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Chisos Interlude

This is me on the first day of 2012

Christmas break afforded me the great pleasure of taking a break from the studying, working, and worrying that has of late monopolized my time. Getting out in nature is unquestionably my favorite way to get away. Up until late high school, getting away meant escaping into my room to play video games. Neither of my parents were big nature fans. Occasionally, we would go on a family "camping trip." This usually consisted of parking a pop-up camper in a large gravel circle somewhere near the mountains and eating hot dogs for a few days. Needless to say, the experiences were lacking. This all changed late in high school, when my Aunt Rachel and Uncle Joshua invited me to backpack with them in the Chisos Mountains. I went along, not because I loved nature, but because I loved my Aunt and Uncle and, furthermore, it was a way to assert independence.

Keep in mind that I had never until this time experienced wilderness. I was a video-gamer; I weighted 190 lbs (about 50 lbs more than I do today) and had no muscle mass to speak of, other than what was required to transport an overweight kid around high school hallways. Despite my ill-preparedness, I absolutely loved the experience. I never knew that the outdoors could be so captivating, so compelling. It was love at first hike.

Since that day, I have striven to use every available occasion to strap on my pack and have an adventure. I returned in 2008 to Big Bend National Park with a group consisting of friends, strangers, and family. All involved had a blast, despite a freak snow storm on the first night (this park is in the desert and snow is pretty rare, even in the mountains). 

This trip, then, was my 3rd trip to these ghostly desert mountains. Now, I usually have pretty good luck with bringing newcomers to backpacking outings. The one exception (before this trip) can hardly count, since the disappointed party and I took advantage of our alone time together to discuss the future of our relationship (it wasn't a particularly happy conversation). 

Anyway, I had pretty high expectations for this trip. The camping party consisted of two others: a really good friend from college, and a guy from college that I knew only a little (and a veteran backpacker). We'll call them Stanley and Barry, respectively.

Day 1: We meet at Stanley's house in Southern Kansas. Stanley is running behind, and we end up leaving at 7:00, much later than we had planned. I drive the group through the night to Southwestern Texas. Leaving late ended up being okay, because on:

Day 2: We ended up arriving at the Ranger Station 10 minutes before they open. Score! Here is the view we saw while driving through the park, just as the first rays of light bent around the earth to distinguish the landscape.

No, this is not a Rothko. Look carefully at the center and you'll see the mountains.

Barry and I gathered our permits. Our first site was Toll Mountain, which lay right at the foot of the trail to Emory Peak, the highest point in the park. Just what we needed. The second site lay right on the Southeastern Rim. The ranger told us it was the best site in the whole park. Nice!

The first leg of the journey was straight uphill, but it wasn't very far at all (only 3.5 miles), so we took the morning pretty easy. First, we drove to the Southern section of the park and enjoyed viewing some prehistoric petroglyphs and petrographs, hot springs, and the desert surrounding the Rio Grande. After some hiking around, we checked out Boquillas canyon, formed by the Rio Grande. All very exciting, all very fun. Early afternoon, we head back north to the basin and gear up for the trip.

The first signs of trouble came along with a park ranger. Seeing our packs, he asked about our itinerary.

"Toll Mountain?" he said, pondering our task. "You'll probably make it."
"Alright fellas, time to get a move on," was my slightly concerned exhortation.

We started up the trail, but it became apparent very early in that Stanley was not going to make it. Or rather, he might, but not any time that day. I took Barry aside and made a rather bold suggestion: "If we hike on ahead as fast as we can, we might be able to come back down to Stanley with empty packs and help him carry his load up the mountain." The boys agreed this was the only sensible line of action.

Thus commenced the most torturous section of the entire vacation. Barry and I hiked our little hearts out, up endless unrelentingly steep switchbacks, pausing only when absolutely necessary. At one point, a ranger stopped us and asked about our destination. After looking at our permit, he asked, "Where is the third guy?" We told him the story. The ranger's expression flashed to a mixture of disbelief, pity, and worry. And then, as if giving up on us, he said, "Just... be careful, guys." And he continued on his way down the mountain. 

A view through "the window" as the sun lowered itself in the sky.

Barry and I made it to the campsite in commendable time, and with indomitable spirit, we promptly headed back down, with empty packs. We met Stanley, who was eating a sandwich on the side of the trail, not too much further along than when we had left him. My first thought was, there is no possible way we will make it before dark. And we didn't. Luckily, the waxing crescent moon provided near-adequate light, and our flashlights made up the difference. We had no black bear attacks, and nearly zero mountain lion ambushes. Barry and I felt pretty heroic after our successful "search and rescue" mission.

Campsite at Toll Mountain

Day 3: The three of us spent the morning climbing up to the top of Emory Peak, the highest point in the park. From the top, two countries are visible, as well as a vast expanse of desert and mountain-land. Absolutely breathtaking. Along with the view, I enjoyed the most perfect orange imaginable. We're talking Platonic Ideal perfect, folks.

Back at the bottom of Emory Peak trail, we took a short lunch break. Stanley shared with us his reservations about making it to the next campsite. "I just don't think I can make it, guys," he confessed, and as if to emphasize his point, he walked to the edge of the trail and threw up twice. The curious Mexican Jays gathered around, and the two girls who had been watching our group with curiosity from a nearby boulder got up to leave. I handed the keys over to Stanley, and we parted ways.

The rest of the day was amazing. Barry and I made our way down the mountain from Emory Peak and into the section of the park called Boot Canyon. The scenery switched from mostly-succulents and small Piñon Pines to mostly deciduous trees like oaks. Soon, we were climbing again, and by late afternoon, we found ourselves standing on the edge of the world.

View from the South Rim, New Year's Eve 2011

Bonus: our camp neighbors were super-friendly. Barry and I made camp, had some dinner, and reclined that night on the lip of the mountains. Below us, the ghostly shadows of the mountains, peppered by the occasional flickering campfire. Ahead: the beautiful starry night, dominated by Orion the Hunter. It was perfect.

Day 4: Barry and I got up really early to watch the first sunrise of 2012. Our neighbors had the same idea and perched themselves along their own section of the rim, just to the south.

Happy New Year indeed

After this spectacular show, we made some chatter with the neighbors, wished them a terrific 2012, and were on our way. Stanley was, to our relief, still alive, and furthermore, still in the car. The three of us left the park in silence, contemplating all that had taken place. By the time we had dropped off Stanley in southern Kansas, I was barely holding on to consciousness. The previous evening had included savage wind, and, together with the early rise, prevented me from getting a lot of sleep.

Honestly, I don't remember much of the drive back to Hutchinson. Much of it seemed like a dream, and at one point, I recall driving around a strange part of Hutchinson, not knowing where I was or how I got there. We made it though, still alive and with minimal injuries.

What a way to bring in the new year! And now, back to fretting constantly about the Peace Corps :D
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