My latest book, published by Texas A&M University Press in conjunction with the Sand County Foundation, is now available from TAMU Press http://www.tamupress.com/product/Generations-on-the-Land,6465.aspx and fine booksellers across Texas and American West.
by Joe Nick Patoski
For most of their lives, senior editor Joe Nick Patoski and freelance photographer Laurence Parent have explored and chronicled the mountains of the Trans-Pecos. In this excerpt from their forthcoming book, Texas Mountains, they show and tell where their love of the outdoors is at its peak.
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 visiblethe biggest view in the whole worldand 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 southabout 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 comewhich happens more and more frequently these daysthe 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 rangesthe Guadalupes, the Delawares, the Huecos, and the Franklinsare 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.
Photographer Laurence Parent and senior editor Joe Nick Patoski talk about climbing, the best shot, and their new book, Texas Mountains. Interview with Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski
texasmonthly.com: When was the first time you saw a mountain? Do you remember where you were and what you thought?
Laurence Parent: I was born in the mountains of New Mexico, so I guess that I saw them when I was pretty young. They must have made an impression, although I sure don’t remember my first thoughts.
Joe Nick Patoski: The mountains I remember seeing were in the Big Bend. We’d driven in my daddy’s new 59 Studebaker Silver Hawk from Fort Worth to San Antonio one day, then from San Antonio to Ciudad Acuña and on to Marathon the next, arriving at night. The following morning we got up and drove to Big Bend National Park and up to the Chisos Basin. I thought it was pretty cool.
texasmonthly.com: Laurence, your father was a National Park Service ranger and your mother wrote travel pieces. Do you think you may have a different perspective on the outdoors because of their influence?
LP: My parents had a huge influence on me. Growing up in beautiful National Park Service sites with parents who loved the outdoors greatly shaped what I do for a living (outdoor photography) and what I love to do for fun (hike, run, camp, and climb).
texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to publish a book on the Texas mountains?
LP: No one had ever done such a book. Some Texans don’t even realize Texas has mountains. Many others don’t realize that there are beautiful mountains in Texas besides the Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains. I wanted to surprise people. The Texas mountains have waterfalls, movie sets, pine forests, aspens, and many other surprises.
texasmonthly.com: How long did it take to come up with the material for your book and put it all together?
JNP: A little more than a couple years. I’d really been working on it for more than forty years, but just didn’t realize.
LP: Some of the photos go back to the mid-nineties (they were shot for other projects). Most, however, were shot specifically for this book beginning around mid-1999. The West Texas drought didn’t help. The schedule accelerated last fall, though, when rains finally came to West Texas. The grass greened, the air cleared, and the waterfalls flowed. I made two trips in October and November to wrap up the book that lasted 26 and 17 days each. After that, I was ready to be done.
Joe Nick Patoski
at Coal Mine Ranch.
Photo by Laurence Parent
texasmonthly.com: Joe Nick, what was involved in getting your information? Did you go on many climbs?
JNP: Lots of time was spent in libraries, online, and on the phone. But the best part of doing it was getting to go on-site. A lot of the ranges are on private land, so our research involved introducing ourselves to folks, asking permission for access, and in many cases, assuring sources that we wouldn’t identify precisely where we were lest trespassers and poachers try to go where they’re not welcome.
I should mention that the photography required getting to vantage points on peaks and pinnacles that were not necessarily the highest points in a particular range. Nonetheless, we climbed a bunch. There’s one photo Laurence took of me standing on a smaller pinnacle in the Chinatis that ran in Texas Highways (Laurence needed a model and I was the only other human around). The picture is pretty great, capturing me standing on this high point overlooking the rugged, desolate valley of the Rio Grande, with no other human being or any man-made structure in sight. What you don’t see is how I propped myself up on the rock, trying to maintain my balance, and how I was seized by a severe case of acrophobia while trying to stand still and remain calm. The wind was gusting, and I kept trying not to look down, because one false move and I was a goner. Standing across the way, on an equally perilous promontory, was Laurence, snapping away, changing cameras, loading film, trying to get the shot. It’s one thing to ramble around high points and scurry up to the top; it’s another thing to do that while carrying sixty pounds of equipment on your back. Laurence, I think, has a little mountain goat blood in him.
texasmonthly.com: Laurence, what type of format do you use? Why?
LP: I mostly use a large-format camera, 4×5, for my landscape work. Only a tiny handful of the photos in this book were done with a 35mm camera. A 4×5 reproduces larger, with greater sharpness, less grain, and potentially greater depth of field. I do use a 35mm for shooting outdoor sports, but there wasn’t any of that in this book.
texasmonthly.com: Do you find the mountains in Texas that different from the mountains in Colorado? Why or why not?
LP: The mountains in Texas are significantly lower and drier that those in Colorado. However, many of the Texas mountains have considerable relief (above the surrounding plains) and are still very impressive.
JNP: Much different. As a University of Texas at Austin professor from Germany told me recently: “We in Germany know about the Rockies, the Cascades, the Sierra Nevadas, the Appalachians. We have mountains like that. But there’s nothing in Germany like the Texas mountains. That’s why we love to come here.” It’s the delicate combination of mountains and desert. Nowhere but Texas.
Joe Nick Patoski and Chris Gill
at Sierra Diablo.
Photo by Laurence Parent
texasmonthly.com: What is necessary to get such spectacular shots? Can you describe a shoot for me?
LP: First and foremost, you have to be a pack mule. My camera pack usually weighs between 35 and 40 pounds just for day hikes. A lot of strenuous hiking was required for this book to reach the photo locations that I wanted. Quite a few hikes were cross-country in areas with no trails. Several shots were taken on overnight trips, and my pack weighed 60 pounds or so. Besides dragging my gear to ideal locations, I have to anticipate the light and weather to try to get the best possible images. Many times the weather does not cooperate, requiring me to repeat a trip, often several times.
texasmonthly.com: When is the best time of day to take nature shots? Why?
LP: Most commonly, the light right before, during, and after sunset works best because contrast decreases, long shadows give depth, and the light turns gold and pink. However, weather is at least as big a factor. Dramatic skies, especially from breaking storms, add immeasurably to photos.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite photo in the book? Why?
JNP: I don’t really have a favorite. I loveem all. But when I first thumbed through the book, the shots of ZH Canyon really stirred me. Sunrise on a perfect June morning, seeing and hearing and witnessing all the life in this “isolated” spotthe canyon was a veritable aviary, choked with raptors and Neotropical songbirds. It was one of the more blessed moments in my life. The photos brought it all back.
LP: Tough question. I’m not sure that I have a particular favorite. I do like the cover, in part, I guess, because it was taken during a miserable windy sunrise in a spring dust storm, which is why the light is so rednot because of a filter. Another favorite is probably the aspens shot because it was such a bear to hike to them, plus it reminds me of the New Mexico mountains, where I did a lot of my growing up.
Joe Nick Patoski
at Coal Mine Ranch.
Photo by Laurence Parent
texasmonthly.com: What was your most difficult shoot? Why?
LP: Several are contenders. The aspens shot was difficult because it required carrying my heavy gear cross-country up and down very steep, loose, and treacherous slopes. I twisted my knee when a slope shifted under me; it still hasn’t completely recovered. The shot of El Capitan taken from the summit of Guadalupe Peak required carrying my pack four and a half miles up a trail while gaining three thousand feet of elevation in a howling, frigid dust storm in January. After taking my sunset shots and getting almost hypothermic, I hiked all the way down in the dark.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite mountain range in Texas? Why?
JNP: My favorite ranges are the Franklin, Hueco, Guadalupe, Sierra Diablo, Sierra Vieja, Davis, Chinati, Chisos, Bofecillo, and Glass ranges. Each has qualities separate from the others. Laurence has convinced me that there is much more to the Quitmans than initially meets the eye. The Eagles, which parallel Interstate 10 to the south for twenty miles or so, west of Van Horn, are the most underappreciated. The view from Eagle peak was one of the most breathtaking of them all.
LP: I’m not sure that I have a single favorite. They’re all really different. Some favorites are the Sierra Vieja, Davis, Guadalupe, Chisos, Beach, Quitman, and Sierra Diablo mountains.
texasmonthly.com: If you could climb any mountain in Texas, which would it be? Why?
JNP: North Franklin Mountain. Because I haven’t done it yet.