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.
On Monday afternoon, November 11, not long after we began my big birthday backpack into the High Chisos Mountains Complex, we were switchbacking up Laguna Meadow Trail, still within sight of the lodge buildings, when Sean, who had been in front but was now behind since I’d requested a slower pace, said:
“There’s an insect on your backpack.”
“What kind of insect?” I asked.
“A butterfly,” he replied.
“Take a photo.”
We stopped. He snapped a few photos of the yellow-green butterfly. And we continued on, assuming like most times that a curious dragonfly or a shy moth landed on us during a hike, that it would soon fly away. Some forty-five minutes later, he mentioned that the insect was still there.
In the growing light before dawn, we were awakened by a soft rain. We made sure that our gear was covered, and climbed back into our sleeping bags to doze for another hour or so. At 7:30, I woke up in earnest. Outside our tent it had stopped raining, but the mist had rolled in, making the world chilly and moody and destroying any visibility. It was my 35th birthday, Tuesday, November 12.
After a morning spent exploring Burro Mesa and striking our camp at Cottonwood, we drove to the heart of Big Bend National Park: Chisos Basin. We had reserved our backcountry campsite the day before and planned to hike into the mountains for an overnight backpack trip. I wanted to wake up the following morning, Tuesday, November 12, on my 35th birthday in the Chisos Mountains.
Thursday morning we woke up and took stock. In our original itinerary, tonight would have been when we camped at Daisy Farm, but we’d already been here two nights. Already the regret of not having made it to a campground on an interior lake, with an increased likelihood of seeing more wildlife, was hugely mitigated by having been at Daisy Farm the evening before for Candy Peterson’s talk.
We decided to begin the hike back to Rock Harbor where, Friday night, we had a room reserved at the lodge. Our goal for Thursday, however, was Three Mile. We hoped to get the same lovely, harbor-side campsite we’d had Monday night, or at least the one adjacent.