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top of Texas

A third of the way through our Southwest road trip, Christmas Eve found us in Artesia, NM – a small town that owes its name to a long ago depleted artesian aquifer and whose present existence is supported mainly by oil and gas refineries. A ghost town under ordinary circumstances, Artesia seemed doubly so as we navigated its deserted, halogen-lit streets. Even grocery stores were closed on account of the approaching holiday. The neon billboards of fast food restaurants, which remained stubbornly open, provided the only sign of life as night approached. We had stocked up on groceries before our arrival and hunkered down in our inn with a board game to while away the evening.

We were up early the next morning, however, speeding south toward the Texas border before most Artesians had gotten up to unwrap their Christmas presents. We had planned to spend Christmas in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park – a dubious proposition in light of both the holiday and the government shutdown, which had begun half a week earlier. In the early days of the shutdown there was still cause for guarded optimism that the impasse would be resolved quickly and that the impact of the government closure would be minimal. Most national parks had stayed open through the shutdown’s first weekend, but the closures began to mount as Christmas approached. We were forced to scrap our planned visit to the nearby Carlsbad Caverns, for example, and made the most of a bad situation when we found the White Sands National Monument shuttered to visitors.

We weren’t sure what to expect in Texas, but remained cautiously optimistic as we approached the Guadalupe Mountains. The trailhead for several of the park’s signature hikes is close to the Pine Springs Visitor Center, near the road. In the event that the park was closed, we figured we could leave our car parked by the side of the roadway and sneak in a decent hike. We weren’t alone in this assessment. We passed about a dozen cars in a dirt parking lot a quarter-mile from the park entrance and returned to the lot after seeing a barrier blocking the park entrance.

Upon closer inspection, the barrier proved to be unlocked. Unlike at White Sands the previous day, there were no shutdown closure signs. Shortly after we had passed under the barrier and entered the park a car pulled up. The driver got out and opened the barrier, closing it behind him after driving through. Watching the car pull away up the main road, we stopped to hold a brief conference. Should we retrieve the car and drive to the trailhead? Doing so would save us from extending the already demanding 8.5-mile round-trip, 3,000-foot ascent of Guadalupe Peak, which lay ahead.

“It would be nice to have the car waiting for us when we come off the mountain,” S mused. “Yes, but what if the barrier is locked while we’re hiking?” D countered. Having already walked a quarter-mile, we decided to press on. After passing the visitor center, we took a trail that forked off the paved road and passed through a campground, which was packed to the gills with cars. Other visitors must have made their Christmas reservations months in advance and were unwilling to let the shutdown spoil their holiday.

At the trailhead we paused to readjust our gear and snap a dino picture for Munchkin. “Would you also like a photo of you two?” a camper asked before adding, “I hope you brought crampons. It is treacherously slick up there.” His words echoed in the back of our minds as we set off on the trail up Guadalupe Peak, the highest mountain in Texas. The first mile-and-a-half consists of a series of steep switchbacks and is the most physically demanding part of the trail. The sun shone brightly through the thin clouds and we worked up a cold sweat, feeling the churn of lactic acid in our thighs as we approached the final switchback.

From the valley floor, Guadalupe Peak appears as a nondescript hulk of pine-covered rock. More than a thousand feet of mountain is hidden from view by a false summit that must be crested before one can truly appreciate the peak’s breathtaking beauty. After the switchbacks, the trail levels off a bit, the path passing into the shadow of the mountain’s forest-covered back side. We felt the temperature drop instantly, and as we passed out of the sunlight we found the path crusted over with a thick layer of ice. Fortunately, the trail was fairly rocky; small stones poked through the ice sheet in enough places to provide traction for our hiking boots. We ate lunch at a makeshift campground that provided a modest windbreak before pushing on the final 45 minutes to the summit.

The last mile again presented us with icy terrain along a steep path ascending through boulders – treacherous, but navigable with a decent pair of boots and hiking poles. The views, as we approached the top, were incredible: endless vistas of craggy canyons stretching from the hem of the Guadalupe Mountains down toward the heart of Texas, with the twisted summit of El Capitan presiding over the terrain. With the sun already casting long shadows by the time we reached the summit, we did not linger too long at the top, snapping a few panorama shots and heading back down again.

Exiting the park as dusk fell, we had much to celebrate: not only did we complete an amazing hike, but also our prescience had paid off. Only a handful of cars remained inside the park, and the barrier, which had been closed but unlocked when we entered, was now bolted shut. A sign announcing the park closure was lashed to it. Had we driven our car to the trailhead we would have been well and truly screwed.

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