Into the Den of Vulcan

As we begin day 4 on our Western Trek, Carolyn and I turn westward from the Petrified Forest and head toward Humpheries Peak – an extinct volcano and the highest point in Arizona. Tracking across the Painted Desert, we choose to bypass Meteor Crater and gain an hour on what will be a busy day. Our first stop will be Sunset Crater National Monument just northeast of Humpheries and Flagstaff and as we turn northward, the pyramids of many volcanic crags appear everywhere.

Pulling into Sunset Crater, I am amazed at the mathematical purity of its sloped cinder sides. It’s as if I wrote an equation, graphed it, and then superimposed it on the landscape.

Sunset Crater with its mathematically perfect slopes.
Yes… we were here!

It would be impossible and even is forbidden to try and climb its sides as they are steep and laden with loose cinder ash from the 1000 year old last eruption. Vulcun, the mythological god of fire, apparently tried to rid this side of earth of its vegetation and human population. His abortive attempts actually backfired as the ash and cinders replenished the soil with needed nutrients. Aboriginal peoples prospered as they gradually returned to farm on Vulcan’s aprons.

Some plants actually thrive in the volcanic ash.

Further up the 20 mile loop we see the vomited lava from Sunset’s side fissures. Technically, it is called A’a lava, a Hawaiian word, and it looks black, sinister, and crumbly. We take a short trail through the erupted, cooled A’a and suprise! It is not as crumbly as it looks – it is actually (forgive the pun) hard as a rock! (Which it is!).

But nothing grows in the A’a lava flow.

A few plants and wildflowers grow between minute A’a cracks probably in accumulated blown soil as the lava itself gives no quarter.

A’a is ugly, mean, and unforgiving.
A wasteland of lava over a thousand years old.
Such a different perspective of earth!

We scamper up a few non-lava boulders and discover a lizard or two. I imagine snakes frequent this area but anything larger simply couldn’t cross the lava field. It is tortuous, treacherous, and tangled in a rocky way. Pictures of current Hawaiin A’a show twisted cooler black rock over flowing molten lava and it must move slowly to create all these fractures and fissures.

Normal rocks on the left, A’a flow on the right and Carolyn in the middle.

Away from the lava flow we find lots of black cubes a foot or so across and these must be lava bombs – blown upward and outward by volcanic explosions. We continue to find bombs like this for up to thirty miles from the eye of the volcano.

Vulcan was indeed angry!

Life was scarce but sometimes dramatic.
See him?

At the upper end of the National Monument we encounter something we hadn’t planned on – Pueblos in another National Monument and that will be the subject tomorrow. Thanks for visiting and be sure to join us as we become amatuer anthropoligists for a few brief hours in the next article.

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