My last full day inside Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado, began with a spectacular sunrise and continued with a lesson learned.
Because vacations for people like me (a technical support person who has managed to work at the same place long enough to earn 4 weeks of vacation….out of 52 weeks of the year) usually aren’t more than maybe 10-11 days at a stretch (the company would have heart failure if I wanted to take a full two weeks or more off at one time), I generally cram as much activity into each day as I possibly can. Now, I have learned through the years not to push myself – I’m a little overweight, a lot out of shape, and currently reside in a part of Texas with an elevation of 30 feet. Mesa Verde NP has a general elevation of 7000 feet. On one of the cliff dwelling tours I took, the ranger mentioned that it takes about 3 weeks for a body to acclimate itself to a much higher elevation. I’d been there what? Three days?
So, I planned a single tour every day I was in the park (4 full days plus the half day upon my arrival). Ok, one day I had two tours, but who’s counting? It worked well. I’d be pleasantly tired, with the good feeling of having gotten my exercise and accomplishing what I wanted to do and see for that day.
On this last day, my goal was to take the Petroglyph Rock hike. I really wanted to see those ancient Puebloan rock carvings. It’s just 2.8-miles round trip…..2.8 miles of narrow, primitive, rocky, STEEP, rocky (did I mention that already?) trail. Had I not pulled a calf muscle a couple of days prior, and had I not been a dumb ass and brought along my backpack with extra camera, and extra water (in addition to the heavy camera around my neck, and the water bottle in one of my camera vest pockets), I might have made it through the hike. Maybe…..
When I started out, I met a worker who was thinning the brush alongside the trail. He warned me of a black bear sighting between markers 20-22 (there are 34 trail markers along that particular hike).
Ok folks, pretty much every single photographer I have ever met would sell their soul to photograph a bear in the wild.
I have seen first hand just what a bear’s claws can do to human flesh; one of my bosses in a previous life had been attacked by a grizzly and I not only heard his story, but also read the news clippings (and saw the photos) of his injuries. Bears make me verrrry nervous. Especially if I am hiking alone. I know several photographers who hike solo who have no problems with bears, and maybe they won’t ever have any problems. All I know is that I don’t want to meet up with one by myself.
There I was, talking loudly to myself, huffing and puffing and slowly taking all those steep areas and squeezing through those tight passages (you know the kind: sheer cliff face on one side and volkswagon-sized boulder on the other). Then, my calf muscle twinged and I felt a short, sharp stab of pain. Uh oh. I was already nervous about the bear, and now this.
After negotiating a particularly steep, narrow climb, at marker 17, I decided enough was enough. I still have Arches National Park to visit during this vacation, and more than anything, I want to see Delicate Arch for myself. Hmmm. Such a choice. Continue on that effing trail to see rock carvings, or rest up in order to manage the hike to see Delicate Arch?
I turned back.
During my initial hike up there, my gut feeling was not good – I have learned to trust my gut feeling more as I get older, and the more I hiked toward the carvings, the worse I began to feel – and this was not just a physical issue , but a psychic issue as well . The moment I turned back, I felt a great relief wash over me. No, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed that I hadn’t made it through the hike, and no, I didn’t feel like I’d failed at anything. It was just one of those days. They happen.
This feeling was reinforced when I met who I can only describe as an angel sent to help me understand the lesson at hand, in the form of a little German lady about my age or so, wearing shorts, hiking boots, hat, and carrying walking poles.
“Did you manage to crawl over the boulder?” she cheerfully asked. Hmmm. Which one? I’d seen, hiked past, and squeezed between a lot of large boulders, but I had not yet needed to climb over one.
I explained to her my decision to turn back because of my calf muscle. She smiled and nodded. “Yah, I do this hike every year, and every year, I begin to have more and more problems. I may not be able to do this hike next year.” She went on to explain to me that she comes out to the park and does a number of hikes during which she measures how she is feeling this time compared to the previous years. I told her I was recognizing my own limits and she nodded vigorously. We both laughed about at least getting some exercise on this day, and then went on our separate ways. I just can’t imagine our meeting to have been a mere coincidence.
I do understand now that I have limits and I am learning what they are. No matter how much I would like to be able to hike and scramble hither and yonder over multitudes of primitive trails like others my age can do, I simply cannot achieve that without some measure of pain, and at what cost? It’s a Petroglyph Trail vs. Delicate Arch choice.
So, this vacation of mine is not only a photographic paradise, but now also a good learning lesson. As a photographer, I find I am actually able to live within these limits and still capture awesome images without having to hike to the hinterlands if I cannot physically do so. For those of you photographers out there who may have the same issues as I do, well, there ya go. Know your limits, abide by them, and have fun taking pictures within those limits. It can be done.