9 Mar 02 (Saturday)
When I left this morning it felt like I would never come back to San Antonio, or anything I had known to be a part of my life. And hell, who’s to say that I won’t? If I don’t it wouldn’t be because of this trip. In fact, this trip would save me. But that is another story.
I left San Antonio in a t-shirt and shorts at 4AM. It was 61 degrees. I took off on my journey, the sun came up, and just when I noticed that my tank was running a little low I stopped in this small town in West Texas called Bakersfield that consisted of three pickup trucks, two gas stations with pumps left over from the 1970s and… a whole lotta dirt. Three hours after I left, when I arrived in Bakersfield, it was 38 degrees. And I was still wearing shorts.
The drive through the Davis Mountains just north of Big Bend was a breathtaking scene for a Texas highway. It was like I hadn’t ever seen mountains. Because for the first time it was breathtaking… to know that this wonderful earth had even more character than I usually see. Sure, you see all sorts of things on TV, but nothing compares to the real thing.
Through the deserty area of the westest of Texas, “watch for ice on road” signs coexisted with clouds of dust at mountain feet. Driving through these giant mounds of rock and dirt, you’d think you were driving through clouds. But they were, in fact, humongous dust clouds. If you can imagine snowy mountains with white clouds around them, imagine Texas mountains with dust clouds around them. Visibility was limited to about one mile down the highway.
The feeling of how easy it was to escape lifted my spirits tremendously. When I crossed the border into New Mexico, the ground almost looked like a beach, with dark brown sand dunes and small shrubs and hills covered with cacti. But there was no ocean.
The closer I got to Alamogordo, the more this mountain became visible, so incredibly tall that you could see… it was… it was snow-capped! I felt drawn to it. I think the mountain is called Sierra Vista or Sierra Blanca or something, and I’ll see about getting as close as I can early next week.
So I set up camp at the foot of the Sacramento Mountains, just at the entrance of “Canyon de Perro” or Dog Canyon at Oliver Lee State Park. The landscape is one of a typical Chihuahuan desert, with all sorts of cactus and shrubbery suited for desert climate. Jackrabbits, bugs. That’s about it so far. The view of the mountains just outside my tent is absolutely amazing.
Right now I’m sitting in my tent. I just finished making myself mac & cheese with canned chicken. Note 1: make AND finish dinner before the sun sets. Otherwise you won’t be able to see what you’re washing (if you wash your dishes). If you don’t wash your dishes, bears and coyotes and other scavengers may come. So, you know. Note 2: locate firewood before the sun sets.
The starry sky outside is incredible. I have never seen so many stars in my life. Not a cloud in the sky. This is good. This is very good. I wish I could take a picture of this, but I don’t have a lens that would take a picture of exactly what I see tonight. You have to be here. I tried to take the picture, so I’ll see how it comes out when I make it home.
The wind just picked up. My tent is being pushed around. It’s about 8PM Mountain Time and tonight it should get down into the 40s, at least. Will have to bundle. Tomorrow I’m thinking about going on a 10-hour hike and will climb about 3100 feet in elevation, to a height of about 7500 feet above sea level. Will have to leave early so that I’m back to camp in time to find firewood and make dinner. Will need to make a good breakfast and pack a lunch too.
10 Mar 02 (Sunday) 7AM
I awoke this morning to the howling of coyotes… it was so cold that when I went for my Gatorade it was colder than it usually is when I grab it from the refrigerator at home! This is definitely snuggle weather. But I lucked out in getting the warm sleeping bag. Birds are beginning to chirp. Signs of morning. I’ll be on my way now.
Just made breakfast – oatmeal and a chocolate covered peanut butter granola bar, which was as hard as a rock thanks to the cold last night. My fingers are so numb from the cold that I can’t feel objects… made me realize top priorities: 1) eat things. 2) stay warm. Everything else is trivial. This trip will definitely make me appreciate so many things when I return that I will have no problem at all in relaxing on the weekend.
Right now I’m sitting at the base of this mountain waiting, waiting, waiting for the sun to come up over the mountain so that I can get out from underneath this huge, cold, lightless, lifeless shadow that the mountain is casting over me. I can look miles and miles across the desert landscape away from the mountain and see the shadow moving so slowly toward me. I look up into the mountain and see glimpses of light… Oh come ON already, light! Sun, oh heavenly body that I do so worship right now, show yourself!!!! It’s friggin cold!
Even here, in the cold, I could look up into these mountains for hours and hours. It’s such a breathtaking sight. Everyone deserves this. It would fix alot of problems. This is beautiful. Even for the desert. Ow. Just found a cactus thorn in my shirt.
The cold just WON’T go away! Temperature right now is 36 degrees and I’m out here writing. Poor, poor fingers. Guess I was wrong when I thought it was only getting down into the 40s.
Note: sun rises at 6:30. Shadow passes at 7:30. (Warmth arrives at 7:30.)
10 Mar 02 (Sunday) 2PM
…and I’ve sat through just about the entire range of the temperatures. Right now the sun is so incredibly bright and scorching (I am about 3500 feet closer to the sun than usual, even though compared to the actual distance to the sun it’s really nothing). There’s really no way for me to keep out of it other than hiding at the far end of my tent where the sunlight hasn’t yet come through, turning everything it touches scorching hot. But occasionally the breeze makes its way into the tent, and it is a… breath of fresh air.
I left this morning to hike the Dog Canyon trail, which takes you pretty much to the nearest major mountaintop. The distance was only 3.6 miles out, but it took me 2 hours to climb it (mainly because I also had to lift myself an additional 3100 feet above the starting point). Rocky trails, trails that were actually big giant rocks, trails (eek) winding right on ledges curving around the mountains… I got lost a few times. Not much vegetation other than yuccas and cacti and these strange little trees.
At about mile 2.5 I came across a stream winding through the rocks leading down the mountain. But the water wasn’t flowing too fast yet. It was actually still thawing out from last night’s freeze. Next to the stream were the remains of this little stone room, which I assume served as shelter for someone that lived up there some long time ago before this was state property. The only thing inside the structure was a tin can and a small, rusted bed frame that barely fit between the walls. There was no roof, and the walls were mostly crumbled, but a tree that hung over the structure gave a little shade.
I continued up the mountain, where I twisted my ankle just before I turned back. At mile 3.6 I turned around and fell to the ground. Apparently I’m still afraid of heights. Particularly when I realize that I had climbed and was looking down a canyon that was almost as high up as I was when I jumped out of an airplane last summer. I was so high up that I could actually see the curvature of the earth. It was a strange feeling, and it frightened the hell out of me. Yet, it was one of the most, if not the most, beautiful things I had ever seen. And I got there on foot. I sat in both fear and astonishment of its beauty for about 20 minutes before I turned back.
The hike back was slightly faster than the hike up the mountain, but the stress on my twisted ankle was becoming almost unbearable. I made it back down at 12 noon, about 3.5 hours after I had left, and ate the lunch that I had packed just in case I was out longer than I had expected.
The majority of the people that I see around the park are older couples traveling around in their RVs. Although I have occasionally run across slightly younger people. One thing I have noticed is that nobody’s alone out here. Except for me.
The old retired guy that I met inside the visitor center yesterday said that certified alpine cross country runners actually come out here to train. I don’t know where runners would find too much oxygen and actual ground to run on up that high, and how they manage not to fall off the side of the mountain. Those guys must be insane.
So, I decided on my way back down the mountain that I should leave this area a day early. Instead of rushing things, I thought I would take the interpretive hike through the lusher area of the park, break down camp and head for White Sands, where I’ll spend my third night.
White Sands, apparently, allows backpackers to camp at dispersed campsites located 7 miles out in the dunes from the visitor center. Hopefully I will be allowed to drive 6 of those miles (since the campsite is located 1 mile off of their “Dunes Drive”). So, I’ll have to get there and venture off on my 1-mile (I hope) hiking journey through the dunes at just the right time so that I don’t spend too much time out in the sand before the sun goes down.
I’ll have to pack all of my bare necessities (tent, sleeping bag, food) into my hiking backpack and hope that I at least make it out there early enough to set up camp so that when the cold night and winds creep up I’ll be protected. Apparently the sunset on White Sands is supposed to be phenomenal, which is the real reason that I want to spend the night on the dunes. Although I’ve also heard that once you go there, you’ll never get all of the sand out of your car or your clothes or your tent or your shoes…
Lesson #1 from my hike today: I’m really, really small and pretty insignificant to the world around me. Just look into the sky at night and realize that each of those stars are giant suns. And I imagine most of those suns have planetary systems, where other people just like us might be. It’s like we’re all floating around in this thing called space. Just sitting here. Like we’re an ornament on a tree or an experiment or maybe little power plants in grids that someone else much bigger than the universe that we know may be managing. But from the top of that mountain, it is obvious. You can see how big the world is, and you see it!
Last night when the sun came down I started to realize that this place has no real trees to provide firewood. Of course, it was too late in the day to venture out and find some since the nearest thing around me was cactus. So I went to bed at 8PM, about an hour after the “lights” finally went out around here. I cooked dinner on my propane stove. Tonight I hope to get a fire going.
The closest place that I found firewood was a few miles away (into “civilization”) at a small place called “Oliver Lee General Store”. I spent $3 for a crate full of old lumber, with rusted screws and nails still left in the wood. And for starter (included in the deal for the “firewood”) they sold me half of a torn up Dr Pepper box. The old man that sold the wood to me said that they don’t have any trees around this area for firewood, so this is what people in the area burn. Odd.
One thing that I forgot to mention was that when I was 7500 feet above sea level I noticed something very strange. Embedded into a large boulder at the top of the mountain was, among all things, a small seashell. Petrified? Maybe. But how in the world did a seashell get that far above sea level? Only the top part of the shell was showing, but it was definitely a shell, similar to the typical style found on the Shell Gas logo. But black.
Winds are starting to pick up. Need to figure out what I’m going to make for dinner in a few hours. The ground turkey that I brought has just about thawed and I should do something with that since raw poultry doesn’t seem to keep too long. What are the chances that I will get sick from eating bird meat that isn’t kept at the right temperature? I don’t have time or the convenience to get sick right now. Maybe later. I need to take care of my ankle as it is.
Attempt #1 at fire making is a success. Old guy that sold me the lumber must have known something that I didn’t: like, lumber burns. There was a whole lotta dead grass around my campsite, so I was able to get it started with one light.
Cooked eggs and turkey, then ate it with a couple of pieces of bread. Nothing fancy, but it was such a good feeling to eat something with that consistency. The sunset was beautiful tonight. Took four pictures of it.
I’m actually looking forward to tonight. I had such a great sleep last night, and who knows how cold it really was. I was well bundled, and I got 10 hours of sleep- and still got up at 6:30 when the darned coyotes started howling or heckling or whatever the hell they were doing.
I think I’m getting used to things now. As far as organization and procedures go. Need to work my life around the sun now. Sun comes up (or the damned coyotes start howling), wake up. Sun goes down, get ready for bed. Do that and not only do I get to see both sunrise and sunset, but I get a whole lotta friggin sleep! Only thing is, when it’s 32 degrees outside you can’t stretch your arms out or else they’ll get cold. Brrr… I can’t wait for tonight. I had some really nice dreams last night too.
But now it’s time to go to bed, maybe read something before I crash. My foot still hurts. Hope it doesn’t affect me too much. After tomorrow my cellular phone and this PDA that I’m writing on will probably die. So I might have to revert to pen and paper full time.
Well, I just made friends with a moth. Don’t know how he made it in my tent, but I’ll let him stay. As long as he doesn’t try anything funny in the middle of the night. Ah! He’s on my head! And my hand, and now he’s on the screen! Get off or you’re going outside, mister! Why are moths and other bugs attracted to light so much? Does anyone know?
…not sure what day it is now. Monday, I know that. 5:30PM
This morning was ridiculous. At about 8AM at Oliver Lee SP, these winds just picked up out of nowhere and blew both me and my entire existence around like rag dolls. I was planning on leaving anyway for White Sands, so I decided to pack up early. Taking everything down was a task in itself in those winds… It was strange- the wind had completely turned around 180 degrees in a matter of minutes.
After a long and tiring battle with my tent to get it properly packed without the wind screwing up just about every attempt I had made, I finally took off down the long road back to the highway. Low and behold, I could see the White Sands dunes in the distance… And the wind was kicking up the gypsum sand almost as high as the San Andreas Mountains directly behind them. Screw that camping at White Sands idea. I had no way of knowing how long the wind was going to last, so I went into town, the first time I had been to Alamogordo since I was 7. Needless to say it didn’t look like it had changed much. Alot like San Angelo, but 10-15 times smaller.
Stopped by Albertson’s and bought a couple more bags of ice for my “refrigerator” and a couple bananas and ventured back out. Stopped by the Space Museum just on the outskirts of town, browsed a little to wait for the winds to die down, but the winds weren’t slowing down at all, and everyone was acting like this horrible wind was normal and nobody mentioned a thing about how long it was going to last. So I gave up on the White Sands idea for today because I didn’t want to get sandblasted. Made my way down the highway to Tularosa, made a right on hwy 70 and went up to Ruidoso, passing Mescalero, a small town of Mescalero Indians, and approached that beautiful snow-capped mountain that I saw when I first drove into the state.
Well, my plan was to find a campsite on the mountain, but after getting lost and re-finding my way, every single campsite was closed around the mountain. At about peak sun hour I had driven almost to the very top of the mountain and it was only 40 degrees. Imagine how cold it would have been at night. Probably in the teens. But there was snow! And the trees were beautiful. But I still had #1 priority to consider: find a place to stay tonight!!!
So I drove back to Tularosa, out another 17 miles up hwy 54 and another 13 miles out on a long, long, dusty dirt road to where I currently am now, nuzzled at the base of the White Mountain Wilderness at Three Rivers. It’s much more quiet here. Don’t hear any other campers- don’t even see any. But there are plenty of signs occasionally posted around telling you to be very careful where you keep your food because, they say, “this is bear country”. Great.
From my tent I can see another snow-capped mountain in the distance, can hear a rushing stream, lotsa birds. Much more foliage than at Oliver Lee. I’ve been here a few hours and I’ve already heard three jets fly by overhead, and three sonic booms that I thought was some lunatic blowing up the mountain with some big explosive. Rattled me like crazy! You don’t hear sonic booms too often in the city.
I’m planning on hiking the “White Mountain Wilderness” tomorrow- no real particular trails to my knowledge, just lotsa wilderness. Won’t go far else I fear getting lost (by myself). Then after a short lunch, pack up and drive 7 miles down the road and visit the Petroglyph Site. Then, afterward, drive down to White Sands and see if the sand has settled. See what I’m in for if I decide to sleep out on the dunes. Cold, I know that for sure. And if that goes as planned I’ll just need to find one more place to spend the night. Thinking about driving back to Texas and seeing if there are any areas in the mountains there, or maybe Carlsbad on the way to the border.
But right now I need to think about dinner. Looks like the sun will set in about another hour, so I need more than anything to go out and find some more wood so that I’ll have enough until I go to sleep. The more I have, the longer the fire burns, the longer I keep away any large types of brown, furry wildlife with big sharp teeth and gnarly claws.
Tuesday, I think. 11:17AM
Had a great fire last night. Sunset was great. Saw a mule deer outside my tent when I was going to bed. Did I mention the sonic booms? Anyway, reminder # whatever for John: when you boil water, never dump out any remaining hot water. That’s dishwashing water! …or any sort of hot, warm beverage base. HOT commodity!
Last night it got really cold again. Probably close to freezing. Dreams since I’ve been here have been great. And I think I figured out one of the reasons why I’m enjoying them so much. When I’m in a dream I have people around me that I know and love. I can be social. I have conveniences. I have a life removed from my current one – one that really still exists, but in my solitude out here it almost makes this trip begin to look like solitary confinement to a certain degree. I am happy in my dreams. And I am happy here.
I hiked 2 hours up into the snowy mountain this morning. Took another 2 to get back. Just about the entire way up I was on the lookout for bears. None seen, fortunately. I did, however, have a couple of staredowns with some mule deer.
Found a number of places where it looked like someone had attempted to live out there. One makeshift log cabin, the other in a cave on the side of the mountain. A few interesting bones scattered here and there. Lotsa snow and, well, it wasn’t really snow because it was as hard as a rock- I’ll call it ice. Did get lost, almost broke my head open a couple of times on rocks, but I’m alive.
My ankles are killing me. Goes to show how weak my joints really must be. The aide of a hiking stick made the footwork a little easier, but I’m still in pain. So, I made it back down the mountain and now it’s back to the good old desert climate. Blech. I want the winter one back. Even if it’s ice instead of snow. Plus, up in the White Mountain Wilderness, as this is called, the entire mountain was pretty much shimmering. Everywhere I hiked I saw sparkling rocks… Apparently there is a large amount of quartz crystals in this area. Must be. I remember a sign as I entered the area that forbid anyone from removing any amount of quartz from the mountain. Huh.
About to make lunch and dinner for tonight since I probably won’t be able to cook at White Sands on the dunes. Then tear down camp, pack, visit the Petroglyph Site and head on out to White Sands. I probably won’t be able to write tonight. Hope my digital camera survives the sand.
New plan- after White Sands, I drive to Cloudcroft, take some pictures, then make my way around to Carlsbad and down into Texas around Guadalupe Mountains National Park and see if I can find one last place to camp. If not there, my backup plan is Balmorhea State Park off of I10 in Tejas. Over & out. Seeya Wednesday.
14 Mar 02 (Thursday) 2226 hrs
Yes. It is two entire days later. Much happened.
I’m back in San Antonio. Time for an explanation. Last time I wrote I mentioned I was going to make lunch, etc. Yeah, yeah, well, I did. Drove off down the road to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. Pulled in, went up to the trailer converted visitor center for change ($2 per car and I only had a $5) and got into a friendly conversation with a couple of old fogies that worked for the Bureau of Land Management and were managing the site.
The lady there, who never told me her name, assumed I was a computer person and, well, in an instant she had me working on her computer so that she could have access to some files that she had not had access to because the BLM folks changed her logon. She said I could have a free soda when I came back from my hike to see the Petroglyphs. So, I began my ascent into the rocky, dusty hills that strung themselves out a couple of miles into the middle of nowhere, New Mexico.
Really interesting. It seemed that the site was nothing but some sort of graffiti library or bathroom stall equivalent that natives, 1000 years ago, frequented whenever they felt like scribbling or keeping record of something or, in most cases, it looked like celebrating hunts. Most of the images were of the sun. Around here, go figure.
It was SO hot out there. Took a good number of pictures, sweated my ass off all the way back to the parking lot, got my free Sam’s Club brand soda and spouted off a little more with the old fogies. Began my trip out to White Sands.
When I finally got there, number one priority was to look into camping. Well, the ranger guy asked me if I had called about camping the day prior. I said, “no.” Well, apparently, backcountry camping was not going to be available to campers until Thursday night because of a missile test that the Air Force or someone was performing over the park. Which pretty much meant that the rest of my schedule was in an upheaval and that I was out of a place to stay for the night since by the time I made it to some other place it’d be closed and I couldn’t get a permit to stay the night.
So, I winged it. Decided I’d stay for their “desert ranger”-guided Sunset Stroll.
I decided to pull up to a dune and take some shots before the Sunset Stroll. Kicked off my shoes, stuck my feet in the sand and BAM… instant flashback to childhood. The feeling of sticking my feet into the white gypsum sands was exactly that feeling that I remember from 20 years ago. It was an experience. Walked around a bit, stuck some sand into a baggie as a souvenir.
Walked back to my car to get ready to meet for the Sunset Stroll and just then this car pulls up behind me. Two girls get out, one has a video camera. They take off up the same dune that I just walked down. Young people, like me. Unusual. They walk away down the dunes. I drive off to the Sunset Stroll.
I sit, actually, I walked around for about an hour with a huge group of tourists and listen to the park ranger talk about desert plantlife. I didn’t see the girls out there. Disappointed, because I almost made a couple of friends amidst my loneliness and solitude. I took some beautiful sunset shots at White Sands, which is primarily why I stayed there for the stroll instead of driving off to a campsite when I learned I was out of a place to stay for the night.
I drove out of the monument, thought carefully, and decided that the best thing to do would be to go ahead and drive back to Oliver Lee State Park since campers are allowed to self-pay for slots if they arrive in the middle of the night. So I did. 45 minutes later I show up at the park, find a spot to camp, set up my tent. Get just situated enough so that I could sleep, pack back up first thing in the morning, and head off.
I finished setting up camp, and took a walk around the park. The first campsite that I run across… car… storage bag on top of car. Two girls standing at the picnic table, getting food ready for their dinner. I walk a little closer, make sure these are, infact, the same two girls that I saw at White Sands. Yes, apparently they were.
So I walked up, scare one of them half to death, ask if they were the same two girls that parked, out of all gazillion places to park along the however many mile-long Dunes Drive at White Sands, right behind me, one of them says “yes! That was us!” I was invited over, sat down and they insisted that I stay for dinner. I did make some friends afterall.
Their names were Anee and Esther. Anee was a 29 year old ex-financial person who just recently quit and was from Illinois. Esther, a 21 year old, was from San Francisco, where she and Anee met since Anee used to live there too. Very sweet girls. I got along with them very well – they were very kind and inviting. They cooked an interesting stir-fry of some organic/health-food stuff, all out, were big cooks. As I left for the evening to return to my campsite they asked me if I would wake them up when the sun came up the next day.
I was so excited about meeting new friends that night that I had a hard time sleeping. I woke up, found a shower and freshened up since I had been unshowered for five days. Was wonderful, but instantly my lips began to get chapped. Anyway, I went to Anee and Esther’s tent, proceeded to wake them up and spent the next few hours talking with them, eating homemade pancakes and pretty much just having a grand old time. Good thing that I decided to spend the night back at Oliver Lee.
So apparently they’re making their way to Texas soon. I gave them my number and address and told them to stop by when they made it through. I think they will. They liked me and we got along great. Besides, I think the poor traveling souls would be up for a hot shower, air conditioning, television, clean clothes and kitchen appliances. When I said goodbye Wednesday morning, I heard one of them say, “so what are we going to do now???” I made friends.
So then I drove back through Alamogordo, bought some lip balm for my horribly chapped lips, gassed up my car and headed out for Cloudcroft. Cloudcroft was pretty lame to be perfectly honest. I thought Ruidoso had it happening at a lot more of a grander scale than Cloudcroft, for snowy, high-altitude-type “villages,” as they’re called in New Mexico. City limit signs there say “Village Limit,” and instead of population, the signs display elevation.
I took some pictures there and headed off for a place to call it a night. I made it to Carlsbad a few hours later, which was packed, apparently because of Spring Break. Drove farther down, into Texas, found Guadalupe National about an hour later, which not only was packed and overflowing with campers, but the winds were so high that the majority of the tents that were there were either knocked down from the wind or were in the process of being demolished. People were running around everywhere trying to catch their stuff. So I drove another hour and a half to I10, thinking that my contingency plan, Balmorhea State Park, was still an option.
Well, when I get to Balmorhea, just before sunset, the park is closed, sites were available, but a permit was required and campers could not self-permit themselves, unlike at Oliver Lee. So I take off down the road, thinking that I’m just going to drive back to San Antonio. But I see a sign for Balmorhea Lake, “campsites available.”
I drive up, find some Podunk dude there that took my $3 for a campsite and, well, the rest was hell. First of all, there was no area of the lake that wasn’t trashed from white trash, drunken slobs. Second of all, there was no place in the area that a darned tent stake would nail into the ground. Third, the wind was blowing so hard from the lake that I could hardly keep the tent on the ground in order to attempt the tent stake thing. And finally, when I did finally get the tent up, I was attacked by a huge swarm of gnats and mosquitoes and other water-loving bugs and couldn’t even breathe without swallowing a mouthful. It was a sign from God, Allah, Mother Nature, whatever. Welcome back to Texas.
I decided that that guy could keep my $3. I was headed to ANYWHERE but there. I did, however, convince myself that I didn’t go out there for nothing, and got some beautiful pictures of the sun setting on the lake. I think the lake was doubling as white trash dog-breeding grounds too.
7 hours later, 4 to 5 of those in a barely conscious condition, I arrive back in San Antonio, after being on the road for about a total of 15 hours. Strange being back here. Smells funny. I smelled funny. Lotsa lights. Lotsa people. Lotsa pavement and signs that actually tell you how many miles until you get the next “city”. Signs that actually tell you what the speed limit is. But, still, missing a lot. And tomorrow I return to reality. Eleven hours of work, crammed into one day. Welcome back, John.
I’ll have to return to New Mexico some time soon. And at least until then, maybe Anee and Esther will visit me. Oh, and apparently 350,000 years ago, those mountains at Oliver Lee State Park were under water. That’s how that seashell ended up embedded into that rock. That was an old seashell. If I knew then how old that seashell really was I would have tried to take a picture of it.