June 14, 2012
Each summer I take a vacation in a cooler clime to escape the dreadful summer in Joklahoma for awhile. This summer’s escape came unusually early for two reasons. First, the contract bargaining, which I lead for our local teacher’s union, was early in the second week of June and I’m always eager to go have some fun after that big event. Second, my colleague Betty Henderson and her husband, John, invited me to join them at their usual June getaway of a cabin on Taylor Reservoir in south central Colorado. Heeding Ben Franklin’s advice, I agreed to stay two nights with them there with three nights at nearby Crested Butte beforehand and afterward a couple of nights in my usual haunt of late, Pagosa Springs, with another return trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
I’m calling this trip Operation Junebug because I bugged out of town in June, leaving Bartlesville to visit Oklahoma City the day after we concluded bargaining. This post is for the first real day of my vacation as I ventured northwest from my hometown, crossing parts of four states on my way to an overnight stay at Pueblo, Colorado.
When You Leave Amarillo, Turn Out the Lights
I hit the road a bit after 8 a.m. and drove west along I-40 across the windswept plains across into Texas, stopping at the Gray County Safety Rest Area for a stretch and the view. I reached Amarillo, Texas in time for lunch. Frankly, I’m not fond of Amarillo, but then again I’m not fond of the panhandle area in general. Whenever I finally work in a trip to Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo that sentiment will likely change, but for now the Texas panhandle is grin-and-bear-it country for me.
I spotted a Cracker Barrel and pulled off, even though I’ve never really liked the meals at this popular chain. It had been several years since I’d been to one and “home cooking” sounded good. I ordered the Thursday special of turkey and dressing. It was adequate, but far inferior to the offering at the late lamented Marie Callendar’s and not even up to Bartlesville cafeteria levels. The mediocre food and crass commercialism further cemented my bias against poor Amarillo, so I was glad to head northwest. It was still daylight, though, so I did not follow Bob Wills’ instructions to turn out the lights.
Braving the Volcano
Rains became visible to the northeast as I headed toward Capulin Volcano National Monument, bringing back awful memories of my attempt last summer to visit El Malpais National Monument, which resulted in an immense wave of muddy water gushing all over the dashboard and interior of the windshield. Not again!
I stopped briefly in the aptly named Texline at the border with New Mexico to see the Texline Tornadoes water tower. Just outside of Clayton, New Mexico were some fun metal sculptures for sale. Did you know dragons had eyelashes? Me neither. Along with another full dragon were a longhorn, dinosaurs, and more.
I pulled out my Colorado map to check my route (with Trixie the GPS I embrace Reagan’s motto: trust but verify) and my foreboding grew. The map had some odd brown areas…I wondered if they were designating something when I realized they were more dried mud from last year’s misadventure. Aaargh! But the skies were clearing around the volcanic cinder cone when I arrived and the big lava flows by the road led me to go ahead and invest $5 and a bit of time. Boy, am I ever glad I did!
The pretty ranger at the visitor center had laryngitis but squawked that I should put my receipt on my dash, handed me a brochure, and I knew better than to ask any questions. I drove up the road encircling the cone, noting the much heavier vegetation shrouding this cone of cinders, ash, and rock debris compared to the one at Newberry in central Oregon which I visited in 2009. Capulin means Chokecherry in Spanish, so some of the vegetation here gave the volcano its name although there are also many junipers as well as pinyon and ponderosa pines.
Along the drive up the cone my sense of VACATION finally kicked in. My face cracked into a broad grin and I happily gawked at the terrain dwindling below. The panoramic view from the parking area at the lowest edge of the crater was quite lovely with the active clouds. It was time for a hike on a couple of trails up top.
Into the Crater Vent
Capulin exploded 60,000 years ago and the cone rises 1,300 feet above the plains to 8,182 feet above sea level at the highest point on the rim. The parking area is at 7,877 feet and I first descended 105 feet to the bottom of the crater vent, posing by the rocks along the way. The bottom was a jumble, not a jungle.
Around the Rim
I then ascended back up to the parking lot, where Princess (my trusty 2001 Camry) was joined only by one motorcycle. The rain had cooled temperatures from the low 90s in Amarillo to the upper 60s here and I was thoroughly enjoying the cool damp air.
I followed the rim trail up and around, keeping a wary eye on the storm in the distance. I could tell I’d started the day in OKC at elevation 1,200 and was now climbing up to 8,182. My calves are quite strong from all of my hiking and I’m in good condition, but the climb up the steep rim trail had me gasping and my leg muscles starting to ache. Altitude, compounded by hours of sitting in Princess, was taking its toll. I was glad I’d been gulping water and panting away to stave off altitude sickness.
The trail wound its way up and finally provided a view of the crater inside the rim. A viewpoint showed I had circumnavigated halfway around the rim and a very distant flash of lightning had me scurrying onward since I was near the high edge of the rim and did not wish to become a lightning rod.
I took in the view to the east and then shot one final panorama looking into the crater and another looking outward. Even though I only hiked 1.15 miles, I thoroughly enjoyed it and will stop here again some day to take in the Boca trail down below, which winds around a lower vent area. But the afternoon was waning, the rain was approaching, and I had far to go. So I wound my way back down the side of the crater, admiring the rounded form of Jose Butte in the distance.
This turned out to be a very cute little town of 9,000 which has preserved its historic downtown. There’s the requisite large bank, cute old buildings, the stern courthouse, the Victorian mansion turned into a museum with beautiful grounds, and a proud city hall. And yep, they have many brick streets. There are also many churches, of course, but one which caught my eye was built in 1890 and is now an Italian restaurant. TripAdvisor said it was good, so I parked and went in.
There was an enormous chandelier in the dining area, occupying the former sanctuary. Downstairs was a bar, but my friendly waiter, Julio, seated me in the sanctuary with some female company. The bread and water girl, a tanned college student with admirable décolletage on display, was also a comfort, but I’ll admit I enjoyed Julio’s brilliant smile and gracious manner even more – he made me feel like I was a welcome and honored guest.
High above the town is a prominent ridge with a big “Trinidad” sign echoing the one I’d seen at Raton. Wikipedia informed me this was Simpson’s Rest and I could drive up there. You betcha!
Princess has almost 195,000 miles on her now, but she got new struts awhile back and I made sure to check the air in the spare tire before the trip, so the steep and rutted gravel road leading up to old Simpson did not deter us from reaching our goal: the DADINIRT sign…oh, I mean TRINIDAD!
The rocks had the expected graffiti, and poor Simpson’s monuments had their signage stripped and replaced by spray painted scrawls. But both the flag and a bird were flying, the late afternoon sun was shining, and this perch provided a panoramic view of the town below. I posed up top and Princess posed as well, and then we headed back down the slope.
The Orphan and Another Crack
Along the exit ramp off I-25 for my hotel, a flatbed truck in front of me spat out a stone which created a fresh star in my windshield, a few inches from a previous star created years back. I repaired the earlier one fairly well with a Wal-Mart kit, so tomorrow I’ll see if I can fix the new one in a timely manner. That will delay my trip westward by a bit, but thankfully my schedule at Crested Butte is flexible.
Overall, despite the unfortunate ending, I enjoyed the day much more than I’d anticipated. It is a long hard slog from the middle of Oklahoma to Pueblo, but the stopovers at Capulin Volcano and little Trinidad saved the day.