This is going to suck, I thought to myself. It was time to head up out of the cavern and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it. Not in the way of I thought it was going to be hard, but that I really was convinced that Steve would have to leave me for dead in the cavern. I suck at hiking and we just descended down a steep pathway for 1.25 miles and there was no way out except to walk it back up the steep climb, which–as you guessed–is the same 1.25 miles. Yes, 1.25 miles is really nothing. People in somewhat okay shape do it all the time. But I didn’t think my nearly half-century-old body was going to allow me.
We had stopped for a sandwich at the little cafe at the bottom, drank a big bottle of some green drink with electrolytes in the hopes that it would give me not just the physical, but also the mental strength to do what I needed to do. After some time I couldn’t delay the inevitable. It was time to go back up.
When Steve and I had walked down, I couldn’t take my eyes off the spectacle of stalagmites and stalactites of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The mythical shapes that were sometimes called whale’s mouth, lion’s tale or drapery were illuminated by up-lights like sculptures in a gallery or museum, yet the walk down into the bowels of the cavern was a walk into the absence of color–as if my life became film noir.
There were handrails all along the way, but the cavern’s temperature of 56ºF made them cold to the touch and I realized quickly that my ultra-sensitive fingers would quickly turn blue. It’s a life hazard I’ve learned to deal with the past 10 years–fingers and toes that turn white, then blue and then eventually red–and I usually carry around gloves (oh, I have so many pairs of gloves), but this time I forgot them on this trip. Usually it’s not a problem, but without gloves deep in a cavern I could lose one or two fingers if I’m not able to get circulation to them. My solution became to just keep them in the pockets of my polar fleece jacket and occasionally Steve would take a hand and hold it tight in order to pass on the heat from his hand to mine to help my fingers thaw.
The path was nicely paved, making it a smooth walk down, albeit a little steep, throwing off my balance from time to time, so I’d grab on to the ice-cold handrail for a moment to steady myself. A young man in his 30s briskly trekked by with a long stride up the steep incline. He was grasping the ankles of a toddler perched on his shoulders, and at this point it didn’t register to me that the walk back up was going to be hard. But then I saw a man in his 50s who paused at one of the switchbacks. He clearly was on his way up and was clutching the handrail and he had his other hand over his chest. His breathing was loud and deep and I thought, Good Lord, someone should call someone to help this man. He’s going to have a heart attack.
So at the bottom of the cavern in the little cafe all I could think about was that man who struggled for breath. I’m going to be 50 this year and I had been recently feeling my age, and while I was grateful to have survived menopause, what with it’s night sweats and sudden onset of low energy, I was not at all happy with the toll it has taken on my body. Muscles that were once there seemed to have abandoned me, while a new squishyness encircled my waistline. Something as simple as bending over to pick up something off the floor has become my own personal CrossFit challenge. My arm isn’t nearly long enough to hold a piece a paper to read. Words look like faded, blurry shapes on paper now and everything seems to hurt as I get old and I can’t turn the switch back. I am beginning to accept that aging is a cruel companion to which I’m now forever shackled.
But pouting wasn’t going to get me back up out of that cavern. “Let’s do this,” I said to Steve, and we began our climb up.
It wasn’t too bad at first. The way back was relatively flat and then the first steep path presented itself. Not a problem I thought to myself as I tried to mentally cheer my body. Up the path and then a switchback and then up again and switchback. Two more times and then I had to stop at the switchback and cling to the rail and I realized, I’m that man. Geez, I hope there’s a paramedic around. “Let’s take a break,” I said to Steve after going a quarter of the way.
“We can take our time. We’re not in a hurry,” Steve kindly encouraged.
My breathing was heavy. My heart beat was a rapid staccato. “You know those people who do all that walking?” I asked Steve.
“Like the Pacific Coast Trail?” he responded.
Still catching my breath. “Yeah. Or that pilgrimage in Spain or that walk in Scotland,” I added. “I honestly don’t understand how people do it or why people do it. I mean, I get so bored walking for so long.”
“Are you bored now?” he asked.
“No. I’m just focused on finishing.”
I’ve never been an athlete. Since the age of 10 I ended up in emergency rooms multiple times thanks to knee problems that led to three different knee surgeries between the age of 11 and 16. And when you have chronic knee problems you also get a special note from the doctor freeing you from all physical ed classes at junior and senior high school. I thought I had hit the jackpot–no climbing the rope, no running around a track and no horribly uncomfortable locker room showers. I was free of physical ed classes, but I also was no athlete.
I later learned no amount of Step Aerobics, Spinning or Zumba classes as an adult would make up for lost time. I’ve just never been able to catch up cardiovascularly. And now my body is turning on me and there’s not an apology in the world that it will accept. It’s my enemy now.
Back on the path my heart rate got back to normal very quickly, which was a relief, and I said, “Let’s go.”
Calf muscles were stretching like pulled taffy with each step I took. My quads. My butt. They were all working together and I kept mentally scolding myself for not taking the stairs at the office more often. You wouldn’t be having this problem if you would just take the stairs, I kept thinking.This was not uplifting me at all as I continued the climb. Walk a little. Rest a little. Get my heart rate down. This was repeated over and over as we walked the steep pathway out of the darkness. Then back to walking some more. My injured ankle from my accident in Zion National Park over five years ago was beginning to swell. I kept checking my fingers for loss of color and when I did, I reached for Steve’s hand. He knew what to do as this has been our drill since we met.
After an hour and 45 minutes of enduring the steep pathway out of the cavern I then heard voices raised in excitement. “Ah, light!” I heard someone exclaim. I could feel the muscles in my legs power up as if recharged and my pace quickened. My heart was still racing, the dampness of my t-shirt from my sweat chilled my back shoulders. I felt like a mess, but I somehow got the energy I needed to climb out of this darkness.
It was too bright. I had to squint as the light that poured in from the outside burned my eyes. A collective sense of euphoria came over those of us ascending out of the cavern. Color was back. Oh, how I had missed it these past four hours. The light was relief as it touched my skin and warmed me. My fingers thankfully turned their natural color, and my 50-ish body–this enemy of mine–managed to get me out of the darkness.
Yes, thank you body. But I’m going to start taking the stairs more back at the office, so be warned.