There are few natural features of the landscape more symbolic of life than a perennial spring in the desert. In my Wyoming Atlas and Gazeteer, springs are represented by a little circle and curving “s”. Whenever I’m looking at that atlas (we used those in the days before Google Maps) and peering over the names of towns and streams and gulches and mountains, I occasionally see that marker for a spring. They are improbable, but in the arrid lands they do exist, flowing up from underground conduits, possibly just a trickle, possibly much more. They may form a tiny branch or creek that meanders down a bare mountain for miles until it merges almost invisibly with a larger stream. I saw this once on a hillside coming out of Cody, headed toward Thermopolis in Wyoming.
Life-giving, these springs sustained wearied and parched travelers and explorers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They must have been wonderful sights to behold when discovered serendipitously by desperately thirsty pioneers.
In far west Texas, high up in the Guadalupe Mountains in the national park of that name, is a trail that winds up from the Frijole Ranch, through rocky and dry desert terrain, past scrub brush and cacti. Halfway up you can see across to the panarama of the plains below. It seems impossible that there actually could be an oasis waiting for you at the end of the trail. It’s there, though, and suddenly, in a green grove of oaks and maples, you behold Smith Spring, a little vision of paradise, verdant green in a dusty blanket of earth.
Here is how I described the scene in my journal, written in Carlsbad, N.M. on Oct. 6, 1987. I had gotten up very early that morning, quite excited about the prospect of seeing Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Started the day with the “road breakfast”: scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, biscuits and coffee a little after 6 am at the Cattleman’s Restaurant in downtown Pecos, Texas. Drove out of town in early morning blackness as the sun gradually rose behind me…[At the park] I hiked to the oasis in a small canyon known as Smith Spring. Pure water percolates out of rock into a small pool surrounded by ferns and a small forest of oaks and maples. Asbolutely stunning and exquisitely beaufitul little bit of paradise on earth. Sublime are the sweeping vistas out over Texas plains which immediately come into view around the first bends in the trail. Stillness and a gentle descent back down toward Frijole Ranch. The air is cool with the wind pushing it on, but bright, warm desert sun keeps things comfortable.
How can I describe it further? The afterglow of the experiences I had that day in Guadalupe Mountains National Park 40 years ago remain with me. The photographs I took and the journal entry I wrote record the visit for whatever posterity I’ll have, but I haven’t needed those physical reminders to keep that magical place alive in my memory.