The morning of my fortieth birthday, November 12, 2018, dawned cold. Very cold. Single-digit cold. Sean’s and my plan was to complete our third and final day in the backcountry with a 7.6-mile hike down from McKittrick Ridge into McKittrick Canyon and then out to the trailhead at the McKittrick Canyon Contact Station, where Adam, Phil, and Sylvan would pick us up.
Next morning, Sunday, November 11, I woke in our tent at Pine Top before sunrise. Sean and I had a full day of hiking ahead of us, some 7.8 backcountry miles to the primitive campground on McKittrick Ridge up closer to the Park’s northern boundary and the state line.
My phone was dead, but it must have been a little after six by the light. Sean was sleeping, so I climbed carefully out of the tent and pulled on my boots. I nearly yelped in pain as the boot slid into place on my right foot. The blister that had developed on the previous day’s climb into the mountains was no joke. Once outside, though, I gave the pain no heed. I peed downslope from our site and then settled into my backpacking chair to watch the pre-sunrise light change and grow on the low country below.
On Saturday morning, November 10, Sean and I walked into the Guadalupe Mountains for a three-day backpacking trek that would mark, on the third day, my fortieth birthday. The nineteen-mile route from Pine Springs Trailhead to McKittrick Canyon Ranger Station is the classic route up into the Guadalupes, across the high country, and back down. It is a shuttle route from one trailhead to another, and the Park cannot provide transportation between the two. Happily, Adam and Phil had agreed to collect us early Monday afternoon when we emerged from the mountains.
Our goal for day one was Pine Top Campground, one of a constellation of primitive backcountry sites for backpackers in the Guadalupe Mountains high country. From the main trailhead at Pine Springs, it was 3.9 miles and 2,200 feet up to Pine Top.
Sean and I departed for our twelve-day adventure/birthday celebration in the Southwest on Thursday, November 8 after an unusually brutal period leading up to the trip. Sean had a lot on his plate at work, and I was wrapping up a very busy and exhilarating autumn of work and personal projects. We also looked forward to hosting my parents visiting from Detroit for Thanksgiving immediately after the trip. It’s a good thing that we are very experienced at National Park trips at this point because we didn’t actually start packing proper until 9pm on Wednesday night. We had everything we needed, and we were able to pull items from the camping closet fairly swiftly. Even so, it was something of a mess. Eventually we decided that because the trip was so big with so many components we’d each need to take a suitcase in addition to our backpacks and carry-on bags. It was more luggage than we’d taken on our three-week honeymoon in Alaska, but we hadn’t been planning a serious pack trip for Alaska.
It was a fair question coming from a 60ish guy in Pine Springs Visitor Center of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas. He was on a six-week road trip in the southwest and had just received his backcountry permit from the very pleasant Ranger Michael. The fellow’s hike was the reverse route of what Sean and I had completed a couple days earlier, and we were chatting about the route.
“You’re from Chicago and you decided to spend your 40th birthday here? Why?”
It was Wednesday morning, November 13, and it was time to go home, but still we wanted to get in one more short hike before driving back to El Paso for our flight. We drank some hotel room coffee while we loaded the car with the gear we had packed the night before. The visibility was better, but still not great.
Our destination that morning was Grapevine Hills and its famous balanced rock. In my mind I was already calculating: if we arrive at the trailhead by such time and on average it takes us so long to do a hike of said length then we should be starting the drive to El Paso by that time which makes it possible to catch our flight and so forth.
The store and visitor center are visible across the parking lot from the door of our room at the Chisos Mountains Lodge. The formation behind them is visible too. The wall of mountains behind that, which forms the north wall of the Basin, is not.
It was Tuesday afternoon, November 12, our final afternoon at Big Bend National Park. We were back in Chisos Basin earlier than we had planned, driven from the high mountains by the mist and clouds. We ate through some of our remaining bars and food for lunch, but not before I had consulted “Butterflies of the Big Bend Country” in the store to determine the species of our butterfly companion: Lyside Sulphur.
We would be spending our final night at the park in the Chisos Mountains Lodge here in the Basin. We inquired about early check-in, but our room wasn’t ready. While we were in the lobby, we overheard staff talking about possible road closures, which made us a little nervous. The visibility was still horrible, and we wanted to drive down out of the mountains (in the hope that visibility was better in the desert below) and see a few more sights this final afternoon.
We went into the visitor center and consulted with the ranger. He said that when he’d last had a report, the visibility at park headquarters at Panther Junction in the desert below was about the same as it was here in the Basin. But he said there was no reason or even remotest possibility that the road into the Chisos would close. He told us that this weather, unusual for the time of year, had happened often in the preceding weeks, and that some occurrences were worse than this. He also said that this time of slow seeping rain/drizzle was excellent for the desert because it would soak into the land, as opposed to sudden torrential storms that just wash over the surface.