- 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 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 somevmay 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.
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 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’
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
Darth Vader or a Christmas tree – what do you think?
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 mecof 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.
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.
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.
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’the have been a more perfect prescription for our souls.
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!