Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Into the Darkness: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Darkness crept on us as we descended into the bowels of the earth.
 Slowly, gently, patiently we progressed  to the underworld.
 A fading light, the aroma of excrement permeated our senses.
The odor would pass as the dankness of the humid void became our burden.

The walls, a sculpted relief, in praise of the Mother of the Earth.
It was gradual work by the water nymphs with Her command.
"Gia what would you have us create?"
 A liquid hammer and chisel birthed great tapestries.
 Figures had been constructed; the absolute grotesque and the sublime heroes of stone.

Inside the mountain, Her temple rests.
Great halls and colonnades
Chambers built for kings and queens,
Have we found thee at last, Oh Xanadu?


Friday, December 6, 2013

Mescalero: A Journey to the Guadalupe Mountains.

Years ago, before the War of the Blue and Grey, a major event took place in the mountains of West Texas. On September 28th, 1858 two stage coaches met at the base of the El Captain escarpment through Guadalupe pass, a small depression rising just over 5,000ft of elevation between the Guadalupe Mountains and the Sierra Diablo mountains. El Captain had served as a land mark to guide western bound travelers for years but this meeting was different. One stage coach was headed east having left from San Francisco while the other was traveling west having left from St. Louis. Both coaches carried the same cargo: Mail. This meeting was the first connection of the 2,800mile,  25 day long Butterflield Overland Mail Route, the first transcontinental mail rout in the United States.  At its height it had over 200 stations and over 250 coaches on the route. In it's first year alone it generated $27,000 and by 1860 $120,000.

Sierra Diablo 
El Captain 
The route became inactive during the civil war as the contract with the Butterfield company was dropped by the government. In the post war world the Transcontinental Rail Road would come to replace this route. It was a subject of great debate of if the railroad should also pass through Guadalupe Pass but this route was eventually abandoned. Had it not, the fate of the mountains here may have been much different. Settlement along the route may have caused development around the rare but important springs at the base of the mountains as opposed to its eventual inclusion into the National Park System, The mountains faded from public mind until the Indian campaigns. The Mascelero Apache became the last Indians in Texas to resist and held up in their mountain stronghold of the Guadalupe mountains. In their own language the Mascelero were Shish-Inday or "The People of the Mountain Forests". They continued to conduct raids from the mountains up until the turn of the century. By the mid 20th century the American land owners of ranches in the mountains sold their land to the government to become the National Park we have today. 

11/30/13 - Not Your Daddy's Desert.

On this trip I was lucky to be able to begin the process of assimilatting my best friend, Edward, into the landscape of the American West. He had never experienced the desert, the big open sky, the rapid rise of the mountains from the plains below or the surprise of a hidden canyon. In the weeks precluding the trip I made a point to leave him in the dark on the details of "what we would see". 

As we approached El Captain I began to reveal my hand. This was the Chihuahuan desert, not some sand dune Saharaha. This is a very biologically diverse desert landscape, complete with areas of micro climate as elevation changes. Through the seasons this area experiences different expressions of flora and fauna in a dramatic display. Winter though is relatively quiet.

I don't like having a set itinerary these days, but instead possessing the proper information to make decisions as the become needed. Guadulape Mountains National Park is mostly a wilderness park. There is no place for an RV hook up and the two maintained front-country campgrounds are built for tents only. It is a first come first serve park. Considering it was the Thanksgiving weekend, I feared we may have to immediately begin hiking to a back country site after having driven through the night.  Once at the park there were about six open tent sites of the 20 at the main base camp of Pine Springs.

It was time to set up camp and relax. 

For this trip I brought my four-season tent, the Big Agnes Royal Flush (for your gear junkies). It wasn't going to be that cold and snow was not in the forecast but the Guadalupes have a notorious element: Wind. I had been following the weather in the mountains for the weeks approaching the trip and I never saw a week go by without 60mph + winds at some point. Luckily it was "calm" when we arrived with barely a 15mph gust. 

Pine Springs Camp sits at the mouth of Pine Springs canyon and is surrounded by towering mountains. 

12/01/13 - High Camp

We were at the ranger station and visitor center at Pine Springs for open to fill out our Back-Country permits. By 9:30am we were on the trail and climbing through Pine Springs Canyon via the Tejas Trail. 

After 2,700 feet of of elevation gain from the base camp at Pine Springs we had ascended the Bush Mountain/Hunter Peak ridge for the high camp at Pine Top. The landscape changed. No longer were you in the lowland desert shrubbery, you were  in a sparse coniferous forest but on top of a mountain...

20mph winds with 30+gusts..

12/02/13 - Exposure Time

The Back-Country permit I applied for was for two nights up at Pine Top. We built a loose plan to hike the ridge line and I wanted to take photos. In truth I was not particularly interested in reaching the summit of any of the mountains. I was looking for a good time. The only mountain I wanted to climb was Guadalupe Peak the highest point in Texas but that was the last objective on the list.

And after a good day of hiking in the high country it is pretty easy to get a bit whooped...

Exhaustion is nothing that a good dinner cant solve though!

12/03/13 - Winded

Over night the winds began to increase. I was routinely awakened by gusts pounding the tent walls. It sounded as if I was sleeping on the interstate. We discussed a plan to summit Hunter Peak this morning before heading down back to Pine Springs base camp via the dog canyon trail. The over night winds had pushed me towards caution of summiting a mountain so I decided we should return via the canyon  on the Tejas trail, the route we had ascended.

Once down and safe at base camp we decided that it might be worth it to go north on the road to Carlsbad New Mexico. I could pick up some good New Mexico beer and we could relax at a hotel as the winds calmed down. It was a sound plan and we decided to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park the following day.

12/04/13 - Pt.I - The Bailout.

There are many joys of road trips and one of my favorite is the complementary breakfast at  hotels. I don't stay in hotels that often when on the road but I do enjoy the experience. This particular morning, whilst enjoying my breakfast, I was enlightened to the the existence of "Winter Storm Cleon". This was (is) going to be a major meteorological event of the early winter effecting the majority of the United States and it was about to plow thorough our normally windswept mountains tomorrow. Worst yet, from the storm track it was going to be travelling parallel to my I-10 east route home to New Orleans. It being a couple of hundred mile long front would mean I may endure freezing rain, sleet, rain and windy conditions for most of my 16hr drive home.

Edward had little winter experience and, although I had packed all the gear for the high mountains of Colorado in winter, I did not want to subject him to hunkering down for possibly two days until the storm passed. Today was going to be fair weather so we would visit the Caverns and then depart late after noon for New Orleans to beat the front. My climb of Guadalupe Peak was called off.

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