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Thursday, November 07, 2013

A Visit to Capulin National Monument

This is Steven Petrick posting.

Part of our recent trip was a visit to Capulin, a dormant (as they say there is some chance that it might erupt again someday) volcano raising up out of New Mexico.

I could talk about this for quite a while as I have a number of "military" observations about it, both "real world" and "zombie apocalypse." I am, however, going to limit myself to my walk around its rim.

First, I want to say that I brought a collapsible walking stick with me on the trip just for this moment, and then did not actually take it with me. That was a mistake.

If you have never been to this monument, you should go. The drive up the side of the volcano would give (if you have never driven around steep mountain terrain before) you an idea what it is like to drive around Italy's mountain roads, or the "yamas" of Korea, among many other places.

I would, however, suggest that you do not walk the rim unless your legs are in much better shape than mine now are.

There is a pathway that is "manmade" in that material has been poured (it appeared to me) to create it. It is, however, conformable to the terrain. There are no steps, so when you hit the steep parts . . . well they are steep.

There are also no hand rails, or guard rails. As I mentioned, you are walking the rim. One serious misstep could very easily see you pitching over either side, and both are themselves very steep in a lot of places. Steep enough that once you pitch over, you are going to keep going.

I strongly suspect that when I was younger, even as much as just 10 years ago, I would not have considered the path much of a problem. However, my legs are not as steady as they used to be (even if someone very recently mentioned they were well "toned"), and very definitely not as reliable (I "stubbed" each of my feet four times, eight times total, while on the walk, and each time was almost enough to bring catastrophe as it was). Most of this does come from my left foot, which really seriously does not work like it used to, but in all honesty is much, much better than it was just five months ago.

Five months ago I would not have attempted this walk at all, or at least I would not have attempted to complete it, but would have turned back pretty quickly. As it was, I could not tell you if my heart rate was elevated just because of the exertion of the walk around rim, or the contained terror. (I am afraid of heights, but possess that kind of courage that makes me face that fear and press on despite it, how I was able to graduate jump school, but it is still there even if I am trying to mask it.)

I really only attempted the walk at all because of another fear. Given how weak I was five months earlier, could I really hold onto the belief that the next time I got to Capulin, if at all, that I would be able to walk it then? No, to me this was a make or break, I either did it this time or accepted that I might never be able to do it.

About a third of the way around is a "down walk" branch (wide enough for one person at a time to go down and standing place at the bottom for two or three "close friends") to the "best place to look at the floor of the volcano." This was the point where I made another rather terrible discovery. My legs are bad as noted, but they handle "up" far better than they handle "down." Going down slope my legs are far less stable than they are going up. Far, far less stable. I can honestly say I did not get close enough to the edge to really look down into the crater (if I had had the walking stick, I probably would have, but my legs being what they are I had real fear that the slope combined with looking down would have been too dangerous a combination).

Convinced that surely things would not be much worse, I pressed on from that point, and things naturally got worse. First, there was much more up slope to contend with. (The only really positive thing I can say about my progress is that I never stopped unless there was a sign posted with something to read or pointing at something to look at in the distance and I had a pair of 7x50 binocular with me for that purpose, but I did stop every time I encountered such and was grateful for the break.) Second, once you got past the last of the up slope, the down slope was even steeper than I had imagined, complete with "switchbacks" that had not appeared while going up. Finally, there had been a light snowfall at the top, and the sunshine had melted much of it, but in the shadows provided by the vegetation . . . yes, ice. The man made trail had a rough surface, but still . . . ice. The ice was only in patches, there was no place where large stretches were covered, but a misstep, or a stub which left me trying to recover my balance and forcing a shift of a foot . . . well things could have ended very badly. (Did I mention my heart rate earlier?)

Maybe it was not all as terrifying as it seemed, maybe I am over speaking. Maybe a younger and more fit person would have been absolutely comfortable on that trail (there were lots of benches where one could sit and admire the view, but I never used one) and think the pathway ridiculously broad.

That few pounds of gray matter above and behind my eyes has, however, made a lot of adjustments to the physical capability I currently possess. About 10 years ago at our old warehouse I was standing on the roadway in front of the loading dock. Without really thinking about it I took two or three steps and did a vertical leap from ground level to land on the loading dock flat footed. Yes, my knees then had to unfold into the standing position, but I did it and was utterly unconcerned that it was beyond my capability. There are low brick walls that I used to easily jump to the top of and then step off without breaking stride. About three years ago whenever I went to our new warehouse with its lower loading dock I would jump to the top of it without thinking to save the steps of walking up the stairs.

I do not jump at all anymore.

I can't.

Just before we went to Capulin the hotel we stayed at had a low brick wall that could be negotiated to save a few steps to breakfast. My brain looked at it and determined that I could walk to it, and step up on it, but I could not jump to the top of it without breaking stride, and the jump off the far side would probably harm my knees, so I always walked around it.

If we ever return to Capulin, I will probably not attempt to walk the rim again (I do intend to try to walk down to the bottom of the crater, and would have done so this time had we had the time available, but as it was the walk around the rim took much longer than I had imagined as my consciousness still thinks of a mile walk as something that takes a quarter hour no matter the terrain). I may only be in my late 50s, but I am pretty obviously on a very steep decline in physical capability. The distances I can walk have shortened over time. From the casual 20 miles without thinking about it of my youth, to the weekly 12 miles while I was in the service, down to the six miles I would casually walk in the 90s to try to maintain some stamina, to the hard fought two mile walks I often cannot find the enthusiasm to attempt of late (although I have built back up to them since last February when my left leg went completely wonky for a while).

My legs apparently "look good," but they are wrecks compared to what they were, and even my sense of balance is wonky. (Small bumps can throw me completely off balance and require me to grab a wall or chair or something to keep from hitting the floor, and part of my mind seems to be constantly monitoring my surroundings for something to grab if my balance does fail . . . does not seem to be conscious thing but buried in the automatic routines.)

You add that wonky balance to walking the rim of Capulin, and perhaps you can understand why my heart was racing with the utter lack of hand rails on that walk and steep falls to either side no matter how wide (or to me narrow) that path was.

Still, with all that said, if you get a chance to visit Capulin, you should, and if your health allows it, you should take the one mile walk around its rim. At least you will be able to say "what a wimp Steve Petrick has become if this frightened him!"