Middle of Nowhere
November 3, 2011
I had no idea what to expect, but I surely didn’t expect to see what I saw. I was working as chief photographer for Southern Living Magazine at the time and had been invited by the Texas Tourist Development Agency to take an early look at an amazing array of mountains that had been designated as Guadalupe National Park. The agency wanted publicity. I wanted out of the office. So it seemed like a good match. I strapped three Nikons around my neck and took the next plane west out of Birmingham.
All I knew was that one of those mythical Texas millionaires named J. C. Hunter had donated the spectacular high country of his ranch to the national government, and, for the first time, those forested peaks would be open to visitors who had only been able to view them from afar.
It was a wild country. The press release I tucked in my pocket quoted one early day explorer as calling the mountain range “the most rugged country I’ve seen on the North American continent.” Former Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall, had said, “The Guadalupes contain the most diversified and beautiful scenery in Texas, some of the most beautiful landscape in the Southwest.”
What I found was that the Guadalupe Mountains, with the highest peak in Texas, were not on the road to anywhere. You had to be going there to get to the old Hunter Ranch. The land sat out in the middle of nowhere all by itself, spilling out of New Mexico. It was so far out that TTDA spokesman Caleb Pirtle told me, “I’m not saying you’ll be a long way from home, but the sun sets between these mountains and town.”
He wasn’t lying.
I flew from Birmingham to Dallas, and that was the shortest leg of the trip. Pirtle picked me up, and we drove for ten hours hand running to get to Nickel Creek Station, which was our jumping off place.
“Out here,” Pirtle said, “you can drive for miles and miles and see nothing but miles and miles.”
He wasn’t lying about that either.
“Are we gonna walk back into the mountains?” I asked.
“Are we gonna drive?”
“How do we get there?”
“You expecting us to ride horses up the mountain?”
“All the way to the top.”
“Is there a road?”
“I guess you can call it road,” Pirtle said. “It’s seldom more than a foot wide.”
“You ever done it before?” I asked Pirtle.
“I’m not that crazy,” he said.
We spent the night at Nickel Creek Station, which was run by Noel Kincaid, who had also served as J. C. Hunter’s ranch foreman. The town had two buildings. There was a service station that doubled as a general store and café. Out back were three motel units, usually reserved for deer hunters. That was just enough, I figured. One for Pirtle. One for me. And one for Noel Kincaid.
“We got seven more coming,” Pirtle said.
“Jerry Flemmons is. The rest just think they are.”
“How are we gonna sleep?” I asked.
“Cozy,” he said.
We were up two hours before sunrise, and Noel Kincaid was in the kitchen behind the café, frying steaks and eggs. He was in a hurry. If we didn’t start before the sun came up, we wouldn’t be back until after the sun went down. Nobody wanted to be on a mountain trail a foot wide in the dark.
That’s when we saw the two headlights in the distance and watched the car pull in alongside the gas pump. The driver with Missouri tags had no doubt been driving for hours without seeing any signs of life. The little service station must have looked like an oasis.
Kincaid said, “If I pump his gas, I’ll probably burn your eggs.”
“Don’t worry,” said travel editor Jerry Flemmons of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “We’ll take care of the car.”
He waved, and we all followed him outside.
One began pumping gas.
Three were checking the air in the tires.
Two were washing the front windshield.
One was cleaning the back window.
One was checking the oil.
And I was filling up the smoking radiator with water.
The driver bought nine dollars worth of gas, gave us a ten-dollar bill, and headed south. I’m sure that when he got back home to St. Louis, he told everybody he met, “If you ever go to Texas, you need to stop at Nickel Creek Station.”
“Where is it?”
“I have no idea. But if you’re out of gas, those old boys flat give you great service.”
He drove off into the darkness, and we settled down to a plate piled high with fried eggs, heavy on the grease. None of them were burnt, nor did they taste like they had come from chickens. Must have been the jalapenos.