Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Craters of the Moon--worth it?

I don’t remember which of us read about Craters of the Moon National Monument, or when exactly we decided to designate it as our first real destination, but an hour and a half into a three hour detour to see it I was doubting that person’s judgment. David had driven that morning until lunch, and I took the afternoon shift. So I was doing the driving--hence the questioning of sanity.
There is a whole lot of nothing between Salt Lake City, Utah and Blackfoot, Idaho, and to be truthful there wasn’t much promising after that.  About halfway between Blackfoot and the town of Arco (the closest town to Craters) there is a creepy, X-Files worthy outpost called the Idaho National Laboratory.  And something cryptically called the Experimental Breed Reactor-I. There is something to be said for the beaten path when you get into Idaho. 
To be sure, the landscape got no less strange when we reached Craters of the Moon.  We rounded a curve in the road, squinting in the late afternoon sun, and suddenly there was something like a black scar on the horizon.  At first it looked like so much scorched earth we had seen the day before in Colorado, and earlier in the day in Utah and Idaho. Or maybe a patch of land in shadow from a cloud passing over the sun.  But then we realized we must be there, as we began to recognize that it wasn’t clouds or ashes but black rock.  Large amounts of black stretching off into the distance. But as strange as the landscape is, in its own way it’s quite beautiful. A stretch and a walk around the Visitor’s Center was enough to convince us that it was worth a look, since we came all this way.
There is a short, drivable loop through the park that takes you to several different hikes along the way, some short, some a bit longer (the longest is about 3 miles round-trip).  Since we got there around 5:00 pm, we took a couple of short hikes and then headed down to wander through a few lava tubes. In order to go down into the tubes, you have to get a permit, which is free. But they’re trying to prevent a white nose syndrome from killing their bats, so they want to make sure no one who goes down in the cave is wearing any items that they might be carrying from an infected cave. The walk out to the various caves is paved; as out of context as a lava field in the middle of Idaho, a paved path through is just that much more odd.  When you do step off the path, the sound of the lava rock underfoot is a little like crunching across broken glass—the sound is high-pitched and hollow.  I thought about what kind of pedicure you’d get by walking barefoot across it. I think they’d have to call it something like the Super Scrape.
While it was late in the day, it wasn’t quite late enough to see any bats when we went down in the caves. But they were cool, eerie, and unspoiled, just as any good cave should be. We were pretty road weary as we climbed back out, blinking at the daylight.  We revived a bit at finding everyone else had disappeared and that the light was absolutely beautiful.  It animated the ripples in the lava flow, and showed off the contrasts between the black volcanic rock, and the rustier, iron-rich lava rock. Not to mention the occasional scrubby tree, a bright green spot of life in an otherwise dead-looking landscape. It’s an easy place to fall in love with around sunset.  If you do go, keep an eye out for chipmunks. They seemed very out of place, but they scampered in an out of the undulations of the ground, unconcerned with us. I wonder if they dream of greenscapes full of undergrowth and hazelnuts.
Truly, the place is a moonscape. You can stand at the rim of a crater and look off into the distance and see nothing: no structures, no telephone poles, no lights or cars or people. I can only imagine what the stars must look like out there.  But our hotel reservation was for Twin Falls, and so we had to push on.  The bats waking up, and the stars winking on would have to happen without us, as we were still miles from civilization and our own hazelnut dreams.

By the time we got to Twin Falls the sun had set, and our options for dinner were pretty slim.  At our hotel we stumbled out of the car in that way you do at the end of a long day on the road: brushing crumbs off your lap, slipping your shoes back on, standing up to stretch, arms up at the sky.  We slept hard that night, and got a late start the next morning because of it.  More delay we could blame on our detour, but we didn’t. When would we ever go that way again? We’re glad we did; it was definitely worth it.