Small Town, Big Rocks

Itinerary: 

  • Thursday: Fly to El Paso, TX and drive to Dell City
  • Friday: Hiking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park
  • Saturday: Visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park
  • Sunday: Fly back to ATL

Dates: December 8-11, 2016

Our Odyssey: 

Our Semi-Spontaneous Trip to Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks

This past weekend, December 8-11,
Tim and I traveled to Dell City, Texas (population 413) for a weekend in
Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks. How we ended up
spending a weekend there was pretty random, even for us. It all started when we
planned a trip to Honduras…

Let me back up. Tim and I decided
that for the winter, we would spend our monthly “adventure weekends”
in a different Central American country, to hit Nicaragua, Guatemala, Belize
and Honduras. These are all places that we had on our 2018 RTW trip itinerary,
but decided we could save time and money by exploring these countries via
weekend trips and taking advantage of the direct flights from Atlanta. We
decided to book Honduras first and explore the Mayan ruins of Copan.

We booked our flights on Delta, a
Hilton hotel in San Pedro Sula, and organized a tour from to the ruins. Then,
flipping through an atlas I had bought Tim last year for Christmas, I landed at
random on a page about the most dangerous places in the world. Topping the list
over any city in the Middle East was San Pedro Sula, Honduras – our upcoming
vacation destination!

Now, I would consider Tim and
myself to be pretty intrepid travelers. We’ve visited many countries that some
may consider “dangerous” and also know that, while the media feeds us
fear about other countries, most are actually very safe. We decided to do some
research to learn whether San Pedro Sula was truly dangerous, or whether
“the murder capital of the world” was all just hype.

Several Google searches and
travel forums later, we decided that while we could probably go to San Pedro
Sula and be just fine, we had read enough to instill confidence that yes
indeed, San Pedro Sula would be a risky destination.

When deciding where to go
instead, we read through a list of US National Parks. Tim saw Guadalupe
Mountains on the list, remarked that he’d never heard of it before (neither had
I) and decided that that is where we should go. And so, fast forward a few
months and we were on a Thursday night flight from Atlanta to El Paso to
explore both Guadalupe Mountains and nearby Carlsbad Caverns.

My research into where to stay
suggested Dell City, Texas, so that is where I focused my search. I found a
total of zero hotels and a handful of Airbnb options, and booked us a
cute-looking cabin from a woman named Laura. When Tim and I got in late
Thursday evening, we realized this small town was even smaller than we
expected. With no street lights, no open establishments, and not a soul in
sight, the town was perfect for a weekend of active recovery enjoying nature.

Friday morning greeted us with
chilly 25 degree Fahrenheit air and frost on our car windows. We always have
known deserts get colder at night, but the freezing temperature still shocked
us! We headed out for Guadalupe Mountains National Park around 8am and along
the way noticed that in between expansive farms there were also numerous
dilapidated homes and buildings that seemed to have been sitting in disrepair
for a long time. The area had a feel of having seen better times.

image

Dilapidated buildings outside of Dell City

Wanting to know more about this
small town we called home for the weekend, I pulled up Dell City’s Wikipedia
page. It’s been an official city for around 100 years, founded on farming when
prospectors looking for oil found abundant water supplies underground.  Under “Notable People”, we saw that
a founding member of the Dixie Chicks is from there – Laura Lynch.

When I clicked on Laura Lynch’s
page, I was shocked to see a picture of our Airbnb host pop up. And we realized
– our host was Laura Lynch, founding lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. Reading
more about her we learned she had left the group before they released an album
with Sony, but had toured with Garth Brooks, George Strait and others as the Chicks’
lead singer.

And that wasn’t the last surprise
of the morning. As we got closer to the park, we drove through thick patches of
fog which had coated the desert and cacti with a layer of frost that became
thicker as we eared the park – so much so that it looked like the entire area
was a winter wonderland coated in snow. We couldn’t believe what we were
seeing. Never had I imagined that the desert in the American west – bordering
Mexico, no less – could be such a snowy scene.

image

Thick fog sits between snow-covered desert foliage and El Capitan

Before long we arrived at the
visitor center to pick up our Junior Ranger Guides and plan our day. We learned
that the park contains Texas’ highest peak and the iconic El Capitan, and 260
million years ago the area was a warm, tropical sea. What we see today is
considered one of the best examples in the world of an exposed fossil reef.

image

Frosty rocks on the side of the road leading to the park. 

Under the recommendation of the
ranger, we decided to hike McKittrick Canyon, which would take us 4 miles
through the canyon along the dry river bed to grottos and original homesteads
from the early 1900s and then out again to the trail head.

image

Tim hiking in McKittrick Canyon

Starting our trek, the landscape
was still covered in thick, white frost. Tim and I were in awe of the amazing
solitude we had, being the only ones on the trail, among such stunning,
untouched scenery.

Hiking the trail felt like
watching the world wake up, stretching its icy branches, rubbing the fog from
its eyes and coming out from under its blanket of frost to greet the sunny
desert day. The whole experience made this one of my favorite hikes of all
time, and this was before eating our peanut butter and jelly lunch on stone
tables near the grotto and exploring the two homesteads along the trail. By the
time we got back out to the trail head, it was a gorgeous, sunny day and the
frost had melted entirely. We only saw 3 other people the whole day.

image

Me and Tim in McKittrick Canyon

The fog lifts along our hike

I’ve read that Guadalupe
Mountains is considered one of America’s best, if least known, parks – after
our day there, I agree!

Alpenglow on El Capitan

That evening back in Dell City we
ventured out to find food, only to learn that there is only one restaurant in
town, but that between the two small convenience marts in town we’d be able to
at least a burger or a pizza. Hoping for a good hot meal, we decided to see
what time the restaurant would open. The sign on the door said 6pm. To pass the
time, we stopped by the bar (the only one). When we walked in there was only
one other person – an elderly woman sitting a table smoking a cigarette and
doing a crossword puzzle. We could tell she was a little surprised to see two
strangers.

image

The Dell City bar. 

We asked if she was open, she
said yes, and asked what we wanted while heading up to the bar. Tim ordered a
drink and I ordered water and we went to sit on the bar stools.

“You can come sit at the
table with me,” she said.

So we sat down across from her at
the table, cigarette smoke tendrils drifting through the air. We exchanged
introductions. Her name is Bonnie and her parents homesteaded out in Dell City
before it was ever a “city”. She taught us how to play a card game
called “Tick” and she continued to smoke cigarette after cigarette.

Sitting in her bar playing cards
with her felt more like being in her kitchen at home than in a public place.
There were pictures of her family all over, stacks of games and puzzle books,
and a fridge right behind the linoleum table.

She told us a bit more about
Laura, our semi-famous hostess. Apparently she grew up in a wealthy farming
family in Dell City, left for a while when she was with the Dixie Chicks, and
has sense returned. She’s been renovating dilapidated homes in the area and
renting them out to encourage tourism and beautify her hometown.

We asked her if there was any
place to eat in town, and she said the restaurant should be open and looked out
the window across the street to see. “Ah the lights are off so I guess
they aren’t opening tonight. I can call the store and put an order for a pizza
in for you.”

We said we’d love that and would
like a medium pepperoni. She called the store and chatted with the woman who
picked up, an apparent friend of hers and the only black person in town (we’d
been over there earlier and had met her). The race detail is important and I’ll
get there in a moment. Bonnie put in our pizza order and asked her if she was
going to swing by later that evening. Bonnie teased her about something and she
laughed, said “I love you too” and hung up.

This is around where the
conversation took an unexpected to turn.

“I give her a hard time but
we love each other. I call her my little niglet. I’m always like, do you know
what they did to people like you back when I was a girl?” Bonnie said. And
then she started singing a song about a hanging tree and laughing.

What. The. Heck. Tim and I were
both uncomfortable. “That’s awful.” Tim said. And I debated for a
second in my mind about going down the path of confronting Bonnie about her
apparent racism. Instead, I said, “It sounds like it all comes from a
place of affection.”

“Oh yeah it’s not racist at
all,” Bonnie replied. “I love her, she’s like family to me and she
picks on me too.”

And I believe 100% that Bonnie
believes she is not a racist. But Bonnie actually is racist. Hell, at an
implicit level, I’m a little racist too, and I think most people are – our
society drills negative images of black people into us from a young age, and
it’s something I, and any white person in America, has to be conscious of in
order to push aside those images society sends us so that our actions and
judgments reflect reality and not stereotypes. It’s why black lives matter and
why it’s different from just saying all lives matter. But I digress.

Tim and I played a few more
rounds of Tick with Bonnie. Her friend Mary Ellen, a woman of Native America
heritage, with long, long hot pink nails and frizzy maroon hair, came in and
chatted for a bit. When our pizza was due to be ready we said goodbye and
headed out.

Once outside Tim and I
immediately discussed the conversation that had transpired, how shocking it had
been, and how we didn’t really know how to respond. I even said, “How can
I adequately document this in our blog? I know I have friends who will
adamantly say we should have called Bonnie out on her language and
attitudes.” But I also know that Bonnie has never lived outside of Dell
City and that the woman at the convenience store may be the only black person
she’s ever known. And I know that Bonnie loves her and that the love is
reciprocated. So what do we make of their relationship? Is Bonnie a racist?
Yeah, probably. But it’s not the overtly hateful kind from what I could tell –
it’s that more subtle kind that I think is harder to address. And maybe that’s
why Tim and I were a little dumbfounded about what to do. That said, I don’t
think we made a wrong choice in how we handled it. But I’m open to know what
others think. I think there is a lot to unpack here about American history,
about attitudes in the south, about race and about how we talk about race – and
while Tim and I have reflected on it quite a bit, I know we haven’t even
scratched the surface of what all could be said about this interaction.

And so we picked up our pizza and
took it back to our adobe weekend home. The pizza was as mediocre as the DVD we
popped in, but both felt perfectly right for our quiet Friday evening.

Gorgeous sky outside of Dell City

The next day we were up early
again to get to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, about an hour and a half away,
in time for a guided cave tour we had signed up for. We arrived before the
visitor center even opened (we like to be early!) and even had time before our
tour to pop down into the Big Room to do a cursory introduction to the cave.

Carlsbad Caverns has long been a
safe haven for Mexican free-tail bats, but while Native Americans lived in the
area, there is no evidence they had ever inhabited these caves. In 1898, a
teenage boy – Jim White – found the cave and did the first explorations by
coffee-pot lantern. For many decades guano miners worked in the caves (bat poo
is considered a very good fertilizer), even after the area became first a
national monument in 1923 and later a national park in 1930.

At 9:30 our tour group met up
with our ranger guides to get equipped for our “back country” cave
hike into Slaughter Canyon Cave. The name sounds ominous, but no, there wasn’t
a massacre or ax murderer story behind the nomenclature – just a dude’s last
name. We all got helmets with headlights and then caravanned 40 minutes away to
the trailhead. Our group of nearly 20 hiked up a half mile to the cave entrance
and our guides took us in. This cave is very different from the Big Room in
that it is largely untouched for tourism. There are no rails, paved paths,
lights or gift shops (yes, there is a gift shop – and a café – in the Big
Room). The raw cave ground was slippery as we descended into the cave with only
the single beam of natural light from the entrance supplementing our low-light
headlamps.

image

Me and Tim in Slaughter Canyon Cave. 

The cave was so fascinating to
explore. We saw a fossil of a marine animal (whoa!), remnants of guano mining
activities (though scientists now think they never got guano after all, but
just old dirt), and got to climb up a steeper portion of the cave by rope. We
saw many unique formations – a “Great Wall of China”, a tall
formation that looked like a Christmas Tree or Darth Vader depending on your
perspective, and, the most famous of all, “The Clansman”, which looks
like the Grim Reaper to me.

Fossil!

image

Darth Vader or a Christmas tree – what do you think? 

image

The Great Wall of China

We also did a “black out” deep in the
cave where we were all told to turn off our lights and sit quietly in the cave
to experience total darkness and silence. It was pretty intense and reminded me
of a story I had heard about an American soldier who had been held captive in
Afghanistan in a totally dark cell. He had spoken of how he couldn’t see his
body and lost his physical sense of self after days and days on end without
sight to orient him to his own self. After a few moments in total darkness, I
can completely understand how that would happen.

image

Using the rope in Slaughter Canyon Cave to navigate the slippery ground. 

After our hike we went back to
the visitor center to spend more time in the Big Room. Being back in this cave
was such a stark contrast to the one we had just hiked. To get down to the Big
Room, you can hike through the Natural Entrance, or you can take an elevator.
When you get off the elevator, immediately to your right is the gift shop and
café, and in front of you is the paved, handicap accessible path. With rails
and lights and wires, it felt artificial, and I couldn’t help but think that
even though our National Parks exist to protect and preserve, Carlsbad Caverns
would have been better off without us in it. Our guide in Slaughter Canyon
spoke to this point during a discussion about how the infrastructure built into
the caverns 60 years ago wouldn’t likely be allowed today, and how, 60 years
from now, future generations may look at what we were doing – hiking through an
otherwise untouched cave – the same way.

image

The gift shop and cafe inside the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns

We enjoyed our stroll through the
Big Room, observing the stalactites and stalagmites, but while this is one of
the largest cave rooms we know of on earth, my childhood memories of Luray
Caverns in Virginia (a much, much smaller cave system) are grander in my mind
that my experience at Carlsbad was. In thinking about why this is, I think part
of is that Luray is very small and intimate. It also doesn’t have the same
amount of human development inside the cave itself. And then of course there’s
the magic of being a kid in a cave and the wonder that comes from viewing the
world (or the underworld, as the case may be) through the eyes of a child.

image

Me and Tim in the Big Room

The rest of our time in the
region was relaxing and uneventful. We got dinner at a mediocre diner outside
the park and then watched another DVD back in our cabin. The next morning we
leisurely made our way back to El Paso for our flight back to Atlanta for work.
Our weekend in Texas and New Mexico was unexpected in so many ways – we hadn’t
even planned on going there just a few weeks earlier, and we certainly didn’t
expect to stay with a Dixie Chick or to see a snow-covered desert. After the
hustle and bustle of traveling for work for weeks on end, a little getaway and
some active recovery in the desert couldn’t have been a more perfect
prescription for our souls.

image

View of the surrounding desert from outside the visitor center of Carlsbad Cavern National Park. The land below used to be a large inland sea!

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