Monday, August 27, 2012

A Walk in the Foothills

View of El Capitan from the Trail, by Drew Stuart

A Walk in the Foothills
Texas Mountain Trail board member, Drew Stuart

Guadalupe Mountains National Park celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. In connection with that anniversary, the park, along with a variety of other organizations, launched a program earlier this summer called the “Peak Fitness Challenge.” Trail runners and hikers of all levels are invited to compete and log the miles they travel, on trails in the Guadalupes and in El Paso's Franklin Mountains State Park. You can learn more about the Peak Fitness Challenge – and register to participate – at
Mountains above Bear Canyon, by Drew Stuart

As is the case for many of us who live within sight of El Capitan and the highest peaks in Texas – an elect that can't number more than six or seven hundred people – the Guadalupe Mountains are a kind of polestar for me. Though they are a daily object of contemplation, and I've hiked a number of the park's trails, the anniversary seemed an opportunity to develop a greater familiarity with the mountains. I decided that, in what remains of the 40th anniversary year, I'd try to hike all the trails in the park, which, at a total of 85 miles or so, seemed a reasonable undertaking. I began on Saturday (July 21), with a humble 4-and-a-half-mile loop on the eastern flanks of the mountains, following the Frijole Ranch and Foothills trails.

After the 40-mile drive, the mountains looking Easter-morning fresh, I stopped into the visitors center to look over the maps, though I had a pretty good idea of where I was going. The ranger tried to warn me off my intended trails. It was not the most scenic loop, she said, and a long stretch of it ran alongside – and very near – the highway. “I don't recommend it,” she said, twice. I didn't mention my plan, as an extended conversation with me seemed, at least at that hour, to be something she had very little interest in.

The turnoff to the Frijole Ranch trailhead lies a mile north on the highway from the Pine Springs visitors center. The trail begins at the historic ranch house, built in the 1870s by the Rader brothers and expanded by the Smith family. The Smiths settled in 1906, farmed with water from the nearby spring that now bears their name, and kept beans in their pot by hauling produce over a 60-mile wagon trail to market in Van Horn. From the plaque at the trailhead, one gets the image of a flexible and forbearing clan – their place served not only as a home, but as a schoolhouse for local children, a gathering place for dances and a post office. In addition to the Frijole Ranch Trail, the ranch house marks the head of another, shorter trail – to SmithSprings. For another day.

Up the trail, past junipers, soaptree yuccas, the serrated edges of lechuguilla and sotol, beargrass, smokebush and then sage. Signs of creatureliness along the trail are limited. Limited to insects, scat – of mule deer and coyote, the latter in abundance and testifying to a diet rich in prickly pear tunas – and here and there a bird call. Though desert space is often fullness, here it is hard, for some reason, not to take the lack of creatureliness as kind of an absence.

Boulder at Bear Canyon, by Drew Stuart
But if animal life and its evidence are scant, vegetation is another matter. Higher on the trail, the desert shrubs and cacti give on to alligator juniper and oak, mountain mahogany and bright madrone. Further, pinons and even tall ponderosa pines come into view in the dry washes. Did these big trees spring from seeds carried down from the high country? Do they depend on the intermittent flashing of the draws for water? The washes are frontier colonies of the alpine forest, tumbledown outposts, relics of cooler and wetter centuries, when the high-country kingdom could extend its boundaries.

Walking, I am aware of the vast brown space, to my left, to the east, which in the morning hours seems a featureless waste, though little hillocks and tabletops come clear as the day passes. I think about the Apache, the Mescalero. Down the trail, the view opens to the prow of El Capitan and beyond to the flats between the Sierra Diablo and the Delaware Mountains. Somewhere on those flats is Rattlesnake Springs – where, in August of 1880, an alliance of Apache led by Chief Victorio fought one of the last Indian battles in Texas. Victorio's band represented the last indigenous guerrilla force to resist the U.S. military. 

The Guadalupes as a last refuge, a last chance. They seem to present themselves, to suggest themselves naturally as the place of the last stand – coming from the desolation of whichever direction, the south, east or west, you would see this as a remote fortress, a castle.

Victorio was, apparently, trying to reach the Guadalupes when the battle at Rattlesnake Springs took place. The Texas Rangers and the U.S. Calvary – who, at one point, had a sizable encampment near the present route of the Foothills Trail – had conspired to cut Victorio and his men off from water, by stationing forces at springs all across what is now Hudspeth and Culberson counties. The gambit to drive these last resistors from Texas was successful; after skirmishing around the water of Rattlesnake Springs, Victorio gave up on the Trans-Pecos and turned south. He was killed in Mexico two months later.

The Apache whose circles were clipped here ranged across the Chihuahuan Desert and its mountain ranges – from the Chiricahuas in what's now eastern Arizona, to the Black Range and the other mountains of south-central New Mexico, to the sharp slopes of the Quitmans and across the river into the mountains of Mexico. They went screaming across the flats – one presumes they were intimate with the mountains, that these mountains here, the Sierra Diablo, the Guadalupes, were not simply ground over which they traveled, but that the mountains' textures and gravel might have suggested character, even personality. Did they compare the mountains of their range? From the greener pastures and the streams of the Black Range, for example, these mountains must have seemed harder, more exacting – fitting, perhaps, as a last redoubt. What did they think about these mountains?

In Apache lore, the Guadalupes are often linked with the “White Painted Woman,” one of the tribe's principal deities, and with the rite-of-passage ritual for Apache girls, which is central to the tribe's religious life. And it can seem that there is something feminine about the Guadalupes, the range like a sleeping woman, smiling as she dreams.

The trail crosses another dry wash, coming down from the mountains. The smooth, gray body of a venerable juniper, lightning-charred at the root, has slumped into the wash, the jumble of its limbs down in the limestone. Below the juniper, a precipice of 8 or 10 feet; I imagine what a waterfall it must be, when water ever comes here.

I come to Bear Canyon – a deeper canyon than the ones I've passed – and to a fork in the trail. One trail leads into the canyon and up and over its steep head into the high country. My trail turns back toward the flats. A madrone glows in the foreground up the canyon, its orange-red bark bright like copper wire. Above, a shapely, pyramidal form, a classic mountain shape, and a toothy line of pines at the canyon's crest suggest another, cooler sphere. Below, the trail leads toward a massive boulder – big as a house – that's lodged at the canyon's mouth, a perfect overlook above the eastern desolation; there is shelter and shade in cavities on the rock's eastern side, and the walls of the cavities are blackened and sooty, but not marked, as far as I can see, by art.

 I walk on past another lightning-blasted juniper, leafless, smooth and pale – good fuel – and see two tall ponderosas near the mouth of the wash. I'm surprised how long it has taken me to complete this leg of the hike. Hours have past without my noticing.

I round a bend and hear the tidal surf of the highway, see the visitors center and the park housing and administrative buildings across the road – the industrial scree that the ranger had thought to spare me. She was right: this wouldn't be the hike for a traveler making a day trip or a weekend visit to the park, someone who was seeking, understandably, to maximize grandeur and “wildness.” But as a neighbor to the park, and someone for whom desert loneliness is the rule rather than the exception, I can have other priorities.

The trail bottoms out in the wash that drains Pine Springs Canyon. There is soil here, real soil, not just rock: a deep layer of chocolate-colored dirt exposed in the walls of the arroyo. It's a vast catchment, this canyon in the center of the high Guadalupes, and must drain an area large enough to account for the accumulation of soil.

Following the wash, I walk along a grassy meadow, through a pygmy forest of cholla, cat claw, yucca and scattered junipers. I pull off the trail and lay out in the shade of two junipers, my second stop of the day, drink water, let my sweat dry and look back into Pine Canyon, a “V” framing mountains.

I take the return leg, running parallel to the highway, at a brisker pace, looking back at the Guadalupes, trying to trace my path along their flank and seeing that they are larger than I thought when I was up against them. I arrive back at the trailhead about four hours after I began.

– Andrew Stuart

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