is, it will probably make it over this hump.
Just after the Texas-sized rest stop on the south side of the road I encounter the diode. It is a long, steep hill, cut into the mountain face to climb up above a narrow defile that the Rio Bravo has somehow wedged itself into. Although not without challenge, the truck clatters up the grade and down the other side. Soon the road pulls away from the river and stays at the north end of the flood plain all the way up through Redford. The rest of the way to Presidio, though through a pleasant agricultural valley, is completely uneventful. Presidio is a hellhole; full of Mexicans, dirty, tired, poor. Lots of junkyards. Similar to Wilmington back home. Quickly I leave, cranking out the highway to Marfa. I go past the Presidio International Airport; a bustling, hotbed of transportation and commerce. The highway continues on mile after mile; I listen on the radio for sounds of the Alpine repeater and the boys back there.
I begin to hear snatches of conversation. Sometimes I think I can recognize a voice, sometimes not. I am unable to key up the repeater except occasionally. As I get up to the top of the highway and begin the long stretch into Marfa, I can finally understand most that I hear on the radio and they can understand me. After very little coercion and pushing (I hoped that they would try) I am persuaded to return to Alpine, ostensibly for burgers and beer. I like to listen to Texans talk. They have a big, expansive and expressive manner of speaking; they're gregarious and proud of being Texan. I know it's a stereotype; but seems quite true out here.
My return to Alpine creates a real stir among the local hams. I wanted to stop by town one more time before heading finally away to the north and west, just to say hi and bye to James K5FD and meet John WB5EGQ. I meet them downtown at a little outdoor place they call the "Dry Gulch". It's a nice little outdoor restaurant/bar remodeled from an old house where, when the weather is nice, you can throw parties in the backyard. I order myself another Jalapeno burger with avocado and a glass of dark brew. The burger arrives at the table with some of the best fried potatoes I've ever had. They take a whole spud and quarter it the long way and then fry it up with some pepper.
It ends up that John goes and buys a whole pitcher of dark after he can't attract the attention of the harried waitress to get his glass refilled. Of course, this requires that I help him to down the whole pitcher - I'm always willing to oblige a Texan.
807s - suds, brewskis, beers; an inference to cans of beer based on the similarity between an type 807 transmitting vacuum tube and a 12 or 16 ounce can of beer. Or perhaps a metaphorical reference to the use of the word "bottle" when talking about radio tubes.
Stuffed from my deelicious lunch (just thinking about it right now as I type I am trying to imagine how I could relive that experience the day after tomorrow. I'll be down that way, well, pert near. Only a hundred or so miles north) I make my exit, get a room at the local Best Western, the Highland Inn. There I quickly draw a hot bath, and ease myself into the tub with the hot water on and the soap out, cleaning off the two-day collection of desert and dust. After scrubbing back down to the skin again, my final count is Jon 7, Mosquitoes 32. I'm a real disgrace to the
human race. Should be a ratio of about a billion to one.
Friday In Alpine. James has arranged a quick get-together, a meeting of the Big Bend Amateur Radio Club, especially for me. He'd like me to speak to the group. Of course, after a lunch like that and with an honor like this, how could I refuse? But what am I going to say? I've got precious little to interest these boys out here. He says, just tell us about whatcha all do at work. It isn't often that we get people from NASA out here to talk to us.
Well, I suppose that's true. I think all they have to do is ask though; with hospitality like theirs, it'd be hard for anyone to refuse. So we meet at the very nice home of Bob Ward, WA5ROE. Soon there's a great bunch of these boys here, from all over the place. I enjoy myself immensely; I learn more from these guys, about their lives, their radio club, their goings-on, and I don't have to talk much. I hope they enjoyed themselves, because if they came only to hear me, they didn't get much but a bunch of hmmms and well, sure's.
Saturday morning I leave Alpine about 9 am. James, as usual, will not let me pay the bill for breakfast; he bids me well, after receiving a Big Bend Amateur Radio Club hat and allowing me to photograph him standing next to their club's fine van.
I stop in at the Diamond/Shamrock gas station; I get a fresh Diet Coke (my personal addictive Hell) and head west. Next stop, Pine Springs, heart of Guadalupe Mountains National Park and home to the highest peak in Texas, Guadalupe Peak at 8751 feet.
The drive over the high prairies of West Texas goes smoothly and uneventfully. I see no trains on the SP today; I don't hear much traffic on the train radio either. Marfa rolls past, as does Valentine, Lobo, then Van Horn.
At Van Horn I stop at the grocery store, get some sodas and ice, a little food, and begin the hour drive north to Guadalupe Mountains. The road takes me through real west Texas mountain country: mesas, buttes, bluffs, distant horizons, the works. I round a big sweeping bend in the highway and can see in the far north distance the striking promontory of Capitan Peak, the southernmost point of the Guadalupes, and certainly the most famous peak.
I arrive at the road intersection just south of the park; Capitan overwhelms the scenery. It is awesome in its sheer massiveness. A big piece of three hundred million year old ocean reef, first laid down when this was the floor of the Permian Sea, which covered so much of Texas. Now pushed up for all the world to see and admire. A natural laboratory for the study of the formation of oceanic reefs, their structure and lifeforms. McKittrick Canyon, to my northeast inside the National Park, was homesteaded by a young geologist named Wallace Pratt back in the 20's. He lived and taught there, just to savor the very unique geological history that the canyon paraded before him. He deeded the canyon and all his land to the state of Texas in order to make a park. The Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a result of that man. Sometimes, one man can make a difference.
I arrive at Pine Springs about one pm. I drive up to the parking lot in the National Park, park and lock it, deciding to got to the top of Guadalupe Peak this afternoon. No problem. Only about three thousand feet gain in just over four miles. I read the trail register; it looks like it can be done in a few hours or so.
Strapping on my nuclear-powered hi-speed hiking boots, a liter of water and a few granola bars and a bag of raisins, I sign in and take off up the grade. The path is good, the difficulty lies in avoiding the large chunks of reef that litter the trail. Onward I go. I fairly fly past dawdlers, watching the rock types change and evolve during my climb. I am not much of a walker; on a trip like this, I want mainly to be at the top, and so I brook no sloth in my journey. The weather could always change at any time and I'd hate to be caught out here in freezing rain.
The path cuts away from the east face of the mountain and heads into the east-west trending canyon that comes down off the back of the ridge. Along the north face of the ridge I hike, steadily climbing toward the more alpine latitudes above me. The clouds roll in and out here; one moment the whole valley is shrouded in mist, the next, warming sunlight. I cannot see west; I hope that the warming sunlight will prevail today.
The trail continues its snaking, wending advance up the side of the canyon, first approaching, then retreating from the final, cloud-shrouded goal. The route turns west one more time and on this attempt gains purchase into the highlands of this canyon fork, gliding smoothly along the meadowed bottom of a narrow valley; fossiled dead sea creatures litter the path, all unrecognizable bits of a biotic melange that existed only 300 million years ago and now is only so much raw material for some future concrete magnate. Maybe not here. At least maybe not during my lifetime. After all, this is a National Park.
The trail passes a signpost that indicates a campsite to the north, just across the meadow. Today, in mid-July, the warmth of the desert far below is not evident in this alpine land, the visible humidity making the cold wet and dripping. I forge onward.
Round the top of the divide the path climbs, now heading south toward a hanging rock wall. A wooden bridge provides access to the far side of this wall; the bridge offers the only sure path along the wall. Looking at the bridge and the precipitous drop beneath it I, as many past travelers, hope that the timbers will handle my passage gracefully and without too much distress. I pass a small group of dawdlers on their way up the grade. No time for anything more than the most fleeting of sentiments, I hurry on past, flinging myself into the sunlight of the southeast face of Guadalupe.
From up above, a switchback or two beyond, I see a troop of boy scouts sliding down the side of the mountain. Cutting the switchbacks directly down the middle, their troop leaders seem completely unconcerned. Clouds of limestone dust and small avalanches of rock indicate their headlong progress down the side of the mountain. Here the switchbacks are a few hundred feet in length and the vertical distance the troop is sliding may be a hundred feet or more. Although they are able to circumvent the longer, more circuitous routing by this maneuver, the time spent at the bottom of each slide in regrouping and emptying shoes of gravel probably eliminates any time advantage. I suppose that the main reason that they do it is because it's more amusing. If I were thirteen again and unsupervised, I'd do it myself.
In the swings toward the south end of the ridge, I can look down upon Capitan Peak, now below me and falling further away as I near the ultimate peak of the Guadalupe Mountains, the highest peak in all of Texas (who says Texas is flat?), the penultimate point on the prow of the Guadalupe Mountains Range: Guadalupe Peak, elevation 8792 feet Above Mean (temporally speaking) Sea Level. I suppose it's all relative though, given the genesis of this rock that I am perched upon. I mean, what's a few thousand feet of elevation rise or loss in geologic terms anyway.
I find myself within a hundred feet of the summit. I have lost the trail that will lead me through the final steps to the top. I ring the summit to the east and climb up through the rocks to the top from the north. In the back (or even the front) of my mind I wonder why the trail peters out with so few yards to go, with the very apex in site. I make the top.
I suspect that others have been here before me. There is a pyramid here. A shining (perhaps chrome) steel pyramid here. At the very top of the hill. On top of the top. An odd pyramid it is, very tall and quite narrow at the base, but one nonetheless. It is also not as a traditional Egyptian pyramid as it is made of sheet metal and is therefore hollow. It commemorates this peak.
From the earliest beginnings of cross-country aviation, this peak was used as a landmark because of its undeniable visibility and location. The plaques point out this feature; the pilots of American Airlines (or was it American Airlines itself? I forget now) sponsored this metallic monolith (stone is just oxidized and contaminated metal anyway).
Besides this remarkable piece of human detritus, there is much more of the average kind. Candy wrappers and plastic products. Gum. Bits and pieces of city stuff. A sock. An ammo can with a ledger enclosed. Placed here by the Park Service. For your protection. I open the ledger.
Historic (perhaps histrionic) written bits from Joe Q. Public. Also Josephina. Lots of blurbs of the "Praise the Lord" mentality. Lots of drivel; quotes plagiarized from the Bible, somewhat appropriate to the immediate location. But obviously purloined and scrawled into this book by people of little imagination; if you don't have anything original to say, then don't. I vented my spleen a bit, describing the rubbish I discovered here, the encounter with the boy scouts below. I told them (whoever they are) to take care of Texas, because it seemed that no one else would...
I break open my raisins and other munchies, find a soft rock and enjoy my compact lunch with heady draughts of cool water and clear air. From here I think I can see Mount Livermore, another high but isolated peak. My handheld amateur radio is able to hear conversations in El Paso and I can reach mountaintop repeaters as far away as Silver City and Alpine. Now if I could just figure a way to ensconce a radio inside this pyramid, complete with solar panels and antenna. Nahhhh. Not practical. Someone would find it all too soon. Probably those darned Bible-spouting, trail-destroying boy scouts.
I finish my lunch. The weather is staying cool, the clouds keep appearing out of the west and it looks quite dark ahead. I decide to leave. I carefully pack up my trash, gather a little of the other trash, and attempt to find the proper route off the peak, as it had eluded me earlier. Here it is. In plain sight. Nearly a highway. Complete with railing. Must have been the altitude. I descend.
The parking lot is much as I remembered it. Mostly empty. A few folks milling around. I check the register and my watch. Round trip time: two hours, forty-four minutes. Not a record, but pretty fast. At least for today's crowd. I decide that I'll attempt to spend the night here, as I did a year before; but first, I'll drive over to the east end of the Park, over to the McKittrick Canyon portion and see what it looks like. It's about ten miles away, up the highway toward New Mexico. It's late in the afternoon. The sun will be setting over the scarp of the Guadalupes in an hour or two, and the clouds continue rolling over the rim.
I arrive at McKittrick Canyon. I walk over to the visitor information station, read a few of the display signs hung just for that purpose, get a drink of water, listen to some obnoxious children complain to their parents that they haven't been to McDonalds since breakfast, choose a route and leave in seconds.
It is warm and pleasant here in the canyon. A mild breeze washes out here, fresh with the scent of desert fragrance. The trail winds along over hill and dale; the first half-mile or so is part of a loop that is meant as a nature trail, for folks to get a bit of walking in before they get back into their high-powered automobile and tool off to yet another place to get out and walk around for a few minutes. Kinda like what I am doing. Somehow, I always seem to think that I'm doing it better than most. Sigh.
I must have covered a mile or two in the last three-quarters of an hour. The sun is pretty much below the ridge west of me; I turn around and find another way out of the canyon. I look at the boulder gardens and scouring marks left by the infrequent but certainly spectacular flash floods that come bounding down this canyon. One day I hope to be properly placed for a safe viewing of a real flash flood. Up just high enough to survive unscathed, but near enough to feel trepidation. The precarious balance between life and death. Living on the Edge. Hah. I chortle in the face of Danger.
I make it back to the truck eventually. The Park Service closes up this portion of the park at sunset, or something like that. They lock the gates. I don't want to be on the wrong side. Soon enough I am back at the Pine Springs campground, hunting down the very last reasonable single campsite. Here I can sleep peace and quiet, not too near to others, but close to the exit so that I can get out early without having to go through a dozen other campsites. I am also near the bathrooms.
This evening there is a presentation around the campfire. I clean up and show up early. The rangers have arranged little presentations and talks every night just about for the whole summer. Tonight's is about writers who have chosen the West and nature as their subject. The lecturer is a nature writer from Kansas City. I'll remember his name eventually.
He is facinating and describes his facination with the his recent experiences of the Guadalupes. I seem to be the most animated of the audience - no one else has anything to say. Perhaps it is that all the rest remember that it is better to remain silent and be thought the fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt, as I am fond of doing. But the crowd is small and no one here knows me; I am safe in my anonymity. I'll just slink out of camp early, and no one will be the wiser...
After the show, I head on back to the truck, fire up one of the radios and try to link myself with a few of my friends; there's Greg, tooling about northern New Mexico up near Taos, and Dave back in Los Angeles. Eventually I hear them both, first on one frequency then another; but the propagation is so poor or my equipment and location is so marginal that I cannot really maintain contact. I sign off for the evening after making arrangements for communication the next day.
Ok, I've paid my rent for the campsite, listened to the talk, compiled a list of books to read when I get back to wherever I belong, said hi and bye to my friends far away; the sun has set, I roll out the sleeping bag and roll in the view of the sky as I lay down. And a glorious evening it is. Cool and calculated. As the lights in camp die out, the celestial lights become brilliant. Closer to home, my lights soon go out.
Sunday morning I arise with the sun; brush teeth and leave camp as quick as possible. This morning I finally will keep that rendevous with a Ranger at New Cave located at the west end of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I finally mosey on over to the parking area, a stretch of dirt out some miles off the highway; on the way here, I pass through many miles of overgrazed cattle country, cattle grates, all the while nearing closer to the southeast scarp of the Guadalupes. A defile up ahead indicates the narrow valley that I must hike into to gain the entrance to the cave. The information I received on this tour warns that the climb from the parking area is over a half-mile and a few hundred feet in elevation. Bring lots of water and take it easy. The walk is a half-hour or so in length.
I cover the distance in ten minutes, passing many panting, tired tourists who wonder inwardly and outwardly why they are climbing this dry, rocky ridge; what will they find at the end? When will the park service come in and pave a proper road to the very mouth of the cave? The trail is pretty rustic. Lots of possibilities for twisted ankles, tumbles into the lechugilla. I reach the immediate goal of the locked iron gates of the New Cave and wait, like the rest, for the rangers to show up.
New Cave is well worth the visit. Completely undeveloped except for the iron gates that prevent unauthorized visitors who don't want to pay the few bucks that the tour costs and a few rope climbing aids deep inside, the Park Service would do well (and so would we, American citizens and owners of this neat place) to try and keep it that way. Between reliving the feelings I had prowling around the dank crawlspace under old houses when I was ten and the thrill of seeing sights that so few others have seen, completely under my own power and bringing my own light, I find the New Cave spectacular. Lots of slippery, slick rock with water dripping from black heights and the sense of being hundreds of feet beneath the surface with only the flashlight to retrace the steps. Without a guide and several flashlights, the entrance would never be rediscovered from within.
Almost three hours later I am tooling down the highway, nearing Carlsbad itself. My friend Greg is near Vaughn, about a hundred and fifty miles north; via forty-meter band amateur radio we conspire to meet for lunch at the Dairy Queen in Roswell.
It is nearly two pm when I arrive in Roswell. I order a nutritious lunch consisting of a Blizzard shake, loaded with Oreos, M&Ms, Heath Bar bits, all in a chocolate mint ice cream base. My stomach begins to hurt. I shake off the twinges of intestinal distress.
Outside the DQ a car is parked. The front license plate (optional or unneeded in New Mexico) has instead a plate that says "Roswell, New Mexico" in two lines of curving letters with a large Zia symbol smack in the middle of the plate. The colors are official New Mexico colors, red and yellow. Greg decides he must have one like that, for his rig. We set out in search. We are not successful on a warm Sunday afternoon in Roswell, New Mexico. We part, each going our own way; me to Albuquerque, Greg to Carlsbad. We keep in touch for a while on the radio; the reception fades to nothing; we arrange for later attempts.
My stomach and intestines are not doing well. I feel as though I could be getting the leading edge of a bout with an intestinal flu, or perhaps a return of the dysentery/Giardia that I suffered with for nearly three weeks straight back in September/October 1985 and since have had two and three day relapses. Dysentery is not a pleasant feeling, nor does it make for a very convivial traveling companion.
I roll past Mesa, Ramon and into Vaughn, stop for a picture or two of the railroad station in the center of town, then continue on up across the high rolling plains of eastern New Mexico toward Clines Corners and Interstate 40. I see the late afternoon sun illuminating the green, deep swales with long, black shadows falling away to the east. There are fleecy, resoundingly white clouds reeling across this vast sky, not a single real peak to get in the way of their rush toward the east. The highway follows the railroad to the west; we all pass through Encino, then I say adios to the railroad and continue to follow the highway northwesterly toward I-40, only twenty-five miles distant.
I ascend up through nondescript canyons and draws to the top of still higher mesas; I am nearly seven thousand feet up when I reach I-40. I board the freeway and head west in an expeditious manner. The sun sets into the billowing clouds over the Sandias while I am still east of Moriarty. I am fighting a substantial headwind. My gut is somewhat uncertain.
I roll though Tijeras, down through the Sandias, through Hardluck Canyon (named by me for all the dumpy little abodes lining the walls of the canyon), and see the early twilight at the horizon perhaps a hundred miles west of town. Albuquerque is revealed to me as if on stage; the edges of the canyon draw aside as I travel west, the farther expanses of this overgrown town leap into view as the scene widens.
I cruise the strip (Route 66, Main Street to the West) in search of a cheap and decent-looking motel to quickly make use of a restroom. I find one, near the University and in an area not too seedy. Sixteen bucks per night; what a deal. The place is clean too. First stop: the head.
Monday: Santa Fe
Monday Night: Raton, the Colt Motel
Intestinal Problems running full blast (so to speak)
Tuesday Night: Home