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On the Park's 50th, Guadalupe's Supt. Eric Leonard Shares Tales of a Texas Wilderness

National Park Service photograph. On July 16, 1982, three men – Donny Rogers, Joe Moss and Dave Kiley – reached the summit of Guadalupe Peak. As members of POINT – Paraplegics On Independent Nature Trips – they'd made the 3,000-ft ascent in wheelchairs, over five days, and their journey became a national news story that fueled the movement for disability rights.

“I look to the mountain,” the Psalmist of the Bible says, speaking for many of us. Our eyes are drawn to summits – mountain peaks have enthralled humankind across cultures and ages. 

Modern Texans are no exception. At 8,751 feet, Guadalupe Peak, in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, is the state's highest point, and thousands come each year to ascend the “Top of Texas.” But as the park celebrates its 50th anniversary on September 30th, Superintendent Eric Leonard would lead us down less trafficked trails. Here, we encounter the remarkable story of this Texas wilderness, a story that encompasses, and surpasses, its signature summit.

Rains have come to the Guadalupes, and their soaring eastern escarpment is wreathed in mist as Leonard sets off on the McKittrick Canyon Trail. 

“Guadalupe Peak has become, for better or worse, a monomaniacal focus,” Leonard said. “It's worth noting that in the creation of the park, that was always a – 'Oh, and here's this too!' It was never the focus. So we're walking in McKittrick Canyon this morning – the geological resources and values of the place, and then the ecosystem preserved in the canyon, they're the heart of the park. They're the reason the place was seen as park-worthy.”

This hidden sanctuary – where clear waters flow through a mountain amphitheater, and desert plants grow amidst maples and pines – was gifted to the American people by a notable American. 

Wallace Pratt was among the first to apply the science of geology to what had been the gambler's enterprise of petroleum exploration. It made him a wealthy man. Canyon visitors hike to his rustic retirement home, Pratt Cabin, and hear his narration on an interpretive video at the trailhead. 

Pratt's donation was the nucleus of the park, and it's right to honor the native Kansan's contribution, Leonard said. But there's an equally important story that's gone largely untold.

“We talk about Wallace Pratt here, not as well as we could,” Leonard said. “But for most of the half century we've quite frankly been terrible about talking about the Hunters and the Hunter legacy, to our detriment – because the Hunters are Texans.”

Jesse Coleman Hunter Sr. first acquired land in the Guadalupes in the early 1900s, when we has Van Horn's school superintendent. After his death, his son, J.C. Hunter Jr., assumed stewardship of the 70,000-acre Guadalupe Mountain Ranch.

Both Hunters envisioned this land as a national park, and they managed it that way. The family didn't share Pratt's wealthy status, and the Hunters grazed goats for income. But they excluded livestock from the most fragile areas – including the entirety of the McKittrick Canyon watershed.

In his 1967 book, “Farewell to Texas,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and conservationist, William Douglas described a visit with the Hunters and their ranch foreman, Noel Kincaid. Over barbecue in McKittrick Canyon, the Texas ranchers shared their vision of the Guadalupes as a mountain fastness – to remain forever raw, roadless and undeveloped.

“And they talk about this future park that's going to happen,” Leonard said, “that this should be a place where people can get into trouble – and then get out of it. Those West Texas men in the mid-20th century, they didn't use the word 'wilderness,' but that's what they're talking about.”

The Hunters sold their land to the federal government in the late 60s. Their vision would be fulfilled.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act. It created the legal category of “wilderness” – as a place with “outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation,” where no industrial development will take place, and “the imprint of man's work is substantially unnoticeable.” The Guadalupes are Texas's oldest and largest designated wilderness.

Leonard said some visitors are frustrated to discover there's no “scenic drive” through the park – though he notes that, for scenic drives, it's hard to beat the approach to the Guadalupes on Highway 54 from Van Horn, or from El Paso at sunset. But many trails here are brutally steep and rugged, and that can make this “wilderness” seem exclusive.

Yet a standout chapter in the park's history argues otherwise.

Forty years ago, in July 1982, five men set out to summit Guadalupe Peak, in a unique ascent: these men were doing it in wheelchairs. Affiliated with Paraplegics On Independent Nature Trips, or POINT, they intended to raise funds, and awareness, for the West Texas Rehabilitation Center.

What was envisioned as a two-day ascent became five. Two men had to drop out. The grit and exertion involved are awe-inspiring.

“One of the men, to get over large rocks, he literally had a nylon rope or tie to his wheelchair,” Leonard said, “and he would pull the chair behind him with his teeth – that tenacity. Again, what is wilderness? It's a place for people to challenge themselves, to make sense of what they're capable of in a natural environment.”

The district ranger on duty was a man named John Jarvis – who'd later become National Park Service director in the Obama Administration. One of the climbers had lost his legs while serving in Vietnam. Jarvis contacted the Fort Bliss Army base. When the three men reached the peak, an Army helicopter met them, to fly them off the mountain. 

The ascent became a national story – and fueled the disability-rights movement.

 “Looking back,” Leonard said, “little old Guadalupe Mountains, this wilderness in West Texas that nobody has ever heard of – that was a transformative moment for disability rights in the United States. It doesn't by itself lead to anything, but it helps raise a conversation about what people are capable of and our assumptions around that. And that's extraordinary.”

As with every place, there are darker stories here as well. The park wouldn't exist without Wallace Pratt or the Hunters. But not every landowner shared their perspective.

Near where the main visitors center is now, Walter and Bertha Glover operated the Pine Springs Store for decades. The park service seized their land through eminent domain – while allowing them to finish their lives there. After their deaths, the Glovers' daughter fought, unsuccessfully, to keep the store – that, too, became a national story. 

“The creation of parks is a good thing,” Leonard said. “But nothing comes without cost, and we should talk about that, and that's one of the reasons I mention the Glovers, is that didn't go well. And I don't know that it could have gone better.”

The Guadalupes' natural history is singular. But as the park celebrates 50 years, Leonard said the heart of the matter is what this place has meant, and continue to mean, to people.

“At the end of the day,” he said, "there's a fundamental truth that arcs into this idea: national parks are about people. We can preserve this landscape, but who are we preserving it for? We're preserving it for people. We're preserving wilderness. Who are we preserving it for? People. Without people, these places have no value, have no meaning.”

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.