by Jacob Rex | Program Coordinator
We began our journey in the early hours of the day after Christmas, driving 12 hours to west Tennessee, where we made camp in the cold and dark. Mountains turned to hills, the snow turned to rain and the sun circled the sky as we drove west. The group was quiet for the first few days, watching the scenery change through their windows when not looking at glowing devices in their laps.
A second early morning (there was never a late morning) and we shook off the frost, packed up tents, made a small meal of muffins and oranges and piled in the vans to cross the Mississippi River, farther west than many had been before. Graceland welcomed us with the first landmark of our journey.
The Mississippi Delta, shining like a national guitar, was not the main attraction to this group. Instead, it was the black, shining walls of the Bass Pro Shop Pyramid. After a quick sneak peek inside and a group photo, we left the East behind and moseyed on down the country, crossing Arkansas and entering eastern Texas.
The pines trees and wetlands waned, and sand and shrubs soon replaced the coffee-colored soil of the Mississippi Delta. Our destination was Abilene State Park. Arriving in the dark, the group of Mountaineers unknowingly entered a climate all its own. Setting up tents under the protection of mesquite, pecan and hackberry trees, the wind tackled the wall of vegetation, leaving only the outspread hands at the tops of the canopies to whip and flail in the gale.
The purple and auburn sunrise of west Texas revealed the desert surrounding us, reminding the group of the distance they traveled.
A “short” six-hour drive to Terlingua would solidify this scenic metamorphosis. In Alpine, Texas the travelers enjoyed their final taste of convenient civilization, snagging ice cream and treats in an understaffed gas station. Their next stop was the Chihuahua Desert.
Jagged mountains and mesa soon replaced the rolling plains and sandy oceans they had become accustomed to in Texas. Here was the real magic of southwest Texas, unfurled and raw before their eyes. The drive to camp was long, remote and beautiful. Tents were stationed under the shadow of a rocky cliffside. Burros and javelinas roamed the desert, much to the group’s delight.
Up until this point, meals were found via fast food; tonight, the group had their first taste of camp food, Backcountry Burritos. Piled high with sour cream, meat, cheese and salsa, this meal was hot and made right there at the camp. A circle of travelers in the sand and rock was made, stories were shared, toasts were given to the views and company and the real work began. With no cell phone service and only the sun and moon to compete with for a time, travelers plotted their days in the desert.
A rare extra hour of sleep rejuvenated the group the next day. They made their way back down the gaunt, desert road and searched for the big river. The Rio Grande was found on a small cliffside, where the group enjoyed lunch before venturing into the valley to hike and explore Santa Elena Canyon.
Tall canyon walls on either side of the Rio separated the United States and Mexico,
and like a path to eternity, the river wound through the canyon too far for us
to see its end. That night we enjoyed homemade meals of grilled tin foil dinner
and excitedly talked of the days to come. Big Bend was right around the corner.
We went to bed with the thought on our minds, tomorrow, we enter the desert backcountry.
Up early and excited, we were greeted by beautiful blue skies and warm desert winds. We packed our camp and drove the two hours to Big Bend National Park. Until now, we were used to seeing sizeable mesas and mountains in the distance, but the Chisos of Big Bend made those look puny! The Chisos Basin is a Riparian zone in the Chihuahua desert filled with life. Drooping juniper, Texas madrone, Mexican pine, pinon and huge oaks covered the mountains in the basin. The ocotillos, sotol, barrel cactus, agaves, tree cholla and prickly pears we had been used to in the desert so far were accompanied by things you would expect high in the California Sierras or Colorado Rockies. A beautiful mix that can only be found here in Big Bend.
We split into two groups and eagerly loaded backpacks with food, shelters, warm clothes, rain jackets, sleeping bags and water. Water is sacred in the desert, it exists in a perpetual balance that allows kangaroo mice, coyotes, cactus wren, jack rabbits and rainbow lizards to thrive. But for us, it is often unobtainable. We must carry every drop needed for the next three days. Cooking, cleaning and drinking is easy in the wet temperate climate of the Allegheny range, but in the desert, it is a scarce luxury.
Our packs were heavy, but our hearts were strong, and we ascended the great peaks of the Chisos, Toll Mountain, Lost Mine and the grand jewel of the park, Emory Peak. Sitting at 7,835 feet, Emory Peak is arguably the greatest view in all of Texas. Two nights here in the high country came with astonishing views, gorgeous sunrises and bonding of friends. On New Year's Day, several of us rose before the sun and made the challenging hike to the summit of Emory. There, we brought in the New Year with a desert sunrise, high above the desert, a celebration that no one will ever forget.
The descent after those three days was challenging but was rewarding and fulfilling. The groups joined once again in a circle after the setting sun under the shadow of Emory and feasted as a family, weary and full of the desert spirit. We closed this time of magic and challenge with a quote from Edward Abbey, reminding us of the ferocity and unforgiving nature of the desert we occupied, but reminding us that life and success is not only possible here but sweeter than anywhere else.
A relaxing soak in the Hot Springs of the Rio Grande and visits to the Window and Balanced Rock filled the group with wonder after their journey into the mountains, but as travelers must do, they had to move on. Leaving the Chisos and Big Bend is always like saying goodbye to a dear, old friend.
Looking back radiates warm memories, and it sticks with you days after you have said farewell.
The desert is full of magic we all discovered, and it does not leave you. The travelers then made their way to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where they scrambled to the highest point in Texas at Guadalupe Peak (8,751 feet). Winds at 50 mph howled through the cliffs and reminded the group that they were still in the desert and challenge is the name of the game here. That night, a clever three-legged skunk found its way into a tent and scored a jackpot of a crumbling granola bar, in what was the most entertaining and precarious event of the trip! Safely guided out of the tent, the skunk made its presence know the rest of our stay with nightly visits for scraps.
The final leg of the trip was spent exploring the gargantuan caves and tunnels of Carlsbad Caverns. These mountaineers had summited the highest point in Texas and ended with a tour of the deepest. The staggering columns of stalagmites and stalactites, popcorn structures of water and stone and crystal-clear pools of the caverns only added to the wonder of the desert. After nearly two weeks of travel and challenge, the group was ready for a hot shower and a quiet place to sleep. Friends at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas, opened their doors (and saunas!) to us when heading home, giving each person a moment to relax and reset.
Just 24 hours and a quick night in Meeman-Shelby State Park in Tennessee were all that was left to get home. The fading and emerging of trees and shrubs, sand and dirt and plains and mountains began again in reverse. After two weeks, the group of travelers made it home. I will speak for myself, but after three weeks of the cold winter of West Virginia, I can still smell the musk of the creosote bush, hear the mimics of the Mexican Jays and feel the warmth of a desert sunrise. I believe each of the travelers who made the journey also carries the pride of meeting the challenge of the desert and now thinks of those mountains as dear, old friends.