Discover West Texas'
Northern Chihuahuan Desert

by Jay Sharp

Citadel Pueblito

If you come from, say, the Eastern Woodlands, the Pacific Northwest or the Gulf Coast, with their forested hills and plains, you may suffer from environmental shock as you cross the northern Chihuahuan Desert, from western Texas over southern New Mexico and into Arizona. You may see the rocky sandy soils, the scrub brush, the spiny cacti, the bristling yuccas and agaves, the dry playa lake beds, the distant desert-haze-shrouded mountain ranges and the relentless and diamond-hard sunlight as a bleak and threatening landscape. Headed east, west or north over highways that seem to extend to infinity, you push hard to put the desert behind you, drawn by the thought of spreading oaks, welcoming pines and towering spruce and compelled by visions of streams, rivers and natural lakes.

In the Chihuahuan Desert, the roads can seem to lead to infinity.

It wasn’t until we moved from the Piney Woods and coastal estuaries of southeastern Texas to the Chihuahuan Desert in far western Texas nearly three decades ago that we began to discover the magic of our region.

Getting Acquainted

In the spring of the year we came, buying a house in the middle of busy community, a family of Gambel’s Quail, with each of the fledglings sporting a miniature plume-like crown of feathers, took up intermittent residence in our back yard. Roadrunners preyed on the desert mice in the rocky arroyo immediately behind our house. A pair of Golden Eagles hunted Desert Cottontails and Black-tailed Jackrabbits on the flanks of the mountains just to our east.

A roadrunner finds space in the branches of a honey mesquite tree.

Coyotes jumped our back fence to drink from our swimming pool. A pair of Gray Foxes appeared about twilight each day to feed on dog biscuits (courtesy of my wife, Martha). A Hog-nosed Skunk, with two babies, rooted for grubs in our front yard and, to Martha’s considerable dismay, invested both her and our less-than-bright cocker spaniel with its foul-smelling spray. Skunks notwithstanding, our wildlife visitors helped offset the disagreeable winds and dust of the season.

By mid-summer, with the arrival of the “rainy” or “monsoonal” season, when the spring winds and dust have faded and most of the year’s rains fall, we saw late afternoon thunderstorms gather over the desert to our west, beyond the Rio Grande Valley, and we watched the lightening split the darkening sky and felt the thunder shake the very air. After the storms passed, we could see more clouds, at the tops of the mountains to our east, painted orange and purple by a setting sun. Sometimes, a rainbow formed, arcing over the sky above the mountain peaks, and faded as the sun disappeared over the western horizon.

With the coming of fall, when the afternoons begin to cool at last and the nights take on a chill, we drove to the Sacramento Mountains, in south-central New Mexico, and as we followed the road into the higher elevations, we passed, in less than half an hour, from the desert floor upward through Pinyon Pines, One-seed Junipers and Gambel’s Oaks, then through the Ponderosa Pines, then through the Douglas Firs and the fall-kissed Quaking Aspen and Rocky Mountain Maples. We returned down the mountain slope by a rough dirt back road, through the forest, enveloped by the golden and red embrace of the aspen and the maples. We paused occasionally to allow passage of a porcupine, an animal that always reminds me of a refugee from Walt Kelley’s old comic strip “Pogo;” wild turkeys, which look iridescent bronze in the dappled forest light; and mule-eared Mule Deer, which, with utter confidence in their natural camouflage, seem to simply dissolve into the trees.

With the onset of winter, we drove back up the mountain and, with a permit from the National Forest Service, trudged across a snowy Alpine meadow to cut a small Ponderosa Pine, which became a memorable Christmas tree.

When winter gave way to the next spring, the desert shrubs, cacti, yuccas and agaves, and ephemerals, nourished by the exceptional rains from the previous monsoonal season, erupted in blooms - red, orange, gold, purple, yellow jewels on the desert floor. We knew then that we had overcome the environmental shock of moving from the lush estuarine bayous around Galveston Bay to the sand dunes and shrublands of El Paso and, later, Las Cruces, New Mexico.

With the passing years, we made good friends in the environmental, archaeological and historical communities, and in their company and on our own, we began to explore the mountain range and desert basin country within a few hours of our new home.

Natural History

In south-central New Mexico’s Organ Mountain range, we hiked the four-mile Pine Tree Trail, which led us from the desert shrubs up through a Ponderosa Pine forest and back to the desert. In the Sacramento Mountains, we hiked the six-mile timberline trail from the Monjeau Fire Lookout Station to the Mescalero Apaches’ Sierra Blanca ski area, passing through Alpine meadows awash with late summer wildflowers. On a summer night in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, we wandered through the ethereal dunes of the White Sands National Monument beneath the soft and silvery light of a full moon.

In southeastern Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, we - with our youngest son and his wife - discovered Cave Creek Canyon, with its community of hundreds of bird species, including the Elegant Trogon - the Holy Grail of birding in the Southwest. At the Bosque del Apache, in central New Mexico, Martha and I watched great and noisy flocks of Sand Hill Cranes and Snow Geese arise en masse at sunrise on a winter morning to head for nearby grain fields to feed for the day, and we saw their silhouettes against a golden sky at sunset as they returned in small flights, beckoning to their kin.

In 1986, encamped far from city lights, beneath crystalline desert skies, we watched, through binoculars, the passing of Haley’s Comet, an ethereal stream of hundreds of millions of miles of ice and soil illuminated by the light of the sun; it won’t return again until 2062, long after our own passing. In 1997, from our back yard, we watched the nightly arc of the Hale-Bopp Comet as it traveled westward through the desert sky.

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