Tag Archives: Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe on my mind

At work the other day we were doing some kind of icebreaker—the usual kind of introduce yourself to people, the unusual aspect of it being people you've never met, although I suppose that's also usual more—and I mentioned I'd like to go back to the Guadalupe Mountains. Now the thought is rattling around in my head.

That's the place I wanted to be for my fortieth birthday. Guadalupe Peak is one of my... I don't know... call it a power center, although that sounds like essential oils and crystals. But in December 2020, Texas was full of COVID so I didn't even honestly consider going.

Now, with a second vaccine shot in my arm today, it's close enough to touch, it's close enough to see—in my mind, at least, but even it was far away quite recently. But there it is now. Like that lonely highway TX-54 north out of Van Horn where the Guadalupe Mountains begin to coalesce as a rock lump in the distance, growing slowly as you merge into US-62 to roll around the east side of the old reef, El Capitán resolving into its own dominating forward-thrusting feature, the road gaining small altitude until you can ditch that infernal machine at Pine Springs, take a few steps up the trail, then a few steps more, and let the mountain hold you in its dry limestone arms.

It doesn't sound like much—and it isn't—but the thought is enough. For now.

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.


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

Guadalupe Peak by Sunrise

Guadalupe Peak by Sunrise from Kirk Kittell on Vimeo.

Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas -- West Texas, please note the difference -- is a minor obsession of mine. You can read about my two experiences to the peak, if you like: "Waking Up" and "Exploring the West Texas Desert: Maps and Photos." I'm tempted to apologize for my obsession, but it's a really cool place.

(For fun, here are some photos from 16 June 2008 and 29 January 2005.)

Today, in our Confident Communicators Toastmasters club meeting, I gave a talk about my first hike to the top of Guadalupe Peak on 29 January 2005. (And I got to play with the toy mom got me for Christmas. See? It doesn't just sit in a drawer.)

Behind the curtain:

(A minor error: I lived in the Gimp Room in our basement apartment that year, so it was probably elevation 220 meters, not 222 meters. Inconvenience is regretted.)

Waking Up

(Photos on Flickr: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, 28-29 January 2005)

Four years ago today, I woke up.

It happened in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, at the top of Guadalupe Peak, in the far western corner of Texas. I was passing from Illinois to California to participate in a flaky internship for the X PRIZE Foundation that turned out to be a good thing after all. I don't remember why I chose GMNP as a place to stop. I had never heard of it before. It's not as popular as Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which is only 30 miles north on US-180/US-62. It's not as striking at Big Bend National Park, five hours' drive to the south, where I stayed the previous two nights.

How is not important. The point is this: watching the sun rise from Guadalupe Peak was important.

Sunrise from Guadalupe Peak

Now, I'm not sure how to describe the experience without sounding flaky myself. And really, I don't care.

28 January 2005 was my first day experiencing the desert. I remember this. I remember the feeling hitting me on the stretch of TX-54 north of Van Horn, Texas. I had spent the previous two nights in Big Bend National Park, which is even more dessicated and isolated, but it was different; the first night I dealt with rain, the next day was rain and hail. A desert earns its reputation from being a dry, damned place. The experience is lost when you're soaked.

On the 28th, I drove north from Big Bend to GMNP, up TX-118 to Alpine, US-90 to Van Horn, TX-54 north to US-62/US-180, which takes you right around the base of El Capitan. I remember the feeling of finally seeing the desert. I had been surrounded by it, but didn't see it until then.

North to the Guadalupe Mountains

How do you miss something so big, so vast? I missed it because I was someplace else. On TX-54 my thoughts snapped back into place.

When I arrived at the park, I stopped at the visitors center to pick up a GMNP patch. Here I did something I don't normally do: I asked the guy behind the desk, an older volunteer, what he would suggest that I see in only one day. I don't like to ask for directions or suggestions. I like to wander in slowly opening concentric rings before blasting outwards. Call it luck that I opened up to the park volunteer when I did. He told me to wake up early, around midnight, hike to the summit of Guadalupe Peak in the dark, and watch the sun rise.

Where is he now? I don't know. Thank you, wherever you are, whoever you are.

Early the next morning, 29 January 2005, I woke up late, sometime around 3:30am. It was difficult to sleep the night before. The wind coming down from the mountain into the campsite was incredible. Never before -- and never since -- have I ever had to load the inside of my tent with rocks to keep it on the ground. That's how it was. The nylon sides fwap-fwap-fwapped constantly, loudly, pushing in and down to slap my face.

I was up and out, dressed and laced, a bit after 4am. The moon was high in the sky. With eyes adjusted for the night, the moon provided enough light to walk the strange trail without a flashlight. (I still packed a flashlight, a Mini Maglite, which I used once when I lost my nerve while walking through a stand of trees.) Some of the details I remember from this hike: I had two foils of cherry Pop-Tarts, one of which I opened after signing in at the base registry; I had two granola bars, Oreos, water; I had a wool blanket; I had my Moleskine and camera.

There isn't much to say about the trail in the dark except to acknowledge the wind; rather, THE WIND. Hiking in the dark is strange. You are aware of the rocks underfoot, the general layout of the terrain, and the looming feel of the rest of the mountains across the canyon. You can't see any of it, though. The outline of the landscape is there, but it's more of a presence than an image. Without a clear view of what's ahead, the remaining distance is a mystery as well. It is an alternate universe in which you can feel yourself straining but you can't know where the effort is taking you.

At some point the world starts to change -- so slowly that at first you don't notice it, and then when you do notice it you're not sure if it's an effect of the exertion or if it's real. In order to beat the sun to the top, I had to finish a 4.2 mile long, 3000-foot-plus elevation gain in about two hours. In the dark. In strange country. Et cetera. The approaching sun is something you feel long before you see it.

Favorite Colors

From here, it was almost a run to the top. I had no idea how much distance remained, but I wasn't going to lose to the sun. I was moving fast, rounding a turn on the smooth white limestone, and there was a sign, one-way, Guadalupe Peak to the left, no distance indicated. I followed the sign and just a few steps later there was the peak and its summit marker, a monument oblivious to how astonishingly weird it is in its surroundings.

Summit Marker, Shades of Indigo

I won the race with the sun, albeit barely. There was enough time to set down my backpack and wander around the top, looking down over... well, Texas, because Guadalupe Peak is the top of Texas. This was different than Emory Peak two days before. For some reason, I wasn't there at Emory Peak as much as I was there on Guadalupe Peak. Something was missing from the experience at Big Bend. I wasn't awake yet. On Guadalupe Peak I had time alone to sit and think and wait, underneath a wool blanket and a fleece jacket and a sweatshirt and that tan button-up shirt which is symbolic of all of my wandering in the desert.

Quietly, the sun rose over Texas.

Guadalupe Peak Panorama

Quietly -- so quietly I wouldn't recognize it for years -- I woke up.

How did I wake up? What does it even mean? It sounds fanatical, so let me explain.

Simply, it was an increased self-awareness that grew out of that moment. It was a break point. On one side, I could see what was -- what already existed, what was in front of me. On the other side of the break, I began to see what could be instead of just what was. The world gained an extra dimension. On 28 January, there was a mountain and there was a sun. That day I would have been more likely to have seen the top of the mountain in the daylight because, well, because that's how you see things, in the sunlight. On 29 January, I learned to consider different permutations for the same sun and mountain. The mountain peak you see in the dark will be the mountain peak you see in the light, but it requires a perspective shift to take advantage of other things, such as where you go to see it.

Four years later, I'm just starting to understand how to wield this. So I return to Guadalupe Peak in my memory from time to time to see if the lesson has changed, if things are different. These days, the lesson is different because I am trying to understand what I want to accomplish -- the short term, the medium term, the long term. Now, thinking about that morning on Guadalupe Peak, I can think about the future without having to be so linear about it; that is, instead of thinking, "this is where I am, next stop is here, next stop is there," the idea of progressing opens up. Where I am is an extension of where I've been and where I'm going.

I don't understand it all yet. But I'm starting to see. And that's my advantage.

As Kurt Vonnegut mentioned in Player Piano:

Almost nobody's competent, Paul. It's enough to make you cry to see how bad most people are at their jobs. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you're a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

A Portrait of the Artist Beside a Pyramid of Some Sort, Possibly a Monolith

(Also, I returned to Guadalupe Peak in June 2008: Exploring the West Texas Desert: Maps and Photos)

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

Upcoming: Houston to Amarillo to Guadalupe Mountains National Park

This weekend, I'm driving to Amarillo to broadcast the 2008 CanSat Competition to the web for the American Astronautical Society. I don't get out of Houston nowadays -- I mean, in the last two or three weeks -- so I'm turning this into a grand tour. Why not...

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Day 1, 14 June 2008: Houston to Amarillo

Dublin, Texas: 117th anniversary of Dublin Dr. Pepper, a variation of Dr. Pepper that uses cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup -- also, the oldest Dr. Pepper plant in the world.

Day 2, 15 June 2008: Amarillo to Guadalupe Mountains National Park

10:00AM - Posting results of the CanSat Competition to astronautical.org/cansat

Day 3, 16 June 2008: Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Hike Guadalupe Peak. I've already been to Guadalupe Peak once in 2005 -- see photos on Flickr -- and I've been waiting to return ever since. When I went in 2005, a park ranger gave me one of the best tips I've ever received: hike the peak in the dark, watch the sunrise from the top. Incredible. So I'm going to try it again, although there won't be a full moon this time.

You can view notes my upcoming trip on Dopplr (if you're a Dopplr member...). I'll post the full set of photos when I return, but if you just. can't. wait. then keep an eye on my Flickr account, where I often post photos from the road.

how we forget to remember

"This is a story of how we begin to remember" —Paul Simon, "Under African Skies"

I want to take someone to see sunrise from Guadalupe Peak. But I hesitate—it's not the greatest place in the world to go, though I sometimes make it out as that. Guadalupe Peak (in Guadalupe Mountains National Park) was the first signpost by which I had measured the progress of my life, so it is a great place to me. I don't think I realized then, but I undestand some of the significance now.

It was one year ago today that I hiked to the top of the peak. The day before, I asked the rangers in the visitor center for advice—what should I see in my one day at Guadalupe Mountains NP? Their suggestion was to hike to the top of the peak to see the sun rise over western Texas. This sounded audacious to me. You mean that I should walk a 4.2-mile trail 3000-ft up in the dark? Well, audacious plans for audacious people.

I woke up late the next morning, but not too late. I should be satisfied that I slept at all. The winds coming down to the campsite from the mountains were stiff enough to require that I cook inside the tent; my little stove wouldn't keep a flame outside, not to mention that I had no desire to be out there. During the night, I would routinely be surprised that the windward wall of the tent would be pressed down to where I was trying to sleep in the middle of the floor. That is, it was windy.

But that's not the point, really. The point was that I was going to hike to the top of a mountain in the dark. I put the contents of my tent in the car—just in case the wind intended to send my tent into New Mexico—and geared up for the trail. Gear for this trail meant a Pop Tart, Power Bar, granola bar, water, camera, flashlight, and a blanket. Now, here's where coincidence was on my side. First, there was a full moon that night; I only used the flashlight during a 50m stretch that wound through a grove of trees. Otherwise, the trail was clear and turned toward the brilliant moon. Second, I expected company on the trail, whether from the local wildlife or from another hiker. But there was no one or nothing. I'm selfish—I wanted the view to myself. I wanted to sit on the top of the mountain in my blanket and wait for the sun to slowly illuminate

I agree that not every action and experience is meant to teach a lesson, but there are lessons to be learned nonetheless.