By Suzanne Cottrell
The park was unlike anything I had ever seen before. My husband, daughter, and I were driving along Highway 26 West across central Idaho on our way to Twin Falls. We noticed a sign for Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. We’d never heard of it. Well, it was on our way, we had time, and we enjoyed family adventures—so why not stop? As soon as we climbed out of our car, I was struck by a blast of scorching, dry air. At any moment I felt like flames were going to explode from my nostrils. It was a sunny, stifling, July afternoon.
Our first stop was the visitors’ center. As my husband held the door open, goose bumps quickly formed on my arms in response to the air conditioning. As a history teacher, I was interested in the historical and cultural information about the park. Upon examining the placards, I discovered that multiple volcanic eruptions had occurred in the heart of Idaho thousands of years ago. In 1969, four of the Apollo 14 astronauts trained there in anticipation of visiting the moon. Eventually I tired of reading small print. Having being cooped up in our car, I was eager to hike and stretch my legs on a park trail.
We chose the paved, half mile Devil’s Orchard Trail first, in order to warm up our muscles before tackling a more intensive trail. The vegetation and wildlife were sparse, unlike the abundant greenery of North Carolina parks. I spied small, chartreuse leaves emerging from cracks in chunks of hard, black, molten rock scattered on both sides of the pathway. I focused intensely and spotted a tiny, short-horned lizard warming itself on the basalt. Sagebrush rolled across our path, sweeping off black cinders. I envisioned some of the old western movie scenes with endless sagebrush tumbling erratically across the plains.
We were intrigued by the unique landscape, so we decided to take the longer, unpaved Broken Top Loop Trail. The lava flows were a sea of black and bluish-black textured glass. A variety of lava structures, some like cavern stalagmites, rose from the lava bed. My every step had to be carefully and deliberately planted, as much of the lava was jagged and razor sharp, dangerous but beautiful. It was as if I were walking on the moon, or Mars. Is this what it would be like to be an astronaut? I better understood why NASA chose this topography for an astronaut training site. One section of lava likened winding, coarse rope. I later learned that it was called pahoehoe. When I noticed the variably sized molten rock, I wanted to try to make my way across the field by hopping on different stones to get across a mountain stream. With each bend in the trail, I eagerly anticipated what I might discover next. I forged ahead along the Broken Top Loop Trail, and waves of reflected heat from the lava field radiated upward, warming my legs. An unpleasant thought passed through my mind, minus the smoke—is this what it feels like to be burned at the stake? It wasn’t until much later that I realized I should have applied sunscreen more liberally.
“Hey, look down here,” our daughter pointed, “I found a lava tube, but it’s too small for us to enter.”
“Perhaps it’s an animal’s home,” I replied. Each of us strained our eyes to examine the dark crevices for any trace of an animal. “Surely, some small animal is hiding from this intense heat,” I remarked.
We desired a better vantage point on this unusual land, so we headed up to the base of Inferno Cone, a half mile trail with a vertical gain of 164 feet. Hiking up the cinder cone was like climbing a sand dune at Kitty Hawk—I felt like I was losing traction on a conveyor belt. I’d take a step, and yet my foot would sink and slide backward. The farther I climbed, the more my legs hurt. Despite coarse bits of cinder crowding my feet in my shoes, I wasn’t about to give up. I was already anticipating the exhilarating feeling I would have when I reached the summit.
“Stop, wait, I’ve got to empty my shoes. I can’t take another step,” I cringed and huffed as I shook out one shoe then the other.
“Hurry up, Mom. I’m almost to the top,” our daughter screamed, throwing her arms up in the air.
My husband had already reached the peak. When I finally reached the top, my effort was worth it. The 360 degree view of the lava fields, and of the spatter cones stretching to the horizon, was incredible. It was a clear, sunny day, and I could see the majestic, rocky peaks of the Teton Mountains to the East. I rotated slowly, as if I were standing on a giant sundial, to capture the beauty of the breath-taking views, first with my eyes and then with our camera.
The trip down was much faster, but just as challenging. I tried to remain upright while my feet slid out from under me. Looking back at the cinder cone, I discerned a black mountain of sparkling colors: purple, sapphire, and malachite. The cinder crystals creating mini-prisms mesmerized me.
While walking the trails and climbing the cinder cone, despite wearing sunglasses, I often squinted to protect my eyes from the blinding sunlight reflecting off the lava. The sweltering, dry air caused my hair to cling to my face. My exposed skin felt parched, and I longed for a refreshing, cool sip of water and a shady place to rest. How did early explorers make it across this desolate and uninviting land? Then we came upon Indian Tunnel. I carefully descended a narrow stone stairway, which led into a passable lava tube, following my husband and daughter—I typically brought up the rear.
“Watch your head,” alerted my husband.
I immediately ducked. As I entered the tunnel, the cool air felt soothing against my scorched skin. I was surprised by how quickly my eyes adapted to the limited light; however, the cracks in the ceiling provided adequate, natural lighting. Now was not the time to exhibit claustrophobia or herpetophobia. I recalled information at the visitors’ center stating that the five common snakes were generally nocturnal and avoided human confrontation when possible, but somehow that did not settle my nerves.
“Slow down and stay in sight,” I shouted to our daughter as she scampered across the rocks. Her outstretched arms and gently bent knees enabled her to maintain her balance like a bouncing lemur.
We hiked at least the length of a football field. Hmm, a huge pile of boulders, was this a dead end? Had we come all this way only to have to turn around and go back the way we’d come? I appreciated my husband volunteering to climb up and see if we could get out.
“I can see more light and a way out. Come on, but be careful, stay to the right,” he directed.
I noticed a park sign stating, “Advance at your own risk.” Our daughter and I hunched down on our hands and knees and crawled over the rocks. We looked over at each other and giggled at our sometimes oddly configured positions. Our giggles echoed.
“Are you two okay?” my husband looked back.
“Yes, yes, we’re coming; hold on,” we shouted in unison.
We reached the exit hole and saw several metal spikes roped together. We grabbed hand over hand and climbed out of the lava tube much like using a pulley rope on a beginners’ ski slope. I was thankful we had made it out safely and was overjoyed by our accomplishment.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve was a unique, captivating, and empowering adventure. The black lava left its mark on us. Despite our sunburned shins, we created an afternoon of family memories. The experience reinforced that “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
Suzanne Cottrell, an Ohio buckeye by birth, lives with her husband and three rescue dogs in rural Piedmont North Carolina. An outdoor enthusiast and retired teacher, she enjoys hiking, biking, gardening, and Pilates. She loves nature and its sensory stimuli and particularly enjoys writing and experimenting with poetry and flash fiction. Her writing has appeared in numerous online and print journals including North Carolina’s Best Emerging Poets: An Anthology, The Avocet, The Remembered Arts Journal, Plum Tree Tavern, Poetry Quarterly, Dragon Poet Review, Naturewriting, Women’s Voices Anthology (These Fragile Lilacs Literary Journal), The Pop Machine (Inwood Indiana Press), and Nailpolish Stories, A Tiny and Colorful Literary Journal.