Exploring the West Texas Desert: Maps and Photos

On 14 to 16 June, I went on a grand tour of the Republic of Texas: Houston to Amarillo to Guadalupe National Park, then back to Houston.

(Want to just see photos? Go to Flickr.)

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(If you're a Google Earth user, I highly recommend downloading the KMZ file for this trip. I spent a good deal of time matching the photos you see in the map to the perspective they were taken from.)

Virginia Tech CanSatThe ostensible purpose of the trip was to cover CanSat 2008 in Amarillo for the American Astronautical Society (CanSats are small student payloads that are launched into the air on rockets and designed to perform a fairly realistic mission). My grand plan was to demonstrate to the AAS folks how social media could enhance our activities. I was going to publish photos on Flickr, student presentations on SlideShare, and updates on Twitter. I was going to show them that this could all be done for free, and that others out there in the ether could even give feedback to the students via the web site (I spent the week before CanSat with Nick Skytland installing WordPress specially for this event.)

The attempt was a farce. The conference room had no reliable internet connection -- which probably saved me from making a host of other mistakes anyway -- and I was stuck with just my mobile phone and Twitter. Consider it a lesson learned. At least, I'll try to fail in a different way when trying to do the same at the AAS National Conference in Pasadena in November.

However, the attempt to broadcast should not be confused with the student competition. The CanSat landers and the presentations that the students made were excellent. These guys and girls officially have more hardware experience than some of the people I have worked with in the industry. Like me, for example.

After the presentations and dinner, at 8pm, I took off from Amarillo for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I had been there before, very briefly, when I was driving from Illinois to California in January 2005. During the trip, I received some excellent advice from one of the volunteer staff: hike the peak in the dark, watch the sun rise over Texas.

Grain elevator in Umbarger, TexasThe rule for these grand tours is simple: don't drive on roads you've already traveled. Try something new. Something new became a pass through dry, sleepy panhandle Texas in the dark: US-60 to Hereford, US-385 to to Brownfield, US-62 to Seminole, then US-180 all the way to Guadalupe Mountains National Park after cutting off a corner of New Mexico. The grand tours are better in the light, but time doesn't stop for anyone.

At 2:30am, I arrived at the park. 2:30 seems like a reasonable time to go to sleep -- except I was trying to reach Guadalupe Peak in time for sunrise. There was no time to sleep. Sleep meant not only watching the sunrise from the side of the mountain, but watching in the rapidly increasing desert temperature. No thanks.

Moon setting over the ridgeGuadalupe Peak is visited often enough -- it's the highest point in Texas, a state where big is a virtue -- that the path was easily discernible in the waxing gibbous moonlight. Even after the moon set behind the ridge I was ascending, the moonlight reflecting from the opposite ridge was sufficient to see the trail. Eventually, around 5:00am, the moon did set behind the invisible horizon, causing the trail to disappear almost entirely. Sure, I had a flashlight. But, I live in a world of electricity and certainty every other day of my life, and I wanted this trek in the dark.

Listen. Look.

There are some things that you can't understand until you see them for yourself, and no photograph is going to do it justice. Even as the moon left the trail invisible, it opened up a new trail, this one across the sky: the Milky Way. With no cities for miles and miles to throw light into the air and diminish the view, the Milky Way was so clear that it wasn't even clear anymore.

Have you seen the Milky Way in the night sky? That light band of stars stretching from one horizon to the next? Imagine a sky so clear that the the Milky Way becomes not just a single discrete band, but a sky full of light pinpricks so numerous that they command your view in all directions -- not just a star here and a star there, but a whole cascade of them from that central band, brilliant. You can't imagine what you're missing behind the city lightscape.

Upon arriving at the peak, it wasn't clear from which direction the sun would rise. All was the same color of murky blue black. But, the Milky Way became the beacon for this transformation. The sky wasn't discernibly lighter yet where the sun would rise, but the clarity of the Milky Way band was receding.

Slowly, the show began. This is why I hiked 4.5 miles to the top of Guadalupe Peak in the dark:

Most of the way back home was a sprint across the Chihuahuan Desert: US-62/180 to TX-54 to US-90. Briefly I stopped in Hugh McLeod country -- Alpine, Texas -- to get a sandwich and coffee at La Trattoria, a place I recognized from his posts on Twitter. It was a decent place, good coffee, good sandwich, good treatment from the ladies tending the place. La Trattoria felt like a trip back to Caffe Paradiso or Espresso Royale in Urbana -- except for the dust devils whirling down the street. We didn't have those in corn country.

Beyond Alpine, on to the east on US-90 there is little, nothing. It's a desolate stretch of road, and it gives way to a feature of the desert that I appreciate: the landscape is a product of what you project onto it. What? Let me explain. There is nothing out there -- nothing relative to our existence in cities and suburbs and towns -- to recognize, to tag human experience to. It is arid, desolate, lonely. It is winding canyons and miles of scrubby brush stretching to the RIo Grande border with Old Mexico. And I'm sure that the other side is a reflection: more canyons, more scrub, more desert. As if the desert cares about something as imaginary as a border. Out there you can see either (a) that there is nothing or (2) there is an entirely new world. Once you get out there, walk around, get some of that grit in your teeth, you might learn to like it. Or you might hate it worse. That's fine with me. There's a limit to my desert evangelism: I don't want the place to get clogged up with too many people anyway.

Guadalupe Peak summit marker

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