Ride to the Top of Texas
November 10, 2011
I thought I had a glamorous job.
At least, it sounded glamorous.
A travel photographer for a major magazine like Southern Living should be wandering from one lap of luxury to another and taking in the high life. But, no, here I was in the darkness of a cold morning, still sore from sleeping on the floor of a tiny motel unit, stuck out in the middle of nowhere, getting ready to ride horseback up a narrow, winding trail to the top of the tallest peak in Texas.
I liked mountains from the ground up.
I didn’t climb them.
I liked horses at a racetrack when somebody else was on their backs.
I had never seriously ridden one.
“Don’t worry,” said Noel Kincaid, the foreman of the ranch that had been designated as Guadalupe Mountains National Park. “That old horse knows his way to the top and his way back down.” Noel shrugged. “The trouble is,’ he said, “is that the danged old horse don’t know you.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Not for me, it ain’t,” Noel said.
He was grinning.
I tried to grin and failed miserably.
I shouldn’t have worried. I didn’t have to ride horseback that day.
Noel Kincaid saddled me a donkey.
“He ain’t pretty,” the old rancher said, “but he’s a sure-footed little guy. I’ll let you have the donkey, because you’ve got a lot of money tied up in those cameras around your neck. Don’t want you to lose any of them.”
“What about the writers?” I asked.
“They got nineteen-cent ballpoint pens,” he said. “If we lose any of them, we haven’t lost much.”
“The ballpoint pens?”
Noel Kincaid grinned again.
We saddled up, and Kincaid, along with his son, Jack, led us on packhorses, and one little old donkey, up the 3,000-foot-high cliffs of Pine Top Mountain just as the morning sun rose above the desert floor of Frijole Valley.
The trail near the top became narrow and rocky. The horses were following single file, sweating heavily and blowing hard. The cold air had left us three hours ago.
Caleb Pirtle, the tourist agency guy who had concocted the idea for the trip, said, “I’d kill for an coke with ice.”
“I’d kill for the ice,” said Jerry Flemmons of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The horses would kill for nothing. There was nothing on the mountain except man and beast and the buzzards circling overhead. The vultures didn’t think any more of our chances than I did.
My left shoulder was scraping against the side of the cliff. I looked over my right shoulder and stared two thousand feet straight down into the canyon floor. The trail was a foot wide, and Jack Kincaid said, “It’d be better to walk your horses along here.” He shrugged. “It’s a long way to the bottom.”
For most, it’s a three-hour ride to the mountaintop. Jack Kincaid had made it in 40 minutes. The crest of Pine Top was just over the next rim when Pirtle’s big red horse slipped on the loose rocks, strained to regain his balance, then slid a half dozen feet down the side of the mountain. The horse was struggling. Pirtle was hanging onto a cactus. He no longer felt the thorns. Jack Kincaid climbed down, took the loose reins and, dragged the horse back onto the flat trail. Falling rocks echoed as they bounced down the canyon wall.
I asked Jack, “What’s the name of that horse?”
“Stumble Bum,” he said.
I felt much better about the donkey.
The ride to the top and the trip back down took all day, from the beginning of sunlight to the ending of sunlight. We ate sandwiches, drank hot soda water, and, with every step, we added one bruise on top of another. Muscles ached. The sunburn burned. My shoulders were sore. My hands were raw from hanging onto the leather reins. My belly growled. Each step the horse took felt like a hammer pounding the pain from my head to the down to the bottom of my boots. My boots were new. My feet hurt. Other than that, I was in pretty good shape.
One writer asked Pirtle, “You got any more of these trips planned?”
“I do,” he said.
“I’m not coming,” the writer said.
Jerry Flemmons told me as we rode along, “Well, for me, this is a once in a lifetime experience, because I’m sure as hell not gonna do it again.”
If was after dark when the horses ran, and the donkey ran harder, down out of the foothills and toward the barn.
We drove away, and I could hear Noel Kincaid still laughing at us.
Jack Kincaid was laughing.
So were the horses.
But not the donkey. The donkey didn’t give a damn.
We drove all the way to Odessa before we found a place to spend the night.
“Can you get out of the car?” Pirtle asked me.
“I’ll try,” I said.
He nodded. We opened the door, fell out to the parking lot, and crawled to the motel.