Near the beginning of the trip, as April and I are bandaging Jennifer’s feet, I start to comprehend just what I’ve gotten myself into.
It seemed like such a simple plan when I first saw the maps. A high, north-south ridgeline crossed the Texas Panhandle-New Mexico border, spanning a 50-mile gap between Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks. The topography hinted at a spectacular weeklong trip, but I knew little about the region other than the fact that Guadalupe Ridge was the petrified remnant of a prehistoric sea floor structure called Capitan Reef.
Then I met April Weitlauf, a Carlsbad, New Mexico, resident who had once attempted this trip but dropped out because of shoulder and back problems. The Capitan Reef is her home turf, having spent years as a ranger, trail foreman, and caver in the area. She raved about the cool pine forests and cave-riddled bluffs of the high ridgeline. She’d also scouted out the best spots to cache water, a key point that would make traversing this arid range much simpler.
But my newfound hiking partner brought certain, uh, complications along with her insider information and ample experience. Blonde-haired, freckle-faced, and geen-eyed, mutual friends nicknamed her “The Guaddess.” A classic Earth Mother beauty. All of which raised an eyebrow with my new wife, Jennifer, the one with the blisters. Hands on her hips, Jen informed me back home that I would not be disappearing unchaperoned into the woods with any Guaddesses.
So here we are, 4 miles and 2,500 feet straight up the Tejas Trail, and there’s a blister, a delay, and the women-who’ve just met-comparing notes. April learns this is Jen’s first backpack (funny, I thought I’d mentioned that). Jen learns the trip won’t be 55 miles long as promised, but 62, roughly. While Jen digests the new statistics, April launches into a polished, enthusiastic ex-ranger description of fascinating desert inhabitants like scorpions, the five local varieties of rattlesnake, and the “cute” tarantulas that “can really jump if they’re agitated.” During stunned pauses in the conversation, the two cast judgmental glances my way. I focus on the tape job and gaze studiously at the surrounding scenery.
Ahead, the arrow-straight mound of Capitan Reef rolls out of sight to the north like a tidal wave breaking over the Trans-Pecos plains. From my current perspective, the escarpment looks huge, endless, and far more challenging than I imagined when figuring my new wife into the itinerary.
Jen’s blister successfully patched, I concentrate on setting a slow pace, while the two women turn their attention to bonding-shouting amiably back and forth over the frigid, howling May winds. At least they’re getting along well.
Perhaps too much so. They’ve rapidly identified me as a scapegoat for all things male, so they gang up and gleefully torment me. Being relatively secure in my manhood, I can accept the cruel biological fact that I’m always wrong. But I’m also learning that trekking with “the ladies” will be a more verbal-if abusive-experience than accompanying the morose, semiliterate troglodytes I number among my male companions.
As a distraction from the lung-busting climb, and a defense against my tormentors, I let my thoughts wander across the spectacular geology unfolding before us. Some 135 million years ago, these mountain rocks were polyps, and tube worms were busily building a giant reef in the milky waters of a primal sea. As the South American plate jammed against what is now East Texas, the land farther north swelled upward to become the Rockies, while the reef was buried under a delta of sediments running down off the growing mountains. During the ensuing eons, the smothered corals transformed into tough, erosion-resistant limestone. When the softer surroundings were washed away, the petrified reef was left isolated and omnipotent, towering nearly a vertical mile above the arid Trans-Pecos as the Guadalupe Ridge.