Of silence and Sanity

On my way to Craters of the Moon National Monument, where I intend to view the only eclipse of the sun I’m likely to see, I stop in Carey for a cup of coffee, and see how things have changed there in the past three years. The grocery store that gathered a hustle and bustle of customers now collects only tumbleweeds, and the sprawling bar just east of town is out of business. Windows are broken in the front rooms of a slightly frumpy hotel of cabins, which resembles a hotel on Route 66 twenty years after the route was changed. But you’ve got to admire the pluck of Carey’s residents in planting an official sign at the edge of town advising,  “Carey On!” That, it seems, is the theme of my plan into this howling wilderness.

I’ve visited Craters at least eight times in the last twenty years and seldom has it been easy. Once was for a burial of the monument’s former superintendent. Twice on the way to Yellowstone I drove the seven-mile scenic route.  But most of my visits to Craters have led me into the black lava land, that pale green sagebrush landscape in a too-hot or too-cold atmosphere drier than a popcorn cooking pot, or to the back side of nowhere, walking this indescribable land for miles and miles and miles. At some point, when I realized that no place else had the bleakness and spare beauty of Craters of the Moon, it became my kind of place.

I don’t expect forgiveness for my mistakes out in this wilderness. Only people forgive  here: the place forgives no one and I’ve learned to be prepared for anything, as the Boy Scouts say. But if I go in spring, I expect the beauty of flowers and lighting. Blazing star flowers bloom an extravagant yellow under the 180-proof  sunlight. Hot-pink dwarf monkey flowers surprise me. I’m soothed by the flawless perfection of tiny Bitterroot flowers, the off-white buckwheat flowers that dribble across cinder fields like spilt milk, and the lovely white scablands penstemon that grow out of pure lava like a holy flame of promise. Each is out there if I search, and time my visit in May or early June rather than this mid-summer trip.

The blackness of Craters’ night skies has won the distinction of a Silver Tier International Dark Sky Park from the International Dark Sky Association. In the crystalline air, the brilliance of the stars testifies to how the Milky Way was named. The air quality, designated Class 1, won’t be allowed by law to degrade. But this also can be a disorienting, deceptive location—for example, when your compass finds the north pole on a magnetic outcrop to the south, or when the seemingly flat, featureless land looks as if it stretches until the end of time but proves to provide rugged terrain fifty feet in front of you. Nights are frigid in winter and days are smacked with heat in the midst of summer, although animals such as bats, owls, snakes, coyotes, deer, antelope, sage grouse, pikas, and dwarf rabbits do just fine, having found favorable micro-habitats.

At the visitors’ center, I’m the first person of the day to fill out a permit to hike into the wilderness and camp at Echo Crater. For that matter, so far nobody else has sought a permit for all of the 43,243-acre Craters of the Moon Wilderness within the much larger national monument and preserve. I’m surprised, because of the hype about the Great American Eclipse happening tomorrow. So I fill my backpack with the stuff I’ll need to survive and drive the seven-mile route to the farthest end. The wilderness looks just the same as it did last year—it has changed very little since its designation in 1970.

I arrive at where the wilderness begins: beyond the modestly developed campsites, beyond the popular and interesting North Crater Trail, beyond the Devils Orchard Nature Trail, the Infernal Cone, all those curious spatter cones, the defined caves, and beyond the absolutely magical Blue Dragon flow to the trailhead. Most people don’t get this far, and a number of my Facebook friends criticized me for considering hiking here in August, when the temperatures are soaring, but I figured (correctly) it would mean few tourists. Even so, I’ve taken my friends’ warnings to heart, having brought along two gallons of water for a two-day trip, even if that seemed excessive.

Underfoot is the crackling crunch that makes walking over cinders sound like marching on cereal. I cross the easily walkable Little Prairie to the cirque of Echo Crater, where I can choose among seven fine campsites under the lava cliffs that loom five hundred feet high. This crater is not a circular hollow cut in stone by glaciers, the true definition of a cirque. It was created by a massive explosion that cast basalt sky-high, leaving a hole in the ground like a  bomb crater. To me, this powerful place embodies the beauty of solitude.

I discovered Echo Crater more than ten years ago, when I temporarily lost my Brittany spaniel, Camas. Searching for her, I climbed to the top of the crater and saw an Edenic green place far below. I called out my dog’s name and heard back, “Camas! Camas! Camas!” Naturally, I immediately liked the name Echo Crater.

Camas and I had hiked here after I had an ischemic stroke in 2000 in a trail-less place in Craters [see “Moonstruck,” IDAHO magazine, February 2013]. I was wounded and wanted silence to figure out what having a debilitating stroke could mean. When I felt recovered, I craved the solitude that Craters of the Moon offered—the wilderness was silent and sane.

I had never been a quiet person, but the stroke forced silence and humility upon me, and I went back to reclaim what I’d lost. That year—after I found Camas beside Echo Crater—we walked through a still and rugged ocean of lava. It was a foolish mission to prove that I still could endure the heat of summer as a stroke survivor.  Camas dragged and panted as we walked through seemingly endless lava in the hundred-degree-plus air temperature, the lava radiating heat in waves above the rock. The heat, surreal and intense, cooked both of us to well done. We came across the merciful shade of a lone and sprawling limber pine., and there we sat. Call it a miracle to find shade in this unforgiving desert or call it luck—we called it a cool place to sleep under a limber pine tree.

We scared a great horned owl from its roost in that pine and it flew out into the hellish day. I wished it luck finding another refuge. I couldn’t see one and prayed for its safety, and for ours. Camas drank water from my cup and I from the jug, and we slept in the shade until the temperature dropped. We woke refreshed–if sweating like a wrung towel can ever seem refreshed—and walked to the other side of the flow in the northern part of Laidlaw Park. There we found a tremendously fresh array of grasses and a few surviving flowers. Beyond, the aspens of Snowdrift Crater grew keen and vigorous in the deep green of the cool evening shade. We carried on from there to my car. I wondered what on earth we were doing in that oven. Camas slept as I drove, and didn’t hear my apology to her.

Now, on my latest visit to Echo Crater, the eclipse of the sun will come in the morning. I find the very best camping spot below soaring cliffs in the shade of a grove of tall limber pines. I shelter in a rock stadium that’s flat and cool in the midst of the harsh high desert. The quiet of the place seems eerie compared to my city life in Boise, until hornets come buzzing to my campsite. What are they doing here? Water, of course! They need water and my sweat must seem sweet to them, God forbid. They must have come from a source of water, I surmise, but the closest spring, Yellowjacket Waterhole, is a small seep that can serve little more than one of its namesake bugs. I’ve seen yellowjackets at that bit of water, but it’s more than a mile from here.

I put out a dish of water for them, far away from my sleeping spot, which works for a few minutes, until they find the sugar on my trail snacks and return. But all they really need is water and sugar, and they seem friendly enough. For hornets. I sleep and wake several times in Echo Crater as the day cools and the hornets investigate me.

A group of four sage thrashers swoop and land on a nearby rock outcrop. They hop-scotch in the air and land on another boulder. It goes on like that for a minute or so until they see me watching and stop their game. “Silly birds,” I call to them. They quickly fly to another set of perches, watch me for a moment or two and soon become oblivious. Above, a group of twelve or thirteen mourning doves fly in a military formation around the crater and land in an apparent nesting spot on the side of the cliff. They coo and oooh, circle again and again, and fly out of the crater in that same tight formation, as if flung from a sling.

Some years back, I was on the east side of the national monument, amid tall sagebrush and puffs of Great Basin wild rye grasses, when an eclipse of the moon occurred. As the moon appeared and then slowly was effaced by the earth’s shadow, the world came to a simple stop without the moon as its partner, and I held my breath without thinking. Then the moon glanced out beyond the shadow and slipped, sliver by sliver, back to its silvery self again. I wondered what the ancient philosophers would have said of the moon disappearing.

On Little Prairie with Echo Crater as my backdrop, I prepare myself for the eclipse of the sun. Little Prairie is a kipuka (the Hawaiian word for “window,” I’ve been told) that runs from the end of the road out beyond Echo Crater. When the Craters of the Moon lava was molten about two thousand years ago, which is recent in geologic time, Little Prairie lay a bit higher than the flow and thus escaped it. But this prairie was covered in lava much older than that, and by now has weathered enough to support plants. It’s a window into the ecological past isolated from the severe livestock grazing impacts on the Snake River plain.

There are three hundred of various sizes in Craters of the Moon. In Little Prairie, I’ve seen gopher snakes, sagebrush lizards, ground squirrels, woodchuck, bats, deer, northern harriers, ravens, doves, and many other birds. Sage grouse sign is plentiful. Ecologists have documented an impressive number of species living in Craters: three hundred plants, two thousand insects, thirty mammals, fourteen birds, eight reptiles and one amphibian, the western toad. It’s good to know there are places in our world where animals still can live relatively undisturbed by surrounding human impacts.

The sun rises and casts a brilliant flame-red glow on the crater’s wall, highlighting the chartreuse and saffron colors in a large patch of lichens growing there. Sunlight pours down the lava wall and warms me when it falls to my level. I clutch my cup of coffee with both hands, sip the liquid joyously, and awaken to this quiet light show. Soon I climb to the top of the crater to watch the eclipse.

As I wait for the show to begin, I wander toward a group of trees in the distance. I cross three parallel cracks in the Great Rift, which are roughly twenty to eighty feet deep and about 100 feet wide. Each travels less than a mile, starting and stopping irregularly and continuing on. Together they form a portion of the Great Rift that travels 60 miles in a north-south direction. These cracks indicate a weakness in the earth’s crust and are the origin of many lava flows throughout the region, including several flows in Craters of the Moon. There are many parallel cracks, some of which hold water and ice tucked in their floors, which is critical information for a person hiking here in the middle of summer.  I think the doves must have found water in these cracks when they flew out of Echo Crater.

Reaching the trees, I notice that they stand in a slightly lower place on the land, in a kipuka that might hold a pool of water in rainy times or snow in the spring. In any case, the depression is deep enough for trees to have germinated. A Clark’s nutcracker flies from a tree and squawks at me. The bird looks stately in its mantle of gray and black, a white flash of excellence on its tail. These trees must be a summer home for the nutcracker.  I root around and find pretty shards of the Blue Dragon flow: the rich cobalt color is from titanium on the surface of the rock as it cooled thousands of years ago. How it shimmers! Magpie that am, I drop a piece into my pocket, but better person that I occasionally am, I pull it out and throw it back on the ground. The nutcracker watches. They are like that: so judgmental. This one crackles at me—khaa, khraa, kaaa—and flies to tell its story to some wizard of the rock.

When the eclipse is roughly ninety-eight percent complete, I walk back to the crater in the superb silence. A cool breeze blows and crickets have begun to chirp. The darkness deepens but my shadow remains sharp and I take several photos of burned trees to give the sense of the sunburst effect. In seconds, a sharp light comes from around the sun. The temperature rises and the chirping stops. The only lingering proof of the eclipse is polarized light on limber pines and a bat flying erratically, as bats do, confused at the leaving and coming of sunlight in such a short period.

“Erratic” is a good word for the protection of Craters of the Moon’s landscape. In 1924, it was proclaimed as a roughly 54,000-acre national monument by President Hoover, with the support of a wild raconteur named Robert Limbert and a well-spoken USGS geologist Harold Stearns. They coined the name Craters of the Moon, giving the area rhetorical pizazz and a look-to-the-sky sort of appeal. Limbert lobbied for the monument designation in Washington, D.C., and wrote a spirited article for National Geographic, which added strong public support for protection of the area.

The smaller wilderness area was designated in 1970, and then in 2000, a proclamation by President Clinton expanded the national monument to a seemingly endless sea of 750,000 acres of lava and kipukas. A few years later, the area was legislatively re-designated as a combined national monument and national preserve, which acknowledged the opinions of ranchers and motorized vehicle users. The bill was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President, giving it more full-bodied support than that of a presidential proclamation.

Within the monument and preserve are 495,000 acres of Wilderness Study Areas (WSA), which contain mostly pure lava with a few acres of grasslands that easily could be supported for their wilderness qualities by the state legislature and the U.S. Congress. A WSA is a Bureau of Land Management category of land management. Each WSA is being studied for wilderness designation and until that study is complete, no actions can be advanced to diminish its wilderness value. WSAs do not have a clear management purpose, which means until Congress acts on their behalf, they can only be managed as pseudo-wilderness.

When I think of wilderness, what comes to mind first is the wicked land in Craters of the Moon. I was gladdened and surprised by the Idaho Legislature’s support of a plan for the original 54,000-acre national monument to be turned into a national park. The land would get better funding for campgrounds, interpretation, road repairs, wilderness management, scientific studies, collaborative meetings, and outreach publicity. The closest communities, such as Carey and Arco, would get the benefits of increased visitation to a national park, which always draws more interest than a national monument. I hope it will give businesses in Carey and Arco a glimmering chance of survival, even while designating more wilderness in Idaho.

Craters of the Moon is a unique place on our planet. In its razor-sharp lava, in its infinite but broken blackness, in its solitude and the stark splendor of cinder cones, in the twilit caves and naturally formed rock bridges, in that mystical Blue Dragon flow, but most of all in the delicacy of the plants and in the animals that eke out their lives there, it is unique. In all of this, there is beauty—plus, wonderful stories endure of people who fought against the lava while coming to settle Idaho and Oregon. I believe that care for Craters demands we protect all of the existing species of plants and animals in that dry environment, even while we wisely interpret its weird volcanic history, invite tourists into the region, and help people around Craters to survive in a tough economy.

There are many odd tales to tell about Craters, some of them equal parts comical and wonderful, some of them akin to lies that have never been debunked. But what do you or I really know about the Bridge of Tears, Amphitheater Cave, Vermillion Chasm, the sad story of Kings Bowl, the Alice in Wonderland curiosity that might be found in a trip to Lasso Cave, or the almost comical Bridge of the Moon? All we can do is go, learn—and be careful in Craters of the Moon, where more than one person has died out in the elements. Nevertheless, as the nearby townsfolk would have it, we simply need to “Carey On!”


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