Feature Article: Austin Travel
Why a visit to Hueco Tanks State Park is worth the wait
by Parker Yamasaki
Photography by Derek Gill
All throughout El Paso symptoms of a schizophrenic American dream are visible. The Senor Dollar store sits just two blocks down from Dollar Tree; a Pronto Lube car servicer out-competes its kitty corner English-language equivalent, Jiffy Lube. It’s a city defined by the Rio Grande River to the south and one-third of the El Paso-Juarez-Las Cruces region that makes up the western hemisphere’s largest bilingual, binational workforce.
Everywhere throughout the city are lines—demographic, political, and property lines, most of them visible and most of them proud. One of the most curious of these lines is the one situated on the side of Road 2775, a 20-minute drive east of El Paso. Every morning, beginning around 6:30 a.m., and continuing to build until around 10 a.m., there’s a line of cars patiently facing the gate of Hueco Tanks State Park and Historical Site.
Hueco Tanks is an anomaly in so many ways. Its cultural significance is defined by the interaction of two natural elements: water and rock. The park boundary surrounds four stone hills shaped by wind and water, cradling massive hollows (“huecos” in Spanish) that capture and hold rain-water (“tanks”) long past the monsoon season. The tanks range from foot-step-sized puddles to arenas that can hold up to 50,000 gallons of water. The unique availability of water has created a mid-desert oasis for flora, fauna, and human activity to flourish in unique ways.
Early human influences date back to 1150 AD when the Jornada Mogollon people began farming at the base of the rock hills. Their residence is marked by the large collection of painted masks, or faces, on the walls of the rocks. After the arrival of the Spanish to North America various groups fled to Hueco Tanks—the Kiowa, Mescalero Apache, Comanche, Tigua and the people of Isleta del Norte Pueblo. Their paintings, also on display on the rocks, depict early European influence: horses, weapons, European-style clothing mingling with their vivid illustrated stories of tradition and change.
It was, essentially, a group of scientists looking for paintings only they can see on rock walls that feature lines only climbers can use.
Thousands of years later, in 1970, the state of Texas took over the 860-acre recreational area from El Paso Country and opened Hueco Tanks State Park and Historical Site. To protect its ecological and archeological assets, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department issued a Public Use Plan in 2000 that limits the park’s capacity to 160 people in “guided access areas” and 70 people in “self-guided areas” per day and requires every visitor to watch an orientation video. The measure was instated as a way to recover the land and its assets from the sometimes subtle, sometimes elicit deterioration since opening to the public and to protect it for continued access.
“The restrictions mean you have to plan ahead a bit—you cannot just roll out of bed and go wherever you feel like climbing or hiking that day,” says Melissa Strong, a climber, ranger, and owner of land outside of the park. “It’s a change from our normal approach to the outdoors, but it helps protect the park, the rock art and artifacts, and the delicate desert environment.”
Strong initially avoided Hueco Tanks because of the restrictions, but her husband’s enthusiasm for the place eventually prompted her to visit, and her relationship with Hueco grew fast. “I started going to Hueco in 2005—became a guide in 2005 and started Wagon Wheel Co-opt [the campsite located on her land] in 2006.” Once she got to know the land she understood the need for its limited capacity, its guide services, and its iconically cheesy orientation video.
It’s a cultural site, a naturalist’s site, a climber’s site; it’s highly photogenic and host to a cross-section of outdoorsy and enthusiastic personalities. And all of it is guarded by a man with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie.
I visited during a weekend when contemptuous whispers infused conversation throughout the climbing community about a new round of “soft closures” on the rocks. These closures referenced a recent development in the State and Wildlife Department’s efforts to collect and archive the ancient rock art. Throughout this week—which happened to coincide with a widely known climbing competition, the Hueco Rock Rodeo—it had been arranged for an archeologist to visit certain rock sites with an infrared camera to look for and monitor paintings invisible to the naked eye. The list of 25 rock sites would be inaccessible during the monitoring period, and possibly afterwards depending on the camera’s findings.
It was, essentially, a group of scientists looking for paintings only they can see on rock walls that feature lines only climbers can use. Both interest groups are nuanced and passionate, and there have been moments of contention, ranging from sneery remarks within the groups to meetings held within the community to address certain areas of closure and access.
In response to the park’s mobilization of preservation, coordinated efforts have been made by climbers to enter the diplomatic dialogue and prove that they are not just a bunch of Dionyses stomping around Apollo’s sacred and orderly grounds. Such efforts include the formation of Hueco Tanks Climbing Coalition in 2008 and active involvement by local branches of national groups like the Alpine Club and the Access Fund. At the end of the day, although one group may be talking about the face of a rock and the other about its features, both are stewards of the mountains. The great majority of people who visit Hueco Tanks, whether climbers, birders, hikers or arche-ological enthusiasts, do so with a feeling of reverence. The rules, however inconvenient, are most often deemed necessary.
With their unorthodox approach to access, Hueco Tanks effectively avoids the complaints of over-crowding (think traffic jams in Yosemite Valley and shuttle systems in Moab) that much of the West has been plagued by. The paradox of seeking nature in what feels like a herd of three-track-wide sheep-people on a two-track trail is delightfully absent in Hueco. Designated guides, who tour around a maximum of 10 people at a time, coordinate with one another, and speak into walkie-talkies in codes and coordinates so that no two groups end up in the same area at the same time. What the guides lack in spontaneity they make up for in solitude. Deliberate, well-coordinated solitude.
Ted Ayd, a certified guide, lives and works in Baltimore but makes a yearly pilgrimage down to Hueco Tanks for anywhere from two weeks to two months of the year. He first visited Hueco Tanks nine years ago, at a transition point in his life, when he had finally carved out time from his frantic work schedule to focus on his health. “I quit smoking, ran a marathon and thought…now what? I’d always wanted to learn to climb and decided to check into it,” he says. About a month into the sport, a job in El Paso came up that required him to stay in the area for three months. “I hit Hueco the first chance I got, met a guide who I now consider my sensei, and have been back to Hueco every season since then. Hueco offers more than just climbing if one opens one’s heart to what is here.”
Outside of Hueco Tanks is a dominant sense of Texas-branded freedom. Outside is access to acres of land, $2 bags of tortillas, free Wi-Fi and someone to make you coffee on every corner, bakery items half off, and the biggest burrito you’ve ever paid $2.50 for. Outside is a city that reminds one that the colors of America are not always red, white, and blue; sometimes they’re red, yellow, and strip-mall white. Inside Hueco Tanks are lists, lines, orientation videos, waivers, fees, restricted access and a 6 p.m. curfew (7 p.m. in the summer). Despite its limitations, Hueco Tanks has something that’s worth it. Inside is a site of some serious naturalist alchemy, a mixture of historical significance, cultural storytelling, spiritual reverence, and physical challenges.
The irony that this park is just 30 miles east of downtown El Paso, one of America’s largest border towns (which shares a fence with Juarez, one of Mexico’s largest-and most notorious-border towns) is not lost. In Hueco, we’re the ones on the outside looking in. Beyond that side-of-the-road line of cars and past the man with the sunglasses and a clipboard, there is something worth waiting for. It’s Hueco Tanks in far-western Texas. Where everyone is learning to live together, divided. And getting pretty good at it.
Read more from the Travel Issue | May 2017