Photo by Steve Howe
Descending into McKittrick Canyon
While dinosaurs were still just a gleam in the creator’s eye, Guadalupe Ridge was already in its rough present form: a conifer-covered mesa jutting high into the cooling jet stream. The evergreens and boreal animals April had raved about are remnants of this wetter, cooler past.
We climb through the switchbacks and cliff bands at a pace befitting such creeping changes, until the sun threatens to set, and the last false summit succumbs to persistence.
Thud! Jen’s pack hits the dust and she dances around like a pony that just tossed its saddle. “Woo hoo!” April cries in her ebullient trademark holler. “We’re at camp!”
That means it’s party time. It’s April’s 32nd birthday, and Jen’s celebrating “the first-time-I-ever-hauled-a-pack-up-a-freakin’-cliff-like-THAT.” Reasons enough to proceed with a bacchanalia of wine and pack-smashed Twinkies adorned with trick candles. The Nalgene-flavored vintage leads April to muse about her rematch with the Guadalupe-to-Carlsbad trek, a journey all the sweeter because she’s doing it to commemorate a friend who died not long after completing the trip himself. In the darkness, I lean back against a rock and find myself pondering how a trail, just a rut in the dirt, can make such human connections.
This is a land of fossils, with endless petrified patterns of long-dead tube worms and trilobites that once grubbed through primeval waters. The skeletons sweep beneath my feet in untold millions as we hike up the Permian Reef Trail, climbing from McKittrick Canyon toward the distant rim of Wilderness Ridge. Toiling up the sun-drenched incline, we stride across the ghosts of entire vanished species, laid down in the black depths of an ancient ocean.
It’s the third day out and our longest leg yet, but to my relief, Jen’s doing fine, “even though you guys lied and didn’t tell me it was uphill the entire way.” The hiking doesn’t faze her, though she says she’d rather “walk all night than sleep on the cold ground and wake up to frozen toothpaste.”
Being court jester to the Guaddesses, I’m finding, is a small price to pay for watching my wife enjoy this beautiful but challenging epic.
Slowly, the temperatures warm as we continue northward, descending gradually from Guadalupe Mountains National Park to the Lincoln National Forest. Trails among the cliffs turn to jeep roads through pi?on-juniper, but the sky stays the bluest I’ve ever seen. Always there are vultures soaring effortlessly against the turquoise backdrop, swaying on dihedral wings, relaxed and fluid, consummate flyers in harmony with the trade winds. On the ground, however, the scenery dulls and I fall into the hot boredom of an afternoon desert slog.
The women, meanwhile, talk about men-first men, last men, worst men, best men, creeps, hunks, losers-and their endearing habits and irritating flaws. I am occasionally consulted for my perspective, but more often used as illustration. Fortunately, I’m rescued when a red pickup and dune buggy appear through a cloud of dust. We’re in multiple-use country, so I make a conscious effort to be friendly as the mustachioed buggy driver idles up, smiling broadly.
“Well, speak of the devil,” he chuckles.
After a moment of confusion, I realize these are April’s friends who were going to rendezvous with us at the Dark Canyon fire tower, the most identifiable landmark on our route. Jen and I meet lanky, laid-back Mike Rutherford (in the truck) and rowdy, rough-edged Willis Walker (in the buggy), both native Carlsbaders. Backpacks hit the dirt. Cold beverages appear from nowhere like mirages. An amiable haze quickly descends. Eventually I look around to find where I dropped my pack. Willis notices my searching.