Now it's morning and I'm closing in on Guadalupe National Park, located in the extreme western tip of that monstrously large state known as Texas. The day is clear, warm, and windy, and though I'm beginning to feel tired, I'm wide awake and ready for a new trail.
After obtaining a permit in the Visitor's Center for an overnight trip, I drive over to the trailhead and set about packing my Osprey once again. I'm headed up into the mountains, and unlike the Sierras back home, there is no water available. I must carry all that I will need.
There is a quote from Wendell Berry on a plaque near the trailhead, and I pause to read it and take a moment of reflection and reverent awe as I cross the threshold into the wilderness. Over the last several years I have come to greatly appreciate that fading strain of practical, thoughtful, independent men: Wendell Berry, Colin Fletcher, Edward Abbey - these are the types of men that embody America's soul, if she has one.
I work my way up the mountainside, enjoying the wind gusting across the grasses. The wind accomplishes three things: firstly and most obviously, it has a welcome cooling effect that somewhat mitigates the intensity of the desert sun. Secondly, it greatly diminishes the mobility of certain unfavorable insects. And lastly, it lends to the landscape a wild and savage look, which in turn makes it all the more beautiful.
As I ascend higher, the distant eastern horizon widens below me. When I reach the top of the climb, I slip off the pack and lean it against a large juniper, jogging the 1-mile spur trail to the top of Hunter Peak with just my camera.
Returning to the main trail and shouldering my pack, I finish the last few miles to the campground. Up here, several thousand feet above the surrounding desert, the air is cool and the terrain is mostly forested. The Guadalupe highlands are, in many respects, much like the Sierras. Several times I have caught myself imagining I was hiking some trail out of Clover Meadow in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, or along the Kern River in the Golden Trout Wilderness.
My evening in camp is leisurely. There's no one else around, though sometimes I fancy I hear voices or even conversations on the wind. It's a strange thing, being alone. I cook dinner, spend some time experimenting with the camera, and turn in for an early night.
The day dawns clear and cool, and I don my jacket and locate a sunny spot to eat my breakfast. By 8:30, I'm back on the trail. Hiking along with the morning to myself, it occurs to me that my chances of seeing a cougar are somewhat improved by several factors. One, I am alone, and can avoid making an excessive amount of noise. Two, it is a fine morning, there is little to no breeze, and the backcountry is by all appearances largely deserted. Maybe I'll get lucky. Still, I am aware that I am at a wide disadvantage. I know few of the animal's general patterns, and none of its local haunts, and I know that a mountain lion can generally avoid being seen if it chooses. Besides, I have never mastered that delicate Mohican art of walking through the forests and meadows without creating a cacophony of snapping twigs, which of course plainly announces to the entire local animal kingdom that there is a blundering biped in the neighborhood.
What had begun merely as a casual interest yesterday has now become an obsession, and I continuously scanned the ridges and vales around the trail, in search of that elusive slinking shape. I pass some scattered bones of a deer lying just off the trail, bleached and sterilized by the sun. This is encouraging: Mr. Cougar has hunted here before. Still, these skeletal fragments could be several seasons old, and it's possible the predator has moved on to other areas. Seeing a live deer on the opposite slope of the canyon doesn't tell me much either; lions follow deer, and deer do their best to avoid lions. A lion may be nearby, or it may be nowhere in the vicinity - either inference is equally valid.
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth. -Henry Beston, Guadalupe Mountains Visitor's Center
Compare this with Romans 8:19-22:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
I return the trailhead, again having seen no one. My plan was to drive to Big Bend this afternoon, but after a bit of thought and prayer I decide instead to stay the night at the campground here in Guadalupe and do the drive to Big Bend in the morning. This gave me some time to relax and also to take the 4-mile round trip hike to Devil's Hall, which is the hike we did several years ago when we stopped at this Park briefly with the Lindvalls and I privately vowed to come back.
It is very interesting to return to this trail after several years and notice how different it looks. The change, I believe, has been mainly in myself. I feel I am observing (and absorbing) much more of my surroundings, and my thoughts are quieter, more reflective, less commercial. I want to experience the place, and all the intricacies and varieties of life within it. I do not want merely to get to the end of the trail.