In November 2021, the Land Trust Alliance sent Bold Bison (my business partner, Patrick, and me) to Texas for ten days to conduct thirty-three video interviews with the staffs, boards, and supporters of seven land conservation organizations (land trusts) across the state. This whirlwind trip took us to Plano, Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso with the ultimate goal of a video portrait of conservation work across the Lone Star State.
The business trip’s conclusion at the far western tip of Texas coincided with the approach of my birthday. So Sean and I decided to roll my being in El Paso with a birthday trip to White Sands National Park and a long weekend in Santa Fe. I hoped to pick up a few other Park Service sites while we were there (Pecos National Historical Park, Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve, Petroglyph National Monument).
Monday, November 19 dawned cool and cloudless in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and we were heading home. This was the twelfth and final day of my wonderful fortieth birthday trip to two National Parks. Although we were saying goodbye, we intended to make a quick stop at Guadalupe Mountains National Park as we departed.
After saying goodbye to our friends on Sunday morning, November 18, Sean, Phil, Adam, Sylvan, and I piled into the car and drove back over to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We wanted to do some exploring aboveground along the 9.5-mile Walnut Canyon Desert Drive.
Aboveground, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is 46,766 acres of the low, northeastern portion of the Guadalupe Mountains. Here, the ridges are low enough that they lack the more heavily wooded zones of the southern edge of the range. The ridges and canyons exhibit more typical plant communities of the Chihuahuan Desert.
On Friday, November 16, after a full day of exploring the underground palaces of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we decided to visit a very special aboveground part of the Park in our final hour of daylight: Rattlesnake Springs, the site of a lush oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert beneath the Guadalupe range. Rattlesnake Springs is a small, twenty-four acre unit of Carlsbad Caverns National Park purchased by the National Park Service in 1934 as a means to ensure a reliable water source for the development of the National Park. Because of its water and array of trees and shrubs, Rattlesnake Springs hosts 350 bird species, forty species of reptiles and amphibians, and thirty species of mammals. John had been monitoring the site’s bird lists on eBird and was keen to visit, so we decided to check it out on our way back to Carlsbad.
After finally coming together the day before as a group of eight for my birthday trip, on the morning of Friday, November 16, we split up with John watching the two children at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center while the rest of us went on the ranger-led King’s Palace Tour. After the tour, we collected the three who had stayed above ground and assembled in the cafeteria for lunch. Our plan for the afternoon was for all of us to descend into the cave, since children of any age could go in via the Natural Entrance (with adult supervision).
As a deep dusk settled across the Chihuahuan Desert east of the Guadalupe Mountains on Thursday, November 15, we moved from the second to the third (and final) phase of the trip to celebrate my fortieth birthday. Sean and I were about half an hour ahead of Phil, Adam, and Sylvan on the National Parks Highway between Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the city of Carlsbad, New Mexico. On the way, we passed the phosphorescent light from the filling station in Whites City, the tiny boom town gateway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Carlsbad Caverns would be the focus of the coming long weekend. Our ultimate destination was an AirB&B in a quiet neighborhood on the north side of Carlsbad, across the Pecos River from the hullabaloo of the main thoroughfare and its traffic jams of souped up pickups waiting to make a lefthand turn against the light into the Wallmart parking lot. As we entered Carlsbad from the south and slowed in five and ten degree increments as the speed limit signs instructed, we hung up with John and Catherine, who had just arrived at the AirB&B, maybe twenty minutes ahead of us.
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.
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?”