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Desert home

Finding solace, solitude in a vast land of self-contained treasures

By Anna Badkhen
Globe Correspondent / October 3, 2010

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GUADALUPE MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK — In late afternoon, the sun burns white-hot over Guadalupe Peak, and charcoal thunderheads girdle the largest exposed fossil reef in the world.

To the southwest, above the Sierra Diablo Mountains that recede toward Mexico in cuestas of ocher, peppercorn, and heather, a gunmetal monsoon edges against the pale blue firmament, dragging across the Chihuahuan Desert a wall of rain so heavy it looks solid, like a sky-high escarpment. To the west of the barren, serrated bluff of El Capitan, thunder drums where two storm fronts are colliding over El Paso. Just to the north of the dry wash where I lie on my back, the sky is completely black. Lightning flashes orange almost directly overhead, with the sound of canvas ripping.

The wind gusts in warm waves, carrying the promise of rain, then stills for a few beats. I watch the hot air quiver, and listen to the desert as it readies for the storm.

I hear the peeling bark scrub against the contorted red trunk of a madrone, the urgent concert of cicadas. An ant highway passes to my right; I hear three ants drag a beetle shell over tiny pebbles.

You come to the desert to hear such things: the hollow flutter of a moth wrestling out of a cage of agave, a longhorn beetle falling off a stone and landing on its back with a clank. You come for the magnitude of the landscape. You come to lose yourself in the seemingly infinite space, and to find the most precious treasure the desert holds for a traveler from the busy and crowded Northeast: solitude.

“We are undervisited,’’ Sally Jones, a park volunteer, tells me. The 86,416-acre park, with its 80-plus miles of trails, draws about 200,000 visitors a year. It is one of the least visited national parks in the country. I think I detect a note of pride in Jones’s voice. She is one of the four people with whom I speak during my eight-day stay here. Another is a park worker with a handlebar mustache I encounter on a backcountry trail on my second day. He is riding a mule and leading three pack mules behind him. Our conversation is brief; he speaks first:

“How you doin’?’’

“Not bad, and you?’’

“Ain’t complainin’.’’

I watch the mules descend with their mount into the valley, and in less than a minute they are tiny cardboard cutouts against the great plain beneath me, without substance or shadow. I will not see another human for the next two days.

But there will be other encounters.

At Pine Top (elevation: around 8,080 feet), a catatonic mountain short-horned lizard has taken up one of the eight campsites. I don’t notice the diurnal reptile right away: It blends in with the gray slab of limestone beneath it. I take another campsite. I hang my sweat-soaked tank top from an alligator juniper tree to dry, unroll my sleeping bag, lie on my back, and watch canyon towhees flirt with each other in the branches. To my left, one juniper tree, the armadillo scales of its bark still on, embraces another, dead and bare, in a desert rendition of Romeo and Juliet.

The slant of the setting sun paints the mountaintops golden. The longer the shadows, the cooler the desert exhales under paper-thin clouds that stretch like streamers suspended horizontally from the paling sky. A buzzard soars in the valley beneath me, catches a stream of warm air drifting off the cooling earth, and rises above. Ravens wheel above misty arroyos.

After the sun sets I hear light footsteps, then sniffing. I sit up: Behind me, three or four feet away, a black bear is checking me out. I call out and, startled, it lopes away, surprisingly spritely for its heavy body, into the dry brush.

Bound some 265 million years ago by lime-secreting algae, the Guadalupes are a composite of silicified fossils weathering out of limestone, the remnants of an ancient reef towering over what was a tropical sea that evaporated at the close of the Permian Period, during the greatest mass extinction of all time.

It is easy, at first, to mistake the elevated, saline desert that was left behind for hostile emptiness. Cholla cactus grabs at your shoelaces. Panic grass bleeds your hands. Rattlesnakes coil on your trail up the spine of Guadalupe Peak (at 8,749 feet the tallest mountain in Texas), and the sun burns your skin. On my drive up to the park a tarantula crossed the highway, so large I swerved to avoid collision. I thought it would dent my car.

But stay awhile, and you will find the solace of open spaces you have come here for. Time will slow. You will start noticing the smallest things, although in this vastness they will no longer seem small. You will notice the way a thumb-sized prickly pear pushes through the broken white rock of the arroyo floor, the salt-streaked shoulder of dolomite where a seep dried up some time ago, the conch shell of a snail on a century plant at dawn.

You will find yourself apologizing to prairie lizards that scatter invisibly into the grass at your footfalls: not out of loneliness, or because you need somebody to talk to, but because in the desert each thing that survives deserves respect.

Study the dolomite for the calligraphy of fossilized mollusks. Scan the canyons for elk feeding on sumac. Imagine the echo of the hoofclaps of John Joel Glanton’s scalping mercenaries of the mid-1800s, or the footsteps of Mescalero Apaches who once roamed this desert — and, one desert legend holds, waylaid travelers in a canyon called Devil’s Hall.

But not all at once. Do one thing at a time, deliberately, slowly. Watching an ant examine a flick of cigarette ash should take up an hour.

After a while, the expanse around you will clear the space in your mind that has been clogged for so long with deadlines, e-mail, doctors’ appointments, Little League games, bills you hadn’t realized were overdue: the veneer of civilization.

Then — perhaps at night, when you lie in your sleeping bag and watch the Milky Way trawl its entourage of constellations across the sky — you will remember the true reason you have come here: Humans were born in the desert. Our feet are built to walk on hot, dry soil. Our bodies are built to sleep under the stars and rise at sunup. Our brain is built to endure in boundless spaces. You have come to learn from this parsimonious, tough land the way you would learn from a wise grandparent. You have come here to regenerate.

You will learn that the desert is both fragile and strong. Step on the wrong shrub and you have destroyed an ecosystem. But let the desert burn for days and then watch the land recover as though the natural catastrophe were no more than a scratch.

Come here. Do one thing at a time. Do one thing for a very long time. Watch an ant try to rescue a piece of a beetle shell from beneath a fallen ponderosa pine needle. Or simply look at your nails.

Don’t expect an epiphany; probably, there won’t be any. But you will come away stronger: You have been to your birthplace, you have absorbed its resilience. In its magnanimous isolation, you have healed.

Anna Badkhen, whose travelogue about war and food, “Peace Meals’’ (Simon and Schuster), comes out next week, can be reached at badkhen@gmail.com.

If You Go

Getting there
El Paso International Airport is 110 miles west of the park. There is no public transportation to the park.
What to do
Guadalupe Mountains
National Park

400 Pine Canyon Road
Salt Flat, Texas
Visitors center 915-828-3251 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              915-828-3251      end_of_the_skype_highlighting
Dog Canyon ranger station 575-981-2418
www.nps.gov/gumo/index.htm
Daily year round; adults $5 for seven days; children ages 15 and under free. Pay at visitors center (closed on Christmas) or, cash only, at all trailheads.
Where to camp
Campsites with toilets, running cold water, and garbage cans are available at Pine Springs and Dog Canyon. Select an unoccupied campsite, then pay cash at the self-registration board near the restrooms or by credit card at the visitors center. The fee is $8 per night per site, or $4 for Golden Age and Golden Access Passport holders. Two campsites for groups of 10-20 people are available at Pine Springs and one at Dog Canyon. Wheelchair accessible camping is available, and there are spots for RVs, though no hookups. Checkout time is noon.
Backpackers have 10 backcountry camping grounds to choose from, each with 5-8 campsites. The nearest to Pine Springs/Visitors Center is a mile below the top of Guadalupe Peak (5 sites). Camping allowed on campsites only, free with entrance fee, but you must obtain a backcountry camping permit beforehand at the visitors center or ranger station.
All individual campsites are on a first come, first serve basis. Group campsites are available by reservation (call 915-828-3251, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. MST daily) up to 60 days in advance.
No fires, wood, or charcoal allowed in the park.
What to drink, eat
Drink at least a gallon of water a day, especially if you are hiking. Water is available at the visitors center, the McKittrick Canyon Contact Station (during the day only), Frijole Ranch, and at base camps in Pine Springs and Dog Canyon. The visitors center and Pine Springs base camp have cold drink machines.
The nearest location for groceries, showers, and lodging is 35 miles away, in Whites City, N.M. (Rodeway Inn, 6 Carlsbad Caverns Hwy., 575-785-2292; $95 per night). Gasoline is available there or 32 miles west, on US 62/180. Carlsbad, N.M., 20 miles east on 62/180, has a wide range of hotels and restaurants.
Getting around
There are no paved roads in the park. Roads end at Pine Springs, McKittrick Canyon Contact Station, Frijole Ranch, Williams Ranch (4x4s only), Dog Canyon, and trailheads. Trails range from easy to strenuous. Many trails are rocky and often steep. Wear sturdy clothing and footwear.
Desert air is dry, without enough moisture to trap the heat at night. Nights are surprisingly cool, even in summer. Expect high winds on mountain campsites. Ask a park worker about lightning, mountain lion, and rattlesnake safety.