The road trip is a particularly American experience. In the third and final part of Sarah Roberts' field trip she leaves the tropics for the hard-packed, hard-scrabble desert. Sarah closes her expedition with an epic journey to chart the raw beauty and hidden fragility of this most rugged of landscapes.
I’m a huge fan of cacti. I admire them enormously! I think it was all the John Wayne cowboy films I watched with my grandparents growing up, but cacti now sit in my head right alongside adventure. Picture a dusty, wide-open road; a huge bad ass mountain range and a desert with rolling tumbleweeds. Obviously, this scene is a million times more magnificent when it’s strewn with iconic cacti right?! I can’t count how many Pinterest images of this I’ve pinned over the years, all whilst humming The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly soundtrack.
I must have been channelling that vision quite well, when my good friend and host, Kate Walter, enquired as to how I might feel about leaving the Deep South for a 2000-mile road trip. We'd be camping, hiking and adventuring our way through America’s Wild West. Naturally, I said I would consider it…
'Round the Bend in Texas
Just getting to Texas was the biggest mission. As Kate drove (I did offer but she’s quite precious about her car), I sat in the passenger seat surveying the scenery as it changed from lichen-drenched swamp to lush green forests, then back to swamp.
To give you a bit of perspective, The Big Bend National Park covers over a thousand square miles of Chihuahuan desert, containing 2000m worth of elevation in the Chisos mountain range, 196 miles of the Rio Grande river, three huge river canyons and thousands of different plant and wildlife species. The best part about it though, is that it sits right on the border of Mexico, so barely any tourists make it here, compared to other National Parks.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really expecting to see all that much when we pulled in at 3am. Yet we had mule deer and roadrunner populations halting our progress every two minutes. We could just about make out the silhouette of a jagged mountain range in the distance, but I couldn’t hold back a grin as I noticed the prickly pear cacti. As we attempted to get a few hours’ kip, sitting bolt upright in the car park, my adventure buds were tingling.
The sunrise came as surprise, not least because I’d literally fallen asleep only minutes earlier, but also because it turned out that we had parked at the bottom of an intimidatingly tall cliff. It had been totally invisible in the darkness. Not wanting to waste any time, we bagged ourselves a camping spot, got changed in the nearest public toilets and hit the trails.
Our first hike into the south side of the park seemed marvellous to me, but it didn’t quite meet Kate’s standards. After many absurd assurances that this had set a very low bar for the park, I couldn’t believe just how right Kate was.
That same day we ventured to Boquillas Canyon and pottered down the steep, rock walls onto the lush banks of the Rio Grande River. I felt as if we had literally walked right onto the set of a Hang Em’ Dead, as a poncho-clad old man riding a mule sidled past us as we watched a small freshwater turtle sunbathing on a rock.
Being dry season, the riverbed was shallow. We could easily have rolled up our trousers and paddled across to Mexico without a problem. For the wildlife species living in the park, including cougar, coyotes, kangaroo rats, hummingbirds and mule deer, this river is a life source which sustains the entire ecosystem.
Once a formidable river which carved canyons from the Colorado Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico for centuries, the Rio Grande now meanders at a much more casual pace. Rapid population growth, booming agriculture and increasing levels of drought - especially in the Northern states and Mexico - has meant that most of the river's water has been diverted before it ever reaches this point. Tragically, the impact is such that in 2002 the river did not complete its journey to sea!
Loopy in the Guadalupe Mountains
After officially breaking in my new Brasher boots with daily 10-mile hikes in the desert heat, I was excited to put them to the test on some higher ground. At least this is what I told myself when we set off to the next location. As the highest spot in Texas, towering over the state at an impressive 8751ft, the Guadalupe Peak is certainly an intimidating prospect. It boggles the mind to look at snow-capped mountain in the middle of the desert.
If you are considering a trip, the thing you really need to know about this place is that it is windy. Seriously windy. Between December and April gusts frequently reach 60mph. Conveniently, in February we didn’t really struggle at all to find a camp spot. In fact, it turned out that most of the larger trailers had been forced to abandon their parking spaces the night before, due to ‘dangerously strong’ winds.
I’m pleased to report that we didn’t suffer the same fate, though it was a rocky night. Luckily the winds had halted by sunrise, so we didn’t waste any time. The first couple of miles were full of punishingly steep cutbacks, but the views as you gathered your breath made it worthwhile. By the time we scrambled up to the top, vertigo was encroaching and I could have sworn the altitude was affecting my breathing. I’m not sure I would much fancy riding a mule on this route.
From the top, we could see well over a hundred miles across the desert and salt flats in every direction, it was dramatic to say the least. This view is not to be taken likely though, as in the heat of summer, the visibility diminishes radically. Part of this is down to the air pollution from swiftly expanding Mexican and Texan cities. Sulfur and nitrogen couples with the desert dust and lingers in the air, causing a haze. These compounds not only detract from the view; they also have a harmful affect on soils, lakes, streams and ponds and all the ecosystems reliant on these habitats.
It was a worrying thought to consider, especially as we left the mountain to explore the nearby Carlsbad Cavern. This ecosystem of 119 cave systems is vast but vulnerable. It's a damp, dark and truly beautiful world, and a prime example of habitat most at risk from air pollution and other human threats.
After a spectacular sunset streaked the dunes at White Sands National Monument, we decided to make an impromptu pitstop for the night. A quick google search revealed the perfect spot, a place called Chiricahua Mountains. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Standing 1000ft higher than Guadalupe Peak, this area makes Stonehenge look like children's building blocks. These southern Arizona mountains are teeming with gigantic rock formations. They balance at crazy angles, even on the most precarious slopes. During our brief stay we managed to sneak in a hike on the snowy peaks and a sunrise descent to the deep river valley. Both were unforgettable.
Nothing,however, compares to the sight of a million Saguaro Cacti, scattering the dusty desert and hillsides and towering over the hardpack. They grow up to 18 metres and made Saguaro National Park my favourite place on the whole trip. These characterful plants have given the world the standard image of a cactus, yet they are only found in this very small region of the world. Walking amongst these iconic giants it’s hard to imagine how they support so many bending and twisting limbs without collapsing or splitting.
The plants contain thick woody rods, which create a supportive skeleton. I know this, because there were carcases of rotten cacti strewed out along the park floor. It’s a very sorry sight to see these cacti exposed for all to see, especially considering it takes at least a decade for these cacti to grow their first inch and then another hundred years before they are even able to start growing limbs at all.
Just like any other ancient forest, cacti up to 200 years in age provide an important habitat. Small birds and mammals burrow in to protect themselves from the harsh desert climate. Though you might worry this would kill the plant the cacti are resilient. It's not unusual to see a single plant with several burrows.
The cacti have adapted to form protective scabs. These healed wounds are so effective that native Americas would remove them from the dead plants to use as water bowls for years after. As tough as they are in nature, however, these plants can’t compete with human development and displacement of their home range. Humans have brought invasive species that are strangling the cacti. Buffalo grass is a particular threat, as it outcompetes the cacti in every way.
As some of the largest open areas of wilderness in the USA, it is easy to describe the ‘Wild West’ as a vast adventure playground. In many ways it really is. You can escape so far off the beaten track that you won’t see people for days. You can see stars and galaxies clearly than in most places on Earth. You can hike, climb or kayak to your heart’s content.
However, it is undeniable that these National Parks are fragile. Like so many wild places, they are already severely damaged by human impacts. It really is up to all of us, to decide what we are willing to change in our lives to protect these iconic ecosystems.
Sarah will be back on her travels later in the year and we will be proud to support her journey. Check back for future field notes.