There is a time machine hidden in the vast desert of far West Texas. As one drives south on U.S. 180, just where the turnoff for Carlsbad Caverns is nestled in a forest of tacky Whites City billboards, a shimmering ridge of rock rises like some wall in a garden of the gods. It parallels the road and then curves in the distance to form a towering pair of peaks: El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak, the most conspicuous mountain in Texas, and, behind it, the tallest.
Those who stop to investigate, who pull into the Pine Springs campground — the National Park headquarters — risk falling utterly under the sway of the haunting genius of this place, where 200-million-year-old fossils conceal 10,000-year-old mysteries, where both can be subducted by the intimacies created in a mere 40 years.
One must find the path to mystery alone, brooding over the trails running back northeast along the base of the mountains. Hiking alone, one notices the smell of juniper and grit; alone, one sees tiny imprints, ghosts in the soft limestone: 250 million years ago, sponges, algae and bryozoans formed a reef around a shallow Permian sea.
The reef was shaped like a huge horseshoe; over tens of millions of years, the depression left by the sea filled with silt and sand. The reef vanished. About 230 million years later, the same spasm of tectonic activity that gave birth to the Rocky Mountains lifted the reef 8,000 feet above the desert floor. Then, erosion carried away the silt and sand, leaving behind a ghostly revenant of the reef that bordered the ancient Permian sea. In the silence and slow time of the hike up this steep canyon, one is in truth descending into geologic deep time — time so immense all human enterprise seems a fleeting and insubstantial mask.
At the top of this trail, the 10,000-year-old mystery lurks behind one last twist: There is a relict forest, precarious now in Texas’ dry climate, formed during the peak of the last great ice age. Pines and aspens almost as tall and thick as those found in the Rockies to the Northwest. But it’s better because few know they’re there, and there are no roads to make access a trivial thing to litter “the Bowl” — which is the name of this virtually unknown part of the crest of the Guadalupes — with cabins and casinos. The pines whisper arcane histories in the cool summer winds, stories perhaps of others who camped here hundreds of years ago. Mescal pits scattered about show the Apaches frequented this place before they were driven out.
Human history haunts about this place, layered on the prehistory that formed the forest and the deep time that built a reef, buried it, and raised and dusted it off again. And atop it all stands my personal history. Every summer when I was a teen, I would drag my father – who would do anything for me, but did not keep himself in shape – up into the backcountry I’ve been describing.
Once, I nearly killed him. I was an idiot kid, ready to march into this aridity and remoteness, bereft of decent hiking boots, bereft of food and water. But not bereft of Dad; he came along, but slid into heat exhaustion miles from the relief of the National Park Headquarters.
I know now that time spent with me mattered more to him than his own well-being, that time spent with me was the core of his wellbeing.
My father is dead now. The deep time will be there when I am also dust; the forest may last another 10,000 years — or may die in a day, stricken by lightning or careless campers. I have kept myself in training and often enough make the trip to the top, the trip through all these layers of time. Everything seems as it was, except on the most important, the most vulnerable layer of all.
I never told my father I was grateful he would sacrifice anything for his crazy kid. Ghosts from deep time endure in the mountains’ bones; an unexpected forest will last for millennia, unmolested; I can travel in time to such destinations whenever I want. But I share the journey with my father now. I can meet him now only when I stare in the mirror and ask what else I have left unsaid to those whom I love, who will not be with me forever.
Newman is a teacher in Odessa.