Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Return to the Desert

El Capitan

On Halloween morning, a Sunday in 2021, Patrick and I began our roadtrip from Chicago to Texas. The previous spring, the Land Trust Alliance (LTA) had engaged us in work to enhance communications capacity for nonprofit land trusts in Texas. Over the summer, we had delivered a series of online workshops in storytelling, messaging, and video, available to any LTA member land trust in Texas for free. Then LTA staff selected seven organizations, representing the diversity of the state’s landscapes and a range of conservation work, for more intensive work. While a video about conservation in Texas would be the final deliverable, it was actually not truly the point of the project. In the course of making the video, we’d be capturing far more interviews and videos than we’d include in the final reel. All that material would be available for the organizations to use.

And so Patrick and I went to Texas.

That October 31 [2021] passing Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie southwest of Chicago, we began a rollicking conversation about conservation generally and what impact and influence Bold Bison, our company, could have on the sector and the regional and national conversation. Beyond the fourteen hour drive that day, this theme would sustain us for the next ten days as we steeped ourselves in on-the-ground conservation efforts in Texas.

As we approached Saint Louis and the Mississippi River, we caught a glimpse of the mounds of Cahokia, which neither of us had ever seen. It was stunning to contemplate that a vast city existed here along the Mississippi contemporary with Chaco and Mesa Verde. We crossed the Mississippi into Saint Louis, glimpsed the Arch, and continued on.

We crossed Missouri and passed into Oklahoma, a new state for me. Before Tulsa (which I would not have minded seeing), we left the interstate and headed south through the Cherokee, Mvskoke (Creek), and Choctaw Nations. Approaching the Texas border, we passed a huge, mid-rise skyscraper of a casino rising out of prairie. Good job, Choctaw Nation. You get that Dallas-Fort Worth money.

We crossed the Red River near sunset, entering northeast Texas, where prairie soon gave way to the Dallas-Fort Worth megalopolis. We arrived in Plano, checked into our first hotel, and prepared for an early start the next morning.

Image: Patrick Williams

We spent the next week in a whirlwind of conducting on-the-ground interviews and filming B-roll footage. That first day, Monday, we toured the prairies northeast of Dallas with Native Prairies Association of Texas.

Image: Patrick Williams

Image: Amber Arseneaux

Tuesday, we woke up in Dallas and visited both urban and suburban reserves with Texas Land Conservancy. Then we continued South across coastal plain ranchland and through Houston to the shores of Galveston Bay.

Galveston Bay

Tuesday night, we checked in quite late to a high-rise Hilton overlooking Galveston Bay, right across the street from NASA Johnson Space Center.

Johnson Space Center

Next morning, Wednesay, we spotted Space Shuttle Enterprise from our hotel.

We spent the morning with Galveston Bay Foundation before a rainy drive from the Houston area up into the Hill Country of the Edwards Plateau and storied Austin.

That night, we went out for a couple drinks and dinner and began mapping out some near-future hopes for Bold Bison. Patrick had been both my intern and employee in communications at Openlands. He had joined Bold Bison full-time in August 2021, and in January 2022 he would become a full partner and co-owner of the business.

Image: Patrick Williams

Thursday morning, Patrick headed out alone to the rural Texas ranchland for interviews with Texas Agricultural Land Trust while I hung back and delivered a virtual workshop on collaborative communication for River Network from our hotel. Then in the late afternoon, we headed out for more Texas Land Conservancy interviews at a Hill Country ranch under conservation easement. The landowners, Mike and Julie, were kind enough to give us a tour after the interviews were over. I’ve never been so envious of a privately held conservation property.

Julie and I got on famously, which was only more evidence for the observation both Sean and Patrick have made that I just love “women of a certain age.”

Later, we explored Austin a bit more before what would be a full day of filming on Friday.

Lake Austin

Friday we spent the whole day at a Hill Country Conservancy preserve on Lake Austin interviewing staff and board members.

It was late afternoon when we wrapped up and began a hellish drive in truly abominable traffic on I-35 between Austin and San Antonio, which only underscored the intense population and development pressure we’d been hearing about all week.

It was about at this point that we began to get a bit roadtrip punch drunk.

Downtown San Antonio is full of fairyland carriages. Go figure.

We successfully arrived and checked in at our hotel on a quiet branch of San Antonio’s famed River Walk. We walked out in search of good brisket, which we found, and then wandered toward the city center, where we saw the Alamo.

This is the Alamo. The overlapping and contested meanings of this place could fill many books.

The River Walk was great. Sunken beneath the streets of downtown, it’s a walkable draw to the the center of a city suffering from suburban sprawl.

We spent much of the next day, Saturday, learning about the community and landscape-scale conservation work of Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas.

By Saturday afternoon, after seven days on the road, it was time for our longest drive within Texas, six hours off the Edwards Plateau and out into the northern Chihuahuan Desert. We needed to be in El Paso for more interviews on Monday morning, but that night we’d be sleeping in Van Horn, Texas.

It was quite a drive as the relative green of the Hill Country gave way to desert. We crossed the Pecos River and entered true West Texas. We misjudged the likelihood of services and came lower than we’d have liked in the Subaru’s gas tank before finding a gas station in Iraan, Texas. By the time it was good and dark, we were both punchy, but I was the one who counted off the freeway exits in Fort Stockton as if I were the Count from Sesame Street: “One freeway exit! Ha ha ha! Two freeway exists! Ha ha ha!” And so forth.

We stopped in Van Horn, a dusty town along I-10, because we had Sunday off, and we intended to spend it doing a few hikes in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, an hour north.

We woke up Sunday morning, November 7 [2021] at the edge of time in the Holiday Inn and Suites Van Horn. That night Daylight Savings Time had ended, and we were right on the border of the Central and Mountain Timezones. So we woke up at 4:30/5:30/6:30am depending on which clock we looked at.

I waited until after we’d checked out of our first floor rooms before I shared with Patrick the tale of Adam and Phil and the truck in the hotel room. Dubious of our previous night’s lodgings all around, he was glad I’d waited to share the story.

We breakfasted on eggy omelets and yogurt at the hotel before loading our gear back into the Subaru and driving across I-10 and into downtown Van Horn, past the historic El Capitan hotel, and then north on TX-54 for the drive up to the edge of the Guadalupes.

In the pre-dawn light, desert mountain ranges resolved into view, the Sierra Diablo to the west and the Delaware Mountains to the east. Then, far ahead, the Guadalupes. Both of us really love deserts, so we were excited for this next stage of the trip.

We continued past gas pads and ranches until we reached US-62 at the southern tip of the range, turned left and drove up to the scenic pullout/picnic area just as dawn hit the fossilized limestone face of El Capitan.

El Capitan

Perfect timing.

El Capitan

This was, of course, my second visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The first was the epic camping and backpacking visit to celebrate my 40th birthday three years earlier. You can read all about that here.

As part of this larger National Parks project, Sean and I have decided that any National Park that he and I have already visited is fair game for either of us to revisit without the other. I was determined to see this Park again at some point on the trip, and it worked out perfectly in our schedule for a free day in our ten day video shoot.

Taking it all in, Patrick said, “Let’s only work for desert land trusts.”


We chatted with the only other person at the scenic pullout, a fellow with California plates who was heading home after camping the previous few nights in the Park. He was very enthusiastic for us and seemed to hate to leave.

I know the feeling.

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