To the top of the Tusk

(Photos on Flickr)

The man in black fled across the desert, and the backpacker followed.

His silhouette roosted on the ridge that separated the climb on the west side from the broken land below the South Rim. It is a dry, disturbed land, periodically remodeled by a god that couldn’t leave well enough alone, and then finally neglected. The silhouette shouldered its pack, and disappeared over the ridge.

Dodson Trail

It was a dry year in Texas. The landscape was the color of no-color. Even the dust had withered and died. The plants had become ghosts. The flop ears of prickly pears lay in crumbling heaps. Sotol stalks lay collapsed on the ground like failed hopes. Ocotillos still raised their strange arms skyward, but their waxy green flesh had faded, revealing a skeletal gray matrix beneath. Maybe the next rain would reanimate all their sorry carcasses. Maybe not. Maybe they would continue crumbling and new shoots would resume the cycle of life. Who knows? In the Big Bend the border between life and death is as illusory as the border between nations.

Up and up. I followed the dusty trail, noting tracks that I recognized. At the ridge I stopped, planted a foot firmly in the dirt, lifted. Aha—the same track. What did it mean? I shouldered my pack, and disappeared over the ridge.

South Rim

The path switched back and down and east. Past the old corral. Past the junction of Smoky Creek. Past a skeleton line of fence posts. Through the mesquite and sandy washes. Through forests of sotols and snow banks of dry bunch grass. The path rolled on, a remnant of a communication link between ranches in the old days.

Black shirt, black pants, black pack—the man in black sat on his throne, surveying the next long fall of the land. Round glasses, thin shaggy goatee. He sat calmly, absorbing the waves of the land beyond.

I hailed him: “Nice boots.”

* * * * *

Every other aspect of the Big Bend Country—landscape, configuration, rocks, and vegetation—is weird and strange and of a type unfamiliar to the inhabitants of civilized lands. The surface is a peculiar combination of desert plain and volcanic hills and mountains, the proportions of which are increased by the vast distance which the vision here reaches through the crystalline atmosphere. There is no natural feature that can be described in familiar words.

—Robert T. Hill. “Running the Cañons of the Rio Grande.” 1901. Collected in God’s Country or Devil’s Playground: An Anthology of Nature Writing from the Big Bend of Texas.

* * * * *

I met the man in black again later that evening at the junction of the Dodson Trail and Fresno Canyon. His name was G—. He worked in lawn care in Maryland. In the slow winter season he would lay himself off for a few weeks, ignite the truck, and point it at the western deserts. Somewhere. Anywhere. This week it was Big Bend. Next week it was Anza Borrego.

Fresno Creek

G was fretting his water supply. So was I. You can walk for days and days out there—as long as you have water. The rangers recommend four liters (about a gallon) per day. I packed four liters total for three days. I had two liters remaining. The flow at Fresno Creek would be the difference between slinking back to the trailhead or climbing Elephant Tusk in the morning. Fortunately, even in a drought year, Fresno Creek pushes briefly above the surface, trickling and pooling, before disappearing back into the sand. I took one of G’s bottles, wandered down canyon to stock us both with water.

Before I left for the evening G asked where I was going the next day. To the top of the Tusk, I said. He said wasn’t sure that it was possible to get up there.

* * * * *

Big Bend from Tortuga Mountain

I had my own doubts in the morning. I could see Elephant Tusk looming, backlit in the southern sun. It did appear more vertical than I had imagined. In the golden glow of the South Rim, under the head of the Tortuga, I packed a dummy bag for the hike and started walking. Let possible work itself out.

The path first skirted and then dove into the canyon, weaving its way uncertainly toward the river. I wasn’t going that far. Elephant Tusk loomed mean and dark, a strange Triassic tooth emerging from a mound of its own debris. Except in the shadows of the narrowest canyon walls, the Tusk remained always in sight.

Elephant Tusk

Just below the three cottonwoods of Elegant Spring, I left the trail and started up the base of the Tusk, weaving among the defensive desert plants. Allow me to save you some trouble and a pint of blood: do not touch the lechuguilla. Don’t even scrape it. The leaves look yellow and dry and impotent, like corn husks. This is a trick. A few times I walked too close and had to pause, remove their knife tips from my pants and the shin underneath. The last time I touched a lechuguilla I didn’t have to inspect the wound closely. I lifted my pant leg to remove the leaf tip from my calf muscle and a mess of blood plopped out onto the rocks. I accepted this diagnosis at face value, and resumed climbing.

Agave lechuguilla

I followed the ridgeline to where the slope met the wall. Which way to go up from here? Which fissure led to the top? It was obvious from the bottom, looking up, but here every fissure appeared to be the correct approach. Walk around the wall until the scene looked right. Piles and piles of rock plate talus had been spewed from the wall and now lay in a treacherous cascade at the steepest angle in which they could rest. Any steeper and down they go. Any extra force applied to the rocks and down they go. Two steps forward, three steps back.

Elephant Tusk

I clambered up the main fissure, talus scraping and clinking a hollow echo as the walls drew together. The fissure funneled to the width of a thorn bush. A toll gate. Pay in blood. I put my shoulder into the bush, the bush put itself into my shoulder, and I heaved through. Into a wall.

I’m no climber, but I do what I have to do to get up. Up. Fifteen, twenty feet up the chute, up. Top out. Look. There was much more up remaining. There was no clear route to the top, just a mess of ill-fitted vertical terraces of rotten rock and gravel.

Elephant Tusk

Squint up at what was surely a false summit hiding more up beyond. The wind was a low hush. The world cleaved neatly into two parts. There was up, and there was down. There was no audience. There was no winning and no losing. No medals. No badges. No achievements. No discovery. No journey into the unknown. Go up and come down, and then it’s just a memory, until you die, and then it’s not even a memory anymore. Stand there, steeping in self-doubt, wondering why a person is propelled out and up, and if it might not be better for all involved to go back now.

I put my hands on the rock above, dug a toe into a crack, and stepped up. And stepped up. And stepped up. And on and on until there was no more up that wasn’t sky. I searched the summit for a why, but couldn’t find any. Maybe there is no why. Maybe the strange music leads to unexpected places for no reason at all.

Clouds floated in from the southwest. The afternoon unfurled like the land below, on and on, a long slope of wrinkled ground to the Río. But there was an end to the afternoon like there was an end to the land, and it was best to start moving. I’m no climber, but I do what I have to do to get down.

South Rim from Elephant Tusk

New Years on the top of the bottom of the sea

(Photos on Flickr)

I sped into the parking lot, stopped the engine, and packed a backpack with jittery speed. 1:30pm. The show would commence sometime around 5pm.

Sleeping bag? Yes. Tent? No. Water? Yes. Dinner? No. The primary consideration was time. If an item would make climbing the hill slower, it was abandoned. A tent could be replaced with a tarp. Tonight’s dinner could be replaced by tomorrow’s lunch.

There was no time to pay the entrance fee or to acquire the backcountry permit. Mañana. The rangers at Guadalupe Mountains National Park would have to wait. The sun is a punctual traveler. I am not. I woke that morning in Portales to find my breath turned to frost on the inside of the tent. Hmm. So I stayed in the relative warmth of my bag until the sun rose and inspired the image of warmth, if not the actual temperature, outside. Then I left—late.

Guadalupe Peak

The half-packed pack was light. I walked quickly up the switchbacks on the shaded side of the reef. In the crevices above, and soon enough on the trail itself, remains of last week’s snowstorm clung to the slope. More than once I had to scramble off the trail to where the Guadalupean wind had thrown my hat.

This was my third visit to Guadalupe Peak, my first ascent in the daylight. I was on a mission to see the last sunset of 2011 and the first sunset of 2012 from the highest point in Texas, from the top of the old reef that stands dry and prominent and strange over the vanished Delaware Sea. Once the mission was conceived, it was indelible. It had to be done. If not now, when? Maybe never. After a 2011 of wonderful high peaks, terrible low valleys, and little land between the two, I needed some good magic, the kind of magic that one finds in desert mountain sunrises and sunsets.

The wind off the peak was brisk. The ice underfoot was vexatious, melted and boot-packed daily, frozen nightly. The Texas Madroños of the canyon floor gave way to the pines of the higher country, and the sotols and yuccas crossed elevations, binding bottom to top. I had no watch, only the shadow of Guadalupe Peak moving northward across Pine Canyon toward Hunter Peak. The trail wound upward. Returning hikers passed downward.

Guadalupe Peak

At the Guadalupe Peak campsite, about three trail miles above the trailhead and one mile below the summit, I set up camp. The tarp was folded over the sleeping bag, staked into the mud, and pinned by rocks to keep it from escaping while I was away. Grab the camera and a notebook, push three bottles of celebration into the snow for later, and go. Plenty of time and sun remaining.

Guadalupe Peak is as I left it. The sun glowed from a different angle and snow hid among the rocks, but it was the same mountain. Good ol’ Guadalupe Peak. If you can’t trust a good mountain, what can you trust?

Last sunset of 2011 from Guadalupe Peak

Take a seat on the white limestone. The show begins. The sun sank tangerine orange somewhere in Mexico, pink and orange streamers radiating in its wake. The wind gathered itself in one final push before following the sun over the horizon. The ground faded. Indigo prevailed in all directions. 2011 faded to black.

Last sunset of 2011 from Guadalupe Peak

* * * * *

Listen: an organism sitting on a rock watched a star disappear. This happens trillions of times a day—define “day” as you wish—in the universe.

So what?

* * * * *

New Years party on the bottom of the sea

I sat on Guadalupe Peak and watched the sun disappear. It is superstitious to apply meaning to this. Here is my advice: believe whatever superstition makes you strong.

I sat on the top of the bottom of the ancient sea. That sea is gone, gone, gone. Look to the southeast with the right eyes and a shoreline is visible, arcing away and away into the forever distance of the desert. (The perfect disguise above.) Thought becomes slower and slower, imitating the passing of geologic time that saw seas and salt flats and reefs and mountains rise and fall in the same place.

I gathered 2011 in my arms and heaved it over the cliff. Sic semper tyrannis. I suppose that it’s still there somewhere, another pile of debris broken away from the main.

Thousands of steps below, red and white lights coursed north and south. Whither? Whence? Perhaps the sociable people of West Texas were off to celebrate the new year in the company of friends. I envied them, but I would not have traded my position for theirs.

Traffic

I slept the sleep of the cold and alone. It wasn’t refreshing, but it passed the time. I crunched through the snow in the campsite, trying not to wake the other couple camped there. Up. Past the mescal that had collapsed like a toll gate across the trail. The cost? Pay attention to what you see around you, you are far away from where you were and will be and you might not return and that notebook won’t capture the smell of juniper and that camera won’t capture anything your memory won’t remember more vividly.

2012 rose from the dust, inviting hope in even the coldest itinerant on the mountain.

First sunrise of 2012 from Guadalupe Peak