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On The Desert’s Edge

Author : Dale L. Pate
Published : 2013

On The Desert's Edge is a book for all those who cherish wild places. It is a collection of anecdotal essays, poetry and photos by Dale Pate and Ron Kerbo, present and former National Park Service cave specialists who have 36 years of combined experience living, working, and exploring in and around Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains national parks.

The book contains photos, short essays, and poems, organized by the four seasons of the year. Each photo, essay, and poem serve to communicate different aspects of the authors’ intimacy with and passion for the above and below-ground world of the Guadalupe Mountains, a mountain chain comprised of a well-preserved ancient reef of limestone initally formed by the death of marine organisms that lived some 260 million years ago.

These mountains run between the northwestern border of Texas and southern New Mexico at the northern edge of the great Chihuahan desert. Guadalupe Peak itself at 8,751 feet above sea level, is the highest point in all of Texas.

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The book is best read a few pages at a time, even though the photographs can be viewed in their entirety by flipping through the book in a single sitting. But, to get the full effect of the emotion and thoughts expressed by the authors, the reader should take it slowly.

I especially enjoyed reading their short essays. The ones that particularly stand out in my mind are A Night in the Big Room, When Snake Eats Snake, The Moon is Missing, In a Crawlway and on a Rope, Lions, Wallets, and Wilderness, Under a Desert Moon, Balloons, Parachute Cords and High Leads, Underground or Cave Wilderness, and Wild Places.

These are essays that can only be produced by someone who has developed a highly sensitive perspective to this region. Very few indeed will have spent a night in the Big Room or have used helium filled balloons to fix ropes to search for new passages hundreds of feet above walkways frequented by the average tourist to Carlsbad Caverns. These are most intimate thoughts, written down by two special men with very different personalities, both having careers that enabled them to go into places where no human has gone before.

In one of their short essays, White’s City, New Mexico, Ronal Kerbo admits to having read lots of Edward Abbey and having acquired a local reputation as an outspoken advocate for wilderness protection. One day, while buying a soft drink at White’s grocery store, the late Jack White, Jr., CEO of the White’s City Corporation, the gateway establishment located just outside the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, accused Ron of being an ecoterrorist.

“If you didn’t [cut down my roadside signs], I’m sure you know who did!” he charged.

But, over the years, after the two of them became very good friends, Jack said to Ron, “You have me saving fossils from collection and not killing rattlesnakes. What’s next, convincing me to cut down my own damn signs?”

Many of the photos in this book are of the underground world. All show fascinating cave features fully illuminated.

After completing On The Desert’s Edge, I mentioned to Ron that I have seldom seen photographs, including those used in their book, do justice to the actual experience of being underground and marveling at the interplay of shadows and subterrainian features just above the threshold of vision.

Ron responded: “As for cave photography, aside from the written word and artistic renderings there seems no other way to impress upon people the wonders that are below and serve to aid us in the protection of the caves from all those who would defile them. There is nothing quite like being in a passage with your lamp off and seeing the light of a single other person either moving through a huge dark space or seeing the light moving shadows in a narrow convoluted passage. Lighting in a developed cave barely approximates the thrill of seeing a cave revealed bit by bit as you move along through the embracing darkness.”

This book will definitely be enjoyed by all who are familiar with the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns national parks. For those unfamiliar with these places, it might provoke one's curiosity about these special places. One might even be compelled to come visit, and stay awhile, or even apply for work with the NPS, in order to more completely experience the above- and below-ground wilderness preserved within these two great national parks.

The excellent Forward, written by Michael Ray Taylor, concludes, “On The Desert’s Edge should be treated as a sacred thing, but don’t be afraid to spill a little beer or sand on it. They will understand.”

On the Desert's Edge can be obtained by ordering online from the National Speleological Society Bookstore:, by calling the Carlsbad Caverns Guadalupe Mountains Association Bookstore for orders: (575) 785-2569 or by sending a check for $21 + $3 shipping to Flat Rock Publishing, 11757 W. Ken Caryl Ave., Suite F-236, Littleton, Colorado 80127. It will soon be available via as well.



I had the pleasure of working with Ron in Carlsbad and Guadalupe and know Dale. They are, as Owen suggests, wild spirits. Ron introduced me to caving and took me to some places that were indescribably beautiful and delicate, something for which I will be forever grateful.

Owen's review of Dale and Ron's book, which I have read also, rings true to me. I hope readers of NPT will buy it. It's one of the few ways you can sense the mystery of caves and the majesty of the desert wilderness without actually being there.


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