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Turning off of Chispa Road’s crisp smooth pavement deep in the heart of West Texas, I veer onto what seems to be an unassuming stretch of dirt road.  “Take a left at the fork in the road about ten miles in,” Fred had told me.  “Unlock and pass through the gate then drive right into the ranch.”  Driving right into an unexpected driving adventure is just what lie ahead of me.

The thirty thousand acre Coal Mine Ranch is a privately owned investment and playground for a group of businessmen who have called the ranch their sanctuary for more than twenty years.  On the rear side of the Sierra Vieja Mountain Range, a world away from the flat grassy desert plains of Highway 90 and thirty miles of rough dirt road winding through steep arroyos from the end of the pavement on Chispa Road, is the Coal Mine Ranch. 

Less than midway, with the pavement far behind me, the only sound I hear is the gravel and rock being churned by my 4×4’s wheels and hitting the underside of the vehicle.  Clank, pop, clackity clack, in an erratic yet rhythmic cadence. 

Lightning fast jackrabbits race by every so often; otherwise, there is no sign of life save for the desert brush,  blooming yuccas along the way and a petrified rattlesnake or two.  I reach for my mobile phone only to see there is no signal.  Immediately, thoughts of the 4×4 breaking down, a flat tire, or more dramatically, a sudden ailment race through my head.   Who would find me?

No one would find me and I had convinced myself of this.  “Keep on going,” I told myself after the first 60° dive into an arroyo and a serious rev of the engine in a low grinding gear to carry me up and out at the other side.  And forward I traveled through several more arroyos with bright clear blue skies above and a piping hot West Texas sun glaring down upon me until I reached a tunnel, twenty feet high and fifty yards deep, blasted from solid rock more than a hundred years ago. 

At last, after a wild hour and a half adventure drive to what felt like the middle of nowhere, I turn the corner to find the Coal Mine Ranch.  What lie behind me is what some would call extreme terrain with civilization somewhere behind that .  Directly ahead of me was a modern ranch house, a feeling of peace and solitude as well as a fantastic time for introspection. 

The ranch lies on the rear side of the Sierra Vieja mountains, a world away from the flat grassy desert plains of High- way 90.  From the end of the pavement on Chispa Road, thirty miles of rough dirt road winding through steep arroyos lead to the Coal Mine Ranch.  This road features its own tunnel, twenty feet high and fifty yards deep, blasted from solid rock by Chinese migrants.  How did they ever find their way deep into the rugged and unforgiving West Texas landscape

Eighty-five-million-year-old fossils of clams, turtle shells, coral, and snails can be found below the sandstone bluffs where once a river delta said to be six hundred miles wide—bigger than the Amazon— fanned out as it approached the sea. Deeply nestled in West Texas, the ranch is about solitude, introspection, and the crackling of the campfire at night.

The rugged West Texas landscape is most definitely the master of the scenario but the adventure is what one gains internally from the experience.

A flaming hot desert day— you know, when the proverbial egg can be fried on a rock—is my favorite time to visit Hueco Tanks.  

The Hueco Tanks are regarded the world over as one of the best areas in the world for rock climbing. The formidable rocks, which seem to be arranged by pitch and toss, present an obvious but not daunting challenge. At best, I rank somewhere below amateur status as a rock climber, and might very well be a pro at stumbling, whether it’s up or down.  

I can’t say I’ve ever made it to the highest point here.  The enjoyment for me is in my clueless but ever-so-careful methodology, negotiating from one level of boulders to the next—not to mention the simple pleasure of breathing the immaculate, flushed air.

My improvisational drama comes when reaching an outlook offering an unobstructed view of the idyllic, wide-open space sweeping its way across the rugged desert floor to the Hueco Mountains, miles away.    The fun part of Hueco Tanks is negotiating the often slick (and hot) rocks while also holding my camera in a safe position.  One wrong move and not only do I risk tumbling and crashing, but so does my pricey DSLR.

Over thirty million years ago, an upheaval of molten rock from the earth’s interior created these four-hundred-foot-tall granite hills that seem to spring out of the Chihuahuan Desert floor outside of El Paso.  There is an awesome, heart-expanding grandeur in this place.

Long before climbers discovered Hueco Tanks, Native americans were drawn here because its huecos, a Spanish word for “hollow,” trap and hold drinkable water— the most valuable desert commodity.   Not much more than a century ago, Hueco Tanks held the only dependable source of water between the Pecos River and El Paso.

The Hueco Mountains rise in southern New Mexico and extend twenty-seven miles south into Texas, generally along the El Paso-Hudspeth County line just east of the city of El Paso.   The highest point of the range is the Cerro Alto Mountain (6,787 feet).

Lying between the Hueco and Franklin Mountains, the Hueco Bolson, a dropped- down area four thousand feet above sea level, contains sedimentary fill nearly nine thousand feet thick.

If it is adventure you seek, or you simply want fresh air and an abundance of natural beauty, Hueco Tanks should definitely be added to your travel list.  Far West Texas is far off the beaten path tho’ well worth the effort when you want to get away from it all.

 

El Capitan, projecting from Texas’s highest mountain range, watches over me as I wander the barren salt flat at its base.   A pulsating wind whips down from the Guadalupe Mountain range as I survey the area for the ideal spot to set up my camera gear.  Each of my steps disrupts the slightly soft, cracked surface, leaving an unmistakable trail behind.  I stop, making sure my footprints are out of the image frame, when all of a sudden a blast of wind rips off my hat, sending it in a rapid tumble across the dry lake bed.  I lurch for it, my hand grabbed empty air, then I stood still and watched the hat whirl into the dusty West Texas sky and tumble only to disappear into the desert brush half a mile away. 

Strangely, there was an odd delight for me watching this, and I must wonder if El Capitan let out a slight chuckle at nature’s power over me.  Perhaps one day I will venture back in search of the lost hat, though I would be more inclined to search for new ways to capture these scenes in my lens.

The Guadalupe Mountains encompass parts of the most extensive Permian lime- stone fossil reef in the world.  Over two hundred fifty million years ago, a four- hundred-mile-long limestone reef formed along a shelf in the Permian Sea.  These mountains are part of the reef’s remains, shaped by thousands of years of  continuous weathering.

Guadalupe Peak is the highest peak and highest point in Texas, standing at 8,749 feet.  In 1972 the Guadalupe Mountains were designated a national park.

The meandering Salt Flat seen today at the base of the range is what remains of a series of shallow seas that covered much of the area two million years ago.  Sediments washed into the seas from the mountain slopes.  The water evaporated, leaving behind a thick layer of minerals, primarily table salt or gypsum.

I often find myself exploring Salt Flat as I find the landscape fascinating.  The stark white gypsum juxtaposed against the brown Chihuahua Desert is remarkable.  It almost reminds of the person who likes to stand out from the crowd, which by the way, I’m in complete agreement with.   The imposing Guadalupe Mountain range in the background simply epitomizes the popular saying – “Everything is bigger in Texas”.

Throughout West Texas and southern New Mexico, two-lane desert highways stretch to vanishing points on horizons that seem to reach infinity under a limitless dome of sky.  West Texas driving is like this.  It’s this wide open space that gives me a true sense of a spirit of freedom.

Four wheels rotating on the steamy blacktop, moving me forward to what looks like the edge of the earth.  Mile after mile, the landscape steadily zooms by, yet the destination ahead remains motionless, in full view.  Other than a stray tumbleweed rolling across the pavement on a windy day, or a few passing cars racing by, there is only wide-open space feeding the spirit of freedom I so very much adore.  Only in the western United States have I found this, and it is something I look forward to after being confined within urban boundaries and tall buildings of London or Hong Kong.  Often, it is the journey that opens my mind to any possibility, permitting me to truly appreciate the destination.   The drive also allows me nothing but time, which in every day life, is limited.

The Red Rock Ranch in the Beach Mountains, two miles north of Van Horn, is one of the only public tours offered on private land in West Texas.    Some of the rocks on the ranch are more than a billion years old, among the oldest in Texas.

The Pre-Cambrian sandstone outcropping found at Red Rock is one of only four natural Precambrian sandstone exposures in the Western Hemisphere.  Who knew something like this existed in West Texas let alone Van Horn.  And with that, you might even be asking yourself where in the world is Van Horn?   The easy answer is Van Horn is right near Sierra Blanca, which you will not know either.  If you travel Interstate 10, however, you would have no choice except to pass through Van Horn either on your way to or from El Paso.

Back to the fascinating Red Rock Ranch, which is home to Darice McVay.   If we are to believe her, a host of imaginary friends dot the wide expanse landscape.  “Imagination can be as creative as one wishes,” according to ranch owner Darice McVay. “E. T. under a camel’s chin, Donald Duck or Puff the Magic Dragon, an Indian satellite dish and Red Rock Ranch’s very own Easter Island rock” are all rock formations created by wind erosion over millions of years.  If you dive into the stories with Darice, you’ll not only chuckle but also be mesmerized by the natural beauty that will surround you.

Many of these formations are naturally balanced, as if a sculptor has worked magic.   The tour ride through Red Rock Ranch is “nice and easy” and as smooth as a Frank Sinatra ballad.  There is no rush on this fascinating tour.  If you are fond of rugged desert landscapes, you’ll be more than satisfied you took the time for Red Rock Ranch.

Do be aware, however, you have to ask around in order to take the tour.   Van Horn is small enough and the people are friendly enough so you’ll easily be led in the right direction.  Just to give you an idea how friendly Van Horn folks are –
my visit was chronicled in the local newspaper as if I were a celebrity.

If there is a single road that leads to a view unsurpassed by few others in the southwest, then surely Transmountain Road cutting through the Franklin Mountains would be it.  The winding and ascending journey along Transmountain will take one to 5120ft, which is where I stop one brisk January pre-dawn morning to watch the sun rise above the far horizon.

The temper of the mountain is calm at this hour, almost in a slumber in the brisk morning air.  No giant pine trees soften the winter wind whispering in my ear.  No singing birds or running deer to take my eye off the sky. Only high-elevation cacti and desert brush crawl along the rocks and boulders often jutting out like nature’s high rises descending in to the valleys on either side of the Franklins.

Looking west I see the near full moon sinking below the horizon.  Seconds later, I turn to the east marveling at a fiery ball nudging above the desert floor, and the royal blue sky rapidly transforms with bursts of splendid golden hues as if Mother Nature’s paintbrush splatters across the heavens. In an instant natural fireworks fill the sky as the moon sets and sun rises instantaneously as I watch in awe.  A moment passes and the sun’s rays stretch across East El Paso tickling the sides of the Franklin Mountains waking her for another day.

Gradually the glow of the rising sun ascends from the base of the mountain to its top as one slowly opens their eyes after a good night’s sleep.  A perfect mixture of burning red, glistening yellow, royal purple, and flaming orange sweep upward in a near swift motion as the sun reflects off of the quartzites, sands, limestones and marbles composing the mountain.  There is a sparkle in the Franklin’s “eye” as it resumes its role as the jewel of El Paso.

Overlooking the Rio Grande River, with broad fortitude, the Franklin Mountains are the northern ramparts of the Paso del Norte (Pass of the North), leading from Mexico into the United States.  The mountain range dominates the skyline of the city of El Paso beginning within the city limits in the south extending northward across the New Mexico border for a distance of about 15 miles (24km).  The Franklins are the southernmost extension of roughly continuous north-south ranges extending nearly 99 miles (160 km).  Today, Franklin Mountains State Park, established in 1979, is the largest urban park in the United States covering approximately 37 square miles and 24,247 acres, all within the city limits of El Paso.  The Franklin’s presence are an unmistakable beauty and vigor giving the city its natural character.

The advancing day with the blazing sun high above changes the mood of the mountains as they tower above the area, showing the strength of a wise old man (12,000 years and counting) El Pasoans respectfully know and love. Looking at its aged face, I can see its character lines and crevices showing thousands of years of life and experience.  From native Americans to gold- seekers to Spanish conquistadors on their mission to conquer and colonize the Puebloan villages in present-day New Mexico, the mountain range has indeed proven its endurance and resilience.  There is no doubt the Franklin’s are the physical strength of El Paso.

As the earth revolves once again with the sun descending in the western sky I can not resist watching the mountain relax almost as if it is letting out a deep breath after a long day’s work.  The face of the Franklin’s softens, often offering a reassuring smile with the changing light.  A chorus of golden amber and lush scarlet dance in unison, together with clouds catching the waning sun’s flare spilling even more color across the sky. Again, the rocks and boulders of the Franklin’s glimmer glorious red, purple and luxurious gold tones from the waning light from the setting sun , each winking at me as if to say goodnight.  Another dramatic end to a day. Another day in the life of El Paso’s Franklin Mountains.