A Letter from Austin #22: Walking Capulin

A Day Trip to the Distant Past

Today I’m walking on top of a volcano, and I’m going to recommend that you do the same. The volcano is called Capulin. Geologists say it’s extinct, so you won’t be falling into any bone-melting magma. And if you’re busy at the moment, Capulin can wait. I know, because it took me a long time to get here.

I passed this place many times over the years. It started when I was a kid. Curled up like a fist in the back of a bus-like Suburban, I watched the miles go by on my family’s hurried Spring Break road trips from Houston to Colorado. Thousands of Texans make the same drive every March for skiing and again in summer to get away from the heat. Even as a kid I noticed that once you enter New Mexico on U.S. Highway 87, heading west through the northeast corner of the state, the world changes. The flat brown fields and hulking grain elevators of the Texas Panhandle give way to a landscape of open vistas and green savannah. Rounded ridges and mesas dot the distance, receding into the deep blue west and the brooding suggestion of the Sangre de Cristo, or Blood of Christ, Mountains.

An hour into the Land of Enchantment stands Capulin, a classic cinder cone that’s been called “the most perfect specimen of extinct volcanoes in North America.” The volcano is a statuesque giant that last erupted almost 60,000 years ago. And though it stands isolated on the grassy prairie, it’s not alone. It’s simply the most distinctive feature of the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, which occupies 7700 square miles of the state and has been intermittently active for some nine million years. A hotbed, so to speak, of geothermal upwellings, the field contains over a hundred volcanic features, including Rabbit Ear Mountain, Robinson Mountain, and the whimsically named Baby Capulin volcano.

Capulin’s profile depends on your vantage point. At some angles the cinder cone seems symmetrical. At others it’s easy to see that volcano’s eastern promontory is taller and more massive than the western side. The cone rises 8,182 feet above sea level. While this isn’t anywhere near as lofty as the peaks of the Rockies, it means Capulin is stands twice as high above sea level as Great Britain’s tallest mountain, Ben Nevis. The elevation makes for unpredictable atmospheric conditions. The first time I visited, smoke from wildfires in California and Oregon hung over the northern part of the state like a veil. Far from being any clearer on top of the volcano, the air seemed worse. On a wet and overcast morning last October, Capulin stood shrouded in a steep white bank of mist and cloud. The entire formation was hidden from the road leading up to it, remarkable considering that on many days the Sentinel of the Plains, as the volcano is called, can be spotted from fifty miles away. I walked the mile-long crater rim trail that day. For most of the hike, I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of my face. On the highway, the temperature was 46 degrees. On Capulin’s rim, ridges of snow girdled the trail, and the wind and sleet made the trek around the cone stingingly cold.

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I’m not sure why my family never stopped to visit Capulin when I was young. Kids like volcanoes. Volcanoes are a lot like dinosaurs, apocalyptic game changers, wildly large and prehistorically powerful. So when I heard in those days that we’d be passing a volcano, I was excited. But Capulin has long since gone cold. It sits like a jet plane on a pedestal, like a giant barnacle, a hulk that’s no longer menacing, no longer ready to spit fire and rock as it erupts from the crown of some cartoon character’s head. Imagining Krakatoa and finding instead the geologic equivalent of an enormous doorstop was a major disappointment to my preteen self. Maybe my parents felt it too. At any rate, my dad kept driving.

Another reason we passed by back then was probably the same reason I never stopped all those times I subsequently drove by myself up from scrubby central Texas to the ski slopes of the Rockies. Capulin seems too convenient to be interesting. And besides, there are still so many miles to go. It’s sort of like the reason many New Yorkers neglect to visit the Statue of Liberty. How important can it be, after all? It’s right there.

But I’m learning to appreciate right there. And maybe more importantly, I no longer need fire and ash to hold my attention. My visit today comes on a perfect June afternoon: warm and dry beneath a powder blue sky. Despite my excitement at returning, I’ve passed the turn-off for the volcano so many times that I have to order myself to brake for the intersection of 87 with Highway 325 in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Capulin. From here it’s a five-minute drive north through small-hold cattle country to enter federal property. Established in 1916 by order of President Woodrow Wilson, Capulin Volcano National Monument is modestly sized, containing just under 800 acres. There’s a visitor’s center at the base of the mountain, where I buy a day pass and where information, restrooms, and trinkets are available. The grounds are rarely crowded. Capulin attracts sixty-seven thousand visitors a year — a healthy number, but nothing like the droves that flock to, say, the Muir Woods, or Canyon de Chelly.

There’s a couple of hikes at the base of Capulin, one of which features several collapsed lava tubes. But the real treat’s up top. The drive to the summit follows a road built in 1925 by men, mules, and “weighted boards.” To this day, the steep road has few guardrails and barely enough room for two cars abreast. Because the cinder cone rises some 1300 feet above the prairie, glancing out the passenger side window as you climb can be a gut-churning experience.

At the bottom of Capulin’s cone is the vent that produced everything I see around me. Long since sealed by its own extrusions, the site of the fissure is now marked by a jumble of scorched basalt. The Raton-Clayton Field isn’t a typical area of volcanic activity. It doesn’t sit near the boundary between tectonic plates, for example, divergent or convergent. Situated at the northeast end of a chain of volcanic areas called the Jemez Lineament, the Rayton-Clayton Field is composed of a relatively thin, and therefore fragile, crust of rock that from time to time has been pierced by the geothermal hot spots beneath it. Some scientists think that the fields along the lineament sit atop an ancient continental suture point. Whatever the source of this crustal weakness, what happens when the piercing occurs is violent and chaotic: explosions of gas, pyroclastic fragments, and molten rock, some of which is thrown hundreds of feet into the air. The accretion of this molten rock — called magma below ground, and lava when it reaches the surface — is how Capulin was formed. Capulin is a Spanish name for the chokecherry, a flowering bush that grows on these slopes. The volcano got its name long after its violent birth, of course. Anyone around at the time might have had a different term for the place: Ragnarök, maybe.

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The paved canyon rim trail is just a few feet wide and circles the lip of the cinder cone, passing through wind-twisted pinyon pine and juniper trees, brown and green grasses and mountain magnolia shrubs. It’s an easy hike, with plenty to study. The rocks are a weathered brown, mottled with greenish-white flecks of lichen that are slowly breaking down the basalt by means of the acids they secrete, turning mountains into molehills, one eon at a time. The iron in the rock outcrops has been oxidized, or “rusted,” which accounts for the bandings of orange. Hawks ride the thermals overhead, searching for the rabbits and snakes that live on the slopes. Rock wrens and spotted towhees flit from branch to branch in the underbrush. Capulin occupies what biologists call an ecotone, an ecological border zone where normally distinct biomes mix. Here I can see elements of Great Plains and upland forest habitats — meadowlarks and mountain bluebirds, prairie shortgrass, desert cactus, and stubby juniper — living side by side. Little goes to waste. When the pinyon pines die, their skeletons bleach for years in the high plains sun. Parts of the peak look like arboreal boneyards.

Capulin has presided over interesting sights. Woolly mammoths and massive herds of bison once roamed these regions. The Spanish conquistador Coronado is thought to have passed nearby on his quest for the legendary Quivira, City of Gold. Quivira turned out to be Kansas, and the only gold to be found was the color of the grass. Three centuries later, the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail found its way to the foot of the volcano as the trail beelined north to intersect with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad line in Colorado. In 1971, Apollo 16 astronauts John Young and Charlie Duke trained at Capulin with noted geologist Bill Muehlberger for their visit to the surface of the moon.

After Sam Houston’s forces defeated the Mexican army at the Battle of San Jacinto, the Republic of Texas claimed this region. Not satisfied that the locals were properly impressed with the claim, a group of Texans invaded New Mexico in 1841 in what is known as the Santa Fe Expedition. It didn’t go well. Many of the interlopers were captured and sent south to prison in Mexico City. Texas subsequently joined the United States, and Washington wrested control of this area from Mexico in 1848 in what Ulysses S. Grant later called one of the most unjust wars ever waged by a stronger nation against a weaker one. But just a few years later, Texans were again spoiling for an incursion. At this point, the federal government stepped in. Under the Compromise of 1850, a set of legislative bargains meant to stave off armed conflict over the question of whether slavery should be allowed in the American west, Congress created the independent territory of New Mexico and settled the longitudinal border between Texas and New Mexico at the 103rd meridian. Texans were forced to give up their ambitions of adding more slaveholding land in return for the United States assuming the former republic’s debt. Texas lost Capulin for good. And permanently.

All ancient history, of course — and to Capulin, which holds centuries on its shoulders, no more important than the temporary shade of a passing cloud. Today the views from up here are stunning and expansive: grass and sky, stone and space. To the southeast stands Sierra Grande, the biggest volcano in the Raton-Clayton Field, called a “shield volcano” because its slopes are so shallow that the formation looks like an upside-down bowl or shield. Far to the east is Oklahoma’s Black Mesa, the highest spot in that state. And just to the north of the monument is Folsom, a town that’s slowly disappearing; it’s gone from 484 residents in 1910 to 75 residents in 2010 and somewhere between only 50 and 60 today.

It should be noted that this is not the site where Johnny Cash sang about trains heading to San Antonio — that Folsom, and its infamous prison, are in California. But this Folsom has its own claim to fame. It was here that George McJunkin, an African-American cowboy and former slave who’d taught himself both Spanish and the rudiments of natural history, found bones exhumed by a massive flood. McJunkin knew he’d discovered something special. He contacted museums to tell them of his find. Though initially skeptical, an archaeologist sent by the Denver Museum of Natural History gathered evidence that Native American hunters (“Folsom Man” is the group designation) killed a number of Pleistocene-era bison on the site. It was a finding that resolved a bitter conflict in anthropological circles, and resulted in adding several thousand years to estimates of when human beings first arrived in North America.

West beyond the stand of scrub oaks at the foot of the volcano, out past the pressure ridges and mesas that were once lava flows, stands the coal mining town of Raton. Highway 87 meets up there with I-25, which leads north over Raton Pass to Trinidad, in Colorado. Trinidad is where authorities took the outlaw Black Jack Ketchum for medical treatment in 1899, after he was wounded while trying to rob a train on the Colorado and Southern Railroad. A scourge of northeastern New Mexico, Black Jack was a Texan from Tom Green County, a son of the improbably-named Green Berry Ketchum. And he should have known better. He’d victimized the same train just a few weeks before, and had therefore lost the element of surprise. An alert conductor recognized him, and pumped a load of buckshot into Black Jack before any robbing could take place. The wounded Ketchum was taken into custody. After his damaged right arm was amputated in Trinidad, Ketchum was tried, found guilty of the crime of “felonious assault on a railroad train,” and condemned to death.

Black Jack was executed in Clayton, New Mexico in April of 1901. Unfortunately, officials botched the hanging, and the drop snapped off the condemned man’s head. The outlaw’s severed cranium was later sewed back on, and Black Jack went to his grave in one piece. As was the custom in those days, however, postcards of a decapitated Ketchum circulated for some time afterward.

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Northeastern New Mexico has never been heavily populated. It’s decent ranchland, but farming is impractical here due to the area’s arid climate. In a sense, the region has been saved by its own parsimony. While my hometown, Houston, gets almost fifty inches of rain per year, and Austin gets 35, Capulin gets around eighteen. The 90-mile stretch of road between Texline and Raton is home to only four towns, with a combined population of just over 3,000. It’s lonely country, offering much to ponder but little to amuse. Standing at the summit of Capulin’s burnt-out fire pit, a burial mound the volcano built for itself, I can see parts of four states — Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. None of them seems to be in a hurry to get anywhere. Scientists tell us that the continents beneath our feet are always restless. Our towns, our capitals, even our mountains are like algae floating on currents of rock, moving sections of crust that are rifting, drifting, and subducting. And yet mostly what I see today is stillness: the remnants of upheaval, the fossils of fire.

Capulin on a typical afternoon is an aching forever quiet, with no sound but the occasional skree of a hawk and the whisper of the wind telling secrets to itself. Even the highway a few miles away is a pantomime of motion — it’s impossible to hear all those F150s and SUVs racing across the landscape with their satellite radios on and podcasts playing. I don’t mind. This was once a violent, dangerous place: a land of smoke and flame, cinder and ash. Now, I imagine, it’s just happy for the company. Or maybe I’m the one who’s happy. Capulin is the perfect place to listen to what the silence has to say.

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Bruce McCandless III

I'm an Austin-based writer trying to figure out space, science, and Texas politics. For more, see: www.brucemccandless.com