Southern New Mexico and the Guadalupes

Our Winter Trip Took an Unexpected Turn

December 24, 2017-January 2, 2018

Each year, we try to use the week between Christmas and New Year's to explore some of the Southwest's less traveled natural areas. This year our target was Texas' Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the adjoining Guadalupe section of New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest. Since we avoid interstate highways as much as possible, I began perusing maps, searching for an alternative to I-10. And that's how I discovered the West Potrillo Mountains Wilderness Study Area.

We left Tucson on Christmas Eve, taking I-10 to the intersection with NM 11 just west of Deming. It was a deserted, paved road through a desert that felt more like Chihuahua than New Mexico. The only other vehicles about were Border Patrol. Toward sunset, we turned north on a narrow, sandy track marked as County Road A005. We we were quickly pulled over by the Border Patrol. As is so often the case, the agent was friendly and helpful — and maybe a little lonely on Christmas Eve. We talked to him for at least 20 minutes, learning about the area, including the fact that we were traveling through a ranch owned by known drug dealers, and also, as we suspected, he had run our plates and knew we had passed through several checkpoints a week earlier on our way home from Organ Pipe.

We wished him "Merry Christmas" and continued on our way, now using ESRI World Imagery to identify the faintest of tracks leading west to a trio of small cinder cones.
We crept over a bony landscape to a flat spot near a lone piñon near the base of the craters, and set up camp while the setting sun streaked the sky with a wash of blue, coral and lavender.
It was a quiet night to say the least. After dinner we clambered up the nearest promontory to see the lights of Las Cruces shimmering on the horizon.
In the morning we continued vias A00, A010 and County Road 11 toward Kilbourne Hole, a "maar" crater that formed as a result of the explosive interaction of hot basaltic magma with groundwater during a volcanic eruption. It's one of the few places where you can legally collect chunks of olivine (peridot).
The Hole was actually quite impressive and worthy of further exploration.
For this trip, we were content to work our way along the crater edges, teaching ourselves which rocks might contain crystals.
Having whiled away a thoroughly pleasant Christmas morning, we followed backroads to the outskirts of El Paso, aiming for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. But partway there we noticed the sign for Hueco Tanks State Park. We hit the brakes and turned around, hoping that we could sneak in before they closed and snag a choice camping spot.
First, the good news. The campground is terrific, with nicely separated sites, great views, hot (free!) showers, water on site and electric hookups. It's a steal at $16/night.
But if you came here to hike, forget about it. Three quarters of the park is restricted to guided tours, and those tours are generally booked up. You can hike on the other one-quarter, but only on the trails (less than 2 miles total), and then only if you pay a fee of $7/person, register and watch a 15-minute video. And that's assuming the park hasn't reached its daily quota of 70 people. And if you were you unlucky enough to arrive late in the day, be advised that there's no hiking anywhere in the park after 6:00 pm. You have to wait until the office opens at 8:00 the next morning, re-register and pay another $7/pp fee. .
I'm glad we finally got to spend some time at Hueco Tanks, but we won't be back
As we have remarked on previous travels through the area, Texas is the only Western state without vast tracts of BLM and National Forest land. No wonder its few handkerchief-sized state parks are overrun, and public access is severely restricted.
The next morning we crossed a broad white salt flat as we approached the imposing prow of El Capitan.
The Guadalupes are part of Capitan Reef, an ancient marine fossil reef that soars 2000 feet above the adjacent valley floor. We were looking forward to spending a couple of days hiking and camping in the park.
And then our winter vacation took an unexpected turn. Coming out of the camper in my rugged old boots — which I though I needed because of the colder temperatures — I must have caught a boot lace in the scissor steps. In an instant, I spun around and landed on my right hip. "Crap," I thought, "I'm gonna have a big black-and-blue mark!" Dennis came out and tried to help me to my feet, and we quickly realized that was not going to be possible. Fortunately, we had an internet signal, so we located the nearest hospital in Carlsbad, New Mexico. It took us a half hour to traverse the 15 feet from the camper steps to the truck's passenger door, with me spidering backwards, using my hands and my one good leg while Dennis supported my right leg. I don't know even how we got me into the truck, but an hour later we arrived at ER in Carlsbad. We both figured they'd tell me I had a pulled muscle, give me some pain pills, and send me on my way.
To shorten a long, painful story, the following morning I had surgery to repair a femoral neck fracture. I was very fortunate that Carlsbad Medical Center had an experienced orthopedic surgeon on staff, and everything about the operation was textbook. Though the hospital was small, I was extremely impressed with their caring staff. It was frightening to have surgery 500 miles from home, but they made me feel safe and confident. Dennis camped in the hospital parking lot, and the long days passed while we waited for me to recover enough mobility to make the long drive home. I cried when I said good-bye to Kesha, my nurse, who was so incredibly kind to me.
On January 2, we passed through the fateful Guadalupes and found them enveloped in shimmering hoarfrost.
Back home in Tucson, Madeleine stepped up to the plate and proved to be an exceptional nurse cat.
Meanwhile "Dr. Dennis" taught himself how to give me a daily injection of (ugh!) porcine intestinal mucosa.
My recovery is galloping ahead faster than I would have thought possible. By Day 18, I was able to exchange the walker for a cane.