I got hooked on the Texas mountains at the age of six, when I climbed to the top of a small hill adjacent to the Chisos Basin lodge in Big Bend National Park, rode on horseback to the Window, and peered over what seemed then to be the edge of the world. I became fixated on the idea that there was actually a place called the Christmas Mountains; it was visible through the Window’s massive slickrock aperture, beyond the park’s northwestern border.
The relationship continued through my youth, when I discovered that there wasn’t a more enchanting city view in Texas than the twinkling lights of El Paso and Juárez at night, seen from Scenic Drive on Mount Franklin. I climbed the pilgrims’ path to the top of Mount Christo del Rey and straddled the line between Texas, New Mexico, and Chihuahua. As an adult, I’ve touched the roof of Texas atop Guadalupe Peak, perched on the edge of the South Rim of the Chisos in Big Bend on a brilliantly clear day when objects two hundred miles distant were visible—the biggest view in the whole world—and watched a comet from the top of Mount Locke at McDonald Observatory, illuminated by more stars than the eye can comprehend in the darkest skies in America.
These mountains are located in the Trans-Pecos part of Texas, which stretches for some 250 miles east to west and extends about 200 miles north to south—about the size of South Carolina. It is the most sparsely populated part of the state. Save for the city of El Paso, where more than half a million people live, no more than 30,000 residents live here. “Wide-open spaces” is not just some catchphrase in this part of the state. They really do exist. Within the boundaries of the Trans-Pecos sprawl the thirty-odd named ranges of Texas. The Trans-Pecos is a region so expansive that several of its counties are bigger than entire states. This is the Texas of dreams.
The easternmost ranges, the Housetops and Spencers, flank U.S. 90 twenty miles east of Marathon like two sentinels. The Glass Mountains, the first range of significant height and breadth, swell up more than a mile above sea level between Marathon, Fort Stockton, and Alpine. From there all the way to the state and the international boundaries to the northwest, west, and southwest, mountains dominate the landscape. Some consider the Texas mountains to be the southern extension of the Rocky Mountains, tumbling out of Colorado and New Mexico. But only the Davis Mountains, the wettest and one of the highest ranges in the state, and the Guadalupes, the highest range of all, with the four tallest peaks in Texas, really resemble their Colorado neighbors.
These are not easy mountains to love. They lack the altitude and drama of either the Sierra Nevadas or the Rockies. The tallest mountain in Texas, the 8,751-foot Guadalupe Peak, would hardly rate a glance on the other side of the New Mexico line. They are located in one of the least accessible places in the continental United States, far from most population centers. As a result, few people even know they are here. Even though Interstate 10 cuts through several ranges, most travelers keep their eyes glued to the road and have no idea what they’re passing through. The two most impressive ranges in the state, the Guadalupes and the Chisos, are protected as national parks, but most of the other ranges in the Trans-Pecos and the Big Bend remain unknown and unseen because they’re off-limits. Unlike other western states, where federal lands sometimes comprise more than half of a given state’s land area, Texas is mostly private property, mountains included.
This is a harsh country. Annual rainfall averages barely ten inches a year, and a severe drought persisted for almost a decade at the close of the twentieth century. Each of the four seasons has its own hellish peculiarity. The blistering winds of early spring are brutal. An ovenlike heat can set in as early as March. The soothing midsummer monsoons of July, August, and September, which can green up the countryside overnight, can bring killer floods with them too.
When the monsoons don’t come—which happens more and more frequently these days—the furnace effect down on the desert floor of the Big Bend becomes so severe that every living thing, it seems, either burns, dies, or withers away. But even when that kind of heat is on, up on the Marfa Highlands or in the Davises and the Guadalupes, in August it’s chilly enough at night to sleep with a blanket. The coolest summer nights in Texas are in the Texas mountains. Starting in mid-November, blue northers blast in the bitterest cold, dropping temperatures as much as fifty degrees in as little as an hour and occasionally leaving a dusting of snow on the mountaintops, stirring visions of the Rockies or the Alps if only for a day or two. Yet the same season can also bring temperatures above 100 degrees to the lower desert.
For the people who love these mountains, such realities are really blessings that have kept away the crowds. After all, who wants to share the stands of quaking aspen found in the Davis range, the maples of the Guadalupes and the Sierra Vieja, and the small slivers of greened-up high country that flourish on the mountaintops and in crevices and crannies, far from public view? If you’re blowing through at 70 miles per hour on the interstate or peering out the window of a jet plane at 30,000 feet, you won’t get it. Those of us who do get it like that just fine. We know, as I have learned, that there is much more than meets the eye. These mountains just require a little more patience and a whole lot more effort.
Many of the Texas ranges—the Guadalupes, the Delawares, the Huecos, and the Franklins—are largely devoid of vegetative cover because of a dearth of moisture. Because they are so naked, they expose thousands and millions of years in their layers and folds and are a playground for geologists. Within the Texas mountains are geological features and formations found nowhere else on the planet: a stone freak show of weird globs, jagged spires, gravity-defying balancing acts, marbled swirls, scoops of melted ice cream, and dribbled sand castles that wildly vary from extraterrestrial to lunar in appearance. In spite of their apparent desolation, the mountains harbor a huge variety of plant and animal species. The area is part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest and highest desert in North America. Here life flourishes in surprising places: on a remote cloud-catching ridgeline or under a rare canopy of shade in hidden canyons fed by springs and waterfalls.
Even though they are not the highest mountains around, these ranges offer some of the most striking panoramas anywhere. Range after range fades to the vanishing point, each separated from the next by vast desert floors that go on forever. From the top of Mount Livermore in the Davis Mountains, the highest peak in the second-highest range in Texas, mountain landmarks are clearly visible in every direction: the rectangular hump of Chinati Peak to the south; the long ridgeline of the Sierra Viejas bulging out of the flats to the south and toward the west, fading into the Van Horns, the Apaches, the Eagles, the Beaches, the Baylors, and the Sierra Diablos. Beyond them all is the lone sentinel of Sierra Blanca, marking the route to El Paso and the Pacific.
The last time I was in the Chisos Basin, I noticed that little hill by the lodge again. Forty-three years had passed since I first scaled it. For much of that time, the little hill didn’t seem that big. It was but another example of how things shrink and diminish when you grow up. Lately though, it has started looking more like a mountain to me again, just like it did when I was a kid. Just like it does to kids scurrying up its rocks today, I’ll bet.