The Great American Road Trip II - 17 - In Thu Volcanoe
After breakfast, our destination for the day was Craters of the Moon National Monument, halfway between Carey and Arco in the middle of Idaho, which might as well also be the middle of nowhere. This was the first day in a good long while where there was neither rain nor the threat of it, and we spent the sunniness and breeziness of the day to our full advantage.
Soon after leaving Mountain Home on US Route 20, which took us all the way through the Craters into Idaho Falls, we saw a full-blown Abrams tank with a plaque that read "in honor of those who served." The landscape was an open range, like Nevada or Utah, but hilly and scrubby. Signs often warned of an open range, and though we saw no farm animals on the road, we saw them near the road without being fenced in. We saw the Sawtooth Mountains, snowcapped as they were, to our north, and climbed a set of very large hills until we finally settled into the rhythm of the long, straight plateau.
While we drove on the a long, straight plateau, the mountains to our north and south could still be seen - but the north more so. Along with massive irrigated fields for crops, ranches were abundant, and wildlife was more prevalent than I had anticipated. In addition to a number of pronghorn, we saw two eagles - I'm not entirely sure, but I think that they were bald eagles.
(It was around this point that my dad called Craters of the Moon "Creteor Mater," a mangling of "Meteor Crater," which we saw last year.)
A little before 12:45 we officially entered Craters of the Moon, and as soon as we did, the landscape was markedly different. The Craters are not really craters, but are actually the remains of a gash in the Earth's crust, which left behind a trail of solidified lava. (The same volcanic activity that caused the lava flow in the Craters has, due to the shifting of tectonic plates, moved underneath Yellowstone and is the cause of that park's famous geysers. Within the next few thousand years, geologists believe that Yellowstone will itself erupt.)
The Craters are bizarre. Sections of the lava were highly rocky, with jagged black rocks piled high on top of each other. This lava, which we learned later is called "a'a," is famous for its impassability and sharp jaggedness. It looked quite like magnified dirt. Other sections, called "pahoehoe," were smoothed over, and looked like frozen black waves. We did not learn of these technical terms until we stopped at the visitor's center, where we saw a golden squirrel scurry across the parking lot. Originally we'd mistaken this squirrel for a kind of chipmunk which is only found in the Craters area, but as it turned out the squirrel was also distinct to the region.
After asking a few questions about the nature of the park from some rangers - the first Idahoans who finally seemed to know what they were talking about when it comes to the Craters - we rolled on into the main section of the park, which mainly consists of a one-way loop around the most interesting area of the lava flow. There were small patches of grass and the occasional tree, as well as many wildflower species, but all of it was growing - somehow - on the lava flow itself. We walked out on a few paved trails and saw a few places where the lava had boiled up and burst through the surface, leaving cracks in the lava flow similar to large cracks in old asphalt. Also left over from these ancient eruptions are monolithic hunks of rock, which were epic to behold.
The next stop was a loop trail called Devil's Orchard - aptly named, considering the large dead trees in the area. The trees did not die due to natural causes, but were in fact poisoned by the park rangers, who wanted to get rid of a plant they had deemed ugly and had thought was a parasite. They later realized their mistake, but it was too late to save the trees. In addition to more of the lava flow, the dead trees made the area creepy, but were interspersed with small, colorful wildflowers. (It seemed to me that the colorful flowers were rarer, as well as prettier.)
The bushes of the area also have a distinctly odd smell - not bad, but due to their abundance it's quite strong and takes a few minutes to get used to.
The next stop of our Craters excursion was an quarter-mile, steep hike up a black, gravelly slope called Inferno Cone. The park's brochures claimed the hike up was .2 miles and its elevation as 6181, but we were mere feet below 6000 feet at the visitor's center and the Cone was clearly much higher, leading me to believe that these numbers are either gross underestimations or the product of a vast typo conspiracy. More on this story as it unfolds.
The views from the top of the Cone were splendid and well worth the effort to climb the somewhat slippery slope in the altitude. One could see the entire lava flow all around, and then flat nothingness beyond, interrupted on the horizon by buttes, extinct volcanoes, or - occasionally - hills. It was quite scary seeing as we were standing on top of what was essentially a glorified pile of solidified lava gravel, but everything was fine.
While on top of the Cone, we met a group of brothers who were motorcycling around the country from locations as diverse as Oregon and Arkansas. One of the brothers got a group picture of us if we agreed to take a group picture of them, which I did - and the Arkansas guy said that "he wasn't from Arkansas," but had moved there - "you can tell because I still have all my teeth." I added the fact that I knew he wasn't from there because he actually wore shoes. As it turns out, they're heading towards Grand Teton, which is where we're headed. We may run into them again.
The way down was slippery and I had a hard time stopping myself; I found it very hard to get traction on the gravelly surface. We eventually stopped ourselves about halfway down and saw a few pieces of pumice with sparkly blue flakes inside. Yet another had silver and gold flecks embedded in it. All of the gravelly surface feels like pumice, so it'd probably float if given the chance.
We made it down the epic hill and journeyed to our next stop, which was a short, steep, paved trail that literally led into a volcano. Thankfully extinct (as are all the volcanoes in the park's vicinity), it was still cool to be able to look down into the same dark, jagged shaft where lava once flowed in order to erupt from the top.
We skipped one of the longer trails (which also happens to be one of the most uninteresting, from what we gathered) in order to spend maximum time on one of the park's many highlights - its lava tubes. The tubes vary in size and are hidden from view or access until the tunnels naturally decay and collapse in on themselves. It is then, and only then, that explorers can go into the unique lava tube caves.
The first cave is known as Indian Tunnel, which is the largest and is easily accessible via a set of metal stairs. We descended down into a large hole and eased our way down an impressive pile of rocks until we reached the tunnel floor. The tunnel is a good thirty feet high and about that wide, and bends around a tiny bit along the way. This would have been a quick journey, but we had to clamber over massive piles of loose rock - the result of cave-ins many, many years ago. There are no trails over these piles and you are left to your own devices to navigate through them successfully, and would have been impassible had it not been for the fact that, when the rocks came down, it left a massive hole in the ceiling. These were scattered pretty evenly throughout the tunnel and let in enough light for us to mostly navigate sans flashlights. The end of the tunnel is a bit of a squeeze, but we managed through it and worked our way back to the trail by following the conveniently placed sticks.
We then walked a little ways to Boy Scout Cave, but its entrance was blocked by a large bickering family, embroiled in an ongoing and seemingly never-ending debate about whether or not to go into the cave. When it became clear that they would not let us pass (and we didn't want to hear their drivel anyway), we continued on to Beauty Cave.
Beauty Cave is very dark and we could only get about twenty feet into the cave itself before we had to turn back. The darkness there is no match for our flashlights, which are not known for their feebleness. The only thing of note in Beauty Cave is the tendency for its cold, still air to make your breath turn into an unmoving fog as you exhale. Also prevalent in the section we could see were flat sections of ice, ranging from foggy and opaque to crystal clear - so clear, in fact, that we really had to watch our step getting out. You couldn't even see it in some places.
We backtracked to Boy Scout Cave and, sans yapping family, we decided to do what we did in Beauty and see how far we could get. My dad and I had to crouch and duck to fit over the loose rock and under the tight overhang, but we made it to the cramped bottom intact. Due to both its relative smallness and the prevalence of reflective ice in the cave, dad and I navigated a good halfway into the cave, trying to simultaneously not slip on one of the many icy patches on the floor and not hit our heads against the cramped ceiling. I'm convinced that we could have made it to the other end of the tunnel and emerged somewhere in the lava fields, but, almost simultaneously, two things happened.
One: there was a family ahead of us that was turning back - for what reason I can't fathom; the entrance is the scariest part of the whole thing.
Two: my dad's head lamp light went out. Previously in the day, my mom's head lamp had gone out.
With only his small handheld flashlight and my head lamp - with whatever charge it had left in it - to guide us, we got out of there while we could still see what we were doing. Excited, we decided to go a little ways inside Dewdrop Cave, but, as the trail guide pamphlet had said, you can see most of that cave from the trail. With miles of walking behind us, we'd seen all we wanted to see in Craters of the Moon and hopped in the car.
We looped around out of the park and continued on US-20 to Arco, where they have a peculiar tradition of painting the last two numbers of the year on the side of a mountain near the town. We supposed that these were graduation years, as none of the previous years were erased. Also in Arco are various murals, the painting of which seems to be a theme of western towns.
Twenty miles outside of Arco we rolled past the building which housed the first nuclear reactor in the United States. We would have stopped there had we gotten out of Craters earlier, but the free tours had stopped at 5:00 and it was after 6:00 when we rolled past.
Most of the drive from Arco to Idaho Falls consists of sheer nothingness, dotted occasionally with what appeared to be research laboratories. The nearly completely straight road took us all the way to Idaho Falls, where we were buzzed by a yellow crop duster as visions of the Hitchcock classic "North by Northwest" played in our heads. Within short order we'd checked into our hotel.
We were hungry, tired, and considering that the hotel chain we're staying in usually has pretty good - if not excellent - dinners, we decided to eat there. After our nightmarish experience in Grand Forks we were anxious to see if that was an outlier in terms of quality. My mom and I ordered the club sandwich, while my dad got some chicken - two foods that are hard to screw up. Right?
You'd be wrong. About halfway through our salads (which had bleu cheese bits on them and were quite delicious), I smelled something burning. Specifically, food burning. Specifically specifically, bread burning.
It was somewhat edible, but certainly not tasty. I ended up taking most of the meat, cheese, and lettuce out and making small wraps out of them.
The meal was not totally wasted, as they had the most delicious strawberry lemonade in the recent history of forever. By our third refill, we jokingly requested that they bring an entire pitcher over - which they did. They didn't think we were going to finish it.
We - by which I mean me and my dad - drank it all. As the waiter came to clear the table, I told him that we'd need another pitcher. Unfazed, he moved to get another one before we had to stop him and explain we were joking around.
(During the meal, the only other folks eating - an older couple at the next table over - noticed the presentation of the pitcher to our table. Soon after my dad refilled his glass, the man turned and said "I don't usually count these things, but isn't that your seventh glass?" As it turns out, they were originally from Portland, Oregon, and are heading to Grand Teton as well.)
Tomorrow: we cross into Wyoming to see Grand Teton National Park, possibly on a road that has, amongst other hazards, a 10% grade for three miles in both directions. No word yet on whether or not we'll traverse it.