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Highpointing Texas

Hoooome! What a trip! I took Thursday and Friday off from work and headed out west. I left Austin at 11 AM after some last-minute-last-minute shopping and arrived at the Guadalupe Mountain visitor center around 8:30 PM. Along the way I discovered all bottled tea is complete ass, the sweetened kind being the worst. “Lipton Brisk” tasted ok, but reading the label revealed there wasn’t much tea in it. The sun had just set when I arrived. The drive from Van Horn to the mountain reminded me a lot of the drive from Wadsworth to Gerlach; lots of shrubby hills and “no services for 65 miles.” The campground at the park was very calm and quiet aside from a stiff breeze blowing through the pass.

Around 9:30 I got my tent setup and squared away. The valley between the peak and Hunter Peak provided a nice frame for stars. I setup for some long exposure shots which should come out nicely. About an hour later the moon came up and the stars disappeared so I went to sleep. The wind picked up and I soon discovered my tent is not ideal for high winds. Despite the rain fly being lashed down taunt, there were still edges that were flapping. All night long was FLAP FLAP FLAP crinkle crinkle FLAP FLAP FLAP which kept me awake. At various points in the night I’d get up, stack up rocks and put in temporary lashes. This didn’t last long, eventually the rocks would fall and lashes would come undone. By 6 AM I gave up and slept in the back seat of the truck so I’d get at least a few hours of solid sleep before the hike.

On Friday, NWS issued a wind advisory for 50+ MPH winds at the pass as storms were forecasted for Saturday, so I was anxious to get up and down quickly. I had no idea how long it would take me to hike nor if it would spontaneously start to rain on me. Based on my experience of running out of water on Kendall Katwalk and feeling pretty miserable afterwards, I packed 3.5 liters of water along with my rain clothes and some camera gear. After feeling how much it all weighed, I moved it from my day pack to my backpack which had hip straps; this would later prove suboptimal as I think the pack weighed as much as my gear.

I left at 11 AM to start the hike up. The trail was an endless series of switchbacks up the side of the mountain. It was very rocky and steep, but well defined. There were a few spots where the trail would go along a cliff no wider than 4 feet with a 100-200 foot drop off the edge. Not something I’d want to negotiate with violent winds, but doable. While the wind was blowing there were only a few places it hit me, otherwise the mountain provided a good shelter from it. The temperature was in the 90s, but the wind kept things reasonably cool. Three hours into the hike I met the first person I ever saw on the trail. He told me I’d be at the top in about an hour and the wind was strong but not as bad as the rangers predicted.

The ridges and switchbacks kept on coming. I would think I was almost there and I’d be presented with another set of switchbacks. About three-quarters of the way up, there was a small footbridge built across a ragged cliff. Shortly after that was the Guadalupe Peak campsite. By here I was hot and beat but had the peak in sight finally.

I made it up at 3:00. At the top my first impression was, “What’s up with all the flies?” Flies everywhere, big ones at that. I don’t know if they were munching on leftover sports drinks spilled by hikers or what. Also hearing the birds swoop down the side of the peak was impressive, whooooosh! The view was awesome from the top. I signed the log book (which is full, btw) and took the requisite pictures. Shortly afterwards I was joined by another guy from Florida. He claimed he made it up in an hour and a half compared to my four hours.

I left the peak at 3:30. Not too long after, the Florida guy passed me, jogging down. Sometime after 5, I met a guy heading up the trail. He said he was 61, from Cape Cod, staying in an RV, already lost the trail not even 1000 feet up. We chatted for a bit and he gave up on his idea of climbing to the top so late. I fear the vultures are picking at his skeleton at this point. I’m glad, yet somewhat disappointed I didn’t stumble across any rattlesnakes on the trail. I stumbled down to the parking lot, utterly exhausted.

I was planning to drive down to Van Horn and spend the night. Carlsbad Caverns was 50 miles away, I went there instead. I spent the night in a Carlsbad Motel 6 with shitty wireless. Can’t say much for the city, sparse, windy and dusty. I wouldn’t want to retire there no matter how much the signs promote it.

The caverns was worth experiencing, I’d recommend it at least once. They were huge and I didn’t even go to half of them. I’d like to have seen the natural entrance and bat cave but my calves were screaming from Friday’s climb. If I ever need a nuclear fallout shelter, I call dibs on any caverns. NPS blonde #1 seemed kind of annoyed by having to deliver her spill about the elevators and “don’t touch anything”. NPS blonde #2 was much friendlier and reminded me of an older Lexi from Jurassic Park.

Carlsbad Caverns in the Post-War era is an interesting read and goes into really detailed history. Down in the cave’s lunch area they’ve got pictures of the lunch room from the 50’s. Huge numbers of people buying huge numbers of lunches. Apparently that’s when the white people with their Airstreams weren’t afraid to venture out of the suburbs and see America. According to the paper, the caverns have a scandalous past. Before the war they were all “here let me break off this stalagtite and pass it around” and “need water? drink from this natural pond”. Then in the post-war boom NPS got a bit more funded, political and organized. Americans were all “let’s load up in our new Airstreams and see this gaping cavern”. Then the people wanted 4-lane highways, paved walkways, and lunch 750 feet under the surface. The good news is, they’re still discovering new sections of the caverns and the spelunking kids can go crawl around in not-so-mainstream areas.

Saturday afternoon I drove down to Marfa, Texas. Along the way I discovered the university has an observatory on the Davis Mountains. It’s also the highest point on the Texas highway system so it’s the highest point you can drive upto in the state. Since it was weekend and still daylight there wasn’t much going on. There was a star party happening at 9:30 but I didn’t want to stick around. Marfa was loosely mentioned to me by Burton and Melissa, apparently it’s popular with the Austin kids. When arrived, the town was having a Cinco de Mayo festival at the courthouse which seems to have drawn most of the people. While at Dairy Queen I asked the girl working why Marfa was so famous in Austin; she didn’t know exactly, probably the arts and lights.

There wasn’t much to Marfa’s arts district. It was literally “on the other side of the tracks”, consisting of a few windowfront galleries and gift shops. ” Marfa Lights” was the town’s other claim to fame. Outside of town a few miles was an viewing point. There’s a point on the horizon where these bright specks of light appear which nobody other than Wikipedia can explain. The story goes that cowboys in the late 1800s reported them as Apache campfires. Other explainations are swamp gas, electromagnetic disturbances or headlights on highway 67 (which doesn’t hold with the 1800s). They appear at different points, last for 30-60 seconds; some jump around, some diverge and converge into multiple points. If it really his vehicle headlights, it’s a brilliant tourist trap.

Saturday night I rolled into Alpine. I did make the mistake once of going the wrong way down their blasted one-way streets. I wanted a cheap place with internet and found just that, Motel Bien Vinedio. $38 got me a sketchy room with wi-fi. It smelled of mold; all the furniture was old, mis-matched, second-hand and well abused; a wooden door was all between me and the outside and my adjoining neighbors; dead cockroaches in the bathroom. My favorite was the finishing nails driven into the door jam of the door going into the next room, and the gaps covered in duct tape. If you’re looking for no frills habitation, I recommend it; otherwise there’s a nice Ramada Inn on the highway out by the Border Patrol station.

Sunday morning I drove home. The drive seemed to drag on for a while, here I am. I’m tired and stiff. My hands are sunburned from the sunscreen being wiped off during the climb. I feel refreshed and now I’m looking forward to the next roadtrip. I wanted to visit the Trinity atomic bomb test site up by Alamogordo, Alex pointed out it only opens up two times a year so I’m glad I didn’t wander up there this trip.

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