Over tea and coffee one morning, Fred and I looked at the map. Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Park could be on our route back north to Montana. We packed the B.A.T. (Big Ass Trailer) and were on our way.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is home to the highest point in the state of Texas. We had hoped to climb Guadalupe Peak but high winds warnings deterred us so we opted to hike McKittrick Canyon. Not a very long hike, about 6.8 miles, but it kept us low out of the worst of the wind and we enjoyed rare Texas autumn colors of maples and oaks. The trail began fairly wide to the Pratt Cabin then narrowed to the Grotto and Hunter Line Shack. We saw a fair number of people before Pratt Cabin but none as we continued to the Grotto. Geologically, McKittrick Canyon walls are limestone, created by an ancient reef system in a shallow ocean that ebbed and flowed over millions of years before finally drying permanently.
The next day we drove a few miles to Carlsbad Cavern National Park. We were able to get in on a general guided ranger-led tour and were pleased to have a fellow Yellowstone Ranger as our guide. He had spent a few seasons at Old Faithful before getting a permanent Interpretation job at Carlsbad Caverns. Good for him! I loved how he related the microbes of the cavern to the microbes of Yellowstone; another example of the inter-connectedness of all things.
I relinquished my desire to summit Guadalupe Peak as the winds continued to howl, showing no signs of abatement and we packed up for destination Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in Arizona. Driving anywhere pulling the B.A.T. takes a long time, and we were happy to arrive in Douglas AZ Next morning was relaxation with sub-freezing temperatures, then we headed to the wildlife refuge. As we walked into the area, the ululating calls of Sandhill Cranes flooded our ears. We looked up so see at least 200 Cranes kettling as they slowly came to rest in the fields. We thought that was amazing until we got closer and saw more than a thousand Cranes, standing, walking and grazing in the tall grasses. We set up our scope and used our binoculars to enjoy the spectacle. After some minutes of watching, Fred pointed to cranes that seemed to be in mini groups of 2 or 3. Looking more closely, they appeared to be family groups, gracefully foraging for grains and invertebrates. The adults were slate grey with a crimson cap. The juveniles still had some rusty brown feathers mixed in with the grey and lacked the red cap. Though they almost carpeted the fields, we saw no aggression. They seemed to avoid each other easily and peacefully. These Cranes had flown from areas in the far north of North America all the way down to southern Arizona. Some of these cranes may be the same birds that I watched in July, moving elegantly through the grasses at Floating Island Lake in Yellowstone.
We are home, now, in my beloved Yellowstone. Sitting in front of the fire this morning, my thoughts return to our travels. We visited national seashores, national wildlife refuges, national parks and forests, state parks and wildlife refuges. Texas. New Mexico. Arizona. Utah.
We met kind-hearted people, helpful people. We hiked miles of open space with views that heal the spirit. We spent hours watching thousands of sandhill cranes as they chortled and flew and grazed on land set aside for their winter feeding grounds. We drove miles of sage and saguaro and mesquite and ocotillo filled lands. We have wandered our already great country. We have been buzzed by a Great Horned Owl then watched as it landed and sat in a nearby tree. We have seen coyotes, roadrunners, giant grasshoppers, flowers and cacti in bloom in November. We’ve seen Crested Caracaras, Whooping Cranes, Roseate Spoonbills, Alligators, Javelina… We have experienced damp warm humidity, hot dryness, cold clear nights. We’ve watched stars shining like backlit diamonds on black velvet, the Milky Way like a great white sparkling road across the sky. We’ve set the trailer up; we’ve taken it down.
But public lands were the focus of our travels. Even here at home, I look forward to skiing national forest and national park trails. Whether we visit them often or not, our public lands support us. Just knowing they exist lifts the spirit. Their very existence, though, depends on each of us. It is time to get active, to get the word out about the importance of free open public lands that belong to each and every one of us. Because, once lost, they are lost forever.
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste.” Wallace Stegner