“Lookin’ for airheads?” he drawls.
“Huh?” I respond.
“Airheads?” Willis repeats, a little more clearly. “Follow me.” We walk 10 yards into the brush and he points to the ground. Flint chips, the remnants of arrowheads, are everywhere, and there’s a deep pit ringed by stones. “The Apaches and Mogollon Indians were all over here,” he explains. “That pit’s where they roasted mescal, the century plant, one o’ their big staple foods. Tastes kinda’ like a yam. When they’d migrate back and forth between here and Mexico, summer to winter, they’d just reuse these sites like a KOA campground. Roasting pits already dug, rocks for their wickiups, they were good to go.”
The history lesson over, the boys offer to drive our packs on to Dark Canyon, 7 miles distant. After a brief flicker of guilt, all three sacks launch into the truckbed. Loadless, we stroll quickly along atop a maze of broad ridges, their squat scrub-covered sides banded with small limestone ledges. The fire tower slowly grows on the distant horizon, and when we’re within about 100 yards, we smell barbecue.
Mike already has the potatoes chopped, the salad made, and the charcoal ready for the steaks he brought. That night, we lie in the unaccustomed lap of backcountry luxury, listening as Mike spins Guadalupe tales of mail-order brides who fled when confronted by the lonely Chihuahuan desert, of black “buffalo soldier” cavalry regiments, and the Mescalero Apaches they pursued through this, one of the last Indian strongholds.
During the night, I dream a scene from one of Mike’s stories, about how his friends once found a long-abandoned cache of Indian pottery lying exposed on the vast alkali flats of the Pecos, all of it tragically shattered by the intense hailstorms common here.
But pottery shards and petroglyphs are just the beginning of this mountain range’s less obvious attractions. More than 300 known caves riddle the ancient limestone, and after a languid morning sunning around the fire tower, we rouse ourselves to spend the remainder of our fifth day exploring the massive eerie entry cavern of nearby Cottonwood Cave.
We step through the shade line into blessed coolness. As our eyes adjust, colossal columns rise into the darkness overhead, and intricate curtains of hanging stalactites flow over the cavern walls like dripped wax. Cave swallows, swifts, and the occasional bat flutter between mineralized soda straws that hang from the flat ceiling. Deep in the bowels of Earth, with tons of stone overhead and ancient musty scents in my nostrils, it’s easy to imagine the surging seawater, then the dark and silence, the slow drip of eons, and the enormous faulting pressures that built the ridge we hike along.
The next day takes us farther than linear miles can convey from Cottonwood’s cooling depths and the windy chill of the high pine forests. Now we’re descending toward the Chihuahuan desert lowlands, baking in the stultifying sun and hot wind. The sun-drenched hills are carpeted with tufts of beargrass and yuccalike clusters of spikey sotol. April is euphoric to be back in her beloved desert,
while Jen, more accustomed to classic mountain scenery, finds it “kinda drab and ugly, unless you look closer.”
Fat blue agaves grow beside the trail like overgrown artichokes. Vermillion
Indian paintbrush, yellow daisies, and sky-blue forget-me-nots tremble in the wind. Small miracles in a big, arid land.
After nearly a week on the Capitan Reef, I’ve begun to identify the area’s scenic themes. Always there are the green and blonde hills, interwoven ridgelines banded with narrow ledges of limestone. Always there is wind, and vultures that float silently above the ridgetops. This evening, like most, the trade winds throw mare’s tales across a wash of higher clouds. We make camp on an open saddle with a 360-degree view. The whole desert seems to sigh gratefully as the sun sets. Bird calls crescendo into a chorus of hoots and whirrs as a peaceful glow falls over the landscape.
Tomorrow, we’ll make a last 14-mile forced march to Carlsbad’s scenic loop road and the strange, platform feel of asphalt after a cobble-strewn week. It’s our last night out, and a time for thoughtful reflection. I’m incredibly proud of my tough spouse who, typically, downplays her accomplishment, claiming I crammed her pack “with sleeping bags and marshmallows, so there wasn’t room for anything heavy.” April is happy to have had an injury-free rematch with Guadalupe Ridge, thanks mostly to slower companions who kept her from power-hiking into a stress fracture. Having honored
her friend, she can now move on to a new home in Tennessee. But I suspect the Guaddess will return soon, because she’s far too in love with the desert Southwest.