- Community Blog
- Tales of Adventure
Triple Treat ("I ain't talkin' Baskin-Robbins!!!")
One of my most memorable excursions as a paid tourist occurred over Memorial Day Weekend, 1999. The adventure began as I was rolling west on Interstate 40 near Tucumcari, NM... I had just delivered a load of flammable liquids to an environmental facility in Oklahoma, and I was dead-heading (dragging an empty wagon) back to San Diego when my cell phone rang. This phone was provided by my company for work-related use, so an inbound call from out of the blue was a rare occurrence. The caller turned out to be one of our corporate owners with an unusual proposition.
A Mexican driver named David (Da-veed) had picked up a load of lead solder waste down in the State of Chihuahua. The load was destined for a metal recycling facility in Pennsylvania. David's truck and trailer were not licensed and permitted to haul hazardous waste clear to PA, and it made no sense to haul the dross west to the company yard in San Diego, only to turn around and haul it east toward its rightful destination. Would I be willing to meet David in El Paso, TX, hang out for a few hours while the load was transshipped from his wagon to mine, then haul the load to the Keystone State, thereby saving the company substantial fuel costs? Of course I would, since such runs made for heller money and I had nothing better to do anyway...
David and I were to rendezvous at the Petro (truck stop) on the east side of El Paso, then drive to a nearby warehouse to dock side by side and complete the transfer. With this agreement in mind, I hung up, made a big left turn in Santa Rosa, NM, and headed down US54 to El Paso. Several hours later, I entered the Petro parking lot, but David's truck was nowhere to be seen. I phoned the company to let the staff know I had arrived, then I wandered into the restaurant to eat lunch. Forty-five minutes later, I called the office for a progress report; I was told that David had not cleared Customs, just stand by and wait for him to clear this bureaucratic hurdle... "No problema." Another hour passed before I learned that David wasn't going to make it---this was Friday, midafternoon, and the Customs personnel were all bugging out for the holiday weekend. David's truck would not clear Customs until Tuesday morning, when the personnel who dealt with placarded loads returned to their jobs. Despite this unexpected snag, the company plan was still in effect. The owner broke this news to me in a rather apprehensive manner---many truck drivers would naturally resent a three-day forced layover, especially over a holiday weekend. My response: a burst of laughter, a wry comment upon Customs personnel and their ancestry, and a promise to check in early Tuesday morning.
As soon as I rang off, I cracked my atlas and evaluated the opportunities for tourism. I had the entire three-day weekend at my disposal, hence my choices were not limited to El Paso and its immediate environs. As I studied the map of West Texas, I realized that I could pull the Grand Coup of Paid Tourism, f____g off like never before while burning company fuel... responsibility went the way of the dinosaur, hot on the trail of corporate concern for my holiday welfare. Model employee? I think not... my diesel-guzzling itinerary would include three separate destinations, each highly attractive to a rock climber and a student of geology. However, my first priority was to lose the friggin' wagon---tourism is no fun when one has to lug around an empty suitcase.
I had already been given the number of the warehouse where we were slated to make the load transfer. I called this warehouse, explained David's delay to the staff, and asked if I could drop my trailer in their secure yard for the weekend, since we were still going to pay for their services on Tuesday. They readily agreed, as they had already been in contact with my company. After receiving directions, I drove to the warehouse and dropped my trailer in an unobtrusive location. Now I was in a 90-m.p.h. rocketship tractor, and my holiday weekend program leapt into the realm of practicality. Cheerfully wishing the warehouse staff a happy holiday, I bobtailed back to the Petro to "trash around" for the evening. In those days, the Petro was the Wild West, with outlaw truckers and border bandits gunnin' for each other... cathouse women, snake oil peddlers and "CB Rambos" merely added to the entertainment.
I slept in till 0800 on Saturday, then leisurely strolled in to eat breakfast and take a long hot shower. Bringing my "comic book" up to date (solely to protect myself from D.O.T. revenue collectors while goofing off---these falsified log sheets would never make it back to the office), I left the truck stop, drove west on I-10 for several miles and headed north on TX375. I saw a Walmart SuperCenter while en route, so I pulled in to bag supplies and stock additional coolers with beer. An hour later, I was tooling down US62/180, bound for my first geo-tourist destination: Hueco Tanks, premiere bouldering area and Historic State Park, where the Butterfield Stage once passed within rifle range of sacred ceremonial sites known to the Apache. My sign appeared, I turned into the entrance road, and fifteen minutes later, I was engaged in conversation with an unexpectedly-gorgeous blonde park ranger (rangerette?).
She told me that aspiring campers needed to make a reservation one week in advance. I explained my situation to her, and she conceded that I might be able to camp on Monday if I chose to return. No problem, just a slight change in plans... vowing to see her again, I cheerfully departed, eyeballing the rock outcrops as I casually retraced my route. Soon I was thundering down deserted US62/180, hauling a$$ toward my next objective: Guadalupe Mountains National Park, approximately eighty miles to the east. Most of this leg consisted of narrow two-lane blacktop, with occasional rough patches of cheese grater asphalt. I saw very few vehicles on this stretch, despite the holiday. I was in high spirits as I drove within sight of Guadalupe Peak, with its dramatic limestone escarpment, renowned as the world's most famous fossil reef. With a summit elevation of 8749', this is the highest peak in Texas, and it is absolutely spectacular.
Circumnavigating the escarpment, I rolled into Pine Springs and momentarily pulled up to the ranger booth at the park entrance. Commercial designation aside, camping in a 10-ton tractor is no different from camping in an RV: pay the fee, ask about clearance and site availability, and follow the advice or instructions of the ranger(s). In this instance, I was told that I would have to park in "the RV lot." I asked for permission to inspect this lot before paying, and the park staff kindly agreed. The lot still had vacant spaces, but its overall aspect was what I call tight---too many people, not enough open area. At first glance, I decided to try my luck elsewhere, and I thanked the rangers as I rolled back out through the gate... like MacArthur in the Philippines, I vowed to return at some point in the future.
On my approach, while skirting the south side of Guadalupe Peak, I had noticed a skinny little dirt road or jeep track leading from the highway out toward a playa or dry lake under the escarpment. Turning and rolling back to this point, I stopped briefly to engage my power divider (supplies power to all drive wheels for superior traction on loose sand, ice, etc.) before cranking the steering wheel and heading into the unknown... the track was rough in places, but the truck easily handled it. I passed an abandoned ranch house, a forlorn and hollow ruin with gaping windows reminiscent of empty eyesockets in a human skull---giving a brief shudder at its uninviting appearance, I mashed my accelerator and continued on my way, rumbling down the jeep track in my 10-ton RV. Minutes later, I reached the dusty shoreline of the dry lake. I cruised along it for a while until I found an ideal spot, a remote windswept cove with the magnificent limestone reef towering above in all its sunlit splendor.
THIS was where I would spend the night---in solitude, close to nature, without another human being or man-made object in sight. No park regulations, no RV crowd, just good food, ice-cold imported beer, and my choice of golden silence or deafening rock and roll, all with a grandstand view of the peak which I intended to climb upon the morrow... Some say anticipation is a wonderful drug: I don't know how it stacks up against magic mushrooms or heller chronic, but it certainly filled the bill for me that afternoon and evening. With motor off, doors and slider windows open wide, and a cool breeze blowing through my cab and sleeper, I cranked my sound system to the utmost limit as I savored ice-cold beers and studied the escarpment in great detail.
Every half-hour or so, I stepped down from the truck and roamed the immediate area, taking in the broad expanse of playa and the soft contours of the Patterson Hills, a diminutive range lying well below the massive limestone reef. The afternoon waned, and the cliffs were presently bathed in golden light. Mother Nature put on quite a show as dusk fell... delicate hues and variations in alpenglow upon the reef surpassed in awe-inspiring glory the finest brush strokes of every artist ever known to man. The Dutch Masters were nothing but chumps by comparison; the Impressionists, absolute imbeciles... there was more art in that limestone canvas than any man could find within the walls of a museum. I've toured The Louvre, and the French can keep it---compared to sunset on the Guadalupe Reef, it sucks.
After pounding a few more beers and putting together a delicious chicken salad sandwich with all the trimmings, I adjusted the sliding windows in my sleeper, cut the tunes, turned in and spent the night with the jackrabbits and coyotes. I woke shortly after dawn to a fine clear day full of promise and adventure. I drank a fruit smoothie and made a cup of valve-bursting cowboy coffee on my propane camp stove ("Filters?!? We don't need no stinking filters!!!"), then pulled the field shower routine on the catwalk of my tractor. This is done by shaving in a small mirror, then pouring jugs of water over one's head while wearing nothing but shower shoes, beach towel at hand... an activity generally frowned upon in crowded RV lots. Dressing in appropriate field attire---sunglasses, tank top, thick oversized shorts, and bulletproof Vibram-soled hiking boots---I secured everything in my truck and headed for the highway. It's longstanding personal policy for me to leave every campsite in as good or better shape than I found it... the true naturalist's code.
Arriving once more at the park entrance in Pine Springs (a nod here to General Douglas MacArthur), I was directed to a day use parking area near the Guadalupe Peak trailhead. Using a piece of webbing and an oval carabiner, I rigged a sling for a gallon jug of water so I could comfortably carry it under either arm. Grabbing lip balm, sunscreen, camera, hat and long-sleeved shirt for the summit, I thrust these items into various cargo pockets, locked the truck, and hit the dusty trail. Despite my fairly early start, I broke a sweat in the first series of switchbacks which rise above the lot. Plodding steadily upward, I rounded a shoulder of the peak and gratefully entered some shade. Occasional water breaks were enhanced by a fantastic view of a deep canyon below. Halfway to the summit, I came up to the only other hikers I met during my ascent; forming a party of four on the spot, we made our way up the trail.
Rustic wooden railings and footbridges added charm to our venture. Trees grew sparse and ultimately disappeared at higher elevations. Exposed to the sun in all its blazing warmth, I swapped my tank top for the long-sleeved shirt and donned my hat to curb the solar abuse. We soon topped out at the summit and stood by the metal monument, snapping photos for posterity and surveying a vast area of West Texas. The sun was now high in the sky, and we could feel ourselves slowly being roasted on this exposed and rocky crest. Turning back, we made tracks for the timberline and whatever shade was available. The hike down was otherwise pleasant, since we no longer had to struggle with gravity. During this descent, I announced my intention of visiting Carlsbad Caverns. Coincidentally, these folks were already encamped in White's City, and I agreed to follow them thirty-five or forty miles north to secure an adjoining campsite. At the tail end of our trek, I polished off my water, cut a hole in the plastic jug with the utility knife I always carry on my belt, and proceeded to stuff the empty jug with the litter one usually finds near any trailhead; a ranger on horseback noticed this unsolicited effort and thanked me for my service.
We rolled north out of the park and drove directly to White's City, gateway to Carlsbad Caverns and nothing more than a wide spot in the road. I bagged a campsite adjacent to the site of my newfound friends, and we spent the afternoon lounging in chairs on a patch of green grass beneath a solitary shade tree. All of us were sunburnt from our Guadalupe hike, and the afternoon was still quite warm---beers flowed like water before the barbecue was fired. Toward dusk, our designated driver hauled us up to the cave entrance to watch the "Bat Flight." This is an extraordinary event: a living river of nearly half a million hungry bats soaring from the cave at dusk in search of food (insects beware!). After witnessing this spectacle, we returned to camp and crawled off to sleep, comfortably exhausted.
Wonderfully restored by a good field breakfast and hot showers in the morning, we broke camp and headed for the caverns, where we spent the next few hours taking three guided tours: Natural Entrance, King's Palace, and The Big Room. I'm a big fan of "show caves" and I've visited at least two dozen in the past decade. Though I had already visited Carlsbad Caverns as a child, I had no recollection of the experience; it's always different, seeing natural wonders as an adult. This was Memorial Day and the crowds were sizeable, but the tours lived up to their reputations, and I parted with my friends after exchanging phone numbers (a year later, I visited them at their house in San Angelo, but that's another story). I had a "date" with a gal in Hueco Tanks, and the open road felt good as I thundered toward my third and last objective.
It was bloody hot when I pulled up to the shack at Hueco. Sure enough, the good-looking blonde was there; one other camper and I sat through a brief orientation, then a campsite was assigned to me and I parked my truck, sat in the shade and had a cold beer. Due to problems with clueless wankers in the past, camping is strictly regulated in this historic park---there would be no blaring music or otherwise rowdy behavior. Instead, I played a New Age tape at low volume, kicked it with the wildlife, and psyched myself for a low-profile exploration of the area. Once it cooled off, I roamed the northern end of the park, ducking into Cave Kiva (a sacred ceremonial site for the Apache, complete with artwork) and examining pools of water high in the rocks... the historic tanks. With the strict regulations in mind, the atmosphere for climbing seemed rather oppressive, and my shoes and chalkbag rarely left my pack.
A quiet and restful night at Hueco ensured my timely rendezvous with David on Tuesday morning. Breaking camp, I took particular care to police all trash and cart it back out with me in the truck, leaving the nearby site can virginally unspoiled. Wankers had already ruined the scene for climbers---I had no intention of ruining it for any truckers who might wish to visit in the future. Wistfully saying goodbye to the gorgeous blonde, I eased out to the highway and headed for town. Upon reaching the warehouse, I hooked my empty wagon, checked in with the staff, and was given a dock door. Once docked, I consulted my trip meter: I had traveled 358 miles over the holiday weekend, a new record for "trashing around" and burning company fuel while engaged in paid tourism. David was nowhere to be seen, of course---those Customs boys keep bankers' hours, and they had hangovers to boot after the long weekend. Surprisingly, David showed up an hour later, and the load transfer proceeded as planned. I jokingly gave David grief while bemoaning the serious drawbacks of being laid over for three days in a hole like El Paso.
"Dude, you were the lucky one... you were in Juarez!!!"
Author's note: Pictures of the Guadalupe Peak Trail taken during this adventure can be seen at TRUCKFORUM.ORG---on Page 6 of the thread titled "Got Chrome??? How about Armor???" You can also see a shot of my playa campsite on my profile page here at this site. A really cool place to camp, nobody around and no badges or regulations whatsoever... my kinda campsite.