Eight Hundred Below


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This couldn’t be real… could it?

We’re doomed.

My legs are a quivering mess and my shoulders scream out in pain against the weight of my pack as I hobble lamely down the rocky mountain path. My girlfriend, Allie, limps similarly at my side. We’ve got to move. We don’t dare rest, not now, with our supplies so low. I dare to glance behind us.

There! A shadow among the junipers, ten feet tall, and all black whispers but for a haunting skeletal visage peering out from a shifting shadow-cloak, one eye glowing icy blue like cold fire while it’s other eyeless socket held a darkness so deep and terrible that meeting its gaze drained my very will to live.

Death is right behind us.

“RUN!” I scream. Allie and I hasten our hobbles into a sort of awkward gallop. It’s no use. Our muscles are shutting down. We’ll never make camp in time. I hear heavy footsteps in the brush to our right, then a low, dark chuckle just inches away.

This is the end.

“GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBELEL!!!” A massive wild turkey bursts out from Death’s shrubbery and bounds down the trail comically, it’s ridiculous-sounding cry echoing across the foothills as it darts past a park service sign denoting the border of the Guadalupe Mountains Wilderness. Our campsite is minutes away- and hot dogs, and cold drinks, and comfortable sleeping bags…

Huh. I guess this isn’t the end after all.

Oh well.


Spring at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

We have come to the penultimate day of a spontaneous sojourn to western Texas, where we explored the neighboring Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks.

Both parks exist as part of a prehistoric reef, remnant of an ancient sea, long ago buried beneath the vast, flat, lonely deserts of the midwest. More recent geological uplift brought portions of this reef back above ground, forming several small mountain ranges, including the Guadalupes.

Seaweed fossils reveal the Guadalupe Mountain’s ancient watery origins.

This past Sunday we set out west from our temporary base in central Texas, arriving at Pine Springs in Guadalupe Mountains National Park after a pleasant six hour drive through Texas oil country. Heavy trucks dominated the rough highway. Storage tanks, unending miles of pipes, and a dozen temporary worker towns of RV’s and mobile homes littered the flat, dry landscape of the Permian Basin. This is some of the richest oil country in the U.S.- the countless ever-burning flame stacks spitting fire a hundred feet into the sky were proof of that.

It was beautiful, in a post apocalyptic kind of way.

Pine Springs campground is divided into two sections- what amounts to essentially a parking lot for RV’s (albeit with a nice view looking up-canyon), and a tent-only section with small, exposed walk-in sites, each site between ten and a hundred foot walk from parking. The few sites with decent shade were already taken, so we selected one with a tree that would at least provide shade in the late afternoon. We set up camp, took a stroll around the campground, and snagged a map and park newspaper from the closed visitor center before retiring for the day.

Sunset at Pine Springs Campground.

Guadalupe Mountains is explicitly not a car park. You will find no paved roads peppered with scenic turnouts. This is a hiking park- the only way to discover its high-country treasures is to park in the desert and move your butt.

Our first hike of the season was the 4.5 mile Devil’s Hall hike. It had been a long, cold, and stationary winter in the plains of eastern Colorado (where outdoor recreational opportunities were- to put it mildly- lacking), so it seemed like a good warmup before tackling an all-day hike. The trail culminated in a magnificent corridor of bizarrely squared rocks forming a tall, narrow canyon which looked more like an ancient ruin than anything carved by geology and water. Neat.

On the trail to Devil’s Hall.

Some climbing required.

Allie poses at Devil’s Hall. What a cutie pie.

After the Devil’s Hall hike we explored the Pine Springs visitor center  before returning to camp and crawling into our sleeping bags at sunset. We slept to the sound of the wind flapping the tent around us, and the distant rumble of thunderstorms over the Basin.

National Park visitor centers always have the best quotes on the wall.

Ominous thunderheads gather over the Permian Basin as we return to camp.


Our alarms woke us the next morning at 5am. A thin mist flowed down the canyon, dissipating quickly in the light of the rising sun. Coffee. Instant oatmeal. Then into the car and north to Carlsbad Caverns, where we had an important appointment to keep deep, deep underground- a Ranger-led caving expedition.

We arrived at the visitor center just in time, though heavily overburdened. Holding thick jackets, large cameras, and bulky water bottles, I uneasily eyed the other members of our caving group. They weren’t carrying a goddamn thing. I felt like a fool. No, worse.

I felt like a tourist.

It was just about time for the expedition to start, but I couldn’t go down there lugging all this crap! I went for the door to drop off the excess weight in the car but ran right into our barrel-chested perfectly punctual caving guide Ranger Dustin. He instantly read my intentions and frowned gravely. My heart went cold, and I hung my head in shame.

“You on the tour? Come with me, first.” I was dragged back to the group, where Ranger Dustin began. First, he introduced the second Ranger that would be accompanying our group- the spritely and spirited Ranger Aubrey, who would be bringing up the rear during our tour. Then Dustin had a good, hard look at everyone’s footwear. This tour was hiking boots with good tread only. There were no paths where we were going- only smooth, slippery flowstone and slopes dark and damp among the some of the most fragile and fantastic and wholly unique formations in the world. A bad slip could injure not only the caver but the irreplaceable works of art which the Caverns held in their deep, dark heart.

Boots only! No exceptions.

One of the group was sporting a pair of white tennis shoes. Dustin frowned.

“You have anything else you can put on your feet there? No? Well, let’s have a private conversation here in a minute.”

Ooooh, busted, I thought.

Dustin turned his gaze to me. I gulped.

“You. What’s your name?”

Against my better judgment, I told him. Something in his eyes compelled cooperation. He turned to the twelve other members of the group.

“All right folks, Adam here is going to drop some things in his car, and I’m going to stall for time while we all wait for him.”

Holy shit! Dustin called me out!

I bolted down the long, long, far-too-long hallway to the door, the riotous laughter of the group echoing behind me.

Between ragged breaths, I laughed, too.

Dustin and Aubrey escorted the now-ten of us to a room full of caving equipment- helmets, harnesses, gloves, and ropes. My heart was racing. I squeezed Allie’s hand. She squeezed back. The Rangers briefed us on gear and ladder/rope climbing etiquette before handing out caving helmets with attached headlamps and gardening gloves (the gloves help protect the cave from the oils on human hands, which leave a permanent stain on cave formations). They told us it was dark and dangerous and fragile down there- we were to stick to the route outlined by red ribbons, follow all Ranger commands without variation, and to look out for each other. They said that down there, in the cold and ancient dark, we were a team- a fellowship, if you will. If even one person became injured, whether by bat or Balrog, the quest would end for everyone.

We were led to the elevator to descend 750 feet below the surface. My heart was pounding with excitement. When Allie and I booked this tour online a few days earlier, I hadn’t quite realized what we’d signed up for- but now that I knew, I was ecstatic. This was something wholly different. Something new.

The elevator jolted and sunk beneath the visitor center. An LED display on the wall counted the feet as we fell. I could sense excitement from some team members, and a powerful fear from others. Ranger Dustin spoke about the history of the Caverns, wisely filling the ominous silence which otherwise seemed to deepen with each second.

Exit the elevator, through the revolving airlock doors, into the underground lunchroom- a comforting slice of the surface world featuring flush toilets, sandwiches, and a gift shop. I saw it for what it was- a facade designed to soften the chilling reality of just where exactly you are- 750 feet underground, in an impossibly vast and ancient cavern.

The temperature up top was a toasty 87 degrees- here, the air was a cool 56, and wet with the taste of moist stone. The ground in this area was paved, but the ceiling was all natural, rising in complex curves and depressions, dramatically lit by a few strategically placed spotlights. Kinda neat looking, but a pretty ordinary looking cave so far.

We followed Dustin and Aubrey down a rocky corridor to enter the chamber known as The Big Room. I froze mid-stride.

Oh. My. God.

It was beautiful. A magnificent cathedral of towering columns of fantastic texture- thick stalagmites reaching up towards a palatial ceiling decorated with thousands- no, millions of gleaming stalactites of every size. Some actively dripped tiny glistening droplets of water, forming small pools which were punctuated by strange stone lily pads. The few other guests walking the paved pathway which wound around the cavern’s edge were quiet, and if they spoke, it was in hushed tones. A sacred silence pervaded this place.

I’d never seen anything like this before. I know mountains, I know deserts, I know forests, but I was beginning to realize caves were a whole new category of natural wonder.

Allie at my side was equally wowed. I walked along the concrete guard-railed path in a daze, trying to comprehend the impossible architecture around me. Every foot, every inch of the cavern was captivating, mesmerizing, with details so fine and multitudinous that I became utterly and wonderfully lost in it, lost in a way I hadn’t been in a long time. During my travels I’d seen enough of the U.S.’s natural wonders to become jaded to anything but the most extraordinary- after all, what experience on Earth could compare to dangling your legs over the edge of the horizon-spanning Grand Canyon for the first time? Or witnessing the snowborne glory of Yosemite’s granite walls glowing orange in the winter sunset? Or hiking alone for hours on end across deep snowpack among the sprawling maze of towering red alien spires of Bryce Canyon? What new experience could possibly compare to having lunch inside a cloud on a motherfucking glacier in the North Cascades, surrounded by a dozen waterfalls and vast forests so green you cannot help but weep when you look upon them, as the ice beneath your feet cracks and groans around you, echoing off steep mountain walls like the rumblings of an ancient slumbering god?

To my amazement, Carlsbad Caverns was awakening that same sense of divine wonder. My heart of hearts stirred. It had been so long!

What was this place?

Ranger Dustin, at the head of our line of intrepid explorers, stopped to unlock a gate on one side of the path. On the other side of the gate was a sloped bowl-like depression in the rock, perhaps fifteen feet deep, with a small, mysterious hole at the bottom like the drain of a great stone sink, descending into a darkness where no light penetrated.

Our destination. Holy shit.

Aubrey tied a rope to a guardrail near the gate. She descended first, demonstrating proper rope etiquette to the team.

“On rope!” she said, picking it up. She put the rope to one side of her body- you never want the rope between your legs- and leaned back to walk backwards down the slope while keeping her body perpendicular to the slanted ground. At the bottom, she released the rope and stepped way from it.

“Off rope!” she said.

We’re towards the back of the line, so we get to watch the other team members try it out. There are immediately several violations of rope etiquette- saying “off rope” before releasing or stepping away from the rope being the most common infraction. Each time, I cringed, awaiting the inevitable and necessary correction from a Ranger. But they said nothing. I glanced at Ranger Dustin on the path beside me- he watched each person’s climb closely, yet didn’t verbally correct or admonish them like I expected. There was something different about this guy.

I watched Dustin watch the others. His face was friendly, approachable- he looked a lot like Sean Astin playing Sam in Lord of the Rings, with all the same warmth and heart in his hobbity smile. But his eyes held a hidden intensity, a somber professionalism, a complete confidence in the mastery of his field. He knew that these rope etiquette violations were not egregious, and that in this relatively tame caving introduction, not dangerous. This was the only rope on the tour. To admonish them now would accomplish nothing at best, and at worst might stir up embarrassment or shame in a team member right at the start of this alien experience- and right before the much more harrowing ladder descent. Better to quietly note it and carry on than give them the jitters right before the scariest part of the whole expedition. It demonstrated a level of empathy and logic which I admired greatly.

Ranger Dustin was the warmth and heart of Sam with the wit and instinct of Aragorn.

My turn came. I moved at a moderate, methodical pace, perfectly mimicking every word and move as demonstrated by Ranger Aubrey. By the books. No showing off.

I stepped away from the rope and crowded in with the others circling the mysterious dark hole.

“Off rope!” I said. Aubrey gave me a thumbs up. I looked up to Ranger Dustin on the path fifteen feet above me. He smiled and spoke for the first time since we started the rope climb:

“Nice job, Adam!”

I beamed. Perfect score.

We turned on our headlamps and peered into the dark hole. Hidden just out of sight from the walkway above was a ladder stretching down into the black. It was the first in a series of three ladders connected by small metal platforms descending 50 feet into the Lower Cave, the deepest cavern in the park. Dustin roped down and took the lead, climbing through an awkward gap of rock to access the ladder.

“Now remember, the third ladder changes direction halfway through, so take your time. Don’t start down the ladder until the person in front of you has called that they are on the next ladder.”

“On ladder one!” he said, and disappeared. A few moments later, he shouted up from the darkness.

“Off ladder one!” A brief pause. “On ladder two! Who’s next?”

My eyes widened. Immediately, every single other member of the group besides me and Allie backed away from the hole.

“I’m not going first!” “Oh no, not me.” “Well, you see, I just couldn’t…”

They were paralyzed, all of them. I grinned.

Now was the time to show off.

“Me! I’ll go!” I shouted, eager to stake my claim before somebody else found their spine. The team parted before me like the Red Sea, opening a path to the black maw- the hungry dark portal, licking its rocky lips as I approached.

I was hungry for it, too.

I strode forward, climbed around the awkward rock. I stretched one long leg to the top rung of the ladder. I stood on the edge of the abyss, and looked up at the team. Their eyes were wide and full of terror and wonder. They were literally and emotionally at the brink of a dark pit, something completely unknown, and were hesitating on the edge. It is the same with facing any fear or idea which falls beyond the scope of one’s experience. The edge of the unknown is uncomfortable. It feels kinda icky. If you go there, who knows what could happen? What you believe is true about yourself or even the world might change if you push yourself into the unknown. You might find a whole new worldview, a wider and more accurate perspective. But we all like believing that our subjective worldview is the objective truth. Going into the unknown challenges everything we think we know because we don’t know it.

That is why you must go into the unknown.

Summon your willpower to push through the wall of hesitation at the edge. Or, step right up to the edge of that uncomfortable feeling, that internal vertigo, the dark unknowable depths of a new experience, and just let go.

I shot the wide-eyed team above me a wry grin.

If they manage to stick through this experience, it was gonna change their lives.

“On ladder one!” I said.

And then I was gone.


Ladders in the dark…

It took some time for the rest of the team to descend the ladders and gather in the small chamber below. Allie and I admired the small, puffy formations covering every surface of the chamber. They resembled popped popcorn kernels frozen in stone.

Once everyone had successfully descended with only one near-slip, Dustin spoke.

“Alright guys, congratulations, that ladder is the hardest part. There’s no climbing or crawling on your belly through narrow passages on this tour. That said, I want you all to know that this is your last chance to leave without ending the expedition. If anybody has a medical issue while we’re down here, or starts to freak out, the tour is over and we all come back. Knowing that, is there anybody here who would like to leave the tour?”

I looked into the eyes of the others. There was much less fear than before, though a few were gritting their teeth. Nobody spoke. Conquering the void ladders had strengthened them. They were all committed to face the unknown, come what may.

Dustin nodded, turned, and led us into the dark, undeveloped Lower Cave, Ranger Aubrey bringing up the rear.

I’ve always said that Allie is the light of my life, but this is getting ridiculous!

The things we saw down there, in the dark, awoke an entirely new flavor of wonder in my heart. We clamored along slick bare stone into the first chamber, where the ceiling became a vast chandelier of countless thin stalactites (or “soda straws”), each and every one glistening with a drop of water on its tip, sparkling like diamonds in the light of our headlamps.

Crossing immaculate underground pools.

We crossed small bridges over ghostly, shallow pools, where an unassuming yet sinister creature makes its home. Dustin paused the group among the pools to tell us the tale of the horsehair worm and the cave cricket, two of the very few creatures that exist down here so very far from the sun.

The cave cricket is rather unlike its surface cousins- they do not chirp, moving in complete silence through the dark. They must eat anything they can find down here and are thus an often cannibalistic species- so any sound they make would be an invitation for Uncle Crikey to come on over and bite off a leg.

The horsehair worm, a rare invertebrate whom closely resembles its namesake, lays its tiny eggs in these quiet underground pools. When the larva hatch, they form a protective covering over themselves and lie in wait. Some of these larva are are inevitably slurped up by a thirsty cave cricket. The larvae shed their armor, then bore out of the cricket’s stomach and into its brain, where they release neurotransmiters which cause their host to become thirsty- very thirsty. So, so very thirsty that the possessed cricket dives right into the next pool it encounters, where the horsehair worms burst out from the drowned cricket’s corpse like an Alien chestburster.

Thus it is through cricket mind-control that the waterbound horsehair worm propagates itself to other pools in the cave system, ensuring its’ species survival.

Metal.

Dustin points one out in a nearby pool- a thin squiggling line on the sandy bottom- then to a drowned cricket corpse in a neighboring pool. What strange lives these worms and crickets live in a land without light or sound 800 feet below the surface.

Mystery and wonder.

The tour continued. The next chamber was a miracle of calcite formations. Magnificent, beautifully ruffled stone draperies lined the ceiling and walls, perfectly still yet flowing like fine silken curtains in a soft country breeze. Mysterious and horrifying dark holes puckered the chamber, seeming to drip with wet, smooth stone saliva, like the many throats of a massive hydra, all leading here- to the belly of the Beast. The whole group gaped and gasped at the strange alien stomach in which we were entombed.

Looking up at the ceiling reveals an astonishingly sexual and unsettling formation like something from the mind of H.R. Giger.

Dustin shone his light into a sandy basin at our feet.

Thousands of iridescent pearls sparkled back from a hundred tiny bowls in the dirt. Smooth, round, sometimes tubular, these incredible, unique formations form when drops of calcite-infused water falls from the ceiling onto a small object- a fragment of broken stalactite or bat bone, for example- over and over and over again over a very long time, tumbling and eventually coating the object with a layer of smooth, round, shining white calcite. Dustin explained that this area was once trashed by early, pre-National Park tourism, with many pearls taken or stained brown and black by the dirts and oils early guests brought in on their shoes and hands. In an attempt to restore the cave-pearl chamber to some semblance of its former glory, NPS rangers and volunteers spent hundreds of hours manually replacing recovered pearls and cleaning them with dental equipment while suspended over the the basin on wooden planks.

Cave pearls cover the basin in this chamber. Water drips from overhead, continuing the long work of building these rare and unique formations.

I felt the eyes of Ranger Aubrey hot on my back as I knelt down to get a closer look of the shining cave pearls. I waved back at her with a sheepish smile. She nodded back, watching the pearls and my hands closely. The days of destructive pioneer tourism were gone- if I dared to reach out and grab one of those pearls, I wouldn’t be surprised to get a bullet in the back- or even worse, a hefty fine.

In any case, Ranger “Hawkeye” Aubrey had nothing to fear from me. I’m a Junior Ranger in six National Parks, after all. Preservation for future generations is my first priority as a member of the Elite Ranger Force.

Wow.

Continuing the expedition, each chamber bled into another mysterious and enchanting as the last, a maze of wonders growing unseen in the dark over millions of years. In one chamber, Ranger Dustin pointed out the signature of Jim White, the first man to explore the Lower Cave,  carved into the stone. In another he illumined a thousand year old bat’s corpse perfectly preserved in the transparent calcite atop a crystalline smooth white stalagmite like an insect in amber.

Jurassic Bat! Holy cow!

A couple hours into the tour we were led to a small opening in the wall, where we crawled on our hands and knees to find ourselves in a tiny chamber. Sitting cross legged, our helmets nearly bumped the ceiling. We huddled together in the tiny room which was little more than a mere pocket of air in the stone.

At Dustin’s command, we turned off our headlamps. The darkness was complete.

Nobody spoke. Eyes open or closed, there was no difference at all. This was true darkness, the darkness of a subterranean landscape that knew no light before Man’s explorations. The perfect darkness of ages, the perfect silence of a world beyond time. We could hear only our own breaths, yet even those seemed to be stolen away by the deep, inky blackness.

After several minutes of silence, Dustin spoke softly about the spirituality of the Caverns, the Park Service’s mission, and our roles as citizens in protecting and preserving these sacred spaces for the next generation. He knew what he was doing. We were awash in wonder, our minds stilled into silence by the pitch blackness and the formations we’d seen in the Lower Cave. It was the perfect time to plant the seeds of National Park activism in our heads.

The headlamps came back on, and we worked our way back to the ladders we had descended two hours ago. I didn’t want to leave- I wanted to camp down there, spend days exploring on my own- but there was no way I could fight my way past Ranger Hawkeye. Alas.

Allie and I scurried up the three ladders and pulled ourselves up the rope and out of the stone bowl back to the paved pathway, where we bid an awed and enthusiastic farewell to our excellent Ranger guides.

yeah we cavin’, it’s pretty amazin’

I will never wholly capture my first caving experience in words or photographs. Like seeing sunset on the Grand Canyon or watching the glaciered peak of Mt. Rainier emerge from the clouds, it must be experienced to be understood.

The Natural Entrance, mouth of Carlsbad Caverns.

Going down?

After the tour, we took the elevator to the surface and hiked overland to the Natural Entrance of Carlsbad Caverns, a gaping hole in a hill descending sharply downward. Cave swallows spun and twittered above our heads as followed the steep, paved switchbacks down, down, down, through magnificent chambers decorated with intricate and alien formations of every size. We descended into a real-life Cavern of Wonders, infinitely more fantastic than any treasure Aladdin found in his.

Stone tentacles wriggle their way into the cavern.

Descending 750 feet in a mile, we found ourselves in The Big Room again, and strolled the level and paved 1.2 mile path around the largest single subterranean chamber ever discovered, weaving among an endless array of luxurious hanging stone chandeliers, gardens of intricately terraced and truly mighty stalagmites, and collections of formations so delicate we didn’t dare speak above a whisper for fear of breaking them with our harsh human voices.

The Hall of Giants.

Indeed, Carlsbad Caverns is ruled by a profound stillness, a mystical quiet. You cannot help but whisper- the place evokes something like a grand cathedral, one more ancient and intricate and beautiful and delicate and inspiring than any holy building made by man.

The Chandelier.

I sneezed. It echoed through the caves, even louder than I’d feared. I winced and closed my eyes, awaiting the hand of God to smite me right then and there for my snotty sacrilege. It would be a just and appropriate punishment for breaking a silence this holy. After a few moments, I relaxed. It appeared I was forgiven.

This time.

Crystal Spring Dome, the largest actively growing formation in the cavern, glistens wet with water dripping from the many stalactites above.

The next day we couldn’t help but return to the Caverns. We wandered the exhibits in the visitor center, filling out our Junior Ranger booklets as we moved from display to display. Happily, we met our intrepid guide Dustin once more- he was working the main desk today, and we handed over our completed Junior Ranger booklets. Dustin looked over our work with approval, and swore us in as Carlsbad Caverns Junior Rangers.

Pretty sure we’re the best Junior Rangers Dustin has sworn in all year.

We shared a pretty good quesadilla at the attached restaurant and took the elevator back down to have a leisurely stroll around The Big Room, taking it all in once more, still incredulous that such a place could exist outside an artist’s imagination.

Okay, you know what? I really can’t keep trying to put this place into words. You’ve got to see this place for yourself.

Just. Go.

This picture cracks me up for some reason. I love this girl. <3

We found Aubrey patrolling the caves and managed to snag a shot with her too.

If you think this looks neat, wait ’til you see it in person.


We returned to camp at Guadalupe Mountains NP late in the afternoon to find our easy-up sun shelter shredded to pieces by the wind, its hollow aluminum legs twisted beyond repair. Being deep underground all day, we were quite unaware of the gusts above. Oh well.

A cute lil’ tarantula-bro wanders near our camp. So soft <3

Hard at work designing an animal adapted to the climate of the Guadalupe Mountains. You are witnessing the birth of the mighty Bunnypig.

Our second Junior Ranger badge in as many days. We hustlin’

The following day we groggily and slowly packed up camp. We stopped at the Pine Springs visitor center, turning in our Guadalupe packets to be sworn in as Junior Rangers of Guadalupe Mountains. Then we took the long, winding route to Dog Canyon, a remote and quiet corner of the park. When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we had the small campground to ourselves. We stopped at the ranger station near the entrance and met Ranger Boyd, a charming and chatty old man with a Texas drawl, who told us everything we’d ever need to know about hikes in the area. We chat, we pay, and set up camp in the corner of the tiny 8-site campground next to a rocky wash. Maples and alligator junipers provide ample shade, and the sheltered canyon keeps most of the area’s high winds at bay.

The campground at Pine Springs had been a hot, windy mess in view of an industrial highway- little more than a launching point for hikes to the high country- but Dog Canyon was shaded, quiet, and remote enough to feel like a genuine camping experience on its own. Just what we needed.

We spent the rest of the day and all of the next just sitting around camp readin’, chillin’, boozin’ and communin’ as our legs recovered from three days of hiking and caving.

Our quiet campsite at Dog Canyon provided a much-needed break from the wind, heat, and noise.

A spooky spidermom carries her brood on her back in Dog Canyon. Horrifying but also kinda awesome. Good think I was watching my step.

Saturday arrived. We woke at 6am to eat and prepare our backpacks. Armed with information from Ranger Boyd, we set off on our own hike into the high country of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Our route was to take the Tejas Trail south into the mountains, climbing to the top of Lost Peak at 7,830 feet, then continuing a few more miles along the ridge to Mescalero Camp, one of several backcountry campsites in the Guadalupes. We estimated about ten miles round trip.

A beautifully draconic lizardbro watches us pass as we start up the trail.

What can I say about an overland hike with my head still ringing with memories of the immaculate Caverns? This trek, rather than a path of natural wonders, was to us a climb- a workout. We simply took step after step after step after step- and so on- battling our way up exposed ridges, baking in the hot sun, reminding our bodies what they were made for- venturing into the unknown, muscles aching and sweaty and covered in dirt, the gritty proof of our bravery and curiosity and determination.

It’s no Pacific Northwest, but for Texas? Pretty nice.

As we climbed ever higher, one by one the ridges of foothills fell below us, revealing a thickly forested series of green highland valleys looking like a slice of the Rockies that got lost and somehow ended up in Texas. We climbed Lost Peak- not the highest peak in the state, but in the top four- signed the logbook, and admired the sweeping views. Looking back was the Guadalupes’ beautiful, coniferous forested high country, a refuge for life in the middle of the desert. Looking ahead were rolling foothills to the right, and the flat Permian basin stretching to the horizon on the left. A fine view.

The high country of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, AKA The Most Trees You’ll Ever See In Texas.

Hey, somebody tell that guy that his lens cap is still on. Sheesh, what a maroon.

After climbing back to the trail from the peak, it was an easy walk to Mescalero Campground, where we stopped for lunch before heading back.

The return hike was more difficult than the climb- it was a rocky trail, and by now our feet were aching from the constant battery upon uneven terrain and our legs were weak with the constant balancing act required with each step. We moved more on willpower than muscle power for those final three miles.

A 1932 US Geological Survey marker atop Lost Peak.

Despite the cold blue eye of Death at our heels- or maybe it was a wild turkey- we managed to hobble into camp around 5:30. Grunting in pain with every movement, I fried us a dinner of hot dogs wrapped in flour tortillas, seasoned with mustard packets we’d borrowed from a gas station.

As I wolfed down my dinner, the whole trip played through my mind in fast-forward. The Permian Basin oil fields. The harsh wind and blasting heat of Pine Springs. The palatial and wonderful Carlsbad Caverns and the indescribable magic of spelunking in the deep and the dark. The honor of earning two more Jr. Ranger badges, bringing my collection to six total. The peaceful reprieve from wind and heat at the temperate Dog Canyon. Ending with a good, hard, all-day hike to kick our butts into gear for camping season after a long and slovenly winter.

I gulped the last my hot dog burrito, chugged a bottle of water, and collapsed into the tent. I passed out the moment my head touched the pillow.

A fine excursion, and a worthy preamble to this year’s adventures.

What, there’s more?

Oh yes. The plans are made(and malleable). Our tank is full(and brakes are done). Our larder stocked(and cooler cleaned). Equipment damaged during last fall’s epic three-month trip has been replaced(and upgraded).

The Long Road is calling once again, a soft siren song on the wind.

Can you hear what it’s saying? It almost sounds like “greatsanddunesmesaverdeblackcanyonofthegunnisoncapitolreefbrycezionnorthrimgrandtetonyellowstonecratersofthemoonlaketahoe”.

Whatever that means. 😉

Join us! It’s gonna be completely ridiculous! (Instagram: @ramblingadam and @adventures_in_the_everyday)

-Rambling Adam

The most stunning agave plant I’ve ever seen. Beautiful and deadly, just like me.


Hi! I'm Adam!Don’t miss the amazing stories and incredible photos to come! Read more tales from my travels, check out my store for beautiful photo prints, follow me on Instagram for live updates from the road, and subscribe to my newsletter below! Thanks for reading and happy travels!


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